29 December 2010

Logomaniacs (a play) portrays langnuts

Billed as an “intellectual freak show,” Logomaniacs examines people whose passion for words carries them to extremes, from Georges Perec and his novel without the letter “e” to the Russian futurists and their invented language, “Zaum.” The whole article is legible at the Jersey City Independent website.

27 December 2010

texts du jour: designing orthographies

A summary of factors that need to considered when designing a writing system for a language: Factors in designing effective orthographies for unwritten languages by Michael Cahill and Elke Karan, downloadable at the SIL website. A much more detailed look at the issues is available in Karan’s thesis Writing system development and reform.

A document from unicode.org, Recommendations for creating new orthographies, gives advice about selecting existing characters from the Unicode repertoire. Lots of useful warnings in this document about the trouble you might have if you try to combine left-to-right characters with right-to-left characters, try to use a numeral or punctuation mark as an alphabetic character, etc.

26 December 2010

the language Tango (a reverie/update)

Since about 1995 I have been haunted by this desire to have a conlang made of 5-letter nouns and verbs with 2-letter conjunctions and particles. The 5-letter words all have their consonants and vowels arranged in CVCCV or CCVCV patterns. I suppose these word-shapes are inspired by Early Loglan, but I have no sympathy for loglang grammars.

Early drafts of this language were named Penta. Eventually I changed the name to Zengo, and later Dengo. Now that its form is becoming clearer, I realize I have to call it Tango. Yes, this will be a constructed language named Tango. From the Vorlin word tan combined with the Tango word lengo.

Tango pulls its vocabulary from every available source: bidza from Italian pizza, lindu from Finnish lintu, hamba from Fanagalo hamba, lengo from Japanese gengo and Papiamentu lenga with a tip of the hat to Playful English lingo.

What can you do with a language made up of 2-syllable 5-letter words and 2-letter monosyllables? One use that seems obvious is poetry. Haiku might appear spontaneously in Tango, like weeds sprouting up in freshly tilled soil. With voiced consonants being much more common than their harsh voiceless counterparts, Tango might become a good medium for singing, chanting, oratory and liturgy.

Finding vocabulary for Tango is sometimes difficult. Sometimes I can’t locate any natlang words of the right shape for a given concept. But finding a grammar has been even harder. I’m craving some sort of an English-Japanese hybrid syntax but I don’t feel confident that I can arrange such a thing.

25 December 2010

A Klingon Christmas Carol

Three years ago this very blog reported on A Klingon Christmas Carol. This year the play was performed in Chicago and received a lot of mainstream press coverage. Replying to a disrespectful comment in Slashdot, someone associated with the production wrote the following:

So let me get this straight. Our goofy little Klingon show is lame. We had massive coverage in the Chicago area in all of the major papers (Trib, Sun-Times, Daily Herald) and had tv spots on WGN twice. We got the front page of the Wall Street Journal which lead to coverage by the BBC World Service, CBC, London Times, & Daily Telegraph... and then last night we got mentioned in Conan O'Brien's monologue.... and the night before that we got mentioned in Jimmy Fallon's monologue.... Quite frankly, if this is your definition of lame, then I don't want to be anything but lame for the rest of my life.


24 December 2010


The season for New Year’s resolutions is upon us. Personally I find it fascinating that roughly 80% of people who make such a promise to themselves are unable to keep it. This means that most of us are utterly unable to control our own behavior. Holy cow, that’s remarkable. That’s right up there with being mortal as far as Life’s Biggest Problems are concerned.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not claiming to be a glowing exemplar of self-discipline. I’m a member of the out-of-control majority. My language projects, my investment portfolio, my physical fitness all resemble New Orleans shortly after Katrina blew through. Even the vehicle I drive has articles of clothing, bits of incoming mail, and various sundry objects randomly scattered throughout. I’m a mess.

I would like the coming year to be more successful as far as doing what Part A of me wants to do, instead of doing what Part B wants to do (which is mostly endless web-surfing and spending all of our wages on stuff from Amazon). So I’ve been reading up on the art of making and keeping resolutions.

Naturally Part B bought a book from Amazon on the topic (This Year I Will by M.J. Ryan) The book discusses the fact that many people give up on a project during “the awkward phase.” Learning a language or taking up a musical instrument, for example, will involve an initial period of being incompetent. This is rather discouraging. Perhaps it will be less daunting if one knows in advance that it is going to happen and accepts that.

