The Conlangers’ Art

Unambiguous Communication, William Faulkner, Constructed Cultures, Elegant Computer Code,The Klingon Language Institute, The Aesthetic Power of Calculus, Matriarchal Language, Post-Structuralism, Creative Historical Revisionism, Quasi-Fictional People, Elvish, Feminist Science-Fiction, Warlike Buddhists, The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis
by Annalee Newitz
Illustration by Tony Millionaire

The Conlangers’ Art

Annalee Newitz
14 Snaps

“There is nothing like an arbitrary set of symbols to fix the operations of the mind.”

—Joanna Russ

John Cowan has written a 620-page grammar book for a language that does not exist. He is a master of Lojban, a perfectly logical language invented by a small group of people who want to remove all ambiguity from communication. Bob Griffin, a database designer who is fluent in Lojban, says, “This would be the ideal language for talking to non-terrestrials or non-mammalian life forms.”

Griffin and Cowan are not alone in their philological preoccupations. Stanford linguistics graduate student Doug Ball is the sole speaker and chronicler of Skerre, a language he invented at the age of thirteen. At UCLA, mathematics analyst James Carter has gained a tiny but enthusiastic following for creating Gua\spi, which he describes as “an artificial language suited to both humans and machines.” And every year at a celebration known as qep’a’, Klingon-speakers gather together with scions of the Klingon Language Institute to spend three days speaking nothing but the invented language of an imaginary species.

They call their passion conlang, short for “constructed language.” Some do it for political reasons, to bridge cultural barriers. Others are devoted to the aesthetics of an unsung medium.

Creating a new language re­quires a very specific form of consciousness. William Faulkner wrote compelling and gorgeous novels without knowing the first thing about the subjunctive mood, but comparable conlang geniuses cannot build a syntax with­out considering everything from verb positions to whether they will grant speakers access to a derogatory prefix. For this reason, conlangers tend to be people who are already im­mersed in specialized forms of sym­bolic communication. They are professional and amateur linguists, logicians, mathematicians, engineers, and software developers. They find elegance in a line of computer code; they feel the aesthetic power of calculus.

And they are all, in one way or another, idealists.

Whether a conlanger has contributed new idioms to Klingon in order to participate in a favorite science-fiction fantasy, or invented a tongue designed solely to reflect women’s consciousness, he or she is expressing an implicit wish to change the world with language. This urge was codified in what linguists call the Sapir-Whorf Hy­pothesis. Popularized in the mid-twentieth century, roughly the same time period when conlangers began forming their own communities and interest groups, this hy­pothesis holds that consciousness is structured by language. To change the way people think, all you have to do is change the language they use to do it.


Portrait of the Conlanger as a Young Artist

Most conlangers discover their predilections for language-building as postpubescents whose intellectual cu­riosity leads them into the ob­scure back alleys of the creative process. Cowan recalls, “I got hold of an Es­peranto book in my early teens. I also had an Irish book and an Ar­abic book, but the Esperanto was more comprehensive since it was all packed into a short book. You can’t do that with most na­tural languages.”

Other conlangers come to it by way of fantasy. Griffin, whose im­peccable pronunciation of Lojban re­minds me of a cross between Rus­sian and Spanish, became interested in conlangs after reading The Lord of the Rings when he was thirteen. His story isn’t unusual: Tolkien’s in­vention of Elvish for his famous swords-and-orcs trilogy inspired many language-builders to connect their creations to imaginary worlds, sometimes called concults (for “constructed cultures”). Recalling his early fascination with conlangs, Griffin says, “I did some encoding and transforming of English, which was very time-consuming. But later I came up with a tiny vocabulary for a quasi-fictional people.” It ­wasn’t until he was an adult that Griffin began to play with Lojban, a language without any kind of in­vented social context, whose speakers sometimes poke fun at concultists by pretending to live in a country called “Lojbanistan” where everyone communicates lo­gically.

Ball explains that he invented Skerre after discovering the limits of Latin, and seems to connect his coming-of-age as a conlanger to leaving conculting behind. He fashioned Skerre in the eighth grade, and remembers that “for a long time the Skerre were an alien race, sort of like Vulcans or Elves. They embraced clean living, and were egalitarian. But most of those ideas I eventually abandoned.” Nevertheless, conceiving the alien culture of Skerre pushed him to seek out exotic languages for inspiration, and this became the foundation for his scholarly interest in non-Indo-European tongues as a linguistics graduate student at Stanford. “These days, there are a litany of random obscure languages I steal from for the structure of Skerre,” he muses.

