Audience, Uglossia, and CONLANG

Inventing Languages on the Internet

How to Cite

Higley, S. L. (2000). Audience, Uglossia, and CONLANG: Inventing Languages on the Internet. M/C Journal, 3(1).
Vol. 3 No. 1 (2000): Audience
Published 2000-03-01

Could we also imagine a language in which a person could write down or give vocal expression to his inner experiences -- his feelings, moods, and the rest -- for his private use? Well, can't we do so in our ordinary language? -- But that is not what I mean. The individual words of this language are to refer to what can only be known to the person speaking; to his immediate private sensations. So another person cannot understand the language.
-- Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations par. 243

I will be using 'audience' in two ways in the following essay: as a phenomenon that produces and is produced by media technologies (readers, hearers, viewers, Internet-users), and as something, audiens, that is essential to language itself, something without which language cannot be. I shall do so in specific references to invented languages. Who, then, are the 'consumers' of invented languages?

In referring to invented languages, I am not talking about speakers of Esperanto or Occidental; I am not concerned with the invention of international auxiliary languages. These projects, already well-debated, have roots that go back at least as far as the 17th-century language philosophers who were at pains to undo the damage of Babel and restore a common language to the world. While Esperanto never became what it intended to be, it at least has readers and speakers.

I am also not even talking about speakers of Klingon or Quenya. These privately invented languages have had the good fortune to be attached to popular invented cultures, and to media with enough money and publicity to generate a multitude of fans.

Rather, I am talking about a phenomenon on the Internet and in a well- populated listserv whereby a number of people from all over the globe have discovered each other on-line. They all have a passion for what Jeffrey Schnapp calls uglossia ('no-language', after utopia, 'no-place'). Umberto Eco calls it 'technical insanity' or glottomania. Linguist Marina Yaguello calls language inventors fous du langage ('language lunatics') in her book of the same title. Jeffrey Henning prefers the term 'model language' in his on-line newsletter: 'miniaturized versions that provide the essence of something'. On CONLANG, people call themselves conlangers (from 'constructed language') and what they do conlanging. By forming this list, they have created a media audience for themselves, in the first sense of the term, and also literally in the second sense, as a number of them are setting up soundbytes on their elaborately illustrated and explicated Webpages.

Originally devoted to advocates for international auxiliary languages, CONLANG started out about eight years ago, and as members joined who were less interested in the politics than in the hobby of language invention, the list has become almost solely the domain of the latter, whereas the 'auxlangers', as they are called, have moved to another list. An important distinguishing feature of 'conlangers' is that, unlike the 'auxlangers', there is no sustained hope that their languages will have a wide-body of hearers or users. They may wish it, but they do not advocate for it, and as a consequence their languages are free to be a lot weirder, whereas the auxlangs tend to strive for regularity and useability.

CONLANG is populated by highschool, college, and graduate students; linguists; computer programmers; housewives; librarians; professors; and other users worldwide. The old debate about whether the Internet has become the 'global village' that Marshall McLuhan predicted, or whether it threatens to atomise communication 'into ever smaller worlds where enthusiasms mutate into obsessions', as Jeff Salamon warns, seems especially relevant to a study of CONLANG whose members indulge in an invention that by its very nature excludes the casual listener-in.

And yet the audio-visual capacities of the Internet, along with its speed and efficiency of communication, have made it the ideal forum for conlangers. Prior to the Web, how were fellow inventors to know that others were doing -- in secret? J.R.R. Tolkien has been lauded as a rare exception in the world of invention, but would his elaborate linguistic creations have become so famous had he not published The Lord of the Rings and its Appendix? Poignantly, he tells in "A Secret Vice" about accidentally overhearing another army recruit say aloud: 'Yes! I think I shall express the accusative by a prefix!'. Obviously, silent others besides Tolkien were inventing languages, but they did not have the means provided by the Internet to discover one another except by chance.

Tolkien speaks of the 'shyness' and 'shame' attached to this pursuit, where 'higher developments are locked in secret places'. It can win no prizes, he says, nor make birthday presents for aunts. His choice of title ("A Secret Vice") echoes a Victorian phrase for the closet, and conlangers have frequently compared conlanging to homosexuality, both being what conservative opinion expects one to grow out of after puberty. The number of gay men on the list has been wondered at as more than coincidental. In a survey I conducted in October 1998, many of the contributors to CONLANG felt that the list put them in touch with an audience that provided them with intellectual and emotional feedback. Their interests were misunderstood by parents, spouses, lovers, and employers alike, and had to be kept under wraps. Most of those I surveyed said that they had been inventing a language well before they had heard of the list; that they had conceived of what they were doing as unique or peculiar, until discovery of CONLANG; and that other people's Websites astounded them with the pervasive fascination of this pursuit.