(I wonder if being especially sensitive about “the awkward phase” of language learning might be what drives some people to advocate very simple constructed auxlangs.)

Another pitfall which derails many people is failing to deal with the first slip-ups intelligently. If you vow to learn three kanji every day or translate a kilobyte of the Tipitaka into your conlang every week, you need to be ready for those times when you fail to keep your promise to yourself. Don’t turn slip-ups into give-ups, says the book.

A bit of googling will turn up numerous online articles about succeeding or failing with resolutions. A study conducted at the University of Hertfordshire yielded the following results: the success rate for resolutions is highest for those who use these five techniques…

1) break the larger goal into smaller steps
2) reward yourself after performing each one of the steps
3) tell your friends about your goals
4) focus on the benefits of success
5) keep a record of your progress

11 December 2010

global explosion of conlanging

It seems like more and more creative writers are using invented languages in their works. Back in the days when I compulsively tried to keep lists of all these things, I would be stressing out trying to deal with this volume of material. But now that I’m older and wiser I’m willing to just enjoy the flow…

Nate Neal’s first graphic novel The Sanctuary has its characters speaking an invented language of symbols. In an interview with Robot 6 at comicbookresources.com, the author says:

“With a made up language the words would take on a symbolic stance that they otherwise wouldn’t have. That helps get across one of the important ideas of the book: how things get fucked up when a society thinks too symbolically. Or at least thinks too symbolically without being aware that that’s what they’re doing. As far as I’m concerned, that’s the world we live in now! The book uses symbols to convey a somewhat anti-symbolic sentiment.”

Jenna Scherer's review of the play “Blue Flower” mentions that one character’s “life becomes steeped in regret and nostalgia, which he funnels into creating a collage book and inventing a made-up language.”

The short film Ana’s Playground, which is a short-list candidate for an Academy Award nomination, uses an invented language so that the characters “could not be pegged as being from any one particular place.”

05 December 2010

the Ojibwe word for glottal stop

…is gibichitaagobii’igan.

People who are trying to keep Ojibwe alive are presently operating some total immersion schools for young children in Wisconsin and Minnesota. They sometimes find it difficult to teach math, science, and American politics in the Ojibwe language due to a lack of specialized vocabulary. Therefore some activists arranged for a meeting of fluent speakers from various communities to get together and invent/document the needed terminology.

The terms they agreed upon are documented in Ojibwe Vocabulary Project working session of July 6-8, 2009. (Downloadable.)

The introduction contains this interesting thought: “In addition to the education challenges for instruction of Ojibwe, many fluent speakers complain that when speaking about the language or certain subjects that the conversation slips into English because of vocabulary challenges. A language lives when it can be used for everything in life, not just certain parts of life.”

How many times have language designers wrestled with the conflict between having a limited size vocabulary for ease of learning and an infinitely expansible vocabulary for coping with the modern world? The native speakers of creole languages like Bislama and Papiamentu debate this quandary too. Does it make more sense to switch into whatever locally popular language has the necessary vocabulary when discussing technical matters, or can ways be found to invent the need terms internally? The organizers of this Ojibwe vocabulary workshop believe that having an insufficient vocabulary for modern terms can lessen a language’s chances of survival.

Here are some of the Ojibwe terms documented in the aforementioned publication:

gimiwanaanakwad to be a rain cloud
naasaabiigamon to be parallel
waasamoo-manidoobiiwaabik electromagnet
memeshkwajitoong dachingagindaasowin commutative property of multiplication
waa-pimibatood candidate
gashkichigewin socioeconomic background
maawandoochigewinini tax collector

There is also a list of terms for bodily functions that the puerile side of your personality will find amusing.

20 November 2010

Here is the News

The website of the American TV network ABC has brought invented languages into the public eye by writing a lengthy description of the play ‘The Memorandum.’

On undercover.fm there's a news item entitled Jessica Mauboy Re-Records Single In Simlish

The Register published a fairly long article called Speak geek: The world of made-up language.

The Hornsby and Upper North Shore Advocate (Australia) has published a brief profile of a woman who collects Esperanto books.

