Do Constructed Languages have Linguistic Value?





So I unleashed a giant can of worms today on Reddit, asking if there were any graduate programs centered around or dabbling in constructed languages. The second response I received was from a user who insisted that constructed languages weren’t real languages (with the inevitable example of…(with the inevitable example of Klingon).

And then there was confusion over what actually constitutes a constructed language and why there is an academic stigma against even mentioningthem. Is ASL a “conlang”? What about Modern Hebrew? Or Wampanoag? What about pidgins?

So my question to Tumblr is: What linguistic value is there to studying existing constructed languages?

Perhaps there is no practical value to studying conlangs but for budding linguists, they provide a wealth of opportunity to explore and practice analysing.

Even more than that, they can reveal something about the how the human mind interacts with language and allows for an outlet of brilliant creativity.

Its been proved over and over that learning another language helps brain functions, I doubt it matters whether the language is constructed or not.

Besides, most languages are constructed or manipulated in some way to serve the political or social needs of the time. At the end of the day, even ‘natural’ languages are only a product of the human interactions with it.

I agree with all of the above (with some caveats with the last paragraph…), and I’d like to add some thoughts. ConLangs clearly *do* have some kind of stigma attached to them among “professional linguists”. Even those of us who are interested in them can’t do “real research” on them (in the US especially, though there does seem to be some professional interest in AuxLangs over in Europe). There hasn’t always been this stigma— Edward Sapir was a supporter of the idea of an international AuxLang and many of his contemporaries were as well (not to mention Tolkien!). So what’s happened? What changed? And why?

Why does it offend people— not just strike them as silly and banal, but outright offend— when I tell them I teach a class on ConLangs?

It can’t be because they’re “useless” or lack “practical value”. If that were the argument, then we could say the same thing for Tucano, which has fewer speakers than Esperanto, Arapaho, which has fewer speakers than Klingon, or even Wolof, which has quite a few speakers, but is not exactly a “practical” language to learn for most people. Indeed, in terms of “practicality” let’s all learn English, Spanish, Mandarin, Hindi, and Arabic and chuck the rest, yeah?

CLEARLY, THAT IS A RIDICULOUS STATEMENT that no respectable linguist (really, no respectable person) would consider. So the anti-ConLang sentiment can’t rest on ground of “practicality”.

Well, what of the issue of time/resource management— the idea that learning Klingon takes away from learning Michif? While this is at least a better argument, it’s still not a very solid one; it falls back on a notion of utilitarianism that always falls apart. Why waste time on Novial when you could learn Kawaiisu? Well, why waste time reading Willa Cather when you could be reading Shakespeare? Or why waste time on Language when you could learn Programming? In a humanities-based endeavor especially, there’s always a danger in this “why waste time” argument because the utilitarian value of things isn’t always immediately recognized— nor is it even always clear. If learning Loglan gets you interested in language, there’s already value, I feel. And if it doesn’t? So what?

So the anti-ConLang sentiment really can’t rest on a utilitarian argument, either.

So what’s left? Honestly, I’ve thought about this for a long while now and I just don’t know. Is it a kind of Frankenstein revulsion at “playing god” with language? Is it the fear that “normal linguists” will be tainted by association with “those dorks who speak Dothraki”? Is it some hold-over connection that people make between the AuxLang movement of the 19th Century and the kind of Romantic Notion of The Folk that justified racism and eventually leads to Hitler? Is it, like most things in modern linguistics, Chomsky’s fault?

I don’t know.

But here’s what I do know. Every single other field has a notion of what I call the “artefactual approach”— a practice-by-doing, toy-model-testing, break-it-to-see-how-it-works way of investigating their objects of study. Clearly, natural science and engineering take this “artefactual approach” with At Home Chemistry Sets, Build A Clock From A Potato, Make Your Own Sundial, etc etc etc. But even most of the humanities teach artefactually as well— Anthropology has us to “study” our family home, archaeologize our own trash cans; Math gives us calculator games and blocks for comparing powers of ten; History tells us to look into our family trees (which is as far removed from ‘Professional History’ as anything); Computer Programming, Art, and Music are *literally* a learn-by-making approach to knowledge; Economics and Psychology have almost nothing but toy models we’re encourage to play with, even if they aren’t physical artefacts. Even English wouldn’t expect us to develop an appreciation of the written word without DOING SOME WRITING, right?


