Archive for the ‘podcast’ Category

Interview with Doug Ball

Monday, August 1st, 2011

David interviews Doug Ball about his conlang Skerre, its history, and his career in linguistics.

.mp3 recording | Dr. Doug Ball’s Faculty Page | Skerre Homepage

Doug is the best (and longest-tenured) conlanging friend I’ve got.
I’ve known him ever since I started conlanging in 2000, and we’ve been corresponding regularly since 2003, when we happened to run into each other at a reception for prospective graduate students at UCSD. It’s rare enough to meet someone who conlangs. But someone who (at the time) was also entering grad. school for linguistics and is interested in music and sports (that latter is the kicker, of course)? Doug and I may be among the select few who would be equally happy and at home discussing applicatives, time signatures, and whether or not Randy Moss is really retired (I say no, by the way [and I also say that beyond Larry Fitzgerald, Arizona’s receiving corps looks to be in pretty sorry shape (just sayin’)]). I think it was only a matter of time before Doug and I bumped into one another.

By the way, you did hear (and read) right.
Doug conceived of Skerre at a summer camp held at what is now Truman State University. At the time of this interview, Doug had just finished his dissertation at Stanford (hiss!), and had just entered the job market. He applied to a number of universities, and it just so happened that he accepted a job in the linguistics department at Truman State University. I’d like to say that this interview helped to contribute to that hiring, but, well…it’s being published right now. But if you believe in time travel

If you haven’t taken a look at it, I recommend going to Doug’s page on Skerre.
Though my information may be more up-to-date than what’s on the website, I maintain that Skerre’s one of the best naturalistic conlangs on the net. The site is detailed (if not completely up-to-date), and for an in-depth look at some of the syntax of Skerre, you can watch Doug’s LCC1 talk. I’ve always thought Skerre deserved a full treatment—and perhaps a print reference grammar. We’ll see what happens with it in the future.

Audio edited by Jeff Burke; music by Gary Shannon.

Interview with Sheri Wells-Jensen

Saturday, July 2nd, 2011

David and Sai interview Sheri Wells-Jensen about her work in the world of conlanging, and her work as a linguist at Bowling Green State University.

.mp3 recording | Dr. Wells-Jensen’s Webpage

Talk about a really, really good idea.
Wouldn’t it be cool if you could google a person and hear what they sounded like? Ooh! Or even better! Take an audio sample of someone’s voice, play it into your computer’s microphone, and have it find that person! I found this aspect of her work the most interesting, and hope it comes to fruition. If you want to take a look at what she has so far, go to

For those of you who always wanted to do a little conlanging as part of your college degree
, you can check out the webpage accompanying Sheri’s class here. And, of course, if you’re shopping for undergraduate institutions, you might consider Bowling Green State University.

There are, by the way, some wonderful sounding conlangs described by Sheri in this interview. Several bits of the languages created by her students are incorporated into the website linked to above. There are a number of “fun” languages (e.g. the language of vending machines) that sound like they’re worth following up on.

In addition to applying for the Dothraki job
, Sheri and I also share a connection to Speculative Grammarian. She’s penned several articles for SpecGram (you can see them here), including proposing a Braille orthography for thlIngan Hol.

In a nutshell, anything Sheri’s put her name to is worth taking a look at. We had a fun time talking with her, and I look forward to being able to talk to her again.

Audio edited by Jeff Burke; music by Gary Shannon.

Interview with Paul Varkuza

Wednesday, April 20th, 2011

David interviews Paul Varkuza about his language Varkuzan. We discuss his language, its name—his name—and the role his synesthesia played in the process of his language’s creation.

.mp3 recording

Before I talked to Paul, I was pretty sure that synesthesia was fake.
And by “fake”, of course, I mean “real, but likely to be exaggerated”. That is, if one asks in an online forum, “Is anyone synesthetic?” there’ll be a flood of positive responses, which always led me to believe synesthesia was an internet-transmitted disease spread by asking the question, “Is anyone synesthetic?” or by simply posting about one’s own synesthetic experiences.

But…I guess I was wrong. There are true synesthetics out there, and Paul Varkuza is one of them. Oddly enough, one of the things that made this concrete in my mind was the fact that a good friend of mine—without ever having heard of Paul or his talk—explained to me a relationship between the number line and spatial relations that very closely matches what Paul describes in this interview. For me, that was a truly bizarre experience—perhaps something akin to seeing someone hypnotized for the first time.

