24 December 2008

Der Spiegel article

Der Spiegel has done a nice article about constructed languages. It's here. If you can’t read German you can paste the text into the Google machine translator.

21 December 2008

the magazine, again

I celebrated the solstice by planting 5 trees: three pines and two "wild black cherry" (Prunus serotina). This is how I start the process of editing a new edition of the magazine Invented Languages.

Although, truth be told, not enough copies of the first edition were distributed to require that much environmental offset. Hopefully by the time we get to the 3rd or 4th edition we will really be re-purposing 5 trees' worth of cellulose.

We have enough material on hand to fill another edition but there is not yet a compelling lead article... I hope something a little exciting or useful will fly in over the transom to serve as a beginning for this edition.

So much energy is being flushed down the internet – so many good ideas are idly dissipated in disconnected forum postings or blog entries that sink down further and further into the darkness of the archives, eventually getting compressed into some sort of electronic coal, I imagine… What a waste! Let's make something real, something of lasting value.

13 December 2008

OMFG - a LOLcat Bible

and we're BACK from a vacation in the Twilight Zone.

I have been shocked to discover that there is a project to translate the Bible into LOLcat-speak. It is here. A sample:

At start, no has lyte. An Ceiling Cat sayz, i can haz lite? An lite wuz. An Ceiling Cat sawed teh lite, to seez stuffs, An splitted teh lite from dark but taht wuz ok cuz kittehs can see in teh dark An not tripz over nethin.

By the way, "twilight zone" used to be a perfectly respectable term among radio communications hobbyists; it referred to the part of the Earth covered by twilight. Now it's called the "gray zone." Feh.

(Why do people say "meh" when they really mean "feh"?)

02 November 2008

semi-retired from Usenet

In recent years activity in my favorite Usenet newsgroups* has declined. I think it has reached a point where I can no longer justify paying $15 per month for high-quality access to them. So I’ve closed my newshosting.com account.

Yep, I feel kinda sad about it. But fads in technology change. The telegraph operators used to have interesting textual discussions with one another during the wee small hours of the night when they were not passing commercial traffic. That was then; this is now.

I guess I can still monitor the discussion-oriented groups via Google Groups.

*my favorite groups were:

01 November 2008

UK bureaucracy blasted for excessive translations

The National Health Service in Britain spends 255,000 pounds annually to provide its NHS Direct telephone service in a variety of languages including Cherokee, Akan, Homa and Esperanto.

Matthew Elliott, Chief Executive of the TaxPayers' Alliance, says: “NHS Direct seem to have lost touch with reality… If they have surplus money, ordinary families need it back – there's no reason to waste it on Esperanto medical tips.”

Complete newspaper article under this link.

16 October 2008

Book of the Week: Gestuno

Resuming this series of posts now in which I give you a tour of my book collection. Here we have:

International Sign Language of the Deaf
Langage Gestuel International des Sourds
The revised an enlarged book of signs agreed and adopted by the Unification of Signs Commission of the World Federation of the Deaf

Published on behalf of the World Federation of the Deaf by the British Deaf Association. Copyright 1975. ISBN 0-9504187-0-6.

(Click on thumbnail for larger view.)

The copy in my collection is ex-library. I found it on eBay and paid about $50 for it. It's interesting in an abstract way; sometimes I leaf through it while sitting in bed trying to get to sleep.

To what degree can any given sign language be considered an intentional or constructed language? This question can be controversial. There is no room for argument with regard to Gestuno - its vocabulary was unquestionably intentionally selected from existing sign languages by a committee. (But the book doesn't say a word about syntax/grammar.) So to some degree Gestuno is a constructed language.

If you want to learn more about this language, please do a Google search and read a variety of viewpoints. Remember, if you limit your reading to Wikipedia, you will be limiting your knowledge to that which the biggest bullies and the people with the worst cases of obsessive-compulsive disorder think you should have. (“Consensus reality” is an oxymoron.)

12 October 2008

OMG I'm obsessed LOL

My brain won't let me read or write about anything other than Papiamentu. It happens sometimes; my brain locks up like a Windows computer. Just have to let it run its course.

30 September 2008

Codex Seraphinianus

If you're not familiar with the Codex Seraphinianus, you might enjoy learning about it. There's a blog entry with some sample pages here, starting about two-thirds down the page.

24 September 2008

burning the relative clauses candle at both ends

I think it's fun to mark both the beginning and end of relative clauses in a conlang. Vorlin did it, and someday some other lang o' mine will do it. There's a nifty post about natlangs that do it on the Far Outliers blog.

19 September 2008

cross-pollination my ass

Several months ago, a certain organization suggested that it would be wonderful if most of the active online forums about conlanging moved onto servers controlled by that group. Supposed benefits would be convenience and cross-pollination.

This idea was, for me personally, the most annoying thing I have ever seen in a forum about language creation. Whenever I have trouble waking up in the morning I just recall this proposal and then wham I'm wide awake with elevated blood pressure and heart-rate.

Convenient it would be, certainly. Instead of having one login to view and post in Conlang-L, and another for ZBB, and other sets of IDs and passwords for whatever else, with one login you'd be aboard several forums.

But think of the consequences. This would make it even easier for the most socially aggressive 15 or 20 people to dominate every conlanging forum on earth. There would be no sanctuary, no refuge, no escape. Quiet little estuaries where you can get away from the extroverts are precious, and any proposal that would reduce the viability or individuality of lesser forums should be resisted IMHO.

The other consequence not mentioned in the proposal is that forums which used to be hosted independently would suddenly be dependent on the organization. Dependent people are more likely to donate money and follow orders. That's good for the organization; not so good for the people.

As for cross-pollination, well, nobody gets more cross-pollination than a drone in a Borg cube. Have you ever noticed that nobody in Star Fleet ever yells "Beam me over to that Borg cube right now so that I can get assimilated and join the collective!" It just doesn't happen. Maybe there's a reason for that.

Well, I just had to get that off my chest. Thanks for reading :-)

14 September 2008

one folktale in a zillion languages

Just stumbled across this Low Saxon folktale translated into many languages. Several constructed languages and some of my favorite pidgins and creoles are included. This might be a useful resource for people looking for a short text to use for comparing and showcasing languages.