Ball says “everyone knew” he was a conlanger in high school, and that occasionally people would become fascinated by what he was doing. At one point, he even gave an oral report in French class about Skerre. With a note of self-ironizing but unmistakable pride in his voice, he describes the experience as “just kind of weird.” Laughing, he adds, “I thought it was sort of sociolinguistically backward to be lecturing about this invented language in another language.”

In college, Ball discovered the Conlang Listserv, an email list where conlangers from all over the world gather to discuss their art. Chris Palmer, a conlanger who invents both human and computer languages, had a similar experience. He started writing “sketches of syntaxes” when he was fourteen, but didn’t discover the wider conlang community until he stumbled upon the Conlang Listserv as a young adult.

Like any group of socially marginalized people who have finally found safety in numbers, denizens of the Conlang Listserv frequently express their lingering sense of frustration with the way other people have responded to their language habits. “It seems like a lot of people want to prove that conlangers are crazy,” Cowan gripes, pointing out that the only book-length treatise on his peers is called Les Fous du Langage (roughly translated as Language Lunatics). The fear that people will think they are crazy haunts the Conlang Listserv the same way it does groups of avant-garde artists or people who study theoretical cosmology. In one exchange on the Listserv about this issue, Matt Pearson opined, “Some people think conlangers are crazy because language is something they take completely for granted, so the idea of making up a new language is virtually meaningless to them.”

Of course, this is exactly the sort of reception that early novel writers received in the eighteenth century, when all the literary superstars like Alexander Pope were churning out mock epics and essays. Why would anyone consider prose a form of artistry? That’s what Samuel Johnson wanted to know. After all, it doesn’t even rhyme. But less than a century later, Jane Austen and Nathaniel Hawthorne showed him a thing or two.


Auxlang vs. Artlang

Word-makers on the Conlang Listserv may take solace in one another’s company—and occasionally enjoy collaborating on an Esperanto translation for “I fart in your general direction!”—but there is nevertheless a schism in the group. The artlangers think the auxlangers are zealots, and the aux­langers think the artlangers are mere noodlers. The disagreement goes back over one hundred years.

Today’s conlang community grows out of the most popular invented language in the world, Esperanto, which also happens to be an auxlang. Its purpose is to be an aux­iliary language, rather like Swahili, that allows people with many different native tongues and dialects to forge political and economic alliances. Invented by a Polish­ teenager named Ludwik Lejzer Zamenhof in the 1880s, the then-named Lingvo In­ternacia (international language) is today spoken by an estimated two million people worldwide. Zamenhof took the pseudonym Esperanto (one who is hoping) in order to publish his first book about the language in 1887; eventually this name became synonymous with a conlang beloved by early-twentieth century anarchists and unionists try­ing to create an international re­volutionary class. As Esperanto speaker Don Harlow notes in a paper on the topic, the auxlang’s reputation as a source of subversion was so widespread that the Soviet government had several registered speakers of Esperanto “disappeared” during the late 1930s, while Hitler called the language a tool for achieving Jewish world dom­ination in his memoir Mein Kampf.

Auxlangers are by and large an explicitly political lot. Their goal in creating languages is often, like Zamenhof’s, about building solidarity and working toward world peace. People in the Esperanto community often boast that their conlang is superior to others be­cause it is easy to learn and spoken by a large group. Auxlangers aren’t interested in the beauty of case endings or new ways to conceive of nouns. They simply want their language to be implemented, even if its syntax is ugly and its vocabulary graceless.

Artlangers, on the other hand, are the sorts of people who define aesthetic pleasure as inventing new modal verbs to amuse themselves on a Saturday afternoon. Revolutionaries would probably have little use for a capriciously conceived modal like “nould,” which inveterate artlanger Palmer describes as “meaning ‘should but won’t,’ as in, ‘I nould go to the store because it’s such a beautiful day.’” Beauty, for an artlanger, is as much morphological and logical as it is phonological. Some invent languages that sound pretty, but most want more than a bunch of musical vowels. “Economy and simplicity are gorgeous in a language,” says Palmer. “I like a language with a relatively conservative phonology and which does a good job managing ambi­guity. You want enough ambiguity to have poetry and jokes and expressivity. But there’s a lot of need­less confusing stuff in English—so I like a grammar that maximizes the good of ambiguity and minimizes the bad.”

