Incubus: a film in Esperanto with William Shatner

January 17, 2014

On a walk in Galway once I met a Polish couple poring over a map. We were going the same way, and fell into step. They were in town for an Esperanto conference, and when the man – an Esperanto playwright – learned I had an interest in languages, he eagerly gave me a crash course in its grammar as we manoeuvred the uneven paths and busy streets.

It was a fun experience, but it remains the only proper exposure I’ve had to spoken Esperanto. More recently I encountered the language again, not in the flesh but in the form of a film – I wrote a post about films of linguistic interest and the comments soon filled up with tips; Edward Banatt suggested Incubus.

Incubus 1996 film - Unleash the incubus

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Centring around phonetic alphabets

March 11, 2013

Over at Macmillan Dictionary Blog, I’ve been writing about idioms and alphabets, specifically centre around and “SaypU”.

In Centring around a usage disagreement, I discuss the phrase centre around and the regular complaints that it’s somehow wrong or illogical:

Centre around has been in use for about a century and a half, and no one seemed to mind it until the 1920s. Then someone cried foul, or rather illogic, and since then many have found fault with its apparent contravention of mathematical propriety. Nowadays it’s a regular source of annoyance, some of it extreme: one reader said seeing it in an article sent her “screaming to Strunk and White”. I worry for her blood pressure.

Critics object that a centre is “technically a single point” (Bryan Garner’s Modern American Usage) and you can’t physically centre around something. But if centres were single points, city centres would be impossibly crowded.

The problem lies with the tension between mathematical logic and idiomatic usage. (You can guess which side I’m on.) I’m also interested in what motivates people to say centre around, and I touch on that later in the post.

Do you use the phrase, avoid it, like it, hate it, or have no strong feelings either way?


Next: Can shared alphabets foster peace? follows up on a recent BBC report about a new phonetic alphabet, SaypU, whose creator hopes it can make the world more peaceful and harmonious. Historically this is nothing unusual:

Moral and political aspirations have motivated inventors of languages and other communication systems for centuries. Esperanto is perhaps the most famous. Its creator, Ludwik Zamenhof, was an idealist who felt the “heavy sadness” of linguistic diversity and believed it was “the only, or at least the primary force which divides the human family into enemy parts”. So he created Esperanto to foster communication and understanding between people of different languages.

But would speaking the same language really make people more inclined to get on? . . . [T]here’s no reason to assume greater communicative overlap would engender significantly more kindness and mutual consideration among people.

The post looks briefly at whether the project measures up in practical terms, and throws the IPA and Douglas Adams into the mix.

For older articles, see my Macmillan Dictionary Blog archive.

The invented languages of Ithkuil and Blissymbols

December 20, 2012

Joshua Foer has a long and interesting article at the New Yorker on Ithkuil, an original language with “two seemingly incompatible ambitions”: to be both maximally precise and maximally concise, so it can convey “nearly every thought that a human being could have while doing so in as few sounds as possible”.

As you might expect, sentences in Ithkuil are very information-rich and rather intimidating; for example, Ai’tilafxup embuliëqtuqh means “All the people of the land spoke the same language.” That’s Ithkuil with our familiar Roman letters – it has its own script too, shown in this translation of the opening line from Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina:

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How the Klingon language was invented

November 22, 2011

For Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984), linguist Marc Okrand was asked to develop the Klingon language. Most of it he made up, but there was some raw material to begin with: Klingon names, improvised speech from an earlier film, and aspects of Klingon culture (they are a warrior race, honourable and direct).

‘Human languages are very patterned,’ he says. ‘There’s no 100% rules, but there’s a lot of tendencies, and more-likely-than-nots.’ Creating Klingon allowed him to subvert these patterns. So, for example, syntactically Klingon has OVS (object-verb-subject) word order, which is very rare in human languages.

Because Okrand was working with filmmakers to a studio budget and schedule, he couldn’t be too fussy. Sometimes he would make adjustments to the language (phonetic, lexical, or grammatical) simply in order to accommodate an actor’s imprecise delivery of a line.

Asked by the Wall Street Journal if he drew from real languages, he replied:

You can’t help being influenced by what you know, which (for me) was a bit of Spanish, French and American Indian. I also knew Southeast Asian languages. I’d be writing something and suddenly realize that it sounded like Navajo. I’d stop and make sure the next thing sounded as different as it could possibly be.

Okrand wrote a Klingon dictionary (which to date has sold hundreds of thousands of copies), and the language soon took on a life of its own. It remains a niche within other niches — Star Trek, conlanging — but by the standards of invented languages, it is thriving.

The Klingon Language Institute, founded in 1992, publishes a quarterly journal (HolQeD) and a literary supplement, offers resources for people who want to learn Klingon, and has created an extended corpus of Klingon vocabulary. People get married in Klingon ceremonies; one man tried (unsuccessfully) to make it his son’s native tongue.

