Wednesday, August 26, 2015

How Useful are Conlangs?

Conlangs (constructed languages) are incredibly fascinating things. While most languages are the result of hundreds, thousands, and even millions of people talking to one another over thousands of years, conlangs are usually the creation of a single person or small group of people over a short period of time (in terms of human history, at least).

For those not familiar with conlangs, they are languages whose structure and vocabulary have been consciously devised by humans, rather than developing "naturally" over many years as other languages do. However, while I do find them very fascinating, the question of how useful they are keeps creeping into my mind.

What are conlangs for?

There are many reasons why conlangs are created. Some create them just for fun, while others create them in an attempt to create a universal language for all of the world's people to speak. Esperanto, for example, was created with this goal in mind.

In popular culture, science fiction probably makes more use of conlangs than other genre. This is because a fictional universe will always feel more convincing if an eight-eyed extraterrestrial speaks an alien language rather than plain old English.

But how useful are conlangs? Can they or will they replace natural languages? I'd like to try to answer a few of the most common questions surrounding these captivating creations.

How can you judge a conlang's utility?

First, let me say that you can only judge how useful something is if you know what you're trying to use it for. As I said, there are several reasons why you would create a conlang, and this will dictate how you create your language. If you are creating a conlang to be used in a handful of scenes in a film or a few pages in a book, you probably won't attempt to create a vast vocabulary where every word has hundreds of synonyms. However, if you are wanting you conlang to be used as a lingua franca, like Latin across the Roman Empire or English today, you might consider plenty of business and trade terms.

I believe the best way to judge a conlang's utility is by how well it accomplishes the goal of its creation.

What can they tell us about natural languages?

On an individual level, there are few things that will show you just how nuanced and complex languages are as trying to create your own. A lot of things you rarely think about when you speak a natural language will quickly come to the fore when you have to consider phonology, a writing system, creating a vocabulary and then putting a grammar system together.

Will a universal language ever build up a head of steam?
Will there ever be a universal language?

If a conlang such as Esperanto is designed to be everyone's second language, we have to first consider whether or not there is any trend towards there being a universal lingua franca, and if so, why would we pick one that has just been created, over one already spoken by millions or billions of people?

This is the main challenge for any conlang setting out with this goal. While there are conlangs that have thriving communities of speakers, none have ever come remotely close to achieving a widespread global status. Is this due to the languages themselves, or is there just too little demand for such a thing?

While languages are dying out at an alarming rate, this trend doesn't appear to be heading towards a singularity just yet. In fact, a number of minority languages have seen a revival in recent years and even extinct languages have come back from the dead (Manx, for example).

In fact, as long as people consider languages to be a part of their identity, the language which forms that identity will survive as long as that identity does. As long as the community and history that is home to a language still exists, people will continue to speak the languages that embody the shared history and culture.

This is why its almost impossible for a universal conlang to gain a footing on a global level. While there will always be those pragmatic people amongst us who wish to see an entire world communicating with one language, there will also always be those who don't.

So are they useful?

As I said, defining utility for conlangs is based on why they were created. For those created for fun, if you enjoy creating them and using them, then they serve their purpose. If you're trying to get the whole world to sing to the tune of just one conlang, you may be barking up the wrong arbo...

Agree or disagree? Tell us your thoughts on the utility on conlangs in the comments below!