So, if we want to make a case for the value of Linguistics— for the value of LANGUAGES— we can’t afford to keep ignoring ConLangs. We can’t even afford to treat them as polite oddities that “those people” do. We have to welcome them into the fold, develop the respect for them they deserve, and we have to start using them as teaching tools. Basically, if linguistics wants to survive the next century, it has to start making language into an thing to be played with, not a thing to revere.

I’ve gone back and forth on ConLangs, but I agree with the points here now. And one of the Ling Space team is big into them, too, so I’ve heard about them more, too.

Back in the day, my main complaint about them was trying to use ConLangs to prove things that they weren’t really constructed to do. Or, to put it differently, trying to make points about natural language syntax or phonology or such. Often, I thought that the people doing this were being oversimplistic and not taking into account factors that could come to bear on the thrust of whatever argument they were trying to make. And so the experiments they were doing were then of dubious value.

But there’s a lot to be done with them and playing around with them and all that for helping draw people in and having fun with language and understanding how languages can work. It’s accessible and can help draw people into thinking about language in general. And if you’re careful, you can build experiments around them that could tell us about language in general, for sure. It’s not off limits.

And really, they’re fun, on top of the rest of it. If you like analyzing real languages and working out how they tick and cultural and historical influences, why not have fun with thinking about it from your own world? I always really appreciate it when someone’s clearly done the work to make a language really work like a language in a fantasy world. It makes the world feel more real.

So yeah. Making languages can be just as valid as studying ones that are around already. You just need to know what your goal is for doing it. ^_^

I was making up languages back when I was a big nerd writing Epic Fantasy in high school, and it would be a flat-out lie to say that doesn’t strongly tie in with the fact that I eventually went on to study linguistics. I think interest in ConLangs goes hand in hand with interest in capital-L Language, that weird thing we do with our hands and faces that makes us understand each other, that’s built communities, that’s started wars. I can’t agree more with dsbigham‘s idea that linguists should embrace ConLang as the hands-on lab for its science, just like home chemistry kits or Meccano sets or whatever. I’ve sort of been pushing for thelingspace to eventually do an episode about ConLangs, actually, because yeah, even though they’re not usually umbrellaed under Linguistics proper, they definitely are super neat and interest a lot of people.

I’m thinking, could it be that the generalized disdain for ConLangs in the academic linguistic community might spring from a fear of not being taken seriously? After all, even as it is, we sort of have to struggle to be considered a science sometimes (you just have to look at my degree to see that). This being in spite of, you know, systematic methodology, testable predictions with reproducible results, practical and theoretical applications, heck, I even used electrode caps in my thesis research. I don’t especially take issue with having gotten an arts degree for a neuroimaging study myself, but I know stuff like that doesn’t sit well with some people; maybe those are the same people who shun ConLangs as somehow not being “real” linguistics?

One more point. The whole deal behind (a major part of) linguistics is that language is a thing that just sort of happens, through no individual or social effort – people might spend a lot of time thinking and teaching and working with and debating language, but fundamentally, it’s a magical wonderful miracle sprung from the brain of every typically functioning infant in the history of the species. This idea, itself, has not been without contention (maybe babies are just really reallygood at learning from behavioural patterns, etc), so maybe there is a tendency among generative linguists to discredit ConLangs as fake and offensive because they obviously aren’t sprung from the literal mouths of babes. If people start thinking that ConLangs are linguistically valid, WELL. So long, Universal Grammar. It’ll be an uphill battle to fight all over again.

I dunno. Some of the coolest, smartest people I know have made languages up. But I definitely remember the red hot shame of being a Ling undergrad and being ridiculed for my interest in ConLangs. Complicated issue.

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