So I unleashed a giant can of worms today on Reddit, asking if there were any graduate programs centered around or dabbling in constructed languages. The second response I received was from a user who insisted that constructed languages weren’t real languages (with the inevitable example of…(with the inevitable example of Klingon).
And then there was confusion over what actually constitutes a constructed language and why there is an academic stigma against even mentioningthem. Is ASL a “conlang”? What about Modern Hebrew? Or Wampanoag? What about pidgins?
So my question to Tumblr is: What linguistic value is there to studying existing constructed languages?
Perhaps there is no practical value to studying conlangs but for budding linguists, they provide a wealth of opportunity to explore and practice analysing.
Even more than that, they can reveal something about the how the human mind interacts with language and allows for an outlet of brilliant creativity.
Its been proved over and over that learning another language helps brain functions, I doubt it matters whether the language is constructed or not.
Besides, most languages are constructed or manipulated in some way to serve the political or social needs of the time. At the end of the day, even ‘natural’ languages are only a product of the human interactions with it.
I agree with all of the above (with some caveats with the last paragraph…), and I’d like to add some thoughts. ConLangs clearly *do* have some kind of stigma attached to them among “professional linguists”. Even those of us who are interested in them can’t do “real research” on them (in the US especially, though there does seem to be some professional interest in AuxLangs over in Europe). There hasn’t always been this stigma— Edward Sapir was a supporter of the idea of an international AuxLang and many of his contemporaries were as well (not to mention Tolkien!). So what’s happened? What changed? And why?
Why does it offend people— not just strike them as silly and banal, but outright offend— when I tell them I teach a class on ConLangs?
It can’t be because they’re “useless” or lack “practical value”. If that were the argument, then we could say the same thing for Tucano, which has fewer speakers than Esperanto, Arapaho, which has fewer speakers than Klingon, or even Wolof, which has quite a few speakers, but is not exactly a “practical” language to learn for most people. Indeed, in terms of “practicality” let’s all learn English, Spanish, Mandarin, Hindi, and Arabic and chuck the rest, yeah?
CLEARLY, THAT IS A RIDICULOUS STATEMENT that no respectable linguist (really, no respectable person) would consider. So the anti-ConLang sentiment can’t rest on ground of “practicality”.
Well, what of the issue of time/resource management— the idea that learning Klingon takes away from learning Michif? While this is at least a better argument, it’s still not a very solid one; it falls back on a notion of utilitarianism that always falls apart. Why waste time on Novial when you could learn Kawaiisu? Well, why waste time reading Willa Cather when you could be reading Shakespeare? Or why waste time on Language when you could learn Programming? In a humanities-based endeavor especially, there’s always a danger in this “why waste time” argument because the utilitarian value of things isn’t always immediately recognized— nor is it even always clear. If learning Loglan gets you interested in language, there’s already value, I feel. And if it doesn’t? So what?
So the anti-ConLang sentiment really can’t rest on a utilitarian argument, either.
So what’s left? Honestly, I’ve thought about this for a long while now and I just don’t know. Is it a kind of Frankenstein revulsion at “playing god” with language? Is it the fear that “normal linguists” will be tainted by association with “those dorks who speak Dothraki”? Is it some hold-over connection that people make between the AuxLang movement of the 19th Century and the kind of Romantic Notion of The Folk that justified racism and eventually leads to Hitler? Is it, like most things in modern linguistics, Chomsky’s fault?
I don’t know.
But here’s what I do know. Every single other field has a notion of what I call the “artefactual approach”— a practice-by-doing, toy-model-testing, break-it-to-see-how-it-works way of investigating their objects of study. Clearly, natural science and engineering take this “artefactual approach” with At Home Chemistry Sets, Build A Clock From A Potato, Make Your Own Sundial, etc etc etc. But even most of the humanities teach artefactually as well— Anthropology has us to “study” our family home, archaeologize our own trash cans; Math gives us calculator games and blocks for comparing powers of ten; History tells us to look into our family trees (which is as far removed from ‘Professional History’ as anything); Computer Programming, Art, and Music are *literally* a learn-by-making approach to knowledge; Economics and Psychology have almost nothing but toy models we’re encourage to play with, even if they aren’t physical artefacts. Even English wouldn’t expect us to develop an appreciation of the written word without DOING SOME WRITING, right?
So, if we want to make a case for the value of Linguistics— for the value of LANGUAGES— we can’t afford to keep ignoring ConLangs. We can’t even afford to treat them as polite oddities that “those people” do. We have to welcome them into the fold, develop the respect for them they deserve, and we have to start using them as teaching tools. Basically, if linguistics wants to survive the next century, it has to start making language into an thing to be played with, not a thing to revere.