Languages don’t just evolve: some are made up. Rafael S.W. looks at invented languages (or ‘conlangs’) and the people that make, learn, and teach them.
Outside the room, d’Armond Speers was pacing. His knowledge, he knew, was useless here. He’d been with her every step of the way, and this was something she wanted to do herself. The hallway was as bright as a spaceship, and the modern art on the walls could have been an explosion of the same. Nurses moved past him with quiet efficiency, but he ignored them, knowing that his wife was on the other side of the door. She’d said she wanted space at this time, but it had been hours. Suddenly there was a strange, otherworldly noise. D’Armond rushed into the room, glancing first at his wife then at the doctor. His wife Amy was sitting up, looking like she’d just won a long battle. The doctor was smiling too, and gently handed over the child.
“It’s a loDHom!”1 d’Armond said, in paternal awe.
For those in the business, constructing a language (conlang) is a labour of love. One that is almost equivalent to raising a child. Certainly it requires a similar amount of dedication, commitment and creative intelligence. And it’s definitely not something that just happens by accident. You need to contemplate the sounds of words (phonology), think about how they will be written, get deep into the bones of grammar, rip out a lexicon or two. And at every step of the way you can go wrong. Perhaps one of the most taken-for-granted aspects of our daily lives, the language we use is of course incredibly complicated. It’s only when you attempt to create your own that you realise exactly how weird language truly is.
Alec Speers, son of d’Armond Speers, always knew he was different. It wasn’t his slight build or the colour of his eyes. It wasn’t the toys he had or the movies his parents watched. No. It was because, as far as he could tell, his dad was raising him to converse with aliens.
“taHjaj wo’ ’ej taHjaj voDLeHma’,”2 sang his father softly. “wItoy’mo’ vaj nuquvmoHjaj ta’.”3 Every night, the same lullaby. His father’s husky voice, the glow in the dark stars on the roof.
“Dun wo’maj ‘ej Qochchugh vay’.”4 Alec mumbled along to the comforting words, his eyes closed. “vaj DaSmeymaj bIngDaq chaH DIbeQmoHchu’ jay.”5
Until he fell asleep, to dream about emperors, ridged foreheads, and flight.
Creating the perfect conlang has been a dream for a long time. The most famous of course is Esperanto, which has between 100,000 to 2,000,000 active or fluent speakers worldwide. But coinciding with this were other attempts. Interest in conlangs blossomed around the 1800s, with inventions like Universalglot in 1868. However, many of these new languages simply drew from their creator’s mother tongue.
While in some cases a new language is created due to dissatisfaction with current ones, at other times they are thought experiments. This is the case with E-Prime, where a speaker cannot articulate judgement – limiting the ability to confuse opinion with fact.
In other cases, languages are created to give depth to fantasy worlds. Lord of the Rings was essentially just the vessel for Tolkien’s dozen or so different languages. And if you like your conlangs a little more bloodthirsty, Game of Thrones’ Dothraki6 was created especially for the show by the linguist David J. Peterson – a project brokered by the Language Creation Society, which helps coordinate language creators with clients.
As well as English, Alec Speers was taught Klingon growing up: a tongue initially used for the aliens of the same name in Star Trek. Admittedly, Klingon doesn’t break much new ground in terms of conlangs, and indeed was deliberately made difficult to speak to add to its alien-soundingness – ‘I boarded the Enterprise’ would become ‘The Enterprise boarded I’.
But Klingon has something that many other conlangs don’t – culture. Despite the limited vocabulary available, there is a Kingon poetry journal, jatmey, as well as apps, bowling teams and a golf championship. And of course the Klingon Language Institute, where d’Armond has worked in the past. With a mother who spoke English and a father who had a master’s degree in theoretical linguistics, it was no wonder that language was used in an interesting way around the Speers household.
“loS!”7 Alec points at the ground. “That’s a good girl, loS.” He is talking to his clone dog, a white and black creature with a habit of pressing her nose into pretty much anything.
The story of Kahless, one of six cloned border collies, is almost as interesting as the story of Alec himself. In 2007, d’Armond Speers was doing contract work for a very well-off client. To contrast his other esoteric interests, this client had a simple love for his dog. He was so devastated when she died that he did what any of us would do – pour money into researching how to bring her back as a clone. In the end there were two batches of six dogs in total. Now reunited with his dog (dogs? Is it plural when it’s the same creature?), he decided to adopt some out.
D’Armond was given his own pet copy on two conditions. Firstly, he had to fly her back every year to meet up with the rest of the clones; secondly, d’Armond would teach her Klingon commands.
“Sop…”8 Alec says to Kahless, drawing it out like the word ‘soap’ with a sh at the beginning. She starts eating in the regal nature befitting her namesake – a male Klingon emperor who himself was cloned. Considering the situation feels like something straight from science fiction, for a clone Kahless seems pretty well behaved.
Teaching your dog Klingon isn’t even the weirdest moment in the history of conlangs. Standouts include Solresol, a language made up of five syllables or notes and seven basic phonemes (based on the ‘do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, si’ music scale), which allows meaning to be expressed through song. Blissymbols is another interesting example, created by Charles K. Bliss in the 1940s while he was an Austrian refugee. His intention was to create an international auxiliary language based on basic symbols that don’t correspond to the sounds of any spoken language.
When it first came out that d’Armond was teaching his son Klingon, there was an outcry from well-meaning or ignorant parents, as well as those who thought he was somehow depriving, or even retarding, his child’s growth.
“It was internet hates d’Armond day,” wrote Speers on his personal blog. Even through the criticisms would state otherwise, Speers, a computational linguist with a PhD, wasn’t doing this out of malice or for the thrill of experimentation.
“I feel like a lot of what this was,” says Alec when asked about his father, “was for my Dad and I to have a kind of connection.”
D’Armond has stated he had only a linguist’s interest in Star Trek, and certainly hadn’t expected the backlash when he first mentioned his son’s language course in a story by The Minnesota Daily in 2009. But it wasn’t condemnation from outside that made him stop.
“He’s told me that he stopped teaching me Klingon when I showed signs of frustration with the language,” says Alec. “His relationship with me was much more important than what he was doing with the language, so he stopped.”
This was around the time Alec was three years old, although he and his ‘Vavoy’9 still occasionally speak Klingon around the house.
“It must have worked,” Alec adds, “because we are extremely close now.”
“taH pagh taHbe’. DaH mu’tlheghvam vIqelnIS,”10 Alec says, the immortal phrasing of Shakespeare managing to retain a little bit of its beauty, considering he never wrote for what Alec describes as “the raspy and spit fuelled language”.
He’s in front of an audience at the ‘Mr. and Mrs. IB’ (International Baccalaureate) competition in 2010. His competition act is to recite Hamlet in Klingon. Although it’s unlikely there are many Klingon natives in the audience, his performance is aided by the fact that Alec has always wanted to be an actor, and will go on to study theatre at university.
However, he’s not concentrating on the growling of his throat; instead, he is smiling as he makes his parents proud. And considering his father helped write the book he’s reading from, this is an impressive feat indeed.
6 In a totally unrelated note, that just points out the strange serendipity of words, 146 newborn girls in the U.S. were named ‘Khaleesi’ in 2012.
Rafael S. W. is a graduate of creative writing and one of the founding members of Dead Poets’ Fight Club. He writes every single day and has been published in Voiceworks, Going Down Swinging No. 33, the current print/audio edition No. 35, and Dot Dot Dash. He also competes in poetry slams and giant-sized chess games.
READ: The Evolution of Language II: Composing Online Languages