I can get down with classifying things as either mellow or harsh.
In fact, if you come up with any binary classification system, I think I can put all the world’s objects and concepts into either one or the other category. Here’s a quick thought experiment: Put all the following languages into either the “straight” or “curved” category.

  • Georgian
  • French
  • Japanese
  • Swahili
  • Arabic
  • Swedish
  • Polish
  • Quechua

What do you think? I’ve got my answers (and it’s not all one category or the other; there’s a mix).

As we head into LCC4
I’m reminded how enjoyable Paul Varkuza’s LCC3 talk was. It was really different from what we see a lot in various conlang discussion groups, and it’s always nice to see the work of (to the extent that such a thing exists) an outsider artist within the medium of conlanging. Natural languages never cease to amaze, and neither do conlangers.

Audio edited by Jeff Burke; music by Gary Shannon.

Interview with Jeff Burke

Tuesday, May 18th, 2010

David interviews Jeff Burke, the creator of the Proto Central Mountain family of languages, and author of The Spirit-Weaver, a novel Jeff has been working on for the past fifteen years. In this interview we discuss his languages, his writing, and the role conlangs play in literature.

mp3Jeff’s Blog

Jeff is a bit soft-spoken and reserved
—or, at least, that’s what I first noticed about him when I met him at LCC2. By the time he had finished his talk, though, he had my attention—and that of everyone else who’d been watching (including Arika Okrent).

Jeff’s conlanging approach is much closer to historical reconstruction than to modern “drag and drop” conlanging. The approach is not necessarily unique (Tolkien, of course, worked from proto languages, and many conlangers today do the same), but Jeff’s implementation is impressive. If you haven’t seen it yet, I recommend taking a look at Jeff’s LCC2 talk (the one I linked to above) to see just how he does what he does. (I’d also recommend his recent post to Conlang about Proto Central Mountain which can be found here.)

Totally off-topic.
I can tell I was using my external microphone in this interview. I think its permanent malfunction is a blessing in disguise, and future listeners will, no doubt, be grateful not to hear my popping p’s… My apologies. 🙁

Yet again, in this interview, we’ve come to the issue of language (or conlang) ownership.
And, of course, we came to the same conclusion: There’s no good answer right now. In one respect, neither of us is legal experts, so us discussing the topic is kind of silly. At the same time, it’s a relevant topic for us both, each of us having conlangs that may one day enjoy popular use. Personally, I’m rooting for The Spirit-Weaver to get published and enjoy success, as that will, once again, raise the legal question of conlang ownership in the public sphere.

Jeff suggests, in his interview, that conlangs will one day fall under copyright as artistic works. If this were to be the case, then one wonders: Will conlangers receive royalties if others use their language to create some sort of commercial work (e.g. a book of poems)? Will conlangers be able to successfully challenge derivatives in court (say a relexification of a given conlang)? And is that a desirable future?

Looking at other media, it seems that things are going the other way. It’s easier than ever to download songs, albums, movies, television shows, etc. for free, whether legally or illegally. Artists themselves are venturing forth into the new digital world, some embracing it. One of the most famous examples is probably Radiohead’s “pay what you want” digital release of their album In Rainbows (a fascinating response to the controversy surrounding their previous album, which had, in its entirety, been leaked on the internet a month before its scheduled release), but other artists in other media have followed suit.

A few weeks ago, several video game developers got together to offer the Humble Bundle: A set of five full games with no DRM that one could purchase for whatever amount one wished. As of this writing, the event generated over $1 million for the developers and for charity. Billy Corgan and the newly-reformed Smashing Pumpkins have also gotten into the game, releasing one song at a time from their new 44 song concept album Teargarden by Kaleidoscope free on their website (and, by the way, what I’ve heard so far is incredible; I suggest you give it a listen [it’s free; why not?]).

That aside, I’m of the opinion that Jeff is right, and that some time in the near future we will see some form of copyright being applied to a conlang—perhaps as a result of the recent interest in using constructed languages in other media (most notably film and television). One wonders, though, given the general progression of copyright in the new digital age, will this be a step forward, or a step backward?

It’s been a little over a year since LCC3, and it’s nice to look back.
I always feel energized after an LCC. I’m looking forward to LCC4 (which is still in the planning stages, but will happen, rest assured).