11 September 2008

added a couple o' links

Over there on the left you'll see a list of "informative blogs." Just added The Ideophone and Ryan's Linguistics Blog.

I know about the famous blogs like Language Hat but there's no point in me linking to them; everybody else under the sun links to them.

06 September 2008

Dengo update

Dengo (formerly called Zengo, and before that, Penta) is my conlang made mostly of 5-letter words. Just an idea that keeps bubbling on the back burner of my brain. I have made surprisingly little progress considering how long I've been thinking about it.

But I have made one decision. I will go ahead with the idea of changing most unvoiced consonants to their voiced counterparts when importing words. So pizza becomes bidza and Finnish lintu (bird) becomes lindu.

I still have no idea what the grammar will be like. Obviously most words will have to be isolating and uninflected to preserve the 5-letter aesthetic of the language. Beyond that, the muses have revealed nothing yet.

Got time on your hands? Check out the top 20 Google search results for quinquiliteral and quinqueliteral. The former produces some interesting language desriptions while the latter produces mostly definitions of the word.

31 August 2008

no resonances in newly-made languages? huh what?

In a blog called Shop Talk, cantueso expresses an old prejudice against constructed languages: "In a natural language almost all words carry a kind of ballast as if they were tied to each other from way back. Almost none are neutral, but some are more classy, others a bit old, others slangy or technical or only used by kids or typical of old men... And that is why a real language is not comparable to any artificial construct."

Cantueso is beating up on Esperanto, inaccurately, because Esperanto does have archaic words, new words, words that are no longer used due to political correctness e.g. lunatiko, swear words, idioms that some people use and others avoid– the whole nine yards.

But I would argue that even richer resonances exist within any artlang that one person has made solely for his/her own pleasure. In a personal language where each word has been handcrafted and carefully tuned so that it will sound right in a sentence, aesthetic resonances abound. Not the kind of resonance that makes you hate a word because your Phys Ed instructor in high school mispronounced it or because your least favorite politician overused it, granted, but internally generated resonances rather than extraneous ones.

Wouldn't you agree that the voluntary resonances built into an conlang by choice are to be preferred over those imposed upon our natlangs by vile people that we were forced to associate with?

27 August 2008

language archives on glass disks

Recently several constructed language forums have had messages from conlangers who lost precious data due to drive crashes or corrupted files, and discussions of how rapidly digital storage media become obsolete. If your mother stored her conlang on 8-inch floppies back in the 1970s you would have to find someone who collects and maintains obsolete equipment to read the data now, if the disks are still readable.

Hard drives, burn-em-yourself CD-R disks, flash memory – all these media have limited lifespans.

SFGate has a news item regarding the Rosetta Project's efforts to save data about the world's languages, most of which are endangered. They are using glass disks with data micro-etched on them.

"The groups say the Earth's languages are rapidly disappearing and they are concerned with the fragility of historical recordkeeping in a digital age."

Interesting and inspiring.

25 August 2008

Latin's day in the sun

The 3sat television network has produced a 37-minute feature in Latin (with German subtitles). You can see it here. This is probably the biggest thing that will happen to Latin this year.

When I was 11 or 12 years old I went through a phase of thinking Latin should be the global auxiliary language. There are a few people scattered around the world who feel that way, and others who are keeping the language alive just because they find it aesthetically appealing. There is a new Yahoo group for Latino sine Flexione and there are also several groups for students of traditional Latin.

23 August 2008


If you don't know (or care) about the binaries groups on Usenet, you can skip this message.

Over on alt.binaries.world-languages the 2nd annual "Festival of Seldom Posted Languages" will be held August 29-31. There might (or might not) be a variety of interesting books and audio courses. Participation in the newsgroup has been fizzling out so I'm not super-optimistic, but if you watch the binaries groups anyway, it might be worth adding alt.binaries.world-languages to your subscriptions.

18 August 2008

Romulan language

Various news blurbs (such as this one) indicate that a linguist created a Romulan language for the upcoming Star Trek movie. Anybody know who the linguist is?

13 August 2008

Book of the Week #6: Quinto Lingo magazine

Our book of the week is actually a polyglot magazine, Quinto Lingo. This magazine existed from 1964 to 1980. It published short news articles, jokes, and occasionally a play or essay. Most items were published side-by-side in 5 languages: German, French, English, Spanish and Italian.

magazine cover

The particular copy in my collection (April 1967, which I recently purchased on eBay) also included Esperanto versions of a few of the texts.

Quinto Lingo made a deep impression on many young language-lovers and inspired a few of them to choose language-related careers. There are some reminiscences in this thread from Linguist List.

If you click on the thumbnails below, you can read two pages.

11 August 2008

books "free to a good home"

I'm giving away the following books. If you want one, send an email to rick at harrison dot net (Limit one book per person)

Quickhand, a self teaching guide. A method for rapidly writing English using systematic abbreviations.

Curs de limba romana. A textbook of Romanian written entirely in Romanian.

Essential World English by Lancelot Hogben.

Plansprachen. A compilation of auxlang essays in German.

09 August 2008

Conlang list archives 1991-1994

Have you ever visited the archives of the Conlang mailing list from 1991 to 1994? If you go there you can revisit the early days of online discussion of all things related to constructed languages. Auxlangers and artlangers co-existed in the same mailing list. Document scanners were scarce and there was no easy way to transmit images, so photocopies were shared via snail-mail. There were no wikis and there was no Google, in fact, there was no WWW, although there was an FTP server where files could be published.

28 July 2008

alternative keyboard layouts (NOT Dvorak)

Started fiddling with alternative keyboard layouts a few days ago.

I strongly dislike the Dvorak keyboard that seems to be so popular with the type of people who use Linux as their OS, prepare their shopping lists with LaTeX, and think [snarl]lojban[/snarl] is tolerable. The Dvorak layout is fantastically ugly, an artifact of a mind that had fair engineering skills and little or no humanity/aesthetics.