Ball calls Skerre an artlang be­cause “one of the design principles is my own aesthetic.” Like most conlangers, Ball has a sense of linguistic beauty that is idiosyncratic. “I’m attracted to intricacy,” he explains. “One of my all-time favorite structures has to be second-position clitics—these are en­tities that are halfway between af­fixes and full words. A good example is ‘the,’ which is dependent on the word that follows and is rarely used alone.” What Ball finds truly compelling about clitics is their ability to jump around in languages like French. In French, for example, you might say, “Je vois le chapeau dans la rue” (I see the hat in the street), then shorten the same sentence to “Je le vois dans la rue” (“I it see in the street”). Le (first used to mean “the,” then used to mean “it”) moves from the third position in the sentence to the second. So the clitic manages to get around while nevertheless referring to the same noun. It’s this sort of linguistic quirk that arouses glee in a conlanger, and inspires Ball to call second-position clitics beautiful.

His excitement over these slippery little bits of grammar inspired Ball to make subject pronouns in Skerre second-position clitics. “In Skerre, usually you have the verb first in a sentence, so these clitics will attach to the end of a verb. But if you negate a sentence, the pronoun comes after the negator so it seems to move around,” enthuses Ball. “In reality, it’s a constant and the other words are moving around.” As he talks, I can prac­tically hear him juggling the words of this language in his head. There is, after all, a kind of sublimity in playing out potential sentence structures in one’s mind, running them through positive and negative forms, and watching pronoun clitics surge back and forth as sense is made and unmade.

Auxlangers aren’t dismissive of beauty, but they would never build a language for its own sake. They always have an agenda.



But the deeper you go into the world of conlangers, the harder it is to find a distinction between what aux­langers want and what artlangers already have. This becomes apparent to me one afternoon when I sit down with Captain Qanqor, Chief Grammarian of the Klingon Language Institute (KLI), and self-described “Klingonist” Mark Mandel. Qanqor, who at first would only address me in Klingon, at last deigns to converse in English after some persuading from Mandel.

“I’m the first person to begin speaking Klingon,” Qanqor grunts. “I even wrote the Klingon na­tional anthem.” Outfitted in Klingon warrior garb, his human face hidden beneath the alien ridges of his chosen people’s, this imposing captain is nothing like his alter-ego, Rich Yampell, a software engineer with sweet brown eyes and a sheepish smile. Yampell is a longtime Star Trek fan who learned Klingon during college. “I always played Klingons in the Star Trek combat simulator video game,” he remembers. Using Klingon inventor Marc Okrand’s Klingon Dictionary, he and his friends employed Klingon as “a little code language we could use out at a restaurant just for fun.” But while his friends strayed from the conlang cause, Yampell did not. He became Qanqor, one of the world’s greatest Klingon speakers. “What kept me into it was that it was such a cool language, so different from English. To speak it, you have to think in a different way.”

I have no doubt that Yampell is telling the truth. When Qanqor speaks in fluent Klingon, which sounds oddly like a slightly gutteral version of Yiddish, it’s obvious that language does have the power to transform. Perhaps this alien ton­gue won’t be changing the world anytime soon—and a good thing too, since it was developed for a warlike people with a “death before dishonor” code—but it can change a boyish nerd into a regal, ruthless patriarch.

Mandel offers a story about the way Klingon makes him feel. During one of the annual qep’a’, he went out on a mission to pick some­thing up for the convention. A light rain was falling; he felt wet, tired, and a little droopy. But he strengthened his resolve by saying a Klingon phrase to himself: jISa­Hqo’, which he says could be tran­slated as “I refuse to care,” “I will not care,” and “I refuse to let this bother me.” In English he would only have had the weaker phrase, “I don’t care,” which wouldn’t have conveyed the strength of his intentions. He smiles at the memory. Thinking in Klingon reminded him that being irritated by a little rain was the sort of thing only a foolish human would do.