There are two ways to look at it: conlanging, as Henning writes, may be as common and as humanly creative as any kind of model-making, i.e., dollhouses, model trains, role-playing, or even the constructed cultures with city plans and maps in fantasy novels such as Terry Pratchett's Discworld. The Web is merely a means to bring enthusiasts together. Or it may provide a site that, with the impetus of competition and showmanship, encourages inutile and obsessive activity. Take your pick. From Hildegard von Bingen's Lingua Ignota to Dante's Inferno and the babbling Nimrod to John Dee's Enochian and on, invented languages have smacked of religious ecstacy, necromancy, pathology, and the demonic. Twin speech, or 'pathological idioglossia', was dramatised by Jodie Foster in Nell. Hannah Green's 'Language of Yr' was the invention of her schizophrenic protagonist in I Never Promised You a Rose Garden. Language itself is the centre of furious theoretical debate. Despite the inventive 'deformities' it is put to in poetry, punning, jest, singing, and lying, human language, our most 'natural' of technologies, is a social machine, used by multitudes and expected to get things done. It is expected of language that it be understood and that it have not only hearers but also answerers. All human production is founded on this assumption. A language without an audience of other speakers is no language. 'Why aren't you concentrating on real languages?' continues to be the most stinging criticism.

Audience is essential to Wittgenstein's remark quoted at the beginning of this essay. Wittgenstein posits his 'private languages theory' as a kind of impossibility: all natural languages, because they exist by consensus, can only refer to private experience externally. Hence, a truly private language, devoted to naming 'feelings and moods' which the subject has never heard about or shared with others, is impossible among socialised speakers who are called upon to define subjective experience in public terms. His is a critique of solipsism, a charge often directed at language inventors. But very few conlangers that I have encountered are making private languages in Wittgenstein's sense, because most of them are interested in investing their private words with public meaning, even when they are doing it privately. For them, it is audience, deeply desireable, that has been impossible until now.

Writing well before the development of CONLANG, Yaguello takes the stance that inventing a language is an act of madness. 'Just look at the lunatic in love with language', she writes:

sitting in his book-lined study, he collects great piles of information, he collates and classifies it, he makes lists and fills card indexes. He is in the clutches of a denominatory delirium, of a taxonomic madness. He has to name everything, but before being able to name, he has to recognize and classify concepts, to enclose the whole Universe in a system of notation: produce enumerations, hierarchies, and paradigms.

She is of course describing John Wilkins, whose Real Character and Universal Language in 1668 was an attempt to make each syllable of his every invented word denote its placement in a logical scheme of classification. 'A lunatic ambition', Yaguello pronounces, because it missed the essential quality of language: that its signs are arbitrary, practical, and changeable, so as to admit neologism and cultural difference. But Yaguello denounces auxiliary language makers in general as amateurs 'in love with language and with languages, and ignorant of the science of language'. Her example of 'feminine' invention comes from Helene Smith, the medium who claimed to be channeling Martian (badly disguised French). One conlanger noted that Yaguello's chapter entitled 'In Defence of Natural Languages' reminded him of the US Federal 'Defense of Marriage Act', whereby the institution of heterosexual marriage is 'defended' from homosexual marriage. Let homosexuals marry or lunatics invent language, and both marriage and English (or French) will come crashing to the ground.

Schnapp praises Yaguello's work for being the most comprehensive examination of the phenomenon to date, but neither he nor she addresses linguist Suzette Haden Elgin's creative work on Láadan, a language designed for women, or even Quenya or Klingon -- languages that have acquired at least an audience of readers. Schnapp is less condemnatory than Yaguello, and interested in seeing language inventors as the 'philologists of imaginary worlds', 'nos semblables, nos frères, nos soeurs' -- after all. Like Yaguello, he is given to some generalities: imaginary languages are 'infantile': 'the result is always [my emphasis] an "impoverishment" of the natural languages in question: reduced to a limited set of open vowels [he means "open syllables"], prone to syllabic reduplication and to excessive syntactical parallelisms and symmetries'. To be sure, conlangs will never replicate the detail and history of a real language, but to call them 'impoverishments of the natural languages' seems as strange as calling dollhouses 'impoverishments of actual houses'. Why this perception of threat or diminishment? The critical, academic "audience" for language invention has come largely from non-language inventors and it is woefully uninformed. It is this audience that conlangers dislike the most: the outsiders who cannot understand what they are doing and who belittle it.