Few of its many enthusiasts are fluent, but all are surely encouraged by the growing body of Klingon literature, which includes translations of Hamlet, the Tao Te Ching, Gilgamesh, and other great works.* Arika Okrent, a linguist who has studied Klingon, told me a Kama Sutra translation may be on the way.

In Okrent’s book In the Land of Invented Languages, she describes Klingon as ‘the solution to an artistic problem, not a linguistic one’; in this respect it is similar to Na’vi and Tolkien’s languages. She writes that Klingon

both flouts and follows known linguistic principles, and its real sophistication lies in the balance between the two tendencies. It gets its alien quality from the aspects that set it apart from natural languages . . . . Yet at the same time it has the feel of a natural language. A linguist doing field research among Klingon speakers would be able to work out the system and describe it with the same tools he would use in describing a remote Amazon language.

In the video below (21 minutes), Marc Okrand explains how he created Klingon. If you’re into Star Trek or constructed languages, you’ve probably seen it already. If, like me, you’re not particularly so, don’t be put off. It’s aimed at a general audience, and anyone curious about how languages work is likely to find it interesting.

* Jeremy Kahn says Gilgamesh seems most suited to Klingon; Hamlet ‘seems more of a Romulan thing; Tao [Te Ching]: Vulcan.’

Tolkien on language invention

May 24, 2011

J. R. R. Tolkien’s deep interest in language is evident to his readers and to anyone familiar with the broad facts of his professional life: as well as being a famous and well-regarded author, he was a professor of language and literature, a philologist, a poet, and a translator. He once wrote in a letter that his work – all of it – was “fundamentally linguistic in inspiration”.

Tolkien was also an avid and prolific conlanger: a creator of conlangs, or constructed languages. Though he liked Esperanto, and approved of the idea of a unifying artificial language for Europe for political reasons, his interest in conlangs was primarily creative. It was an artistic urge rather than a practical or commercial consideration.

He placed great stock in the authenticity of the languages he invented. This made for painstaking work, “an art for which life is not long enough”, as he put it. Christopher Tolkien described how his father would proceed

from the ‘bases’ or primitive stems, adding suffix or prefix or forming compounds, deciding (or, as he would have said, ‘finding out’) when the word came into the language, following it through the regular changes in form that it would thus have undergone, and observing the possibilities of formal or semantic influence from other words in the course of its history.

Arika Okrent, in her book In the Land of Invented Languages, writes that for Tolkien, “language creation was an art all its own, enhanced and enriched by the stories”. The book’s last chapter includes a memorable excerpt from Tolkien’s lecture A Secret Vice that shows how strongly language invention affected him – even when it was someone else’s, casually overheard. Here’s the anecdote in full:

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Ave Na’vi

May 10, 2010

By now, most earthlings have at least a passing familiarity with James Cameron’s fantasy–sci-fi film Avatar, and if you’ve seen it you’ll have heard its original language Na’vi, named after the giant blue humanoids who speak it. Na’vi follows a rich tradition of artificially constructed languages — known informally as conlangs — in film history, in sci-fi and fantasy, and in the broader cultural sphere. Klingon and Esperanto are among the best known examples.

Na’vi was created for 20th Century Fox by linguist Paul Frommer. Recently I listened to an interview Frommer gave to the Language Creation Society. The direct mp3 link is here (29 MB, 1 hour 19 minutes), or you can visit this page to stream the audio, read some background, and follow related leads. It’s a wide-ranging discussion about developing Na’vi (especially its phonetics), teaching it to actors, language death, copyright, Na’vi enthusiasts, and more.

Frommer finds himself in an unusual situation. Avatar has affected some viewers enough to start a movement of sorts whose activities include learning Na’vi, becoming Na’vi, and petitioning Frommer for further guidance on how best to use and advance the language. Frommer is sympathetic but contractually constrained. He doesn’t own Na’vi: 20th Century Fox does. Legal tangles and grey areas surround it. In his own words: “I’m in kind of a quandary . . . about how much I can actually put out there.”

Such impediments surely frustrate those who yearn not just to have an authoritative Na’vi dictionary and grammar, but to belong to a Na’vi tribe — or as close as humans can get to forming one:

[T]he parts of the dream [film] that make our minds blossom more than any other are the beautiful Na’vi and the sounds of their voices dancing in our ears. . . . We must be able to speak with the Na’vi properly in their own language in order for all of us to truly appreciate their world.

The quote is from the aforementioned petition. Frommer responded graciously. For more on the Na’vi language, there’s abundant information in this guest post by Paul Frommer at Language Log; in a Q&A at Schott’s Vocab with Frommer and Arika Okrent, author of In the Land of Invented Languages; and on the Na’vi page at Wikipedia.