Thursday, July 15, 2010

In the Shadow of Tolkien

When I was about 16 or 17 I happened to run across a copy of The Monstors and the Critics, a collection of essays by J.R.R. Tolkien. Much of it is devoted to English literature, but it also includes the essay The Secret Vice, about constructing languages. So, I got exposed to a manifesto in defense of this hobby at a fairly impressionable age.

A few years ago I noticed that I had somehow not only inherited from Tolkien a justification for the hobby of creating languages, but my languages seemed to reflect a world view1 to which I myself do not subscribe. In particular, my languages tended to be technophobic, if not actually indulging in the Romantic Weltschmerz that afflicts Tolkien's Elves, and my languages, even ones I never publish, tend to be remarkably chaste and polite. I've been trying to get away from these tendencies, especially the technophobia which was quite entrenched for a long time.

I have not been content to simply add words like "computer" and "cash machine" to my languages, but I've played with various ways of integrating technology, especially communications technologies (i.e., computers), into the language in a more fundamental way. One sketch language from a few years ago, Onju, had six noun classes, one of which was for things humans build and related tools, and one was just for e-things. The class marking was partially lexical, and you could take word for "tree," sor which normally fell into the ër plant class, and drop it into the e-thing class giving orí sor, which refers to any of the branching abstractions computer science people call "trees."

Onju was set aside due to some design flaws, but many ideas were recycled into Nezhan. Nezhan dropped the classes, but did include a demonstrative pronoun set just to describe things online, with lhidhaal effectively referring only to an online representation of a human being, what's usually called an avatar. Plenty of natural languages include derivational affixes you can tack onto a verb to mean "go somewhere in order to VERB." In Nezhan, I had that, but also -mál which meant "go somewhere online in order to VERB."

Nezhan was also quickly abandoned, but is the direct ancestor of Bixwá. Bixwá picks up the "go online to X" verb affix (-lobi), but did not import the online deixis markers. Instead, any verb can be situated in an electronic, communications or virtual environment with the verb prefix lii-, which falls into the same slot that verbal direction marking goes.

We were hanging out together.


We were hanging out together (online).

I've had less obvious success in getting rid of the air of Victorian discretion from my languages. Even the language I've worked on the longest, Vaior, has very little in the way of cursing. I tend to add vocabulary by semantic field (one idea leads to another). Just last week I finally added a little sexual vocabulary to Bixwá, and I actually used the Latin mons veneris in one definition! I don't swear a whole lot in my daily life, but I certainly do from time to time — what Unix sysadmin does not? — and once in a blue moon I can indulge in some pretty serious vulgarity. I like to save it for special occasions, for more impact. I have no philosophical reason to exclude these from my languages.

The biggest difficulty in cursing language is that it's as much a matter of culture as language. Modern English tends to stick with sexual and other biological terms, but in some places blasphemy is still the way to get really angry (I'll always remember a Spanish curse involving the 24 testicles of the Apostles). In this one matter I haven't ever followed Tolkien — I don't create cultures to go with my languages. I've always been more interested in my languages for my own purposes, but sometimes it is easier to get over some language design questions with at least the hint of a culture to go with it. Vaior got a vague cultural dusting to help it along. I suppose Bixwá may too, eventually. I'd rather not resort to English just to curse.

1I misspelled that word view the first time through.

1 comment:

  1. I believe I must say I also suffer from the same 'sickness'. I read Tolkien's Secret Vice at an impressionable age too, more or less 16 years old, and also inherited, with this, a baggage (to call it something) while creating languages. The difference is that I think I would ascribe to that Romantic Weltschmerz you mention and maybe this aided my tendency not to include some things into my conlangs.

    For instance, I've noticed I left out all of the scatological aspect of a language, which I don't even mind working on, simply because I don't like to spend that much time into something like that, or because I think this would be too 'home-made' or tacky. But in fact I also tend to do my conlangs as if they were all very ancient, no signs of machines or electronic devices whatsoever. I think this might also be because you can always create such words later on if you have the corresponding corpus (a very big one) as happened in natural languages.

    Even in Tulvan, which is my experiment on making more 'modern' languages, has some old-fashioned indulgences, and I think I should include more modern stuff into it before I turn it into Ancient Greek!