Thanks to our podcast backlog, it’s been about a year since this interview took place. Jeff has since finished The Spirit-Weaver, and is now editing. Hopefully we’ll hear some news from him some time in the near future about the status of The Spirit-Weaver. I’ve got my fingers crossed!

Audio edited by Maximilian Krickl; music by Gary Shannon.

Interview with Paul Frommer

Wednesday, April 14th, 2010

David and Sylvia interview Paul Frommer about his creation of the language Na’vi for the movie Avatar. We discuss his experience working on set, and working with movie folks, as well as the language itself. Please note that this interview was conducted in mid-January, and reflects the state of affairs at that time. A lot of things have changed since then—in particular, the size of the Na’vi fan community, and the level of interaction Dr. Frommer has with that community.

mp3Na’vi linksUnofficial website


Probably the most fun part of this interview for me was hearing the stories that came from the set.
Listening to Paul, you get a sense of what it’s like to work on a major production like Avatar. I can imagine Dr. Frommer sitting there at the studio for hours on end, and then someone suddenly rushing in, their arms flailing, screaming, “Quick! I need to know how to say ‘Give me your pack’ in Na’vi!” And then after that’s done…back to hours of sitting. I suppose “that’s showbiz”, as they say.

Towards the end, we talk a bit about alien conlangs.
There has been some great work done, and I mentioned a few languages that I’d like to link to here:

  • Kēlen by Sylvia Sotomayor: Winner of the 2009 Smiley Award, Kēlen is a language that entirely lacks verbs. The implementation is quite extraordinary (especially when it comes to verb-heavy ideas, like motion).
  • Dritok by Don Boozer: Don’t let the name fool you: This language has absolutely no voiced sounds, and is spoken mainly with clicks, ejectives and simultaneous hand gestures. It’s spoken by a race of beings with non-human physiology, but Don manages the spoken portion pretty well (check out him pronouncing the language here. It’s absolutely unbelievable!).
  • Rikchik by Denis Moskowitz: And no discussion of alien physiology would be complete without discussing Denis’s Rikchik language. Rikchik’s are green, floating, one-eyed beings with forty-nine long tentacles dangling beneath them. They use seven of these to communicate. Denis had to invent an entire transcription system just to implement the language, which features no sounds at all, and no human anything.
  • Fith by Jeffrey Henning: This language is so complex, that I still don’t get it. It uses a version of Last-In-First-Out grammar, and has operations which, for example, flip the order of words already spoken, and do various other things with the “stack” which is the linguistic material spoke in real time. It’s likely unspeakable by humans (though you can use it in writing by working slowly).

Dr. Frommer mentioned that he didn’t look at any other conlangs while creating Na’vi. Usually the first time one sets about to create a language, we see a number of assorted phenomena (e.g. free word order, mobile adpositions, uniquely English vowels, a high degree of optionality where one wouldn’t expect to find it, etc.) that a conlanger eventually grows out of, but for a first language, Na’vi does well enough, and the response has been overwhelming. It’s great to see how excited fans are to actually learn and use the language itself. That response is something future conlangers will remember, and something which production companies should sit up and take notice of.

Dr. Frommer said, “I’m not really sure that people in the [entertainment] industry understand the [legal] consequences.”
The question of whether a language is covered by copyright has never been adjudicated; the closest is the dispute over Loglan, which was settled out of court by the splitting off of Lojban.

This lack of clarity means that rights are practically a matter of negotiation, not law. In recent contracts, the implications have been clear: professional conlangers get no royalties, and when they want to use their own language in some commercial medium, they have to ask permission. Furthermore, the studio may decide to be nice and ask the original creator about future changes made by someone else they’ve hired, but they don’t have to (and often don’t, as has been the case with Klingon)—sometimes to the detriment of the language involved.

This state of affairs is certainly undesirable at best. To be honest, I laughed out loud when I read the petition to Paul Frommer concerning Na’vi. This is a petition written to Dr. Frommer from the Na’vi community asking him to teach them the language. That’s kind of like asking a man dying of thirst to please take a drink of water!

There are larger issues at stake here, and I think if the Na’vi community wants to do not only Dr. Frommer some good but conlangers as a whole, the real petition you want is this: petition Fox to give publishing rights for Na’vi to Paul Frommer. If Paul has Fox’s blanket signoff, then he can publish a grammar, start a website, create a dictionary, talk freely about it, etc. As is, the language is a work for hire, which means that Fox owns it exclusively.

