LCC2 – Jeff Burke – Language as Growth-in-Time

You know, what strikes me as the most amusing aspect of Jeff’s opener
is that if you look at his picture (the one before his talk starts), he looks an awful lot like a president, but not Lincoln. In fact, his picture rather reminds me of George Washington, or perhaps John Adams with James Madison’s eyes…

It’s always encouraging (to me, I suppose) to hear conlangers defend conlanging as art. The problem I have with many of the arguments I’ve heard against conlanging being an art (as opposed to something else much less creative, like putting together a puzzle) from conlangers themselves is that after a bit of back and forth, I often hear something like, “Well, you can call it whatever you want; I don’t consider it an art, and what I do isn’t art.” As if that’s an argument! I don’t paint well, and what I paint most certainly isn’t art, but that doesn’t mean that painting isn’t an art—and that’s what the issue is!

I know Jeff somewhat (or I should say I’ve been getting to know him better recently), and in addition to an expert conlanger, Jeff is also a fiction writer (so when he compares conlanging to writing in the beginning, he’s not speaking hypothetically: he’s speaking from experience). I think the comparison to fiction is quite apt. Consider, after all, what fiction is. In the most basic sense, it’s a transcription of events that never occurred. One might ask, what possible use could this serve? For example, why write a story about a fictional character when there are real live people everywhere in the world who are dying and whose stories will never be heard?

Of course, if you’ve ever read or heard a fictional story that’s affected you powerfully (and I gather that most people have, even if that story was something as simple as The Giving Tree), you won’t need to hear another defense of fiction; those were arguments for long ago that have been largely settled. One thing I find interesting in the comparison, though, is how similar the activities are.

With fiction, the canvas is wide open.
A writer can write about anything, even if it doesn’t make sense. Readers, though, judge the value of the work based on its goals. Many novels, for example, try to be realistic, and the reader can then judge how realistic the book is (how lifelike the characters are, how likely the reactions of the characters are, how believable the events…). Then there are any number of books that don’t try to be realistic; that try to express something in non-literal or fantastic ways. Conlangs, of course, are quite similar.

One important difference, though (or perceived difference) is that books, in the end, should try to tell us something. It would be odd to read a starkly realistic book that began with a woman leaving her house to go to the store, and ended after she’d picked up her third item at the store, with nothing else implied. There must be a reason that the author is showing us what they’re showing us—a goal, a purpose—perhaps a lesson, or a point of view.

Conlangs don’t differ, in my experience. There is a point; conlangs aren’t merely tools. What the user or appreciator is supposed to get, though, is something conlangers don’t generally talk about—perhaps something they don’t often think about. It’s there, though; there is a point—something we’re supposed to take away. It differs language by language, of course, but these goals or ideas (worldviews?) are something that shouldn’t be ignored, either by the creator or the appreciator.

(P.S.: If you’re going to LCC3 and you have a cold,
don’t sit near a mic! [Just teasing!] Or, perhaps more generally, recall that any sound you make during someone’s talk or during someone’s question and answer session will be heard the world over, and recorded for posterity. Cosmic, huh?)

This video is part of the 2nd Language Creation Conference, held at UC Berkeley on July 7-8, 2007, and hosted by Language Creation Society.

We would like to add closed captioning / subtitles to all the videos from LCC2, including this one. If you are willing to help, install Subtitle Workshop, and email your transcribed .sub file to In return, you’ll get credit and a free copy of the DVD with this video.

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