I'm working on something that would be much easier for QWERTY users to learn. My layout is optimized for right-handed Anglophones.

In English we spend a lot of our time typing THE, AND and -ING over and over again. My layout makes typing THE a quick, easy inward sweep of the right hand's strongest fingers and moves high-frequency letters such as E, T and N into the "home row." My goal is to change only 9 or 10 keys, leaving the remainder of QWERTY intact.

Here are some other alternative keyboards I found on the web:

a less-than-brilliant alphabetical layout

a more intelligent alphabetical keyboard (but what the hell did they do with the space bar?)

FrogPad (a one-hand keyboard)

24 July 2008

ULD 2.7 update

Just uploaded a revision to ULD 2.7 containing about 70 corrections and updates to the German vocabulary.

I'm thinking about adding another conlang to the project. Also, some online friends have indicated they might add Finnish and Polish. It would be very nice to get some additional languages in the mix.

11 July 2008

personal note: time out for chaos

Right after recovering from nearly drowning in a germy pond, I'm having to help my best friend cope with a major illness. When you're sitting in the emergency room watching the only person you can stand to be around drift in and out of consciousness and shivering with pain, blogging doesn't seem very important. But I'll be back when the madness subsides.

29 June 2008

Book of the Week #5: Fanagalo Phrasebook

On the net there is conflicting information about the popularity of Fanagalo and very little about the language itself. I got curious a few years ago and obtained Fanagalo Phrase-book, Grammar and Dictionary by J.D. Bold, published by Ernest Stanton Publishers, Johannesburg (tenth edition, 1977).

The author claims that (at least when he was writing) Fanagalo is a widely used lingua franca in southern Africa, not limited to giving orders to miners and domestic servants, but actually helpful every day to people in all kinds of situations. Here he takes a swipe at Esperanto:

He does a good job explaining how to make the clicks represented by the letters c, q, x. For example he says the x click "is the sound that White children make when they imagine they are urging a horse to get moving."

Below is a sample of the grammar section.

You can read a Fanagalo text specimen here.

22 June 2008

Book of the Week #4

This week I will wave at you my copy of Shorthand Systems of the World by Hans Glatte (Philosophical Library, 1959). For some reason which I no longer remember, I accumulated several books about stenography. This is the most interesting. It gives a general overview of the evolution of shorthand from ancient times to the mid 20th century.

My only complaint was, the book does not give enough details or illustrations. For example it mentions an obscure geometric system invented by Reginald Dutton published about 1917, but does not show the symbols. It would be interesting to see what Dutton had come up with prior to switching over to his alphabetic Speedwords.

In some countries you can download the full text of many old books about stenography from Google Books.

20 June 2008

ULD 2.7 update

I added some items inspired by VOA Special English to make the vocabulary more robust for translating news articles. Dam, debate, capital, urgent, funeral, passport, starve, hostage and so forth. There are now 1801 items and that's all there will be. By the power vested in me by the Summer Solstice, I'm putting the lid on! No more items will be added to version 2.7

18 June 2008

ULD 2.7 update

Within a few days I'm going to add two data fields to the XML file.

The level field will give a rough estimate of how 'basic' or 'essential' the concept is. This will be a number from 1 to 5. In the future, if you're using a computer program to auto-generate a vocabulary, this number will govern the length of most morphemes. High-frequency conjunctions will be tagged 1 for example, so they will tend to be shorter than a word for 'electricity' which would be tagged 4 or 5.

The link field will indicate how the concept is related to others. There will be tags such as noppo (meaning 'is the negative opposite of'), kindo (meaning 'is a kind of'), and parto (meaning 'is typically a part or component of'). This field might be handy for auto-creation of philosophical langs, or for those who want to have Esperanto-style opposites like granda, malgranda.

I realize the idea of having a computer whip a vocabulary for a constructed lang is distasteful to some observers, but for people who want to get up and running in a hurry, or those who want to focus all of their attention on syntax or morphology, it's a prefectly reasonable course of action.

12 June 2008

Japanese security forces worried about Esperantists

Der Spiegel reports that

a group of Esperanto speakers planning to attend protests at the upcoming G-8 summit in Hokkaido in July are causing concern for Japan's security services.

10 June 2008

how the 'net affects concentration

Like myself, others are noticing the brain-frying effects of internet forums and other online media, where everything has to be expressed in four paragraphs or less, otherwise most potential readers will skip the item. Nicholas Carr writes about it in The Atlantic:

What the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles... I’m not the only one. When I mention my troubles with reading to friends and acquaintances— literary types, most of them— many say they’re having similar experiences. The more they use the Web, the more they have to fight to stay focused on long pieces of writing.

Loss of concentration is troublesome because no language, or even a single interesting grammatical feature of a language, can be adequately described in a few paragraphs of text or in a 140-character Twitter blurb. Shallow thinking, and hallucinating that a Google search or reading a wiki article constitutes research on a topic, will cripple our ability to create language or anything else.

Blogger Matt Asay writes, "I'm returning to my books... I need to exercise my brain to think again, and not merely process."

08 June 2008

exhibit at Cleveland Public Library

Donald Boozer has put together an exhibit about constructed languages currently on display at the Cleveland Public Library. Photos of the exhibit are here and newspaper coverage is here.

06 June 2008

Book of the Week #3

This week I present Basic Sileerian by J.P. MacKey. This is available from Lulu.com as either a PDF download or a hardcopy paperback (17.5 cm tall, 112 pages). I ordered the hardcopy version because I collect conlang books and, obviously, you cannot collect, appreciate and cherish a PDF file; ebooks are about as attractive as used tissues in my opinion.

The book has well-done layout and could almost pass for a Berlitz-type tourist phrasebook, except that this book uses a serif typeface and those tourist books almost always use sans-serif fonts. The North American branch of Lulu has done a good job of printing and binding, as usual.

Sileerian is supposed to be the lingua franca of a group of alien worlds. The book gives an introduction, pronunciation guide, 8 pages of useful phrases, and the rest is a vocabulary list.

