27 January 2012

endangered sign languages

I often come across articles deploring the death of spoken languages or celebrating efforts to revive them, but the less common sign languages are also endangered and rarely mentioned. As with spoken languages, each sign language has unique qualities and is part of a culture.

Here is an article about the Village Sign project.

Here is a newspaper article about Plains Indian sign language.

And here's a link to the first page of a related academic article.

25 January 2012

learning songs to memorize vocabulary

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24 January 2012

Tango doodling

Fiddling with my lang of mostly 5-letter words again.

I generally prohibit any words that would be instantly recognizable to someone who only speaks English. I have decided to make an exception for kanji, a word that monoglot anglophones would recognize if they happen to be language nuts. Another exception is ganja, a word for marijuana.

23 January 2012

a play: The Language Archive

Forum Theatre in Washington DC will be presenting Julia Cho’s play The Language Archive from February 16 to March 10.

Synopsis: “George is a brilliant linguist, consumed with preserving and documenting dying languages. But at home, he cannot find the words that will preserve his disintegrating marriage. His archival assistant is mute with adoration for him; and his newest subjects, an elderly couple who are the last speakers of an obscure language, refuse to utter a word to one another. A magically inventive comedy, The Language Archive asks whether love is a universal language or, like Esperanto, just a well-intentioned dream.”

That description makes the play sound really interesting. This is the first time I have ever wanted to see a play.

21 January 2012

pondering MegaUpload’s demise

Now that MegaUpload has been closed down by a global muscle-flexing of the Corporate States of America’s government-for-hire, I wonder if any action will be taken against other sites that seek to profit from “piracy.”

One site that comes to mind is Uz Translations, a repository of links to “pirated” copies of language courses, textbooks and dictionaries. Uz Translations’s ad-infested pages and their operation of their own file-hosting service ($50/year for premium access) give me the impression that they are in it for the money. I wonder how much revenue they are generating.

Another worry that pops into one’s head is the safety of original, hard to replace files kept in any online storage service, whether it be iCloud or DropBox or Google Docs. Once again we are reminded of the importance of having backups at home, backups offsite, and backups “in the cloud.” If we are very fond of our files, that is.

20 January 2012

Kalaba-X 55th anniversary

Praise strongly Kalaba-X speaker.

This year is the 55th anniversary of Kalaba-X's first appearance in print. This delightfully strange and incredibly useful conlang was designed by professional linguist Kenneth L. Pike (1912-2000). In 1957 a lecture that he gave during the prior year was published in Bibliotheca Sacra. People who are having trouble breaking free of their native language and grasping the underlying meanings of what they are trying to say should spend a few hours with Kalaba-X. It is a great emancipator; it helps to rip up the straitjacket of native language habits.

Pike’s description of Kalaba-X and its benefits is online at talideon.com thanks to Keith Gaughan.

16 January 2012


While tidying up my computer, rummaging through old files, I found a message that Jack Campin wrote in the newsgroup sci.lang back in 1991 describing the play and the invented language called Orghast:

It’s an artificial language created by the English poet Ted Hughes for a spectacle at Persepolis in the 70s to celebrate the so-called 2500th anniversary of the Shah’s dynasty. He wrote the whole play in it. It’s a sort of poetic reconstruction of proto-Indo-European but with many of the words derived by Hughes’ meditations on what the appropriate sound for each referent ought to be.

I googled a bit to see if the web holds any good descriptions of the language or the spectacle in which it was used. I found a terse but fascinating summary of a related book.

And here is a message suggesting that a complete description of the language was never published.

15 January 2012


In previous posts I have argued that excessive communication can do more harm than good. I have even gone so far as to say that communication can be a form of aggression.

When you are sitting alone thinking about something that really matters to you and someone walks up and starts babbling about sports or politics, that other person is trying to force you to stop thinking your own thoughts and begin thinking about what he wants you to think about. It’s socially acceptable but nevertheless it is a reduction of your freedom.

This is relevant to conlanging because there exists a faction of conlangers who think langmaking is only worthwhile when done collaboratively, or at least done with the goal of providing entertainment to others. Working independently on a heartlang that is only meant to please yourself and will never be revealed to others, neither knowing nor caring what other conlangers have done, is viewed as anathema by this faction of codependents.

Granted, not knowing what any other conlangers have done seems almost impossible now due to the internet and projects like Klingon, Na'vi and Dothraki that are known in pop culture. But I cling to the hope that somewhere in this world there are remote villagers secretly brewing conlangs in their own heads without being subjected to any knowledge or influence from other langmakers.

Perhaps I exaggerate for rhetorical effect, or perhaps this is a “thought experiment.” Whatever. But I revisit this line of thinking now because I enjoyed a recent article in The New York Times Sunday Review entitled The Rise of the New Groupthink. (Oh no, my thinking was affected by somebody else… damn it.)