Klingon creator Marc Okrand, a former linguist who now works with a Washington, D.C., group that provides closed-captioning for tele­vision, agrees with Qanqor and Mandel. “When you speak Klingon, you feel tough and mean,” he says. “This is partly because of the Klingon character—you’re always barking orders. But it’s also pho­netic. The language is full of gutteral sounds, which wasn’t really my choice.” Okrand is referring to the media-induced origin of Klingon, which you could call the Spice Girls of conlangs. The idea for it came from Paramount Pictures, owner of the Star Trek properties, and Okrand was brought on as a paid language consultant during filming of the movie Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. At the time, Okrand was a linguistics graduate student at UC Berkeley, but he’d never been a conlanger before. “I created Klingon because they hired me!” he exclaims with a laugh. “It was just luck.”

Later, however, it became a calling. Okrand has published a hand­ful of Klingon dictionaries and guidebooks, and he’s involved with both the (Paramount-ap­proved) KLI and its quarterly linguistics journal, HolQeD. While the word “Klingon” is a Paramount property, and Okrand’s dictionaries are copyrighted to the entertainment corporation, Klingon conlangers are allowed to use and add to the language without paying any licensing fees. Nevertheless, a ru­mor persists in the community that Okrand owns the copyright on Klin­gon and maintains autocratic control of it.

When I ask him about this rumor, Okrand is mystified. “The KLI decided they wanted me to control the language,” he replies. “They wanted rules and restrictions. Basically, the rule they came up with was ‘If Marc says it’s OK, then it’s OK.’ But it didn’t have to be me. They could have created something like the French Academy.”

Every year the KLI throws a bash, the qep’a’ (big meeting), where members of the Klingon com­munity approach Okrand with requests for additions to the language. There are entreaties for everything from simple vocabulary words to elaborate idiomatic ­phrases. Some get their wishes granted because they’ve been particularly good Klingon citizens during the previous year, or because they win contests during qep’a’. Okrand enshrines new ad­ditions to the language in articles he writes for HolQeD.

By keeping Okrand in charge of Klingon, the community gains not just coherence but a genuine artlang full of humorous quirks and references to pop culture. Mandel, the Klingonist, points out that “the language is littered with jokes.” The word for pain is oy. And the word for a non-alcoholic beverage similar to root beer is awje. To get this joke, you have to know that in Klingon, the word “and” (je) comes after the two items it is connecting. Thus, “Marc and Qanqor” would be “Marc Qanqor je.” Now think again about why Okrand might call root beer awje—get it?

Yampell says he finds Klingon particularly satisfying largely be­cause of Okrand’s control over it. “I see a lot of similarities between the C programming language and Klingon,” he elaborates. “With C, you start with the rules and see where it takes you. As a programmer, that’s what I’m good at. The linguists take a different approach—they are interested in Klingon as a living language and want to infer rules from how it’s used. I think that’s dead wrong. I approach Klingon as a programming language, not a natural one.”


Language Engineers

Yampell isn’t the only conlanger who appreciates the overlap between computer languages and natural ones. Many die-hard conlangers are also computer programmers, and some have invented their own successful computer languages. Larry Wall, the eccentric author of popular and notoriously demented computer scripting language Perl, has described his creation as the first “postmodern language.” Geeks inspired by Wall’s work have used Perl to write everything from powerful bioinformatics applications to haiku. A typical Perl haiku reads:

# Why I love perl by Francis Tremblay

if (my @love=(“is “,”Perl”)) { !(

$Why = shift( @love)) and die “?, $Why”; print !”?”,

“Cause “, @love,” makes me free !”;};

Particularly devoted linguistics nerds have even designed special modules that allow people to program Perl in both Klingon and Latin.

Palmer, the whimsical inventor of modals, is a fan of the Python scripting language. “Perl is ugly,” he asserts with a wave of the hand. Besides having tidier data structures, he explains, Python is packed with the kinds of jokes that conlangers love. Named after British comedy troupe Monty Python, the language also has an interpreter program called Idle (after Eric Idle). “Writing a program is like creating a small conlang,” asserts Palmer. “I love it. It’s DIY semantics.”

A part of the Python FAQ is devoted to very a conlangerish question: “Why doesn’t Python have a ‘with’ statement like some other languages?” The answer is quite technical, but nevertheless begins with a simple assertion: “Because such a construct would be ambiguous.” For conlangers who work in and around com­puter languages, ambiguity is a kind of taboo. John McCarthy, who ­created the highly influential computer language LISP in the late 1950s, describes ambiguity as what separates natural language from computer language. It is what makes natural languages fascinating and beautiful, he argues. “Ill-defined concepts are crucial to any natural or logical language.”