For this to change, studios need to realize the value that conlangers bring to their productions. There is already a growing demand for professional, well-done created languages in movies, and Na’vi, Klingon, and Quenya are testaments to how much fans really get behind these languages. Cameron is one of the producers who realizes this, and more will follow his lead.

Fans simply need to more vocally demand that all fantasy worlds have the same attention paid to their languages as is paid to other aspects of the production. Not only are modern audiences unsatisfied with gibberish for a made up language (something like the “foreign” languages in Danger Man), they expect to learn the invented languages used in modern productions—to use them, to see how they work, to learn more about them.

There’s one question I left out of the final cut of the interview.
(You can listen to it here.)

David: Paul [Bennett] also asked—this is a fun one—how do I get a paid conlanging gig?

Paul: Well… My suggestion would be in the right place at the right time, and be very, very fortunate.

I’m afraid this an answer the conlanging community cannot—and should not—accept. This is certainly how it’s happened in the past (read up on how Mark Okrand got the job for Klingon and Atlantean; how Tho Fan was created; how Pakuni was created; and now Na’vi…), but it would seem a bit odd to suggest that the best way to get a paid conlanging gig is to get lucky, and the best way for a production team to find someone to create a language would be to throw out feelers at random to linguists who have no experience creating a language.

Fortunately, we now have a better way. The Language Creation Society maintains a pool of highly skilled conlangers (which you can join), and is currently fielding job offers. Most recently, we were hired to develop the Dothraki language for HBO’s upcoming adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones.

Our goal is to introduce the entertainment industry to the expert language creation community. Hopefully from now on when producers, writers, directors, game designers, etc. are looking for someone to create a language, they’ll be able to find and hire someone who has real experience and skill at creating languages, as opposed to rolling the dice on someone who’s never done it before.

I think a couple of apologies are in order.
First, this interview was conducted in mid-January, and this is April. Initially, we (both the LCS and Dr. Frommer) were concerned about how much information could be disseminated, but that ceased being an issue quite awhile ago. The fault, I’m afraid, lies with the our ability to maintain the LCS podcast. We’re still looking for a dedicated audio editor (someone who can edit for content and length), and we still have a considerable backlog (at least five hourlong interviews, with more on the way). Unfortunately, our interview with Dr. Frommer was a casualty of this present state of affairs. My sincere apologies to the Na’vi fan community who have been waiting for this interview for quite some time, and to those following the LCS podcast, who’ve been waiting for anything for quite some time.

Second, I received a number of questions to ask Dr. Frommer both from members, and also from conlangers. I asked a number of them, but not all of them. Fortunately, most (if not all) of those questions have since been answered by Dr. Frommer directly in one form or another. A big thank you goes to the people who submitted questions: Paul Bennett, Peter Bleackley, David Edwards, Fredrik Ekman, Steven Lytle, Kate Rhodes, Olivier Simon, and numerous members of the fan community (special thanks to ZBB/LearnNavi member Nessimon for posting my original request at!).


At first I thought I was going along with David to interview Dr Frommer as moral support.
I didn’t intend to speak, just to sit quietly, listen, and make a back up recording in case something happened to David’s recording. That’s why you don’t hear me until about half way through the podcast. I was also a little embarrassed about Peter Bleakley’s question, but it did lead to an interesting discussion of other alien conlangs, so, thank you, Peter.

Oh, and I am so going to steal those floating jellyfish thingies from the movie.

Audio edited by Maximilian Krickl; music by Gary Shannon.

Interview with Arika Okrent

Thursday, May 28th, 2009
Sai interviews Arika Okrent about her new book In the Land of Invented Languages: Esperanto Rock Stars, Klingon Poets, Loglan Lovers, and the Mad Dreamers Who Tried to Build a Perfect Language. Arika attended the 2nd Language Creation Conference, as well as a Klingon qep’a’, Lojban Logfest, and Esperanto congress, not to mention the numerous interviews and other research evident in her book. She discusses the history of language invention, what it means for a language to be successful, and some stories that didn’t make it into the book.

Order In the Land of Invented Languages on

mp3The Book’s WebsiteOkrent’s WebsiteArticles & interviews in the press

It’s funny. When Arika Orent says “I don’t have the intense concentration” to create a language, I think, “Is it concentration, or free time…?”

