essays on conlanging
but is it art?
Ever since Tolkien first declared that his works were primarily an exercise in linguistic creation, and ever since the Internet first brought conlanging 'out of the closet', conlangers have insisted that language creation is an art form, every bit as legitimate as writing poetry or composing music. Against the charge that conlanging is frivolous and pointless, they have raised the response that the same charge could be laid against literature or music. In this essay I would like to address both the accusations and the responses, and see if conlanging genuinely has the right to call itself an 'art'. As a conlanger myself, I suppose that the final conclusion is hardly in doubt, but I hope that along the way I can investigate some aspects of the arguments that might not have been addressed before.
The primary argument made by conlangers in defence of their art is that conlanging is a creative act, akin to writing a poem, or even a novel. Comparisons could equally be drawn with other art forms, but as conlangs are concerned with words, literature the most common choice. However, I am inclined to argue that music perhaps provides a better comparison. There is a technical element and a structural formality to music which strikes me as being analogous to the technical restrictions placed on conlangs. Just as composers have to deal with notes, tempo, dynamics, and the particular limitations of the instruments for which they are writing, so conlangers have to deal -- except in truly avante-garde works! -- with (for example) nouns and verbs, verb forms and participles, and out of these they seek to form something new and inventive. Conlangers take the sounds of the human voice, and create new sounds, new words, from them (as many novelists -- not just James Joyce either! -- have done), applying their own criteria of euphony, of internal consistency, and whatever other restrictions they might choose to impose on their work.
That conlanging is in some sense creative, therefore, seems beyond reasonable argument.
So what can be said against the idea that conlanging is an art? Well, consider some examples of other art-forms, particularly literature, poetry, and music. Apart from being examples of creativity, their most notable feature is that they arouse feelings of pity, joy, anger, or any one of a dozen other emotions, in those who experience these works. In short, they engage the emotions. Many people would argue that this engagement of emotions is part of what makes them art, and that an art-form which lacks that engagement is lacking a crucial element.
This seems to me to be an important and serious accusation, and not one that can be easily dismissed. Is there any defence against it?
First, let's ask if there are any other creative activities which are usually considered to be art, but which similarly do not engage the emotions, or at least not to the extent found in music or literature.
One example which springs to mind is architecture. A particular building might inspire feelings of awe, or peace perhaps, but it is hard to imagine a building that could inspire pity or joy. Architecture can certainly arouse strong feelings in people, but these feelings appear to be a kind of secondary emotion, not aroused by the buildings themselves, but by our reaction to their beauty or functionality, or in some cases by a nostalgia for what the building represents. Buildings in themselves have a limited emotional vocabulary.
Another example might be sculpture, although this is perhaps a little more contentious as some people would argue that sculptures can indeed engage the emotions (personally I would suggest that although this might true, it is certainly true to a far lesser extent than music or literature).
So, it seems that there can be art without the same kind of emotional engagement we experience with music or literature, art which is instead appreciated for its formal beauty. In fact, we can go so far as to divide art into two categories, with the usual proviso that all categories are artificial and that inevitably there are grey areas. These two categories we can perhaps describe as 'emotional' art, and 'formal' art. Under emotional art we will find music and literature, works which primarily engage the emotions (with the acknowledgment that both, and especially music, can have strong formal elements). Under formal art we will find architecture and, yes, conlangs, which are appreciated for their structural form and beauty.
But our opponents have another argument, one which addresses the question of the frivolity and pointlessness of conlanging. This second argument points out that literature in particular addresses the human condition. It can (not that it always does, of course) speak about the deepest concerns of life and humanity.
Once again, this is a serious accusation, but once again an examination of other forms of art shows that this cannot be held against conlanging without equally dismissing other areas of art. Architecture is again a good example, but there is a better one, namely music. Except in opera or choral works, music stands on its own -- it has nothing to say about our place in the world, it cannot address anything except our own appreciation of it. It simply is. Listening to music may enhance people's lives, but it can be argued that appreciating a conlang is equally life-enhancing, if in a different manner.
Indeed, all forms of art are different. They engage different aspects of our personalities, and are appreciated differently. Conlanging is not literature, but neither is music. Conlanging is not architecture, but neither is poetry. What they all share is the inventiveness of those who create them, and beauty of their form. In this view of art, I would argue that Conlanging can happily take its place as another expression of creativity and beauty.