From Esperanto to ET:
Artificial Languages in the Internet Era
by Mark Koerner
I. Yesterday: from Babel to Auxlang
One of the less harmful failed causes of the 20th Century was the effort to create a universal language, or, more precisely, a synthesized “auxiliary language” for international communication. Auxiliary languages would do great things: make foreign travel easier, cut translation costs, and promote world peace through better understanding.
In theory, auxiliary languages have two advantages over natural languages. First, they are easier to learn. An auxiliary language (an “auxlang”) would have no irregular verbs or adjectives; the equivalents of “good,” “better,” and “best” would come out as “good,” “gooder,” and “goodest.” Prefixes and suffixes can carry a greater burden than most of us have ever imagined. If English were an auxlang, “black,” “gray,” and “white” could be “black,” “semi-black,” and “anti-black.”
Cultural neutrality was the second advantage of auxlangs. But auxlangs are culturally neutral only in the sense that they force everyone to do the hard work of learning a new language. In a more important sense, however, cultural neutrality is a fiction because all auxlangs inevitably reflect the culture of their inventors. Even a pictographic language is culture-bound, partly because it is impossible to draw anything without reference to how that particular thing looks in a particular culture.
And, almost from the beginning, the auxlangers argued about which of their languages was best. By World War I, Esperanto had emerged as the most successful (if a few thousand speakers can be termed success), but Interlingua, Ido, and Novial among many others still have their defenders.
II. Today: From Auxlangs to Conlangs
Since 1980, the synthesized language subculture has been transformed. The cozy oligopolistic world in which Esperanto was the dominant competitor and other languages nipped at its heels has given way to perfect competition. Now, with the right software, fans of constructed languages can create their own — and many do. Which of course puts us that much further from an international auxiliary language. But the truth is that much of the constructed-language (“conlang”) subculture no longer wants to invent auxiliary languages — or even to be taken seriously. Many “conlangers” admit to being in it as a hobby; they invent to impress each other rather than to improve the world.
What “conlangers” rarely acknowledge is that most of their creations look only barely creative. This is because, at bottom, the language inventor has only three viable options: use a pre-existing alphabet (or a close variant), use an invented alphabet, or discard alphabets altogether and use pictographs. Of the three, standard-alphabet languages are the most visually boring. Scanning a page of Esperanto or one of its many cousins has all the appeal of looking at Dutch classified ads for those of us who don’t know Dutch. On the other hand, languages utilizing invented alphabets or pictographs have a certain fascination; they look for all the world like hobo signs, cave paintings, or the artifacts of alien civilizations:
Science fiction writers have thought a lot about constructed languages. As early as “Omnilingual” (1957), H. Beam Piper assumed that a Martian periodic table could serve as a Rosetta Stone for the dead language of the ancient canal-builders. Aliens were only part of the attraction, however. Science fiction writers once cared about auxiliary languages, too; Esperanto and other auxlangs were at least as much a part of the furniture of the future as the metric system. In 1947, Robert A. Heinlein wrote a story about “The Green Hills of Earth,” a song known throughout the Solar System:
Or perhaps you sang in French, or German. Or it might have been Esperanto — while Terra’s rainbow banner rippled over your head.
This short passage inadvertently highlights the once-popular notion of “evolutionary consolidation.” A multitude of governments would evolve into a world state or federation of planets, a multitude of tiny companies would combine into a handful of giant corporations, and a multitude of tongues would be eclipsed by Esperanto or something like it — though Heinlein and many others apparently assumed that Esperanto would happily coexist with natural languages.
Science fiction writers apparently lost interest in auxlangs at about the time they lost interest in other forms of evolutionary consolidation. But “alien languages” have boomed. Sample texts of alien languages appear and re-appear on Stargate SG-1 and other shows on the Sci-Fi Channel. The most successful artificial language of the last generation has been Klingon, invented by Marc Orkand but inspired and influenced by Star Trek. Klingon reportedly has about 1200 speakers and something called the “Klingon Language Institute” has a webpage, though we may guess that it doesn’t have a building. Disney eventually hired Orkand to work on a suitably ancient-looking language for the film Atlantis: the Lost Empire (2001)
Those outside the conlang community may wonder what practical use conlangs could ever have. Very few possibilities come to mind. It may be that the cognitively disabled could learn simplified, standardized conlangs more easily than relatively unruly natural languages, but this claim is largely speculative; the only evidence for it concerns a pictographic system called “Blissymbols:”
It is entirely possible that NASA’s SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) Project will hit paydirt someday, and if that happens, expert linguists may be summoned to figure out what the signals mean. It seems unlikely that conlangers will play any constructive role, though a plot for an SF movie might be that after the professional linguists fail, a young conlanger who works at a gas station in a small town in Montana cracks the alien code.
Probably the most we can expect is that more conlangers will be hired to work on the sets of science fiction movies and TV programs, and on video games and comic books that need convincing alien texts. Even if conlangers don’t know how aliens talk or write any better than the rest of us, they can probably create more convincing illusions.
But we can imagine other uses for conlangs. Sample texts of the more visually appealing, alien-esque conlangs could become public art, engraved or painted on the interiors and exteriors of schools, libraries, city halls, subway stations, and other public buildings. Relevant texts (e.g., the preamble of a city charter) could appear in ten-inch-high characters. this would be a relatively inexpensive way to add interest to formerly blank walls — and for communities to support their local inventors. Members of the International Brotherhood of Painters and Allied Trades (IBPAT) or some other union might volunteer their labor, and local paint stores could donate the paint, cutting costs considerably. The conlangers themselves could organize this effort as the Alien Language Wall Art Project (ALWAP). Additionally, newspapers could run conlang translation columns, rotating them with crossword puzzles. And, sometime before the Grim Reaper pulls into their driveways, conlangers can arrange to have a few paragraphs of their creations inscribed on their gravestones. Cemetery hikers will make a beeline for those markers.
H. Beam Piper’s “Omnilingual” (Astounding Science Fiction, February 1957) has been included in several science-fiction anthologies.
Robert A. Heinlein’s “The Green Hills of Earth” (Saturday Evening Post, Feb. 8, 1947) has been reprinted many times, e.g., Robert A. Heinlein, The Past through Tomorrow (New York: Berkeley Medallion, 1975), pp. 363-373.
Copyright © 2004 by Mark Koerner