The language does not seem very alien. The inventory of phonemes is a subset of English. The syntax is OSV and the number system is base-6 (heximal), but otherwise the grammar is unremarkable and Earth-pidgin-like. All of the items in the vocabulary can be explained with one-word or two-word English glosses. There's a map of Sileeria at the end, but no description of the cities and what might attract a visitor to one city or another. There are no Sileerian texts in the book: no legends, news items, histories, poems, or complete conversations.

So, in all honesty I have to say, I found this book a little disappointing. Perhaps the author will expand his vision of Sileeria and offer an expanded edition someday, or write a better-developed view of some other alien world.

31 May 2008

time to write a few books maybe

I had so much fun producing the 'zine that I am toying with the idea of compiling some books. One idea is a compilation of my favorite articles from Journal of Planned Languages.

Lulu.com makes it possible for reclusive hermits to produce good-looking publications without having to deal with printers face-to-face. Sweet! Y'all should write some books or 'zines too. Go on, don't be shy, it's perfectly safe

when used as directed. But contact your doctor right away if you experience hives, bleeding gums, or fainting spells as these may be signs of a rare but serious side-effect...

28 May 2008

Book of the Week #2

Here's another book in my collection. This one is a quirky auxiliary language proposal. Not as quirky as aUI or Babm, but moderately odd. Rawson Universal Language, copyright 1962 by "The Rawson Associates." It's a softcover book, 198 pages, 18.5 cm tall. According to WorldCat the author's name is Perry B. Rawson (his name does not appear in the book); they list the publisher as Ashbury [sic] Park, N.J.: Rawson Associates, 1962. This book is quite scarce and I consider myself blessed to have stumbled across a specimen.

This language is like a hybrid of UNI and Dutton Speedwords. All of its words are written in upper-case letters and they are mostly abbreviations of English or international words. SVP means "please" (from French), NP means "newspaper."

You can click on the thumbnail above for a larger view of a text specimen. The book is illustrated by utterly random bits of clip art, and the English portions are written in a breathless unpunctuated style. Somehow (through some psychic gift) I can visualize the author sitting in an older house in Asbury Park smoking something, listening to jazz on his vacuum-tube radio while the summer breeze pushes in through the curtains, tapping his feet in time to the music while he assembles this book.

All the words are 1 to 3 letters long. Some of the 2-letter words are dedicated to ideas that don't seem like they would come up very frequently: AP = unscrupulous, GU = guitar, RN = redhead.

As a system of stenography (or a tool for encoding one's diary) this might have been quite useful, but the idea that millions of people around the world would try to communicate using sentences like T BB VKP+ BM A BP AKA VFJ2 TQ is incredible; how do auxlang creators convince themselves of such things? Granted, it does look remotely like cellphone text messaging, but the abbreviations are a lot more arbitrary.

27 May 2008

poll results

How old were you when you started creating language(s)?

4 answered younger than 10,

30 said 10 to 17,

7 said 18-29,

3 said 30-64,

none said 65 or older.

That's 44 votes, which makes me suspect a few people voted more than once, because I doubt that 44 different people read this blog. It's possible but I doubt it.

The results are mostly similar to what I expected. I thought there might be a few votes in the >=65 category. (It seems possible that the idea of langmaking would occur to somebody for the first time during retirement. If such people exist maybe they didn't happen to see this poll while it was running.)

25 May 2008

dictionary collector's blues

A dictionary of the Mikasuki (a.k.a. Miccosukee or Elaponke) language was published a couple of years ago. Unable to find an online source for buying a copy, I contacted one of the authors, who said it's unlikely that I will ever obtain this book. The tribe doesn't want outsiders to have it.

How strange. It seems illogical. But I wonder if creating the illusion of having a secret language makes Mikasuki more attractive to the kids in the tribe. What kid doesn't love a secret language? If hiding the dictionary from outsiders somehow helps to keep the language alive, I wouldn't want to interfere with that.

24 May 2008

first unbiased review of zine

The first non-partisan review of the zine has appeared, in the form of feedback left by someone who bought a copy on eBay. He wrote: "Scholarly good read. Look forward to more."

In other zine news, I received a custom-made rubber stamp today. It says PRINTED MATTER (PERIODICALS). Look out world, I'm a real publisher now— I've got a rubber stamp to prove it!!!

Just LOLing at myself. It's a beautiful day, I think I'll go outside and curse at the weeds.

23 May 2008

Invented Languages is published

I hereby declare that the first edition of Invented Languages is officially published.

See glossopoeia.org for more information.

From the first batch of 10 test copies that I had made a few weeks ago, I will be selling a few signed and numbered specimens on eBay this weekend. These will be valuable collectors items in a century or two. Long after you die, your heirs will thank you for buying one.

21 May 2008

Book of the Week #1

Welcome to Book of the Week. In this series of posts I will introduce you to some of the books in my collection.

Good Flag, Bad Flag
compiled by Ted Kaye
North American Vexillological Association, 2006
ISBN 0-9747728-1-X

One of the smallest books in my collection. Only 16 pages. But very useful for anyone creating a micro-nation. Presents five all-important principles (which should only be violated on rare occasions by people who know what they're doing). For example, "the flag should be so simple that a child can draw it from memory" and "never use writing of any kind or an organization's seal."

Learned a new word from the cover of this book: vexillological, which leads of course to vexillology. Gotta love English and its infinitely expandable vocabulary.

20 May 2008

calling Javant Biarujia

If you are Javant Biarujia, please contact rick at harrison dot net

(Strange way to try to contact somebody? I figure maybe someday he'll google his own name and find this.)

You can read about Javant's personal langauge here.

07 May 2008

Invented Languages magazine update !!!

Journal of Planned Languages is toast. I have decided to give the magazine project a new name and it is the plain and simple, self-explanatory Invented Languages. It needs to have a name that can be understood by the general public when they see it on the newsstand among the other hobby magazines like Model Railroading and Popular Communications.

I have completed the final steps prior to printing. Saturday I went to a plant nursery and bought five young pine trees; Monday I planted them on the land I occupy. (This is my attempt to offset the environmental impact of doing a hardcopy publication. I challenge those who use web-servers to do something similar. Web-servers and the air conditioning systems that keep them alive consume electricity and pump waste heat into the environment 24/7, not to mention the impact of mining the raw materials and assembling the circuit boards.)