But in the circuits of a ma­chine, it can be dangerous. Computers cannot tolerate any kind of imprecision. “Many computer programs have ambiguity, but it all gets resolved in the end,” says Palmer. “If you use a name that has more than one value, for example, the computer must resolve it using certain rules. If you don’t resolve the ambiguity, your operation fails.”

Part of the challenge in constructing a computer language is bridging the gap between a device that fails when it doesn’t understand an ill-defined concept, and beings who express themselves by relying on vagueness. McCarthy de­liberately set about to address this problem in LISP by creating a program which represented data—and actions to be performed with that data—in a way that would seem logical to both humans and a machine. The fundamental logic of LISP is recursion, a form of reasoning that relies on self-referentiality. “Many forms of introspection in human thought involve recursion,” says McCarthy, so it made sense to build his language for artificial intelligence around it.

Closely connected with the development of computer languages is the logical conlang tradition, which includes Lojban, the language of pure logic that Cowan chronicled in his grammar book. Lojban grew out of Loglan, a language created by James Cooke Brown in the late 1950s—the same period that McCarthy was dreaming up LISP.

Featured in a Scientific American article in 1960, Loglan has from its inception been cast as a language by and for engineers. It was also explicitly intended to be a test of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. The Loglan Institute describes the tongue as having “freedom from syntactic ambiguity,” thus making it ideal for bridging the comprehension gap between humans and their machines. Not only did the concept of Loglan help create Lojban (and the Logical Language Group that supports it), but it has also inspired countless other conlangers to liberate themselves from syn­tactic ambiguity. Logical language builder Garrett Jones estimates there are at least fourteen full-blown logical conlangs, including his own Minyeva and David Ma­dore’s amusingly named Yall (Yet Another Logical Language).

Lojban grammarian Cowan, himself a computer programmer, says that one of the main ways that Lojban syntax avoids ambiguity is by rendering explicit what English leaves implicit. A sentence like “I know who I want to go home with me” is nearly impossible in Lojban. Two separate ambiguities are em­bedded in it. Is the speaker saying that he is acquainted with the person he wants to go home with, or is he saying that he has figured out which person out of many he wants to take home? Then there is the ambiguity of “home”—is it the speaker’s home or the home of the other person? “It’s not possible to have perfect puns in Lojban, no double meanings,” says Cowan. “You cannot retain the suggestiveness of ‘go home with me.’ There’s a norm to be explicit about things.” In Lojban, you can never say that an apple is simply good. You must clarify how it is good in respect to a certain frame of values.


The Strange Case of Láadan

Sometimes a conlang means one thing to its maker and another to those who speak it. Suzette Hadin Elgin, a former linguistics professor and feminist science fiction writer, has been perplexed—even a little annoyed—about what the conlang com­munity did to her “woman’s conlang” Láadan.

In the early 1980s, dismayed by the continuation of sexism in U.S. culture, Elgin began writing an SF trilogy about a future earth where oppressed women invent a secret language for making their subversive plans for global revolution against their patriarchal masters. Rich with strange and compelling details, the first two novels in the series—Native Tongue and The Judas Rose—explore the lives of an elite class of male-dominated Linguists who control interplanetary trade with aliens whose languages they’ve devoted their lives to mastering. Unlike women from other walks of life, female Linguists are permitted to work (as translators) alongside their male counterparts. It’s among these women that the dissident language Láadan is developed. Gradually it’s transmitted into the wider female population at special women’s church services that the men scorn.

What makes Láadan a perfect women’s language, according to Elgin, is that it requires absolute emotional honesty from its ­speakers. There are prefixes for every first-person speech act that inform your listener whether what you’re saying is a joke, a lesson, a fearful statement, a loving statement, or any number of other moods. “There are many things that women using English have to convey with body language and tone of voice, but these are lexicalized in Láadan,” explains Elgin. “There’s a problem in English of verbal abusers saying something awful and then saying, ‘I was only joking.’ You can’t get away with that so easily in Láadan.” English, according to Elgin, is a “weasely” language; Láadan fixes that.

