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.