The trees are named aUI, Brithenig, Ceqli, DiLingo and Esperanto.

Assembling this magazine has been an internal struggle of epic proportions. The part of me that enjoys communicating with the outside world was at war with the reclusive part of me during the whole process. Exhausting.

Anyway, I‘m exploring the options for printing now, and expect to be mailing out copies by the end of May.

04 May 2008

Modern Timucua

I live on a rural piece of land in the area where Timucua was once the predominant language. One of the many, many things on my “list of things to do” is attempting a micro-revival of this language. I have 2 acquaintances who say they would be willing to learn at least a few phrases of it, so at least in theory, it's possible that a few sentences of the old language could be heard here again.

Possibly, perhaps. It would be a lot of work. Gaps in the known lexicon would have to be filled in. In the 1993 edition of A Grammar and Dictionary of the Timucua Language, Julian Granberry indicates some uncertainty about exactly how f and b were actually pronounced. Anyone attempting a revival of the language would have to make arbitrary decisions about such matters, but how? Based on what authority?

27 April 2008

weights and measures

My thoughts on the most logical units of weights and measures. The goal here is to have intuitive, easily understood units.

The length and weight units would be equal to the height and weight of the average adult human.

The unit of liquid measure would be equal to the bladder capacity of the average adult human.

But there is a problem here. The size of people varies from culture to culture and from century to century.

The unit of currency might be equal to one day's wages for the least-skilled, lowest-paid workers within the culture, if I'm creating units for use within one culture. There is so much variation in pay scales around the world that such a unit would not make sense on a worldwide basis. Indeed, there are still a few cultures that live close to nature and don't have the phenomenon of paid employment, lucky devils.

Still contemplating units of light intensity and sound intensity. Something like the old candlepower might make sense, or perhaps the brightness of sunlight at noon on a clear day would be the basis. For loudness, I think the regular speaking voice of the average adult human would be the reference point.

20 April 2008

New English Calligraphy

Above are two glyphs made by artist Xu Bing in a project called An Introduction to New English Calligraphy. In this project, anglophones are taught to write English words in a square Chinese-like manner. The new characters are written in vertical columns rather than left-to-right. Above you see the words play and ink.

You can learn more with a Google search. According to one of the pages I found, “When we read a new language we have to unlearn what we know, then learn a new language. We feel alone and uncomfortable, but that feeling is self-induced.”

My reaction was, “What a nifty cipher! Throw in a few real Chinese glyphs and you’ve got a great way to make text ‘hide in plain sight’!”

13 April 2008

basic fun: ciphers

If you had known me when I was in 5th grade, you would have been able to predict that I would become a language maniac. I kept checking out Herbert Zim's book Codes and Secret Writing from the school library, over and over again. I believe an interest in alphabets and ciphers is one of the early signs that someone is going to become a langmaker. Unfortunately none of my friends wanted to exchange coded messages with me. We didn't have any secrets that really required such measures.

A couple of weeks ago I was perusing the unicode.org website when I happened to find the Myanmar (formerly known as Burmese) character set. Before I knew what hit me, I was gripped by an urge to use some of those characters as a cipher for encoding English. It ran through my brain like wildfire, absorbing every free moment for three days. I even had a dream about it. Still tweaking it. I like the result; it's ultra attractive to me, but I don't know if I will use it much. Still don't have any secrets.

09 April 2008

lang-making in prison

I try not to watch TV but sometimes I succumb to the temptation. A few weeks ago I was watching an hour-long program about life in Alaska prisons. A teacher working there mentioned that three of the inmates who attend his classes have IQs above 140 and are some of the most brilliant students he's had anywhere.

It started a train of thoughts in my head. Langbuilding takes time. Perhaps it would be a good hobby for those few prison inmates who would be interested in such things. No doubt a few are already doing it. (Poliespo for example.)

How would you spread the idea to more prisoners? (More than a million Americans are behind bars.) You'd need a book available through Amazon and other companies that are allowed to ship books to prisoners (most prisons won't accept books mailed in by ordinary individuals). Eventually this book might be banned from some prisons out of fear that a constructed langauge would be an unbreakable code that the inmates could use for nefarious purposes.

If you were langmaking in prison you'd want to keep as much of it as possible in your head. In that kind of environment you don't want to get emotionally attached to any possessions, including papers and notes.

Hmm, I might enjoy trying that, making a language entirely in my brain, not using paper or computer.

05 April 2008

note to dictionary collectors

The New Lakota Dictionary will be available in a few months. The sample pages available online look very tantalizing.

The Kamusi Project, a high-quality online Swahili-English dictionary, will soon be including additional African languages in its lexicon.

04 April 2008

poll reults

We have the results in our poll about aesthetic reactions to the word "conlang." 7 votes for "it's ugly," 9 votes for "it's neutral," and 1 vote for "it's pretty."

I think the next poll will be something like "how old were you when you started inventing languages." I'll contemplate that for a few days.

Trivia question: Two language inventors whose langs were described in books published during the 20th century were fluent in Baluchi. Do you know who they were?

28 March 2008

ULD 2.7 update

I have moved the Universal Language Dictionary project from its old URL (hdict.com) to its new home at ULD3.org

As for ULD 2.7, rough drafts of chapters 11, 12 and 13 have been posted.

English becomes Panglish maybe

A wave of newspaper articles, inspired by a New Scientist item, suggests that English will continue to grow in popularity and will mutate into something called Panglish during the next hundred years. It's interesting to see the different spin various publications put on this story:

Hindu News Update Service

Dominion Post (New Zealand)

The Telgraph (UK)

21 March 2008


A couple of years ago I wrote an updated specification of Vorlin grammar. I've been debating whether to publish it or keep it to myself. In the spirit of the Equinox, I've put it online. It's at www.vorlin.org/v2k6/ If you mainly want to see a summary of what changed between 1999 and 2006, click here.