The field, then, is open to re-examination, and the recent phenomenon of conlanging is evidence that the art of inventing languages is neither lunatic nor infantile. But if one is not Tolkien or a linguist supported by the fans of Star Trek, how does one justify the worthwhile nature of one's art? Is it even art if it has an audience of one ... its artist?

Conlanging remains a highly specialised and technical pursuit that is, in the end, deeply subjective. Model builders and map-makers can expect their consumers to enjoy their products without having to participate in the minutia of their building. Not so the conlanger, whose consumer must internalise it, and who must understand and absorb complex linguistic concepts. It is different in the world of music. The Cocteau Twins, Bobby McFerrin in his Circle Songs, Lisa Gerrard in Duality, and the new group Ekova in Heaven's Dust all use 'nonsense' words set to music -- either to make songs that sound like exotic languages or to convey a kind of melodic glossolalia. Knowing the words is not important to their hearers, but few conlangers yet have that outlet, and must rely on text and graphs to give a sense of their language's structure. To this end, then, these are unheard, unaudienced languages, existing mostly on screen. A few conlangers have set their languages to music and recorded them. What they are doing, however, is decidedly different from the extempore of McFerrin. Their words mean something, and are carefully worked out lexically and grammatically.

So What Are These Conlangs Like?

On CONLANG and their links to Websites you will find information on almost every kind of no-language imaginable. Some sites are text only; some are lavishly illustrated, like the pages for Denden, or they feature a huge inventory of RealAudio and MP3 files, like The Kolagian Languages, or the songs of Teonaht. Some have elaborate scripts that the newest developments in fontography have been able to showcase. Some, like Tokana and Amman-Iar, are the result of decades of work and are immensely sophisticated. Valdyan has a Website with almost as much information about the 'conculture' as the conlang. Many are a posteriori languages, that is, variations on natural languages, like Brithenig (a mixture of the features of Brythonic and Romance languages); others are a priori -- starting from scratch -- like Elet Anta.

Many conlangers strive to make their languages as different from European paradigms as possible. If imaginary languages are bricolages, as Schnapp writes, then conlangers are now looking to Tagalog, Basque, Georgian, Malagasay, and Aztec for ideas, instead of to Welsh, Finnish, and Hebrew, languages Tolkien drew upon for his Elvish. "Ergative" and "trigger" languages are often preferred to the "nominative" languages of Europe. Some people invent for sheer intellectual challenge; others for the beauty and sensuality of combining new and privately meaningful sounds.

There are many calls for translation exercises, one of the most popular being 'The Tower of Babel' (Genesis 10: 1-9). The most recent innovation, and one that not only showcases these languages in all their variety but provides an incentive to learn another conlanger's conlang, is the Translation Relay Game: someone writes a short poem or composition in his or her language and sends it with linguistic information to someone else, who sends a translation with directions to the next in line all the way around again, like playing 'telephone'. The permutations that the Valdyan Starling Song went through give good evidence that these languages are not just relexes, or codes, of natural languages, but have their own linguistic, cultural, and poetic parameters of expression. They differ from real languages in one important respect that has bearing on my remarks about audience: very few conlangers have mastered their languages in the way one masters a native tongue. These creations are more like artefacts (several have compared it to poetry) than they are like languages. One does not live in a dollhouse. One does not normally think or speak in one's conlang, much less speak to another, except through a laborious process of translation.

It remains to a longer cultural and sociolinguistic study (underway) to tease out the possibilities and problems of conlanging: why it is done, what does it satisfy, why so few women do it, what are its demographics, or whether it can be turned to pedagogical use in a 'hands-on', high- participation study of language. In this respect, CONLANG is one of the 'coolest' of on-line media. Only time will show what direction conlanging and attitudes towards it will take as the Internet becomes more powerful and widely used.

Will the Internet democratise, and eventually make banal, a pursuit that has until now been painted with the romantic brush of lunacy and secrecy? (You can currently download LangMaker, invented by Jeff Henning, to help you construct your own language.) Or will it do the opposite and make language and linguistics -- so often avoided by students or reduced in university programs -- inventive and cutting edge? (The inventor of Tokana has used in-class language invention as a means to study language typology.) Now that we have it, the Internet at least provides conlangers with a place to hang their logodaedalic tapestries, and the technology for some of them to be heard.

Author Biography

Sarah L. Higley