10 November 2010

bilingualism delays Alzheimer's

Research indicates polyglots with Alzheimer's syndrome fare better than monoglots.

Na Papiamentu, fo'i wepsait di Radio Hulanda: Hendenan ku ta papia dos idioma regularmente ta parse di ta haña síntomanan dje enfermedat di Alzheimer na edat mas avansá, kompará ku esnan ku ta papia ún idioma so, segun investigadónan kanades… Mente di bilingwonan, o sea esnan ku ta papia dos idioma, tabata mustra e mes síntomanan ku di pashènt ku ta uza ún idioma so, pero ku e diferensha ku e enfermedat tinbe ta aparesé 5 aña despues numa serka esnan bilingwal.

04 November 2010

Here is the News

The many delights of Portland's Vagabond Opera (in The Seattle Times) mentions Oshtal, "a vaguely Slavic-sounding invented language" used by the vaudeville-operatic troupe Vagabond Opera.

The theatre listings in The New York Times mention Vaclev Havel’s drama The Memorandum which features an invented language.

AustralianStage.com reviews a play called The Golden Age. In this play, "two young chaps are bushwalking when they stumble across some odd people. They turn out to be a tribe of forgotten settlers, who have, in their isolation, evolved a culture and language unique unto themselves."

07 October 2010

any plans for 10-10-10?

The date 10/10/10 is rapidly approaching. Some people believe it's good luck to start a new project on a date that has an interesting pattern in its numbers. (Even if it's not especially lucky, at least the start-date will be easy to remember.)

So, dear readers, do you have any language-related plans for the date? Are you planning to begin or re-start the study or creation of any languages?

‘sun’ and ‘moon’ conflated in one word

Languages map their concepts in different ways. In English we just have the word “brother” for a male sibling, but many languages require the speaker to choose either a word for ‘older male sibling’ or ‘younger male sibling.’

English requires its speakers to distinguish between ‘the sun’ and ‘the moon’ but apparently this is not universal. From Handbook of the Seneca Language by Wallace L. Chafe comes the following quotation:

Both the sun and the moon are referred to with the one word kä:hkwa:ʔ, literally ‘the sun or moon is in it’ (that is, in the sky). Which of the two is meant can be specified by preceding the above word with ʔɛte:kha:ʔ ‘diurnal’ or sɔekha:ʔ ‘nocturnal.’ An eclipse is called ʔɛkä:hkwáhtɔʔt ‘the sun or moon will disappear.’

30 September 2010

New York Times article on Papiamentu

I totally missed this when it was published back in July but it's worth mentioning. The New York Times did a nice story about Papiamentu.

It's unlikely to happen but I think Papiamentu would make a nice choice for a global auxiliary language. Opponents of this choice often start their counter-arguments by saying Papi has a complex system of intonations. To which I reply, big deal, the correct intonation of English is also complex and non-native speakers rarely get it right; that doesn't stop them from using it as an interlingua.

18 September 2010

still alive

My job has been consuming a lot of my time and energy. I was promoted to full-time status and now have access to affordable health insurance, as well as the illusion of being a member of mainstream society.

I've been developing a secret alphabet for making private notes. Endlessly fiddling with it, developing ligatures, horizontal and vertical variants, symbols that represent common words. So much effort to make my grocery list illegible to my co-workers or landlord. Sigh! If only I had some exciting secrets to conceal.

11 August 2010


Just a random thing that came up in today's web-surfing: Some children produce vaguely letter-like symbols before they learn to write properly. Here is a Google search that produces various articles which mention this phenomenon: children+pseudowriting

01 August 2010

systems of measurement

begin rant

On the net one often encounters people who advocate preserving and revitalizing endangered languages, but who advocate abolishing the colorful Anglo-American system of measurements and replacing it with the metric system.

I submit for your consideration the idea that these are contradictory wishes. If we should help the Lakota people, for example, keep their language and culture alive, why should we fight the American people who want to keep inches, Fahrenheit and pounds alive? You cannot drive in two directions at once. Either you are in favor of letting localities keep their own culture, or you are in favor of a dumbed-down Euros and kilometers culture for all 7 billion of us everywhere including those in orbit.