16 March 2008

hitting the wall

It finally happened. Those who crave weirder and weirder languages have finally reached the end of the line, the point where they are "strung out," unable to make anything weird enough to satisfy the craving. Seen on the ZBB:

psygnisfive: Has anyone looked into constructing a language
that's really, REALLY alien? As in, impossible for humans to
use even theoretically.

Etherman: Like one that we can't even conceptualize?

12 March 2008

still working on the magazine

This project is a little more difficult than I imagined. After many years of mainly writing 3-paragraph comments in internet forums, my ability to write an actual article has atrophied. And then there are agonizing questions such as what to name the zine and how to illustrate the cover.

After the layout is done I will have to send the file to the printer, wait for a sample copy to come back to me, proofread it, try to predict how many copies I will need, order them, distribute them, holy cow! Good thing I have some time on my hands.

10 March 2008

syllable generator

Over yonder in the newsgroup alt.language.artificial there's a computer program that will generate a list of all possible syllables, based on a list of permitted initials, vowels, and endings supplied by the user. Three versions (written in BASIC, Ruby and Java) were posted. Very rudimentary but obviously you can modify them as needed. It could easily be transformed into a word generator.

The thread is here.

08 March 2008

book note

I'm not sure how long it will last, but the fantastically inspiring and informative book The World's Major Languages is on sale for $9 at amazon.com

06 March 2008

"conversation with... my environment"

My language is not about designing words or even visual symbols for people to interpret. It is about being in a constant conversation with every aspect of my environment, reacting physically to all parts of my surroundings.

Amanda Baggs, quoted in a New York Times blog entry entitled The Language of Autism.

01 March 2008


The results of this blog's first poll are in. Question: "do you maintain a private diary/journal?" Six responders do so on paper, six do so electronically, and six do not maintain a journal at all.

What's the connection to lang design? Mainly that you can do whatever the hell you want with your journal if there is no chance of anyone else ever reading it. But if you're writing it in plain English (or other natlang) and not keeping it locked in a safe, there is a natural tendency to censor one's self, to omit any reference to your own misdeeds and darkest thoughts. Those who have the most freedom in journalling are those who burn or shred their journals frequently.

Likewise one's freedom in language design is affected by how much thought one gives to the potential audience, if any.

Next poll, how do you feel about the word conlang? To me it has a fairly negative sound, due to the meanings of con: convicted criminals (ex-cons), scam artists (con men), and negative arguments (pros and cons). If I recall correctly this word was hastily coined when John Ross needed a short name (8 characters of less) for the mailing list he was creating back in '91. There's no reason to get attached to such a thing. What aesthetic impression does the word make on you?

29 February 2008

ULD 2.7 update (and I heart plants)

A rough draft of chapter 10 (plant species and types) is online now. That makes 438 entries so far.

I like plants. For many years I was an avid gardener and sort of an amateur botanist. There are so many really cool plant species in the world that most people don't know about! The candlenut is good example.

When language inventors chat online about taxonomy they usually refer only to animal species, never saying a word about plants, which seems so shameful and so senseless to me! Look around in your house and your environment, how many F-ing animal species do you see compared to how many plant species and things made from plants?!?! Wake up and smell the coffee, non-plant-appreciators!!

26 February 2008

language design: art or craft?

A certain online forum has had another close encounter with the question: Is language design an art or a craft? One person said it "can be" an art, but can never be as emotionally impactful as other arts such as music, cinema and so forth.

Hmm. It's true that music and movies can cause a major mood swing. A well-written propaganda movie can change one's views of a social issue. Can contemplating someone else's constructed language lift you out of a depression (or plunge you into one), or change your viewpoint on any issue? Can a lang design hit you with the same impact as a beautiful painting, movie or symphony? I have no doubt that working on your own lang can be an exalting experience.

Don't be too quick to imagine what your response would be, if you were going to respond. This is the kind of question that should be mulled over for a few years.

Somewhat dated but vaguely related is this article about ikebana, the Japanese art of flower arrangement. "Many of her students have been reduced to tears by what they have created," says the article. Okay, but have they ever been moved to tears by anyone else's ikebana?

24 February 2008

Ultra Configurable Computer Keyboard

Back on 19 January I wrote, "Somebody should invent a keyboard optimized for people who need to use a broad variety of diacritical marks and unusual characters."

Well by gar they've done it, I think. Check out the Optimus Maximus keyboard. Each key on this keyboard contains a tiny display screen that shows the function you've assigned to that key. The advertising blurb even mentions an artlang by name:

Optimus’s customizable layout allows convenient use of any language—Cyrillic, Ancient Greek, Georgian, Arabic, Quenya, hiragana, etc.—as well as of any other character sets: notes, numerals, special symbols, HTML codes, math functions and so on to infinity.


23 February 2008

naming the new magazine

It occurs to me that the hardcopy zine I'm assembling is really not a continuation of Journal of Planned Languages. It ought to have a fresh new name.

Coming up with a new name that isn't already in use is harder than expected. Lang is already taken, as is Lingo.

I own the glossopoeia.com and glossopoeia.org domains, so I've considered calling the zine Glossopoeia, but really, I don't like the sound of that word. Something poetic like Tongues Ablaze might work... or maybe not.

17 February 2008


In recent months the issue of fluency has come up in several forums. Jim Henry took a poll asking people if they were fluent in their own langs; a recent ZBB thread asks people if they seek fluency in langs invented by others. Interesting questions, and there are some deep psychological issues lurking behind these questions.

If I only spend a few hours working on a sketch of a language, then I do not feel bad about never using it. On the other hand, if I spend hundreds of hours working on a lang but then decide not to learn it, speak it, write it, and sing it every day, then I do feel regret.

I do not know whether this regret is spontaneous and internally generated, or is the result of some value-system that I absorbed from the surrounding society– such as an guilt about "starting things and not finishing them."

But on the third hand, if I keep tinkering with the language, making frequent and significant changes, then I am making it impossible to learn the lang. And then I have to ask myself if all the changes are an excuse, a trick I am playing on myself. In other words I have to wonder if I don't really want to study my lang seriously, and perhaps my constant tinkering is an excuse I am creating to hide that non-desire from myself.

