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Aspects of Conlanging

A conlang is a language created artificially at a particular time by particular individuals, as opposed to a language that arises naturally within the wider community (known as a natural language or natlang). The term derives from "constructed language". Other terms for the concept have included "artificial language" and "model language". These have less currency now than in the past, however, and many object to these on the grounds that they imply insincerity or limitation in the language.

Conlangs may serve a variety of purposes, whether practical or philosophical or artistic. The earliest conlangs generally served philosophical and religious agenda, such as bridging the gulf between nations. Others have sought quite the opposite, ensuring secrecy and marking speakers as a distinct community. Many serve as works of art, either as part of conworlds and concultures or else stand alone projects.

Those who practice the art of conlanging are generally known as conlangers.

Components of a Conlang

According to conlanging consensus, a constructed language should ideally include all the elements of a natural language such as a grammar and a lexicon, and can communicate anything a natural language might. Because of the inherent complexity in human language, almost all conlangs are works in progress with many lexical and grammatical gaps as yet unfilled and open to further development. Only a relative few conlangings, owing to many years of development and community support, have approached completion in any sense.

Constructed languages tend to contain all the components of a living language; though the majority of languages never get beyond a simple phoneme inventory and basic grammar. These components are:

  • Phonology - containing an underlying phonemic inventory, allophony, orthography, prosody, among rarer subjects found under phonology, such as a phoneme frequency, dialectal traits, etc.
  • Morphophonology - the intersection of phonlogical processes and morphological ones
  • Syntactical alignment - such as Nominative-Accusative structure, or Ergative-Absolute structure which impacts how other elements interact with verbs
  • Morphology - which contains features as syntactical classes, like verbs and nouns, and as well the structure of a word, and what syntactical features are unique to a class, like nominal case or verb markings
  • Syntax - which contains how syntactical classes fit together
  • Lexicon - the set of words and word components used in the language
  • Pragmatics - the way in which speakers use the language and express things in it
  • History - the evolution of the language from ancestral languages
  • Varieties - the various dialects and registers

Depending on the structure and requirements of the language, some of these classes may be scant or missing; a language that has its syntactical classes being quite open, where nouns and verbs are swapped freely, might not have much to say about morphology, but books could be written about its syntax. Some languages may have an entirely small set of lexemes (lexical elements), and expand the meaning of a word through a regular morphological process.

Types of conlangs

As with any artform, conlanging contains a number of genres and styles. These genres depend on the classification a specific conlanger uses. One popular approach groups constructed languages into three main types based on function. These three are artistic languages (artlang), international auxiliary language (auxlang), and engineered languages (engelang). Artlangs serve as artistic projects, either by themselves or as a component of a conworld, or setting. Generally, however, the term artlang refers to a constructed language that focuses on aesthetics more than the natural basis of language. Auxlangs represent attempts to provide a functional means of communication. These languages tend to be targeted towards social groups, or as a universal language that everyone can speak. Such projects are designed to be easy to learn and speak, to lack grammatical ambiguity, and contain an international recognizability. Engelangs often have a similar agenda, but focus more on a logical or scientific precision (often rendering them unusable for the general public.) Engelangs generally test the boundaries of human language.

Other constructed language classification schemas include personal languages, fictional languages (which are meant to be naturalistic, as opposed to an artlang in this classification), and all manner of specialized subgenres, including languages that are designed to be similar, or derived from, an existing one (i.e., Romlang, a constructed romantic language).

Many have also classified conlangs as either a priori or a posteriori, that is, made from scratch or derived from an existing language, respectively. The former avoids following any particular natural language as a model (except, perhaps, as inspiration), while the latter is usually derived rather transparently from a natural language.

Because there is no recognized consensus on how to classify a constructed language, and that classifications can easily overlap, the most opportunistic and simplistic description, one describing intent and function, is preferred. For example, the constructed language Verdurian is heavily inspired by French and Russian in its vocabulary and grammar, and therefore could be considered an a priori Eurolang; this would be misleading, however--it's pure and simple, a fictional language.

Famous examples

Probably the most famous conlang is Esperanto. Unfortunately this has left many people with the impression that conlanging centers on creating easier, more rational alternatives to natural languages. Quite the opposite is true; many conlangers are people who enjoy the study of real languages and find inspiration in their diversity and even irregularity. Indeed, many conlangs have drawn from particular natlangs, whether for their beautiful phonology or for interesting quirks of their grammar.

Many consider Tolkien the patron saint of conlanging for his groundbreaking and well-crafted work in the artform. His many artlangs include the first great examples of the form, and the popularity of his novel The Lord of the Rings ensured that conlanging became widely known. While by no means the first to create languages, he pioneered the creation of languages as an artform.

See also

If you want to investigate conlanging further, good places to start are the Language Construction Kit, the ZBB, and the C&C Category, which contains articles on many conlangs created by ZBB members.