O-day ou-yay eak-spay ingon-Klay?: Exploring constructed languages
Unlike English or Mandarin, a constructed language (or conlang) is a language that did not evolve naturally over time, rather it was made up by a specific group of people (or by a person) for a specific use. There are hundreds of such languages in existence, and you probably know a few. Ig-pay atin-lay ing-ray an ell-bay? laH SoH jatlh tlhIngan? True, Pig Latin and Klingon were are created for very different reasons, but they are both considered languages.
This article will explore a variety of unique languages created for a variety of reasons ranging from hiding your conversation from adults to making beautiful music to unifying countries to creating a fictional race of space aliens.
Code, lingo, jargon, dialect: these are a few ways you might describe Boontling, a unique language spoken only by residents of Boonville, California, a rural town in the Anderson Valley.
To outsiders, it sounds like gibberish—and that’s the way they like it. In the late 1800s, residents of Boonville started making up words in order to communicate without being understood by non-residents. Its origins are not clear: it may have been started by children who were trying to exclude nearby adults, or maybe it was started by adults who wished to gossip about an unmarried and pregnant local, or possibly it was the small bands of shepherds up in the mountains who started making up words to pass the time. No matter how it began, it grew into a bona fide language among the locals who added new words to a growing list of vocabulary every year. Like most languages, Boontling was, at first, only a spoken language; word spellings were not formalized until the 1970s.
Trolling the vocabulary listed on the Wikipedia page, there appear to quite a few words devoted to discussing sex. For example:
- batter = a bachelor or masturbator
- burlapping = having sex (The term is supposedly based on an incident when a couple were caught doin’ the nasty on a stack of burlap sacks.)
- bilch/beelch = having sex
- hog rings = a large vagina
- mouse ear = a tight vagina
- rout the kimmie in the boat = to impregnate
Many words have Spanish, French, Gaelic, and Native American roots. For example:
- dulcey = a sweet, from the Spanish word dulce
- gorm = to eat, from the French word gourmandise
- boo = potato, from Pomo Indian word bu
Some words were created based on real people who lived in the town. For example:
- zeese = coffee, for Zachariah Clifton "Z.C." or Zeese Blevens, who was a coffee drinker who liked his coffee strong
- walter = a telephone, for Walter Levi, the first person to get a phone
- Bill Nunn = syrup, for Bill Nunn who put syrup everything
- Charlie = to embarrass, for Charlie Ball, a notoriously shy resident
Boontling is considered a jargon or lingo by most linguists because though it has a contrived vocabulary, it does not have a unique grammar system or syntax. Grammatically, it is English, just with different words in more or less that same construction as any English sentence.
If you are a Trekkie, you can skip this part because you already know way more about this than I do. For the rest of us, the Klingon started as a recurring enemy (and later ally) in the Star Trek series dating back to the 1960s. Identified by their heavy brows and gnarled foreheads (think vertebrae), the Klingon were a warrior people who appeared in all the versions of Star Trek.
In an effort to add realism to the show about futuristic space travel, the creators of Star Trek—most notably Marc Okrand—decided to create a language for the Klingon characters that reflected their culture. Hard and guttural sounding, Klingon has no adjectives but is heavy on the verbs because the Klingon are supposedly a race of doers not explainers. Okrand also created a unique syntactical structure that is the reverse of the standard subject+verb+object structure of English. In Klingon, you would say, “The ball John threw” instead of “John threw the ball.” There is even a writing system with scythe-like letters created to reflect the Klingon love for blades and battle axes.
While not weird that a fictional language was created for a fictional show about a fictional group of space people, what is weird is that the language jumped from the screen and started to exist in the real world as a legitimate way to communicate. There is not only a dictionary (which came out in 1985), but also Klingon language learning tapes, a Klingon version of The Christmas Carol and of Hamlet, a Klingon translation of the Bible, and a Klingon Language Institute devoted to promoting and preserving the language. Even Wikipedia included a Klingon character in their logo from 2003-2010. The language, in this case, seems to have evolved beyond the parameters of the Star Trek series and moved to exist in its own right as a unique and fully functional language. If you want to have some fun, head over the Klingon translator and figure out what “jIH Sop paqmey” means.
The opposite of Boontling, Esperanto was conceived in the late 1800s as a way to unify people through language. Esperanto is designed to be easy to learn, and it has elements of Russian, German, Polish, and French in it, though it is not based explicitly on any of those. Though it was created to be a politically neutral method of communicating, its grammar, writing system, and syntax are mostly European and therefore still exclusionary. That said, there were a fair number of early adopters of Esperanto in Japan and China.