But clearly some langmakers do not have fluency as a goal. For them the construction process is its own reward, as an educational process and/or an artistic exercise. And some folks engage in langmaking for its medicinal values, mainly working on their langs during periods of stress or boredom. So, we must acknowledge that langmaking not aimed at fluency is a common and valid practice.

11 February 2008

I was up all night lexicographicating, so rough drafts of chapters 8 and 9 are now online. I'm getting a bit sleepy so I'm sure these two chapters have a lot of blanks to be filled in and errors to be caught.

I need to find an affordable source for the Tsolyani books, or find someone who is willing to lookup words and contribute them.

ULD 2.7 Update

I have added chapters 6 and 7 to the multi-lingual dictionary project known as ULD 2.7

I will be moving it to a new domain, uld3.org, in a few months.

I was just thinking, these days I am almost allergic to collaborative projects, but the ULD started out as a collaboration of participants in the Conlang mailing list, and it was great fun. (It still is great fun, but it is temporarily in a situation where only yours truly can edit or add to it.) I wonder what has changed so much in the intervening 16 years… me? or the environment?

06 February 2008

new research/buzzwords in language acquisition

ScienceDaily.com has an article about linguistic research into a phase of the early childhood language acquisition process. This article uses the trendy catchphrase "data mining" to describe how the brain of a 12-month-old child learns the meanings of words. There were lots of great sarcastic responses at Slashdot. The article at Science Daily links to several other interesting items about language acquistion.

31 January 2008

Book Note

Just received a copy of Sarah Higley's book, Hildegard of Bingen's Unknown Language - an Edition, Translation and Discussion (Palgrave MacMillan, 2007). I won't have an opportunity to actualy read it for several weeks, but skimming it this evening has been fascinating.

Hildegard of Bingen lived from 1098 to 1179 and created what might be the oldest surviving conlang. This book explores her language but also puts it into perspective by discussing a variety of language inventions from medieval times to the present. Chapter 5 is devoted in its entirety to contemporary conlangs as revealed in fora such as the Conlang list and ZBB.

The book is a little expensive but if you love books and you love invented languages, you will probably want to add it to your collection.

28 January 2008

Journal of Planned Languages revival

I have decided to dust off my editor's hat and produce another edition of Journal of Planned Languages. Most likely I will change the name because "planned languages" has become associated only with auxiliary languages in some peoples minds, and this publication also covers artlangs and engineered langs.

It's been a long time since JPL last appeared. Producing a zine requires three things: free time, energy, and enough money to cover some of the printing and mailing costs. Finally I have all three factors simultaneously, so producing another issue becomes possible.

For those of you too young to remember JPL, most of the articles in my Artificial Language Lab website first appeared in JPL.

JPL is a rather informal publication. It is not an academic peer-reviewed academic journal full of inscrutable linguistic jargon. And I intend to keep it that way. I know there are some people who want to see a more academic journal come into being, and I wish them well, but that's not the path for me.

27 January 2008

Don Harlow

News comes via soc.culture.esperanto that Don Harlow has passed away. Don was a frequent poster in the early years of Conlang list, and after The Split he was a regular participant in the Auxlang list. He also contributed occasionally to alt.language.artificial and numerous other fora.

Every time I need to brush off my rusty Esperanto to correspond with a conlang enthusiast who doesn't know English, I refer to his well-written explanation of the Esperanto correlatives.

His absence will be felt.

21 January 2008

(Dengo) vocabulary but no grammar - risky?

Hmm... How risky is it to start creating vocabulary when you have no idea what a conlang's grammar will be? One of my New Year's resolutions was to resume work on Dengo, a language based on 5-letter words.

I still have no idea what kind of syntax Dengo will have. The leading candidates are Japanese-like, English-like, and Spanish-like.

I suppose it is possible to start gathering nouns, adjectives and verbs while having no idea what sort of particles and adpositions will be needed. And I am doing so. But I have a bad feeling about this.

By the way, as I'm assembling the vocabulary, I'm getting a strong urge to change voiceless consonants to their voiced counterparts. At this moment bidza sounds so much cooler than pitsa (= pizza).

mmmm... pizza.

19 January 2008

an idea for a briefscript

No question Dutton Speedwords is the king of briefscripts. It continues to attract new fans every year, as seen here and here.

Ideas for new briefscript projects roll through my brain occasionally. One involves using the weirdly accented and diacritically marked Roman letters and phonetic symbols that are available in Unicode. With one glyph per concept you get a pretty compact writing system.

I'm not going to have time to develop this idea fully, but here's a crude approximation of what I have in mind. Let's translate the English sentence "Soak two cups of beans in water overnight." That's 42 glyphs including spaces and the period. As you can see this is represented by 11 glyphs in the prototype briefscript.

The briefscript text literally means "cause to-be-located-in water during entire night [direct object tag] two cup(s) bean(s)."

Well, that's just a rough example of what could be done along these lines. Personally I find it easier to write such a script with pen and paper than to key it into the computer. Somebody should invent a keyboard optimized for people who need to use a broad variety of diacritical marks and unusual characters.

16 January 2008

ULD 2.7 is updated

Inspired by an inquiry from a fan of the project, I finally added another chapter to the 2.7 version of the Universal Language Dictionary. Wow, that project is way behind schedule. I lower my head in shame.

11 January 2008

An Intentional Pidgin Produced by Playmates

A few decades ago, a five-and-a-half year old American boy named Colin Gilmore found himself living in rural Kenya. His parents had gone there to conduct research on a community of wild baboons. Colin only spoke English but he soon developed a close friendship with a local boy named Sadiki Elim who only spoke Samburu and Swahili.

They invented a language. It started with Colin learning a few words of Swahili. After that, the two boys took off on their own trajectory. Blending modified and unmodified English and Swahili words, plus original items created through onomotopoeia and other playful processes, they generated a vocabulary that only the two of them could understand. Intentionally and consciously. The language was a part of their play and an element of their friendship.