By the way, the strongest argument in favor of keeping pounds and ounces, inches and feet, is the very argument often brought up in opposition to them: the math is harder. Yes, it's harder to add seven and seven eighths inches plus two and a third feet, THANK GOD. Stop thinking about sex and TV and Facebook for a minute and use your f--king brain for something other than a head-implosion-preventing placeholder.

end rant

For con-culturing I like to think of units of measurement based on things that are readily available. Why not a unit of length based on the height of the average human adult, and a unit of liquid volume based on average bladder capacity? And naturally these units have to be subdivided into halves, quarters, 8ths and so forth, rather than 10ths. When you are out in the real world it is much easier to fold a piece of paper into equal halves and quarters, than it is to fold it into 10 equal parts. And if you know that piece of paper is 1/6 of a human-height length-unit tall, you can use it to measure things.

Likewise you can divide a quantity of liquid into halves by pouring it alternately into two equal-size containers. Easier than dividing it into 10ths. You see, 8ths and 16ths are natural, like tropical rainforests and dolphins. Units that divide into 10ths are unnatural, like coal-burning power plants and nuclear weapons.

25 July 2010

no one has forgotten

and no one has forgotten the Terror in Tromsø, that regrettable incident in which an obsessive linguistics student kidnapped and tortured two boys from the Vorlin tribe…

That dream-borne sentence was echoing through my head last Monday morning when my alarm clock rang.

23 July 2010

nonsense three layers deep

If you can read Esperanto and you like Vorlin, you might enjoy the description of the enhanced alphabet now available at vorlin.org

13 July 2010

a glimpse of Rodi

For the enjoyment of we conlangers who enjoy borrowing words from a large number of sources, here is an example of a natural language (or perhaps a semi-intentional argot) which took that same approach. Its name is Rodi, and it is/was spoken by a quasi-Romany or para-Gypsy band of people in Norway. Its vocabulary contains some words of Asian origin and loans "from almost all European languages."

source--> The Nordic languages: an international handbook of the history of the North Germanic languages
authors: Bandle, Braunmüller, Jahr, Karker, Naumann, & Teleman
publisher: Walter de Gruyter, 2005
pages: 1936-1938

As was made clear by Iversen (1945, 14), "Norw. Romany and Norw. Rodi (Rotwelsch) are two different idioms, which should well be distinguished from each other"...

With reference to the difference between the baro-vandringar ("great travllers) and the tikno-vandringar ("small travellers"), Iversen in his description of the Rodi (Rotwelsch) language in Norway points to the ethnic background of the two groups. The forefathers of the baro-vandringar were mostly genuine Gypsies; they had kept their tribal solidarity alive fairly well, had avoided external marriages, and might still claim to have some of the genuine Gypsy blood in their veins. This is not at all the case with the tikno-vandringar who "actually possess no tribal pride -- for obvious reasons, as from an ethnological point of view, they are simply Norwegians born and bred, though from of old with a certain alloy of foreign elements, especially -- as it would seem -- Germans and Romanies"...

The sound system in Rodi is Norwegian throughout, whereas Romani phonology still has markers of its alien origin... Stress falls mainly upon the first syllable in Rodi (as in most Norwegian words); in Romani it is frequently placed on the last or the penultimate syllable. In Rodi plural endings are the same as the dialect forms in the area where the Rodi speakers have been born or have been travelling around. In Romani the endings are mostly invariable and independent of the local Norwegian language...

As far as the vocabulary is concerned, one could say that "Romani has kept more firmly to the traditional, the old and the inherited in the stock of words, whereas Rodi has shown a great ability to adopt from outside and to create from inside" (Iversen 1945, 250). Among the loans from Romani in Rodi vocabulary are a number of words of Asian origin (Indian, Persian, and Armenian). Some of these words are kept alive in Rodi, but seem to be dead in the language which Rodi borrowed them from, viz Romani.

Besides these, we also find loans from almost all European languages: Greek, Italian, Spanish, French, English, Dutch, German, Swedish, Danish, Lappish, Finnish, and from West-Slavic languages. In Norwegian Rodia there are also ca. 50 words from Latin, e.g. anum `year', astro `star', kannis `dog', matrum `mother', tönnik `shirt', vesper `evening'. Between the two regional varieties of Rodi, the South (Sørlandet) and the Southwest (Sørvestlandet), Iversen (1945, 251f.) also reports some minor differences, for example in the word stock. The "small travellers" in Sørlandet have a considerably richer vocabulary than their colleagues in the west.