In some ways, I think it’s easier to be an enthusiastic, sincere auxlanger
than an anythingelselanger, for the simple reason that it’s easier to justify. “Why are you creating a language?”, they ask. “Because I’m trying to facilitate human communication.” Results aside, that’s a lofty goal. If I was attempting to create a language for the benefit of humankind—regardless of what humankind thought of it—I’d be much more comfortable writing “Language Creator” under “Profession” on my taxforms than I am now.

(No, I don’t really write “Language Creator” as my profession on my taxes. Hey, what do I write…? Gadabout? Blogger? Nogoodnik? Jack of all trades? Master of Linguistics…?) [Sai: … English teacher, Ex-?]

As usual, the act of creating a language is introduced, in Arika Orent’s book In the Land of Invented Languages, through the lens of philosophical and auxiliary languages. This is a trend I think many of us have gotten used to, but it seems like a good time to ponder why it exists.

Looking at language creation from the outside, I suppose the crazier stories or more daring languages are more interesting to talk about than those with smaller goals and smaller audiences. (For example, googling “John Lennon” you get 13.2 million hits, which dwarfs Ringo Starr’s 2 million hits.) An international auxiliary language, by design, has lofty goals and a big audience, even if the audience is unwilling or unaware.

I’m tempted to draw an analogy between our situation and the work of Nietzsche and Samuel Beckett… Everyone knows Nietzsche claimed “God is dead”, but how many know that Samuel Beckett wrote the words, “On. Say on. Be said on,” and that he intended them to mean something sensical? Beckett’s prose (especially his later works) can be seen as a deliberate assault on language itself, but his work was intended to be read and appreciated—perhaps discussed. His work was not meant to change the way humans live their lives. In this way, the philosopher, their work, and their life is of greater interest to the uninitiated, it seems, than the author of artistic fiction. But what is the nature of that type of interest, I wonder…? And is it useful, or desirable?

In the Land of Invented Languages is an enjoyable read
, and both conlangers and nonlangers (ha. Anyone remember when we came up with that term?) will find it fascinating. What I like most about it—and what I think is most important for the conlanging community—is that Okrent treats the art and its practitioners gently and lovingly. Unlike so many of the articles and books of the past (Yaguello… *shudder*), this one is positive from start to finish. Though some see the mainstream popularization of language creation as a mixed blessing at best, if our lifelong (pre)occupation must be made visible to the outside world, we couldn’t hope for a better introduction than this one.

(Shameless plug:
My take on the use of “they” as a singular third person pronoun in English!)

This is the LCS’s adjunct audio cutting monkey, Arnt Richard Johansen, speaking:

Back in 2006, something was stirring in the online conlang community. There were persistent rumours that someone had started doing research for a book about conlangs. When I got reports from reliable sources that someone named Arika Okrent had been seen asking questions at both qep’a’, Logfest, and even at the LCC, I was filled with anticipation.

And dread.

This was an outsider, a normal person (well, as normal as someone who has a PhD in linguistics can be), who had been to the inner circles and seen the secret vice in all its nerdy splendour. What would she make of it? Would she understand why we are doing this, and be able to explain it? Or would we get more of the same old dismissive ridicule that we are seeing from the mainstream media?

So I waited. And I pre-ordered it on Amazon. Then I waited some more. In the mean time, Daniel L. Everett wrote a review of the book for, where he lampooned the “misguided people [who] try to invent languages” as “linguistic Frankensteins”. “Uh-oh,” I thought, “How bad can it be?”

Well, I don’t know where Dr. Everett got his opinions on language inventors from, but I hardly think it could be from this book. When it finally arrived, it turned out that Okrent managed to take my expectations and turn them on their heads. On the one hand, In the Land of Invented Languages is a celebration of the frivolous aspects of constructed languages, such as those languages that are made solely as an artistic expression, or the merry, multicultural atmosphere found at Esperanto congresses.

On the other hand, the book is a damning critique of the quest for the perfect language, which is indeed what most language inventors prior to our internet-fueled era set out to do. From reading this book, one can learn that the best an IAL inventor can hope for is that no one cares about his project. The alternative is far worse. Take for example the heart-wrenching story of Charles Bliss. What he intended for Blissymbolics was for it to be an ideographic IAL. Instead, it took off as a teaching aid for disabled children, and each country that used it adapted it to their needs and their spoken language, in the process destroying its internationalness.

