Ĉu vi iam aŭdis pri elpensitaj lingvoj?
Did you understand this sentence? Quite probably not. Some of you might have, though. That’s because the sentence above is written in Esperanto, an invented language. So, in case you are not fluent, here it is this time in English: Have you ever heard of invented languages?
Esperanto has, in fact, more than 2 million speakers, making it the most widely spoken invented language in the world.
Its inventor L.L. Zamenhof wanted to create an ideal second language for people from every continent in the globe, quite simply so they could communicate, could be part of one tribe. Its straight forward structure purposely makes it easy for anyone to learn. It is also politically neutral, probably because it is a language without a country.
The power of language is that it can unify but it can also set us apart from each other. Think of Esperanto, which was invented so people from different cultures and nationalities can communicate, without boundaries.
Now, think of your native language. You can probably use that language mainly in your home country, maybe in some other places as well. But in a way, it sets you apart from the rest of the world, from other countries and from other people. Especially as some cultures even have their very specific alphabets, like India, China, Japan, Arabic speaking countries and others. Learning these languages would not just involve learning a new set of words but a whole new alphabet, or the other way round if you live in a country with a non-European set of letters.
Think even further: there are cultural tribes that live together and share cultural and religious beliefs. What often sets these tribes apart from everyone else is their own language. It is a tool for identification for group members, it creates the feeling of individuality and unity at the same time. These languages, most of the time, have developed over decades or have been constructed by members of the tribe.
Then there are languages like Yiddish or Ladino that have developed over time as well and are usually a combination of different other languages. These kinds of languages are mostly used by people that are part of a bigger grouping, like the Jewish community, for instance.
Similar interests, habits or occupations also often lead to the formation of a group or network. Just think of artistic groups regularly coming together due to shared interests. Think of movie conventions or book club meetings.
Or what about musical languages like hip hop or reggae? Being part of such a group is a form of not just cultural belonging, but at times it also stands for a youth movement. Not uncommonly, teenagers create languages that do end up being adopted into dictionaries. Initially, they create their own words to be part of a clan or tribe.
Our need to belong is a big motivator for everything we do. Humans are social animals and ever since we exist, we have formed groups, some bigger, some smaller and more intimate. Our wish to affiliate with and be accepted by a group highly influences our behaviour and our decisions. Belonging to a group gives us a name in addition to our own. It gives social meaning. And language is belonging as much as the way we dress, the food we share or the music we listen to.
Even though most languages have developed over time and are spoken among a bigger group of people, there are also languages invented for artistic purposes alone that are mostly constructed by the author of a book or film series. There are countless examples:
Elvish in Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien. Dothraki in A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin. Na’vi in Avatar by James Cameron. Or Klingon in the Star Trek series.
A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess, published in 1962, is a novel concerned with the conflict between the individual and the state as well as with the punishment of young criminals. Set in a near-future society, it centres around teenage protagonist Alex, who narrates his violent exploits and his conflicts with state authorities.
The book is partly written in Nadsat (Russian for “teen”), an invented slang language employed by the protagonists. It’s basically English with some borrowed words from Russian, so the reader can understand or at least figure out what is being said. For example, here is a short extract from the first page of the book:
“Our pockets were full of deng, so there was no real need from the point of view of crasting any more pretty polly to tolchock some old veck in an alley and viddy him swim in his blood while we counted the takings and divided by four, nor to do the ultra-violent on some shivering starry grey-haired ptitsa in a shop and go smecking off with the till’s guts.”
The feminist science fiction trilogy Native Tongue (1984) by Suzette Haden Elgin is set in a future dystopian American society where women have been stripped off civil rights. As a form of rebellion or resistance, a group of women creates a new language called Láadan.
Bíi ril áya mahina wa = The flower is beautiful.
Bóo wil di le neth = I would like to speak with you, please.
Báa eril mesháad with = Did the woman go / come?
1972 survival and adventure novel Watership Down by Richard Adams tells the story of a group of rabbits that are anthromorphised, meaning they have some human traits like their own culture, language and mythology. Set in southern England, around Hampshire, the novel follows the rabbits as they escape the destruction of their warren and find a new home at the hill of Watership Down.
Adams has invented the language of Lapine which is spoken by the rabbit characters in the novel. It is often described as Standard English with the inclusion of a number of specialized Lapine lexical terms.
Hrududu = Automobile
Hlessi = A homeless rabbit without a hole to dwell in
Homba = A Fox
George Orwell also invented a language for his novel Nineteen-Eigthy Four (1949), called Newspeak. It’s a controlled language of restricted grammar and limited vocabulary, spoken in Oceania, a fictional totalitarian state and setting of the novel. Newspeak has been created by the ruling party of Oceania in order to limit the freedom of thought.
Though it follows most rules of normal English grammar, Newspeak is limited in its range of words. Here are some examples of Newspeak:
A goodthinker is a person who strongly adheres to all the principles of Newspeak.
Crimestop means the faculty of stopping at the threshold of any dangerous thought. Doublethink describes the acceptance of two mutually contradictory beliefs as correct.
Some of these languages are completely invented, some others share similarities with the English language or other existing languages. What all of them have in common is that they have been invented to be used by a specific group of people (or animals) and that they set those groups apart from everyone else. They are used to unify, but also to individualize.
There are many reasons why people invent their own languages:
To ease human communication, for instance, which is the main reason why Esperanto exists. Or to give fiction an added layer of realism – invented languages enhance imaginary worlds.
But first and foremost, we invent languages to be part of a group or a tribe. To create a feeling of belonging.