Today both Norwegian Romani and Rodi (Rotwelsch) are threatened languages and must be considered dying idioms (Wiggen 1996, 153f.; Iversen 1945, 252).

"Iversen 1945" refers to
Iversen, Ragnvald (1945)
Secret Languages in Norway II.

OMG, a series of books called Secret Languages in Norway… must have… drool.

19 June 2010

Internet brain damage

"If a person is constantly wired, how can he or she think deeply about anything?"

There is a decent article in the June 6 New York Times describing how constant use of computers and smartphones reduces peoples' ability to focus on the here-and-now (or even to tolerate reality). Intensely focusing on one issue or prolongedly contemplating a single creative project are skills that internet addicts lose.

Multitaskers may not be as clever as they think they are; studies show that multitaskers suck at filtering out distractions and are actually slower at switching from one task to another. Netizens examined in the article are no longer able to complete a business deal in a timely manner or even bake a batch of cookies successfully because the flood of incoming e-mails, tweets and Facebook updates seems more stimulating than remembering that the food will catch fire if it is left in the oven too long.

As is often the case, readers' comments posted on the newspaper web site add some valuable insights. Here's one: "I work with groups of middle-schoolers and over just the past 5 years it's obvious that their ability to concentrate has plummeted. The annoying social intrusions of electronic media are nothing compared to the damage it inflicts on individuals who willfully ignore the signs and delude themselves into thinking it doesn't affect them."

That phrase annoying social intrusions is a gold nugget! We must never forget that communication is often a dilute form of rape. For example, imagine that you are sitting on a park bench on a pleasant day, listening to the birds sing and thinking about noun declension schemes for your new conlang. Now some stranger walks up to you and starts talking about sports or politics. She is trying to stop you from thinking about what you wanted to think about! She is preventing you from using your brain the way you wanted to, just as a rapist prevents you from using your genitals as you wanted.

Another comment posted to the article: "A few years ago, I read that Stanford, Duke and some other fine universities were giving free iPods to incoming freshman so that they could listen to professors' lectures as they walked around campus. I was stunned. Aside from my suspicion that most students would use their iPods to listen to ‘tunes’, I remembered how productive my walking time from class to class was. I'd spend that time thinking about what the professor and other students had said in class. I'd sort through it, reflect, agree, disagree, come up with other questions. If a person is constantly wired, how can he or she think deeply about anything."

Equally important, how can a constantly wired person ever be himself? The freedom to act as you want, to think your own thoughts without any worry about making the right or wrong impression on others, and the ability to decide what you will think about rather than having to deal with incoming topics hurled at you by others – these freedoms exist only when you are alone and not communicating with anyone. Every moment that you spend in the company of others or communicating with others is like a moment spent in prison or in a coma; it is time spent not-quite-living.

I predict that the net will have a devastating effect on conlangers who fall prey to it. The hive-mind will go through fads, fascinated by self-segregating morphemes one decade, diachronic sound shifts the next. Instead of seeking linguistic information from sources written contemplatively by people who actually know and understand the material – i.e. books printed on paper by publishing companies that use fact-checkers and professional editors – some conlangers will settle for wiki articles cut-and-pasted together by topic-dabblers hiding behind absurd pseudonyms.

Instead of making languages that reflect only each conlanger's own need for something that resonates as beautiful with the unique semantic orchestra of his own brain, a unique crystalline structure reflecting his own concept-map and grammar, net-addicted conlangers will suffer cross-contamination (which the rapists among us euphemistically call "cross-pollination"). Some of them will feel a desire to please others in the swarm, setting aside their own tastes as they are buffeted by the winds of the "swarm conform storm."

A decline in the number of solo projects and an increase in collaborative conlanging seem inevitable, since creating a language is a large task that requires concentration and net addicts can't concentrate. So, just as fewer and fewer people are able to write a coherent article about any topic – it now takes ten or fifty wiki participants to clumsily attempt the kind of writing that almost any individual with an IQ over 100 could do 15 years ago – there will be fewer and fewer individuals able to create a full-blown language of great originality and self-directedness.

Is there any point trying to resist this trend? Or is resistance indeed futile, and assimilation inevitable?

