Saying it in a different tongue

This week the Mirror Magazine takes a look at invented languages and the story behind the more popular ones

Saluton, kiel vi fartas? I have (I think) just said ‘hello, how are you?’ in Esperanto, though you could be forgiven for thinking I had accused you of flatulence or something worse. If you had taken offence, it would have been a pity. After all, when L. L. Zamenhof created the language in 1887, it was with the intention of giving us a universal tongue, a politically neutral lingua franca, hence the meaning of ‘Esperanto’ – ‘one who hopes’.

With only 16 rules of grammar, no irregular verbs and every word spelt as it’s pronounced, it’s easy to see why Esperanto is so popular. Though estimates vary wildly, anywhere from between 10,000 to 2 million people are supposed to speak it. Esperanto is also the closest we’ve come to realising Friedrich Nietzsche’s dream. In 1876, Nietzsche predicted that one day we would all speak one language “as certainly as there will someday be travel by air.” Nietzsche, it turns out, was repeating an idea that hundreds of intellectuals from across the depth and width of history had already embraced. Today, there are an estimated 900 artificial languages, but no one knows for certain. (FYI, Pig Latin and the like are considered codes designed to disguise the content and not a language in their own right.)

If the thought of world peace doesn’t quite float your boat, inventing a whole new language might seem like an incredibly time consuming, profitless exercise. And it is, but it’s also fun. Author J.R.R Tolkien, for instance, is famous for constructing the Elven tongue for his mammoth ‘Lord of the Rings’ trilogy. In fact, he said his stories grew out of his languages and not as you would expect, the other way around. He started with Qenya, which would be later dubbed High-elven. Along with Sindarin, or Grey-elven, Qenya is the most complete of Tolkien’s imagined languages. Today, you can even take a course in either at a university. Fans have added many new phrases to the lexicon, creating what amounts to a fully usable alternate language.

Several other authors would follow with their own versions of the Elven tongue for their novels – from Eragon to Artemis Fowl and Dungeons and Dragons. Others have looked in odder places for their inspiration. Dritok is inspired by the voiceless sounds that chipmunks make and has an entire vocabulary of clicks and hisses and pops. If chipmunk doesn’t suit you, you could consider reciting the Lord’s Prayer in John Wilkins’s Philosophical Language, saying your wedding vows in Loglan, or reading Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in Lojban says Author Arika Okrent in her book ‘In The Land of Invented Languages.’

In an interview with Time Magazine, she said “Many of these projects were inspired by the feeling, Wait, language doesn’t have to be the way it is. Why does it need irregular verbs? Why can’t it be more logical? Why do we need synonyms and all these exceptions that just confuse people who are trying to learn another language? I know! I could sit down and try to make it perfect! And that sort of presupposes that you know how language works. Language really isn’t about information transmission. You speak a language in order to join the group that speaks that language.”

This is pretty much the reason that one particular group exists. Klingons, mankind’s allies in the Star Trek universe, have a guttural language of their own, with just over 2,000 words. Fans of The Enterprise have taken to it with exceptional enthusiasm. They have a dictionary, language conferences and a Klingon language institute. When it comes to insulting your enemies, it’s the perfect choice - “Dejpu’bogh Hov rur qablIj!” “Your face looks like a collapsed star!” – but you can also read excerpts from Shakespeare and the Bible in Klingon and even sing songs from the Fiddler on the Roof.

Part of its allure is that Klingon is simple even if it is unpronounceable – in sharp contrast to English, new speakers need only master three official parts of speech: nouns, verbs, and everything else. On that note, we’ll leave you with all the justification anyone has really ever needed to invent another tongue. ‘not yap wa’ Hol!’ (one language is never enough!)

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