The article does a great job of pointing out how an emphasis on teamwork and group activities is reducing productivity and assaulting individuality in our schools and workplaces.

The author seems to make an exception for internet-based projects, writing “The protection of the screen mitigates many problems of group work. This is why the Internet has yielded such wondrous collective creations.” Apparently she is oblivious to the ways in which cabals of “regulars” dominate many online forums and bully newcomers into conforming or leaving. Perhaps she doesn’t know the degree to which the people with most severe cases of OCD tend to control what happens on the Wikipedia pages that they constantly monitor.

The comments from readers of the article also provide dazzling insights.

Think back to the recent “masterpieces” thread on Conlang-list. How many masterpieces of art have been created by focus groups, teams or committees?

14 January 2012

the evolution of one conscript

A few years ago I googled the phrase “my own alphabet” and came across an interesting page by “Cannibal” showing the evolution of his/her personal writing system. I found it interesting.

I’ve been working on a personal script that began as a re-assignment of English phonemes to various glyphs of the Burmese writing system. It has gradually morphed into something that I can write much more quickly. I still am not entirely happy with its appearance. I probably won’t publish any samples of it. It’s personal.

12 January 2012

a Tango word for crying

To sob and emit tears, with or without wailing… how to say this in my lang of mostly 5-letter words?

Glancing at various polyglot wordlists I observed the following clues…

plakat’ and similar words in Slavic languages

plori in Esperanto
plorer in Old French
(derived from Latin plorare)

/kū/ in Mandarin Chinese

At this point a Tango word is starting to take shape:
pl- something -k- something.

Since Tango verbs must end with -e or -u, I will choose -u in this case. Now I have pl_ku.

plaku and ploku didn’t quite feel right, so I considered the similar options blogu, bloku, plogu. And it quickly became apparent that bloku felt most correct.

Inspiration to make a Tango word hits me about once a week. At this rate of word creation it should only take about 20 years to create a basic vocabulary.

11 January 2012

Glossolalia can be fun

(reposted from 26 December 2007)

Sometimes, when I am alone, I just relax my brain and say aloud whatever syllables the brain feels like generating. Usually I get something that sounds vaguely like Swahili— ubamba lo jinka hagalaza and so forth— or something that sounds like ancient Chinese, lots of monosyllables ending in k, p, or t.

This practice is called glossolalia, also known in some religions as speaking in tongues. Some view it as a sacred or supernatural experience. A neuroscience blogger called Neurocritic wrote an interesting article about it last year and received several replies from people who do glossolalia in the religious way.

But I find non-religious glossolalia to be rewarding in its own way, perhaps a form of relaxation or meditation for the language-processing parts of the brain. Maybe it's the brain's way of telling me what kind of conlangs it really wants to create. I invite you to try it.

Neurocritic's article describes a brain-scan study of a group of individuals who were speaking in tongues. It would be interesting to see brain-scan research done on conlangers. I would expect the language areas of our brains to be better developed and more active than the average person's, but that's just conjecture.

10 January 2012

this flowed out of my pen

This flowed out of my pen one morning at work when I was both groggy and bored. At the very beginning I was trying to write English cursive backwards. Then my hand just started doing twirly things without much conscious control from my mind. (Click on image for larger view.)

08 January 2012

Gulevache, a joke language

Somehow during this evening’s surfing I came across the Spanish Wikipedia article about Gulevache, a joke language “created by the Argentine comedy troupe Les Luthiers.” A vocabulary and simple lesson are available at peseatodo.com.ar

Gulevache appears to be Spanish mutilated in various random ways. It could easily pass for an auxlang proposal.

07 January 2012

conlang masterpieces thread

Over yonder on the Conlang mailing list, Puey McCleary wondered aloud if there have been any conlang masterpieces yet.

This interesting thread starts here, my delightful comments are here, and a witty counterpiece can be seen here.

06 January 2012

ULD update

So! I’ve resumed work on my quirky polyglot vocabulary called the Universal Language Dictionary. Abandoning version 2.7 and starting 3.0

For now, I am defining each concept in English, and then attempting to list the corresponding words in English, Japanese, Esperanto, and Papiamentu (the Curaçao variety of Papiamento).

Later, I hope to go back and add more languages. For the time being I want all the information to flow through my own fingers and brain. At some point in the future I might invite volunteers to add even more languages, especially conlangs. If I unexpectedly become wealthy, I will hire people to add languages.

Each entry in ULD3 has a random/arbitrary 4-digit ID number. You will be able to arrange the entries in any order you like by editing the sequence.txt file.

And here is a small sample of the lexicon file in ULD format: www.uld3.org/uld3/ULD3.txt (Obviously, it would be trivial to convert ULD format to XML.)

I had to switch from using sequential ID numbers for the entries to random numbers in order to keep myself from endlessly tinkering with the numbering scheme.

