The pampas of ennui

Being Leonardo Boiko's online Journal, featuring Long & Very Sporadic Essays on any Subject.

Langs and conlangs

14 March 2012

The term kuan-hua [i.e. Mandarin] was in use from the Yuan period on and referred to the spoken language of officialdom (kuan-ch’ang), which was based on the speech of the capital (mostly Peking from that time till the present; Nanking speech was taken as the standard during the late Ming).¹¹ There are many records from the Ming and Ch’ing periods that prove that kuan-hua was considered to be a prestige supradialect that bureaucrats from all over the empire were forced to learn if they wished to have a successful career. For most of them, this meant acquiring a second spoken language, not merely making minor adjustments in their pronunciation and vocabulary. The complexion of kuan-hua was deliberately changed by reformers around the end of the nineteenth century who wished to make it the lingua franca of all China, not just of the officials.

(Victor Mair, Buddhism and the Rise of the Written Vernacular in East Asia: The Making of National Languages.)

There’s no pǔtōnghuà on the street.

(A guy I know who has just arrived from a certain Chinese city.)

The linguistic mainstream seems to despise conlangs. This must have a number of reasons, such as trying to dissociate themselves from low-prestige groups such as trekkies and Tolkien nerds, or the grudge created by lousy amateur work like Esperanto that wants to replace natural languages while clearly being inferior to them in all possible ways. But I think there’s a deeper reason: much of linguistic mainstream has bought into Chomsky’s ideas on natural language and the role of linguistics, viz., that the only true real language is the spoken (or signed) communication acquired by young children and that the only true linguistic science is the analysis of its structure. If you’re into that paradigm, then conlangs must feel like dangerous, misleading fake data; should the linguist start to think about conlangs—or, heaven forbids, to think in conlangs—she would risk contaminating the purity of her intuition with fake structures (and introspection is considered a primary, authoritative source of data for generativists), which in turn would generate wrong models, wrong grammars.

I think that’s a shame, because the more I read, the more I’m convinced that many natural languages have certain features in common with conlangs. Of course, by doing this I’m already positioning myself outside of the generative viewpoint, which cares only for synchronic spoken language as perceived by a baby, and never for how languages arised in the first place—which cares about Language more than languages. But if I think of the influence of the French Académie in the spoken language of France; or of the late stratum of scholarly Latinisms deliberately introduced into Portuguese; or of the Meiji calques for Western concepts; or of the Japanese government regulating which personal pronouns the people must use; or of Nynorsk; or of Bokmål deciding to scrape the feminine declension in 2005; or of Hebrew; or of keigo manuals and the brouhaha over baito keigo—aren’t natural languages like cyborgs, full of artificial conlangy parts?

Even if we grant that once acquired by babies these parts become “digested” into proper natural language—isn’t it an interesting fact that communities can artificially devise systems that babies will want to digest? How exactly does this work?

I think serious study of conlangs could help understanding the cyborg features of languages. Nunberg has pointed that written language, despite being decidedly artificial, gives rise to lots of “undocumented” deep structures that are distinct from but analogous to those of natural language; somehow the same sort of principles that organize speaking are re-applied in novel ways on the paper (as he elegantly puts it, writing “is what follows, roughly, from setting language down”). Aren’t conlangs the same kind of “setting down”? Why conlangs have the look-and-feel of languages? Are we endowed not only with a language ability, but with a language-creating ability, with the ability of reconfiguring new signs into language-like structures? What does language-like mean? Perhaps if we explored this kind of question about conlangs, we’d also explain a lot about Meiji calques and Portuguese latinisms. And pǔtōnghuà.


Comments (4)

  1. You are, of course, entitled to your view, but you go too far in referring to “lousy amateur work like Esperanto that wants to replace natural languages”. I’ll not comment much on the amateur / professional distinction – there are good amateurs and very poor professionals, as you know. It is importanty to insist that there has never been a suggestion that Esperanto aims to take the place of national and ethnic language. Its role is to serve as an auxiliary language.

    I hope you’ll allow me to add that Esperanto is celebrating its 125th anniversary this year. That’s quite an achievement for what started as the idea of just one man. It has survived wars and strikes and economic crises, and, as a thoroughly natural language, continues to attract young learners.

  2. It wants to replace the role that natural languages have always taken as linguæ francæ (a position currently held by English). Sure, Esperantists don’t want to replace English as the national language of U.S., U.K. etc., but they would rather everyone learned Esperanto than English as a second language; therefore, they’d like to replace this widespread function of English in our world. And many linguists, who are sensitive about the beauty of English and the ugliness of Esperanto, are bitter about it—and I concur. My only problem is that, burned by Esperanto, they are blinded to the value of more interesting conlangs like Sindarin or Modern Indo-European, and even to the idea of conlangs in general, throwing the baby out with the bathwater. In other words, Esperanto worsens the reputation of conlanging as a whole.

    As for its quality—I’m skeptical about the entire premise of auxlangs, but suppose we want to make a neutral language for everyone to learn—then you go and make it Eurocentric and sexist not by history but by design? You want everyone in the world to learn it and put in as many as 22+2 consonants?? (Tupi has 16, Japanese 13+2, Maori 9+1, Pirahã 8). Inflections, agreement, articles, the entire bag of complications of a very specific small set of very specific European languages? Even an absurd [h]/[x]/[r]/[l] distinction?? Is there any reason for that, other than these features being present in Zamenhof’s native languages?

    I could go on, but (as referenced above) someone already have, so there’s no need. Of course, Esperantists are completely entitled to learn such a clunky conlang if they want to, and to try to convince everyone else to learn it. I just wish the general public would not be misled by Esperanto’s visibility; there’s so much better work out there.

  3. I’m sorry, I’m a bit stressed due to unrelated personal reasons and I was way too impolite. Even if we disagree on the issue of Esperanto, I’m honestly honored that you read my blog and even took the time to comment. Thanks for coming, and please forgive my grumpiness.

  4. Although I am not an “Esperantist” I am Esperanto speaker, and I would confirm that prejudice and ignorance has held Esperanto. Both Hitler and Stalin banned it.

    Esperanto is a living language – see

    Their new online course has 125 000 hits per day and Esperanto Wikipedia enjoys 400 000 hits per day. That can’t be bad :)

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