When called on to translate for each other in public, the two would stand up very close, faces almost touching, and whisper in CP. These private translations took place for example when English or Swahili speaking children came to visit. These speech events usually involved directions for soccer games, races and the like. Whether in all cases they actually needed one another to translate is unclear. Nonetheless, the ritual of translation persisted to the end. This behavior essentially threw up boundary markers to the others present and reinforced the special intimacy of the two close friends.

As time went by, Colin learned more Swahili and Sadiki learned some English. However the two boys always interacted with each other in their private language, expanding it with new words whenever needed. The grammar seemed to be evolving also.

An analysis of the pidgin's syntax revealed the creation of original articles, markers for clausal embeddings, and grammatical devices for expressing tense and aspect. These grammatical features are of extreme interest since they are most common in creole languages that have existed for generations...

Regrettably Colin had to say goodbye to Sadiki after 15 months. But fortunately notes had been taken and recordings had been made. Colin's mother happens to be sociolinguist Dr. Perry Gilmore. She described the language and the experience (all too briefly) in two articles (published in Sociolinguistic Working Paper, no. 64, July 1979, and The Volta Review, vol. 8 no. 5, September 1983)

I wonder if Sadiki and Colin have forgotten their language. I hope it sometimes echoes through their memories and their dreams.

08 January 2008

jambo does not mean hello

In 1974, a book was published with the title Jambo Means Hello: Swahili Alphabet Book. Due to that and other widespread allusions I was under the impression that jambo is indeed a general Swahili greeting.

I was about to add jambo to the Dengo vocabulary when I discovered, in Lonely Planet Swahili Phrasebook, an explanation that “jambo is pidgin Swahili, used to greet tourists who are presumed not to speak the language... jambo is the root of a verb that means 'to be unwell.'”

kamusiproject.org defines jambo as a “greeting used exclusively for those assumed to be tourists who do not know Swahili.”

Well, crap. Now Dengo doesn't have a word for “hello.”

By the way, Swahili verbs are cool and vaguely Volapük-like.

07 January 2008

International Year of Languages

The United Nations has tagged 2008 as the International Year of Languages. During this year the UN will be pretending to care about preserving endangered languages. A statement from the Director-General of UNESCO, available in a paltry 13 languages, sums up the project.

Annoyingly the statement says nothing about an individual's right to create his/her own language. The struggle for recognition of Conlang Rights continues.

04 January 2008

Polar Opposites and the Middle Point

Apparently natural languages have brief common words to describe the extreme polarities, or the outside edges of a range of possibilities, but no ready-to-use single words for the middle of the range.

For example, in English we have old and young, compared to the long-winded term "middle-aged." We have short and tall, as opposed to "of average height." Large and small, and then "medium-size(d)."

I have always wondered if this reflects some tendency toward extremism that is built into the human brain's firmware. I wonder if it is worthwhile to design a conlang so that the midpoint terms are just as brief as the terms that describe the extremes.

For example, let's say that in some conlang ba means something like "slightly," zi means "moderately" and vu means "very." Add the word gre which means "size" and we get greba = small, grezi = medium-sized, grevu = large.

I tinkered with a 5-point scale at one stage in the evolution of Vorlin. (In addition to slightly, moderately, and very, I also had "not at all" and "infinitely/maximally.")

This approach, compared to the Esperanto approach (e.g. juna = young, maljuna = old) seems just slightly easier on the memory and also seems to represent a more realistic world-view. However, it is slightly more verbose. If you have something like granda = large, malgranda = small, you save a syllable when you happen to need the word for the favored polarity.

Marking the middle of the range seems important to me for two reasons. First of all, there is such a thing as "the Bell Curve." More people are near the average height than are really deserving of being called short or tall, for example. Secondly is the thought that such a design might encourage or support moderation, an attitude of non-extremism.

This is one of the design issues I am contemplating in the creation of Tanji, which is meant to be a hybrid of oligosynthetic and briefscript tendencies.

For further reading: In the Conlang List's archives I found a message from Henrik Theiling saying, "My conlang Qthyn|gai does not have a continuous scale, but a generic way of either subdividing into three or into nine steps." Other messages in that thread are interesting too, and the thread contains a pointer to an earlier thread on the same topic.

01 January 2008

Free File Frenzy, part 2

Here's a noteworthy effort operated entirely by volunteers. fsi-language-courses.com gives you some of the Foreign Service Institute's language courses free of charge. In some cases the audio is available but not the textbook or vice versa. More material is gradually added from time to time. The site also has a forum in which people occasionally mention other sources of language courses.

Google Books provides downloadable PDF files of books whose copyrights have expired. These include dictionaries and grammars of many languages ranging from Ainu to Zulu. These older books have some shortcomings: some of them use outdated spelling systems and were written by people who are not very skilled at transcribing exotic tongues. Still, they can be interesting. Google Books has some classic auxlang volumes including Histoire de la Langue Universelle and several Volapük, Ro and Esperanto titles. If you access Google Books from outside the United States you might not be permitted to download all of the files.

If you have a library card from your local public library, it's worth periodically checking their website for online offerings. Some libraries provide their patrons with free web access to Pimsleur language courses and/or the Rosetta Stone software.

Finally, anyone who lives on a ship in international waters (or any other place where there are no copyright laws) might want to check and see what's available via bittorrents. With the help of a torrent search engine you might dig up a course like Teach Yourself (Whatever), or a TV show or movie in the language you want to study (with or without English subtitles). Those who know the arcane craft of accessing the binaries newsgroups on usenet could consider monitoring alt.binaries.world-languages, especially during the group's annual "Festival of Seldom Posted Languages" which occurs during the last weekend in August.

Have I overlooked any major treasure-troves of downloadable language courses? If so, let us know.

A Thought to Ring in the New Year

The poet e.e. cummings once told an aspiring writer that to be "nobody-but-yourself" in a world that is doing its best to make you "everybody else" means to fight the hardest battle that any human being can fight. As we do this writing-and-being work, that is what we are doing: fighting to uncover who we really are beneath the masks and the training and the expectations.

That's from Writing and Being by G. Lynn Nelson, a book about the art of writing a personal journal. Seems to me it can also apply to conlanging or any other art/craft.