12 June 2010

ULD backstage view

Here is a view of the editing process. The published ULD file will be in XML format, but I prefer to work in a format that is more pleasant to look at than a friggin' nest of XML tags. I think you can click on the smallish image to get a bigger view.

ULD update

Whee, here comes a brief wave of energy and optimism. Let me do something creative quick before it passes!

I've stopped working on version 2.7 of the ULD and started version 2.8

In 2.7 and all the earlier versions, the serial number of each concept indicated that concept's position in my system of classifications. Starting with 2.8 each concept gets a random ID number. That way, each user can create his/her own system of classifications that will appear just as valid as mine.

The random ID numbers also make it possible for each user to add a lot of extra items to any part of the concept list they want. If the half-dozen baseball terms in there aren't enough for your needs, you can add a hundred more items ranging from "pop-up fly" to "rosin bag." You will be able to edit your copy of the ULD like crazy with the greatest of ease. See if I care.

One more benefit of the random ID numbers: each concept can keep its ID number as we move forward into future versions. In this case, randomness adds stability.

Of course, a few of the numbers are not really random. I couldn't resist tampering with a handful of them. For example, the ID number for nycthemeron is 2400, and the ID number for "to count things" is 1234.

I'm writing clear(er) definitions for each of the concepts, adding a few more concepts, and deleting a couple that were very difficult to translate from English to other languages. This process might take several months. I've had to think about a few of the items for several hours each, to determine exactly which sense of a polysemous English word I would really want to use as the nucleus of a trying-to-be language-neutral signpost in semantic space (the final frontier).

29 May 2010

book giveaway

I finally got all the books mailed out (sorry about the delay). I will do one last batch of give-aways soon, whenever the next wave of energy and optimism comes along.

15 May 2010

best conlang bragging EVER

Sometimes we like to brag about the awesome features our conlangs have. I think the funniest, most outrageous outburst of such bragging is found in Thomas Urquhart's Logopandecteision published in 1653. You can read it here; the relevant material starts at paragraph 69.

What do you think, was Urquhart being serious or was he writing an elaborate joke? A Wikipedia article asserts the latter, but provides no reliable references which support that viewpoint.

01 May 2010

Twitter is fun, possibly useful

Twitter seemed foolish to me before I started using it. However, the ability to enter and exit a stream of short messages whenever you want, has some advantages.

You can search the stream of messages for individual words, or for hashtags such as #conlang that indicate the subject-category of a message. Even if you don't have a Twitter account, you can go to twitter.com and search for all appearances of the word lojban, for example.

If you want a daily dose of short texts in other languages to help you learn those languages, Twitter can be useful. You can find original haiku posted daily in Japanese or Esperanto. There are a few people exchanging messages in Lojban and probably in other conlangs.

Twitter is ideally suited to reading on a cellphone or other pocket device. You can set your Twitter account to relay messages from your favorite Twitter authors directly to your phone.

You can use unicode on Twitter so you can write in virtually any natural language. Considering the 140-character size limit on Twitter messages, some languages are able to pack a lot more information into each "tweet" than others; this is one area where alphabetic writing systems seem to be at a disadvantage.

My Twitter ID is @rick_harrison

03 March 2010

misc. update

I finally fixed the uld3.org website so you can download the XML file. Sorry that I delayed repairing it for so long.

In unrelated news, I have been experimenting with Twitter. What a strange phenomenon Twitter is. Some tweeple are trying to collect thousands of "followers." Others are frantically promoting their band/book/blog or multi-level marketing scheme. Some are using Twitter to keep in touch with friends and family. Some, like myself, are using it to take a few brief notes on what we are reading or thinking each day, and sending these notes out into the aether. You can read my tweets under this link.

01 March 2010

chips ahoy

usenet's alt.binaries.world-languages has fizzled out; language-nuts who do "file sharing" seem to be gravitating to sites like uz-translations dot net

I'm just sayin'

20 February 2010

sample of Ro newsletter Roia available

Ro was an auxiliary language proposal advocated mainly by its inventor and his wife in the 1920s and 1930s. It's basically a word-for-word encoding of English (minus the articles "the" and "a"). The stunning enthusiasm of its inventor for his creation is truly a wonder to behold.

And now you can behold it in a PDF file containing a few example pages from the newsletter Roia.