Reading In the Land of Invented Languages made me start to rethink my relationship with my favourite constructed language: Lojban. I still think it would be fun if everyone spoke it, but Jeeg help us if someone mixes it up with English and that becomes the dominant variety of it.

Audio edited by Virgo Audio Production Services; music by Gary Shannon.

LCC2 – David Peterson – The Evolution of Sidaan

Sunday, May 10th, 2009

Sai speaking:

David’s not kidding when he says he’s a serial monogamist conlanger—’prolific’ is more like it.
If you take a look at his site, you’ll find 12 languages. Some of them are quite elaborate, with well-made orthographies (in font form!) as well as a wide range of language classes borrowing from paradigms all over the world.

That’s not all of it, though; he also has done a fair amount of meta work as well. There’s his Sign Language IPA (with a signed conlang to go with it!). There’s his FAQ on ergativity which is, IMHO, the best explanation I’ve read thus far (with Thomas Payne’s in Describing Morphosyntax a close second).

He’s contributed to the community, too; being a speaker at each Language Creation Conference (LCC1: “Down With Morphemes” ppt; LCC2: this (plus the morpheme workshop); LCC3: Orthographies, Fonts, and Philosophy) and a great collaborator and things-getting-doner behind the LCS and this podcast.

His five hilarious articles for the Speculative Grammarian and his blog are pretty exemplary of what he’s like in normal interaction: a combination of productive and light-hearted I see too rarely.

The Smiley Award that he created is one of the best examples—it displays real interest in others’ work, from both technical and personal perspectives. Incidentally, this is something that we-as-the-LCS would like to extend at some point in the future, to create a yearly competition for conlangers, à la the Interactive Fiction awards. If you have ideas for challenges that would interest the whole community, please let us know.

(I do have to say that his taste in web design is not exactly my normal style, though… )

David speaking:

Of my three LCC talks, this one was by far the least popular.
Realistically, this shouldn’t have been a surprise, since no one had ever heard of Sidaan, I hadn’t done much with it, and historical syntactic change isn’t a real crowd pleaser. I must admit, the lackluster reaction is probably what led me to all but abandon the project (I don’t think I’ve worked on the language since).

Despite that, I’m glad I did it, and I’m glad it’s up somewhere, and this is why. The thing to take away from this talk, in my opinion (well, if you’re a conlanger), is that (again, in my opinion), we need a different metric for naturalness than what we’ve got. If a conlanger is limited to what has occurred in the history of the extent or dead natural languages, then creating a naturalistic language is nothing more than rolling the dice—something like creating a D&D character as opposed to an author of a novel creating an entirely new fictional character.

Specifically (and I plan on trying to spell this out at length at some point in time way off in the distant future), there must be a conlang-internal metric for determining whether a change or a feature is natural. What I attempted with Sidaan in this talk is to effect a conlang-internal change without reference to a natural language. Whether it has happened or not in a natural language is irrelevant. The question is, if the language existed at some time x as I created it, could the change I effected plausibly occur the way it did?

Regarding natural languages, then, one oughtn’t find a change that occurred in a natural language and then implement it with the idea that this is the only way to create a naturalistic conlang. Rather, if one finds out later on that a natlang’s already dunnit except worse, one should be gratified, and say, “You see? I told you it could work!”

(P.S. If teal and purple weren’t meant to go together
, just how on earth does one explain Miami Vice?) [Ed. by Sai: One word – “abomination”. Things that aren’t meant to happen seem to happen quite often… :-P]

(P.P.S. Since the talk, my fiancée and I got married, and we’re still at it.)

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.

Interview with Suzette Haden Elgin

Sunday, April 19th, 2009
Sai and Sally interview Suzette Haden Elgin about her language Láadan—its genesis, its goals, and its status as a linguistic experiment. They also discuss the nature of gender bias in language, and the evolving roles of language users.

MP3Elgin’s websiteLáadan Language LessonsEssay About LáadanElgin’s LiveJournal

I have to say, this gives me a chuckle, this interview
—primarily because Sai seems to be suffering from foot in mouth disease. Not that that’s his fault. Poor Sai is so sincere.