Elgin released a dictionary and grammar for the language along with her books. “I believed at the time—and still believe—that our language doesn’t express women’s perceptions,” she says firmly. Láa­dan certainly includes words that capture concepts which take quite a long time to express in English. There is radíidin, which Elgin tran­slates to mean “a non-holiday, a time allegedly a holiday but ac­tually so much a burden because of work and preparations that it’s a dreaded occasion; especially when there are too many guests and none of them help.” Then there is éeme, “love for one neither liked nor respected,” and wóo, particularly useful for politicians, which is an “evidence morpheme indicating the speaker/writer’s total lack of knowlege as to the validity of what is said or written.” In Láadan, President Bush would have had to say, in all honesty, “There are wóo weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.”

It was Elgin’s hope that a wo­man’s language would cause the male-dominated culture to self-destruct. “But women weren’t interested in it,” she tells me in a bewildered voice. “Ms. magazine never called; Signs never called.” In fact, the only people who did call were men. Over the years, dozens of male professors who teach Láadan in their linguistics courses have contacted Elgin about her creation, praising its phonetic beauty and political subversiveness. And Cowan was so enamored of Láadan’s system of emotional mar­kers and evidentials that he in­cluded them in his Lojban grammar book. Elgin recalls when Cowan proudly sent her a copy of the Lojban Grammar, which asserts that the most logical way for humans to express themselves is to mark their statements with the emotions that motivate them, as well as how they came to know what they are asserting. She was utterly vexed. Here was a com­munity of conlangers, largely male, devoted to pure logic. Yet they loved her work more than feminist magazines did.

Elgin’s voice rises in anger as she describes how sexism is still as prevalent as it ever was. In her current work as a communications consultant, she has found that men routinely refer to their female colleagues by their first names, while calling their male counterparts by their professional titles. And when women try to express their perceptions, she adds, men often push them to “hurry up and get to the point” or contradict their emo­tional assertions by saying, “You don’t really feel that way.”

When I suggest that perhaps men have adopted Láadan because they hunger for a way to express their feelings in language, Elgin is dubious. “Maybe they just think it will help them lie better,” she scoffs.

But Cowan tells a different story. He had a distinctly emo­tional reason for seeking out the empathetic structures provided by Láa­dan. Conflicts of all kinds had al­ways disturbed him, and he wanted to find a way to avoid the aggressive one-upmanship he associated with everything from personal disagreements to political fulminations. He couldn’t stand the way people who are arguing often make assertions without any evidence, attacking their opponents without taking care to demonstrate why.

And this is ultimately why Cowan became enchanted with Láa­dan’s system of evidentials, words that speakers use to explain the evidence behind their statements. For example, as Cowan writes in his Complete Lojban Language, one might make a statement using the evidential ba’a, which indicates that whatever he is saying “is based on the speaker’s view of the real world.” Thus, the sentence “ba’acu’i le tuple be mi cu se cortu” (which contains ba’a in its present tense form) means essentially, “In my experience, my leg hurts.” One might imagine how ba’a would be useful in an argument, since the word would force each person to acknowledge when his or her assertions were based purely on personal experiences rather than some scientific study or external authority. Relationship counselors would probably say that the evidential ba’a allows people to own their feelings.

Other useful evidentials are su’a, which Cowan writes “is a generalization by the speaker based on other (stated or unstated) information or ideas.” And then there’s ca’e, the perfect evidential for parents and priests—putting ca’e in a sentence means that what you’re asserting is true because you say so. “ca’e la .uengas cu zergau,” you might argue, meaning, “Wenga is a crook because I say so.”

Cowan’s additions to Lojban via Láadan are made in precisely the spirit Elgin intended: they enforce emotional honesty, and in addition provide a way for people to communicate without manipulating each other into conflict. A person using evidentials always admits where her ideas are coming from, and is forced to own up to it when what she’s saying about you is based entirely on her experience (ba’a), or on broad generalizations (su’a).

Although Elgin is right that patriarchy persists in language, and that English is a weasely tongue, I wonder if her response to men’s fascination with her explicitly emotional language isn’t an example of ralith, a Láadan word for the act of deliberately refraining from thinking about something, consigning it to a walled-off part of the mind.


