the eye of the storm

home  | feedback  | contact  | about

site log

world building











second life


essays on conlanging

towards a conlang aesthetics

If conlanging is an art-form (see the previous essay!), it follows that there must be criteria for describing the aesthetically significant aspects of a conlang, and for judging the success or otherwise of the conlang as an artistic creation. Naturally, as with all art, there is scope for personal preference, and quite possibly very wide scope, but there should at least be some agreement on what qualities a good conlang should possess.

By the term 'aesthetically significant' I am trying to make a distinction between a purely technical approach (which would simply say, for example, whether or not a language uses inflected verbs, and to what extent, or what the phonology of the language is), and an actual assessment of the language as a work of art. In other words, is it beautiful, or appealing, or striking in some way? This presupposes, however, that there are ways in which a language can be evaluated in this kind of way, and this is not necessarily an inevitable presupposition.

Linguists who study real languages are always averse to applying value judgements to languages. With very rare exceptions such as pidgin languages (and even those being arguable) one language is not 'better' than another in either utility or in beauty. In the past it might have been possible to state that one language was more euphonious than another, or was more expressive (a claim that you still occasionally hear being advanced for English), but nowadays this is a largely and I would say rightly discredited view.

This being so, however, how can we judge between one invented language and another? Does the mere fact that the language has been invented, rather than being a natural language, mean that value judgements are somehow possible?

I would suggest that this is indeed the case. At the same time, though, I would suggest that we should not lose sight of the arguments against value judgements between natural languages, if only as a reality check for our proposed conlang aesthetics (for instance, the lesson of natural languages should make us wary of including euphony as a basis for artistic judgement, because it might well be that we will judge as euphonious those languages which are closest in sound to our native language).

Another consideration is that it is extremely difficult to appreciate a conlang. To enjoy a piece of music, one simply has to listen. To enjoy a poem or a book requires a little more effort in that the words have to be read (or heard) and understood -- in the case of poetry this can sometimes involve some definite mental struggle!

But what of conlangs? How can someone appreciate a conlang? Actually learning the language to the point of being fluent would seem to be only way to truly appreciate it, but this seems an inordinate amount of effort, especially when often the creator of the language is hardly fluent in it either. More seriously, appreciation of a conlang would seem to involve more mental effort than is required by any other art-form (a fact which probably means that conlangs will always be a minority obsession).

In view of these difficulties, it will be best to start in a very simple way. To begin with, perhaps we should find examples of a conlang at the wider ends of the aesthetic spectrum. In other words, find examples that would hopefully be universally accepted as poor, and examples that would be universally accepted as good.

Finding a poor language is in fact very easy, and doesn't involve any potential humiliation of some innocent conlanger! It is simply this: most people, when they start conlanging, begin by creating a language which simple substitutes words for other words, in a language which is more a kind of code than a true new language. There is no attempt to explore different forms of sentence structure, or verb formation, or any other of the many aspects of language. I think it is reasonable to say that most conlangers would regard such a conlang as poor.

As for good languages, I want to take two examples. One is the entire system of languages invented by J R R Tolkien. The other is Jeffrey Henning's science-fiction language Fith. Tolkien's languages obviously need no introduction. If you have not heard of Fith, though, you should take the time to read about it before continuing with this essay: Fith

Let me explore these two examples a little, to explain why I personally think that they are examples of good languages, and to explore the possible avenues of aesthetic judgement that they suggest.

J R R Tolkien's languages need little justification, being widely acknowledged as amongst the finest of conlangs. The question we need to ask, though, is what makes them so? Part of the answer lies not in the individual languages, even though they are of merit in themselves, but in the relationships between the languages. Tolkien did not invent a single language, he invented an entire family of languages, with linguistically coherent relationships (via realistic and consistent sound-changes) between them. The individual languages have an internal consistency -- you can examine a sentence and say with reasonable certainty which language it belongs to, because of the sounds that are included (and excluded), and because of the word-endings and sometimes the internal patterns of the words.

To use a musical analogy, Tolkien's languages are akin to a classical symphony, where the composer has taken several themes, created variations on them, and woven them together into one unified whole.

Now, what of Jeffrey Henning's Fith? To continue the musical analogy, this is an avante-garde piece, a simple but entirely novel work. Compared to Tolkien's massive opus this is little more than a sketch, but that is it's entire point. It explores a radical new direction, and quite possibly suggests a multitude of new possibilities for those who are open to such things. In it's own way, it is as significant and as dazzling as the languages of Middle Earth.

Can we glean any aesthetic principles from these two examples? I think we can. Internal consistency would seem to be one. A good conlang has sense of unity about it, it does not seem like a collection of unrelated ideas, the words of its vocabulary, for example, have a family resemblance to one another.

Most conlangers these days, and certainly those who are active in the various conlang forums, are well used to the idea of selecting the particular sounds that their language will employ, and probably think that the comment about family resemblance is too obvious to mention. Personally I believe this is an indication that our art is reaching some level of maturity, in that we take such things for granted. I would suggest that we are already, albeit unwittingly, employing a conlang aesthetic.

Beyond this internal consistency, however, it seems that these two examples must be assessed in different ways. This was another reason for choosing these particular examples, to make the point that different languages might will require different criteria, based on what they are trying to achieve.

Indeed, 'trying to achieve' is a crucial phrase. All conlangs have a reason for existing. Perhaps most of the time the reason is no more than simple interest in creating a language. Often, however, the conlanger has more than that in mind. Perhaps they want to explore a particular aspect of language. For example, there seems to be an innate fascination with ergative languages amongst many conlangers, perhaps because most conlangers are westerners and are unfamiliar with ergative languages, giving them the appeal of the exotic. Alternatively, a conlanger might want to create a language which resembles, or has qualities akin to, an existing natural language. Thus, Tolkien said that Quenya was inspired by Finnish.

Possibly, then, we can judge such languages on the basis of how well they achieved their aim. This is perhaps most appropriate in the case of an experimental language such as Fith, whose whole raison d'etre is to explore a single linguistic idea.

Another related aspect is in the pristine quality of most conlangs. Most conlangs tend to have a very regular grammar (possibly because it makes things easier!). Whether this is good or bad probably depends on the intent of the language. Languages which are supposed to be realistic should not be pristine -- natural languages inevitably have irregularities and oddities.

So far, then, we have two principles: consistency, and what we can perhaps call ambition (covering the intent of the language, and how far it achieves that intention). These two principles can be reasonably judged without too much contention, but there are other aspects which are much more subjective.

Good conlangs have an elegance about them. Their form and structure somehow feel 'right'. I would suggest that both my examples, each in their own way, share this quality. Exactly what constitutes 'elegance', however, is very difficult to pin down, and judgement of it will no doubt vary from person to person. I won't explore this aspect any further in this essay, but might return to it at some later time.

This leaves us with three principles: consistency, ambition, and elegance. I don't doubt that there are other ways of evaluating conlangs, but for me these seem to supply a suitable starting pointing for approaching the aesthetics of conlanging.