It’s interesting, Elgin mentions how difficult it is to introduce new vocabulary into an existing language (e.g. English).
One thing she mentions in particular is a gender-neutral third person singular pronoun. In English, we don’t have one (or, at least not an animate one). Elsewhere, Elgin mentions that much of what she’s observed is true of her generation, but not necessarily the younger (specifically, the more recent—the millennial) generations.

I think these two elements have converged in the behavior that current (especially younger) English speakers exhibit specifically with respect to the third person singular pronoun. When referring to a human being in English via a pronoun, one simply can’t use “it”, even though it’s technically gender-neutral, because it’s inanimate. That leaves one with “he” or “she”. If the gender of the referent isn’t known or if one is simply referring to a human of either gender (i.e. gender isn’t important), using either “he” or “she” seems rather inappropriate. So, what is one to do?

English speakers of the past had an answer to this question: Use “he”. Why? Because it was the default. Why is “he” the default? No reason. Seems pretty sexist, doesn’t it?

Many progressive (mainly academic) writers decided to try to fix this in the latter half of the twentieth century. Several attempts were made to create ex nihilo a gender-neutral pronoun (cf. “xe“), all of which failed. There is, of course s/he, which is a bit clunky, and some authors who write books with chapters alternate by chapter, using “he” for the odd chapters, and “she” for the even. One can even knock oneself out by using “one” anywhere one is forced to use a gender-neutral singular pronoun, but such a one might find one’s efforts to be cumbersome and unnatural.

So, what to do? Somehow, English speakers have found a way: they use “they”.

Think about it. “They” is gender-neutral and animate. Sure, it’s plural, but given how liberally European languages treat plural pronouns (French “vous” is the second person plural and the formal second person singular?! And don’t get me started on Spanish “ustedes”!), why can’t English speakers mess around with plurality? After all, it’s not as if the practice is brand new (though the coinage “themself”—the singular reflexive, as opposed to “themselves”—just might be).

I try to spread the word about this particular language fact everywhere I can.
It seems relevant to point it out here.

As a graduate student at UCSD, I and many others there worked with a Niger-Khordofanian language called Moro. It’s a fascinating language for a number of reasons, but one incredible thing we found has to do with gender.

In Moro, there are gendered words for humans—for example, the word for “man” is udzhi, and the word for “woman” is obwa. There isn’t a general word for “person”, though. In such a language, one is forced to make a choice. Spanish, for example, uses the masculine as the default (niño is “boy”, niña is “girl”, and niños is either “boys” or “children (of mixed gender)”). It’s been hypothesized that all language will do what Spanish does and choose the masculine term to be the gender-neutral or “basic” term over the feminine.

Not so with Moro.

Udzhi is “man”; obwa is “woman”; ladzhi is “men”; and lobwa is “women” or “people” (gender-neutral).

The phenomenon is pervasive, too. When we asked our native speaker (in English) if he had any children, he replied, “Four girls.” We followed with, “All girls, eh?” He replied, “No. Two boys, two girls.” In other words, he was borrowing his native practice right on over into English.

(Oh, and by the way: This practice hasn’t resulted in gender equality, by any means. Based on our investigation, it’s still very much a male-dominant culture.)

Elgin mentions two reasons she feels Láadan hasn’t caught on with women.
She discusses the second reason (that using Láadan causes women to feel vulnerable), but doesn’t discuss the first: that women are “too busy” to learn a language.

This reminded me of a discussion in which Sally participated on the Conlang List several years ago.

In 2005, Sally Caves (creator of Teonaht) conducted her “Lunatic Survey”: a general survey of the members of the Conlang List to see what generalizations could be found. The resulting discussion turned to the question of why, proportionately speaking, so few women conlang. I think one of the hypotheses Sally put forth was quite illuminating. In this message from 2005, she writes:

Perhaps competitive women, on the whole, don’t want to waste time on the road to social and professional success. I’ve known that since I was knee high to a grass hopper that “having it all” (profession, good sex life, marriage, money, social prestige, children) was urged very seriously on women starting in the last third of the twentieth century.

In answering the question of why women (real world women) didn’t take to Láadan and embrace it, perhaps one needs to step back and first remember that Láadan, aside from everything else, is a constructed language. In a world where success is so important, who could afford to “waste” time on anything that doesn’t translate immediately to social or professional success?

The answer is those that aren’t as concerned with social or professional success, or those who have already achieved it. Focusing on the former, who is more likely to be unconcerned about success: a young man or a young woman? I believe Sally suggests (she can correct me if I’ve misinterpreted what she’s said) that would be a young man, for whom success is all but certain—something that eventually will be attained; that doesn’t necessarily need to be fought for.

