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

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.