Writing new, clearer definitions of the concepts uses a bit of energy. Of course I take inspiration from existing dictionaries, including the 1913 Webster, but I also have to wrestle with my own ideas of what is needed for basic vocabulary creation, and what concepts can easily be glossed in the natlangs that I’m vaguely familiar with. It’s a wrestling match of astronomical proportions.

The project is a little humbler now. Maybe the pompous “Universal” should be removed from the name.

05 January 2012

India’s PM plans to promote Sanskrit

India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh says the government will increase its efforts to promote and strengthen the Sanskrit language.

“Like the civilisation of India, Sanskrit does not belong to any particular race, sect or religion. It represents a culture that is not narrow and sectarian but open tolerant and all-embracing…  It is this spirit of liberalism and tolerance embedded in Sanskrit that we must inculcate in our present day life,” the Prime Minister said.

A news article about this declaration is available here and video coverage is here.

04 January 2012

mistakes I make

Some disjointed thoughts about some reasons why some projects never come to fruition.

Making it more fun to start a project than to continue it. I love to shop for blank journal-books, both in meatspace and in cyberspace. (A weird lifelong fascination with stationery.) Love to sketch out the first dozen words of a new lang, the ones that come to mind easily and give a flavor of the project.

Like a potential lover’s face seen by moonlight, the early project reveals none of its flaws. When you turn on the Klieg lights, suddenly every acne scar and nostril-hair is visible. Eeeww.

Perfectionism. Oops, I spelled a word incorrectly on the third page of my journal. Well then, I have to throw that whole book away and start over. And why not, since shopping for a journal-book was so much fun?

Hey, this lang doesn’t have enough Icelandic influence. Well then I will just shop online for the best available Icelandic dictionary. After ordering it, I can wait for it to arrive. Presto, another week down the drain.

What’s this I hear about the Miccosukee tribe not wanting outsiders to have their dictionary? Well then, I’m tempted to move to South Florida and see if I can socially engineer myself some access to a copy. That would kill a year or two.

Let's make it bigger. No, that's too big! Let's make this the most gigantic and intricate project of its kind. Oh, now it's too big to finish in one lifetime. Now it's so intricate that, if I step away from the project for a few months, I can't remember all of the methods and procedures.

Who am I doing this for? The endless internal argument. Am I doing this because I have some compulsion to do such things. Or because I hope to look at when it is finished and be pleased by it, or to get some use out of it for my other projects. Or am I doing this in hopes of entertaining or informing others?

Having a firm answer would provide a lot of guidance with regard to “what to leave in, what to leave out.” Endlessly pondering the question or trying to go in all three directions at the same time prevents any progress.

03 January 2012

another conlang used in research

Occasionally scientists will use a simple conlang to study the language learning process. Here is a fresh example from TheGlobeAndMail.com:

Manuela Macedonia and Thomas Knosche at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognition and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, Germany, enrolled 20 volunteers on a six-day course to learn ‘Vimmi,’ an artificial language designed to make study results easier to interpret. Half the material was taught using spoken and written instructions and exercises, while the other half was taught with body movements to accompany each word, which the students were asked to act out. Students remembered significantly more of the words taught with movement, and used them more readily when creating new sentences.

02 January 2012

“an Esperanto-type crank”

A John Heilemann article in New York magazine refers to politician Ron Paul as “an Esperanto-type crank.” This term comes from a 1996 New Yorker article by Michael Kelly, who wrote:

The Esperanto-type crank is a sort of unified-field theorist, a believer in the one great idea that will fix everything… The driving dream of every Esperanto-type crank is that if he could only explain things to enough people, carefully enough, eventually everyone would see, and then everything would be fixed.

Interesting observation. So many people have strong opinions about Esperantists, I wonder how many of them have ever actually met an Esperantist?

01 January 2012


So, in times of trouble one can always turn to conlanging.

I was thinking about my language of mostly 5-letter words, the conlang which has been called Penta, Zengo, Dengo, Tango and so forth. (About due for another new name.)

In making a word for ‘light’ I wanted to blend lu- from Romance words like luz, luce, llum, lumière with something else, anything else. In Hindi and Urdu there are words for ‘light’ similar to raušnī, rośni (romanizations vary).

This gives 4 possibilities for a Tango word: lusni, luzni, lušni, lužni.

lušni would be spelled luxni in the Tango alphabet, and that’s awesome because luxni contains a visual callback to the Latin word lux.

However, š is a voiceless consonant and Tango generally uses voiceless consonants only for concepts that are unpleasant, harsh, or technological. So now I must decide whether to bend that rule in this case.

unhappy new year!

My friend who lost the ability to speak when he had a stroke in April died in November.

He never regained any ability to speak or write.

He was my only close friend.

So now I face a new year and a new life as a disconnected person, a person unwanted, an unwelcome intruder on the planet Earth.