Addendum by Sai:

I think it’s important to pay attention to the caveat that Elgin gave: she intends to express the perceptions and unique communication needs of women, as interpreted by American women born in the early 1900s.

When I asked whether her communicative focus – aside from specific kinds of sexually female vocabulary, such as for various kinds of menstruation – was perhaps more accurately stated as being about emotions than about femaleness, her immediate example was that women want to express more fine-grained kinds of love than are available in English. I too use similarly nuanced descriptions of my feelings towards others. I – as a Generation Y androgyne – find it to be totally unrelated to sex. Her other examples in support of this idea of the femininity of Láadan are very similar – they work only under that caveat.

This reflects, as Elgin put it, the ongoing decrease in distinction in gender roles. Personally, I consider that a good thing, as I find strongly defined gender roles to be rather strange.

So perhaps in a sense, Elgin’s goal of enabling better forms of communication for women is indeed happening… just in a different way than planned.

Audio edited by Virgo Audio Production Services; music by Gary Shannon.

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

Wednesday, March 18th, 2009

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.

Interview with Tony Harris

Tuesday, March 10th, 2009
Sai interviews Tony Harris about his language Alurhsa. The conversation covers such topics as the grammar of Alurhsa, Tony’s spirituality, and role a conlanger plays in the creation of a language.
mp3The Alurhsa WebsiteBoudewijn Rempt’s “Apologia pro Imaginatione”

It’s funny, because right off the bat, I recognized something familiar
in this interview. The first thing was, “Oh, I do remember Alurian!” I didn’t realize that Alurhsa and Alurian (or Aluric) were, in fact, the same thing.

And that leads to the next bit: the problem of naming. As you’ll hear, apparently “Alurian” and “Aluric” were doing fine as names until Tony found that “Alurian”, for example, occurs in a lot of personal names and other contexts (try googling “Alurian” [though note the first hit]). As a result, Tony decided to go with the native name, “Alurhsa”.

First, I’d note that this was bound to happen. If you name a conlang anything that ends in “-ian”, “-ese”, “-ic”, “-ish”, or any other of the very common English suffixes that get attached to real world language names, it’s only a matter of time before someone else comes up with it (with or without a language attached). (After all, if someone’s going to lie on a job application, what sounds more like a language: Aluric or Epiq?)

Second, I have had this happen to me. I created a language I initially called “Kele”, and added a section for it to my website, describing its bric-a-brac and what have you. And that’s how it lived happily for a couple years, I’d say. Then one day I received an appalling e-mail. Not only was there an existing natural language named “Kele”, but apparently someone had mistaken me for an expert on the Kele language, and was asking me questions about it! In fact, if you believe the internet (which is rarely a good idea), there are apparently two Kele languages: one Austronesian, and another Niger-Congo!

Luckily for the person who e-mailed me, I was also a linguistics student, and knew something about language and where one might go for more information. As a direct result of the exchange, though, I changed the name of my language to Kelenala, and thereafter, whenever I decided to name a language, I made liberal use of Google to make sure I wasn’t stepping on anyone’s toes.

Several conlangers listening to this interview might be taken aback
at the level of involvement Tony has with Alurhsa—especially the metaphysical stuff (the possible existence of speakers of Alurhsa in this or some other dimension; the religious aspect; etc.). But before you judge him, I ask you this: how fluent are you in your conlang? I, for example (as has been discussed before), have got the structure of most of my conlangs down, but always seem to be hunting for vocabulary. This is an experience (a condition?) that many conlangers share.

Pragmatically, then, let us consider: Which type of conlang-conlanger relationship seems to be more efficacious in developing fluency in a conlang? We’ve noted that a number of conlangers with an author-creation type of relationship can’t speak their languages, and, just off the top of my head, I can think of a number of other conlangers who have a more metaphysical relationship with their conlangs who speak it quite well.

So. Could the relationship be…causal? In a metaphysical way, perhaps. In a realistic way, it probably simply ensures a level of involvement with one’s language that may (not of necessity, but may) go into greater depth and take up more time than the usual level of involvement a conlanger has with their conlang. And what, after all, leads to fluency but time and involvement?

Audio edited by Virgo Audio Production Services; music by Gary Shannon.