Like many new ideas, Esperanto was not exactly embraced by world powers in its early years. Because the creator of Esperanto, L.L. Zamenhof, was Jewish, Adolf Hitler specifically warned that Esperanto would be used as part of a large Jewish conspiracy to achieve world domination. Pre WWII Japan persecuted Esperanto promoters who appeared revolutionary, and Stalin called it “the language of spies.”
Despite this, Esperanto has survived and become the most widely used constructed language ever. There are even native speakers—maybe even ten to twenty thousand speakers. The International Academy of Sciences in San Marino uses Esperanto as the primary language of instruction and learning. There was even a teeny, tiny man-made island near Italy called Rose Island where Esperanto was the official language. (Built in the late 1960s, Rose Island was less than 5000 sq feet big. It declared itself a micro nation, but Italian authorities sensed it was just a tax haven and used the thing for target practice.)
A fully developed constructed language, Esperanto has a 28-letter alphabet, a fully formed grammatical system based on the common subject+verb+object construction, and 900 word roots that can be expanded into thousands of words using a fixed system of prefixes and suffixes. Like any language, Esperanto has had to add words to the language to keep up with the times, but in most cases, these words are built from existing roots. Komputilo, the word for computer, is built from the word komputi = compute, and the suffix –ilo, which means tool.
Something tells me that the story of Esperanto is just beginning, but I do wonder about how apt people are to use a language that’s meant to be widely understood when they are far more likely to embrace a language like Boontling for its exclusivity.
Best phrase in Esperanto that I can find: Mi fartas bone. Go here to find out what it means.
Also known as Hopelandic, Vonlenska is the nonsense language used by Sigur Rós singer Jónsi Birgisson. I’ve been a Sigur Rós fan since I saw the closing scene of Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. I knew the band was from Reykjavik, so I assumed the lyrics sounded like gibberish to me because I don’t speak Icelandic. I learned, however, that while some of the songs are sung, of course, in Icelandic, Birgisson sings in a made up Icelandic gibberish on a number of songs.
Unlike Boontling and Klingon, Vonlenska has no vocabulary and no grammar. It uses melody and rhythm to create music along with the other instruments being played by the band. On the album ( ), the entire album is sung in Vonlenska, and Jónsi repeats strings of sounds throughout songs and throughout the whole record.
The concept is not new, jazz singers have used scat in their music, and Scottish band The Cocteau Twins used nonsense language in their songs.
“Jabberwocky” is a poem written by Lewis Carroll for Through the Looking Glass, the sequel to Alice in Wonderland. It is considered literary nonsense, and it isn’t exactly a constructed language in that it is just a series of made up words that follow the basics of English pronunciation, grammar, and syntax.
Though he likely wrote the poem well before either book, the idea is that Alice finds the poem and realizes she is in an alternate reality because the words are printed backwards.The poem is primarily English with nonsense words worked in. It tells the story about hunting and killing the fantastical Jabberwock, a Pterodactyl-like monster. It starts thus:
'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.
Some of the words are interpreted later on in the book by the character of Humpty Dumpty. He tells Alice that a rath is a “green pig.” Carroll, himself, later describes the rath as a sort of badger. Over time, many readers have worked to interpret these words, and some of these words have even entered the English language. Chortle and galumphing being two such words that the Oxford English Dictionary has taken into its pages. In a sense, readers wanted to make sense of the nonsense, and in that way, Jabberwocky started as a constructed language and has now evolved into being a part of the English language.
There are so many language games, I couldn’t hope to list even a fraction of them here, but think Pig Latin. Think of the –izzle suffix. Games exist in many languages and usually consist of applying a specific rule to words to either disguise words and/or to make them sound silly. For example:
- Haigy Paigy = add the letters aig before every vowel (or vowel sound)
Please eat your soup. = Plaigease aigeat yaigou saigoup. (I think…)
- Opish = follow every consonant with an op.
Please eat your soup. = Plopeasop eatop yourop sopoupop. (I think…)
Many of these games are perpetuated by children and teenagers who are trying to disguise their conversations from adults. For the most part, they just take the existing conditions (grammar, syntax, etc.) of whatever language spawned them (English, Fresh, Swahili) and add goofy elements.
Try making up your own language game, and share it with us in the comments.
While researching this article, I ran across many languages that might be considered constructed languages. Text speak might fit in this list, as might sign language. Do you know of any languages made up by a group of people for a specific purpose? Please share below.
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