Welcome to Ill Bethisad

Though it would be foolish to claim that conlangers have self-consciously pla­ced themselves in any philosophical or linguistic tradition, perhaps their art can be understood in the context of a set of late-twentieth-century literary theories broadly known as post-structuralism. Many of post-structuralism’s greatest phi­losophers—Jacques Derrida, Louis Althusser, Gayatri Spivak, Judith Butler—have argued persuasively that language is a political battleground. We use it in subtle and not-so-subtle ways to carve out social standing, stigmatize cultural interlopers, and stage revolutions. From a post-structuralist perspective, conlangers could be seen as savage social critics: their in­vented languages stand as judgments on the inadequacies of their native tongues and the homelands from which they originated.

On an imaginary alternate Earth known as Ill Bethisad, the Latin spoken in Roman Britain never died out. It grew up to be a Romance language called Brith­enig. That English wasn’t a Germanic language changed the entire course of history, causing national boundaries to be drawn differently and wars to be waged in ways that are fascinatingly allegorical. In IB, for example, warlike Bushists at­tacked and forcibly occupied East Florida, exacerbating tensions be­tween East and West Florida, and possibly delaying a vote on whether the region should join the North American League (NAL).

A small but active group of conlang and concult enthusiasts contribute elaborate, ongoing story ­lines to a series of websites devoted to IB international politics and society. The IB Wiki, a website where people can add information and links, lists over 100 countries in IB, including federations such as the Scandinavian Realm, Niger­volta, Florida-Caribbea (which is now defunct), and Castile and Leon (an area which includes several small islands, parts of Spain, Central America and the Western Sahara). According to participants in this concult experiment, nations in IB have overlapping boundaries and allegiances. Determining the histories and alliances of IB nations is an endless source of amusement and serious debate among people in the community.

In a discussion about how World War II played out in IB, one concultist wrote, “Nazism never happened there—or if it did it certainly wasn’t anything significant. Here Fascism and Nazism were basically products of the discontent in Italy and Germany about the end of WWI—how badly Germany and Italy were treated by the Allies. There Germany wasn’t ­treated so oppressively, so there was less discontent and thus less for the Fascists and Nazis to play on.” Immediately following this post, there ensued a lengthy discussion of what exactly did happen in IB during World War II, and whether Japan was involved.

IB grew out of Brithenig, the conlang of an eccentric, history-loving New Zealander named Andrew Smith. He chronicles his quiet life in The Irrefutable Proof about Hobbits, a blog penned in the sort of amusing, erudite prose one associates with nineteenth-century men of letters—if such men read The X-Men and bug-­tested their computers using the ob­scure Linux distribution Knoppix. He’s written that Brithenig was a thought experiment, undertaken entirely for fun, that grad­ually evolved into a concult centered on Kemr (a region known as Wales in our world), where the conlang is spoken. As other conlang and concult enthusiasts discovered Smith’s creation, the alternate universe took on a life of its own.

Contributors to the com­munity update the universe largely via press releases, news stories, and “letters to the editor.” These releases come at a fairly regular clip and cover everything from Japan’s plan to launch a rocket into space, to announcements about what happened in September 2001 when Philadelphia and New Castre­leon were the targets of a terrorist attack, possibly sponsored by the Islamic Republic of Sanjak. Often overt references to current political events, these bits of news are truly like dispatches from an­other dimension, one that Smith has written “moves at a different pace to our own,” and where “participating in the global concert of nations is important for everyone.”

When the second Gulf War broke out, Smith wrote a Comroig blessing (a blessing of the Chomro people, those who speak Bri­thenig):

Si lla der goninew gwollar, lleman tra’ll yspeid, e’ll noeth cadd e’ll diwrn rhump di’n der a’n der, gwan sewenir-nu’ll pobl—ychweilan, dorfen, nascen, e foren—yn mun, yn ddynaldad. Gwan di gi i mheg.

He translated it:

As the earth turns, spinning through space, and the night falls and the day breaks from land to land, let us remember the people—waking, sleeping, being born and dying—one world, one humanity. Let us go from here in peace.

In the conlang community, art and politics are seemingly inseparable. The act of language-building, no matter how whimsical, cannot help but articulate a wish to see the world remade.

Conlangers offer us a vision of Babel as liberation: out of the many voices, speaking their own invented tongues, comes an art form that dares to reconceive the very fabric of meaning itself.

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