My reader’s copies of two new books from Oxford University Press have been languishing for some time waiting for me to review them. My original plan was to do in-depth reviews for each for Fiat Lingua as I did for From Elvish to Klingon. That work was directly relevant to conlanging, and a full-length review was easily written. The one’s I’ve recently received are not directly related to language creation, but they do provide some interesting reading and can be helpful for conlangers. That being the case, I wanted to at least review them and post to this blog.
Julie Coleman’s The Life of Slang (Oxford University Press, 2012) provides a very thorough examination of that aspect of language. The author looks at slang in English across time, over a wide geographic area, and throughout various levels of society. The first chapter looks at what slang is and what slang isn’t. According to Coleman,
“Words don’t have slanghood: there’s no state of slangness inherent in a word or even in a sense of a word. It’s only possible to identify an individual use of a word in a given context as slang. To work out whether these examples were slang or not, you’d have needed to know who was speaking, who there they were speaking to, where they were, what they were doing, when they were speaking, and what they meant.
This begins to address where I see Coleman’s book’s usefulness for conlangers and worldbuilders. Slang has the potential to be a productive in-world source of vocabulary as well as a way to provide much more depth to conworlds. Thinking of ways to relate unrelated words (or to give your words “folk etymologies”) is also one of the benefits conlangers can get from reading The Life of Slang. For example, Coleman tells the story of the words dent (in the sense of “a hollow impression”), dentist, and dental. Dent is not related to the two tooth-related words although a folk etymology could be understood in that one can “picture the dent left in a car as a bite mark, with the jagged eges of the metal representing teeth marks.” Dent actually comes from the Old English dynt “a stroke or blow with a weapon”* and predates the tooth-related words.
There are a number of ways in which slang can be created (and potentially be adopted into the standard language) and all these can potentially be exploited by conlangers. Slang can come from:
- Changes in meaning
- Changes in function
- Changes in form (e.g., combining forms)
- By abbreviation
- Changes in spelling
Coleman addresses each of these and says, “Most slang words are produced in ways that aren’t particularly different from the ways Standard English words are produced.”
The Life of Slang also provides some alternative societal origins for slang (and thus con-vocabulary). Coleman goes into depth talking about military slang, prison slang, street slang, school/college slang, and cant (the language of beggars and criminals) and flash (the language of thieves). In fact, the chapter on cant and flash language is one of the most interesting ones in the book.
The book addresses both British and American slang and also examines more recent uses of slang like 1337 and jargon used in World of Warcraft. The fact that “words often play a social as well as a communicative function” could readily be taken advantage of in creating a con-vocabulary.
Other slang-related works include Slang: The People’s Poetry by Michael Adams (also author of From Elvish to Klingon and Slayer Slang: The Buffy the Vampire Slayer Lexicon) and Jonathon Green’s 3-volume Green’s Dictionary of Slang. In an effort to provide depth to one’s conlang vocabulary and to one’s con-world, taking a look at the life of slang might be a useful endeavor.
The other book I recently received is the New Oxford Rhyming Dictionary (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012) . At first glance, it’s a handy volume for English rhymes but, I wondered, of what use could it be for a conlanger? The 24-page introduction, however, gives a good overview of different kinds of rhyme (e.g., mosaic rhyme, eye rhyme, embedded rhyme, etc.) as well as its place in history. For those thinking about poetry in their conlang, this is enticing reading. The little notes embedded in the dictionary itself can be somewhat eye-opening as well. For example, under the entry for alphanumeric one finds “Create extra rhymes by adding -al to words like atmospheric.” And, yes, orange does not have a full rhyme; however, the dictionary does provide options of challenge and scavenge and the eye rhyme of range. Additionally, as conlangers are usually those who take joy in language in all its interesting manifestations, the New Oxford Rhyming Dictionary can be fun to simply browse and become spellbound with the sound of a word, no matter how absurd.
I recently picked up the book Pacific Languages: An Introduction by John Lynch from the library and was leafing through it. Lots and lots of food for thought from languages from Adzera to Yukulta. This evening, as I was looking over Chapter 11 (Language, Society and Culture in the Pacific), and found some good lexical inspiration. I’ve read a number of times on various conlanging listservs and boards about looking for different ways to split up concepts that may be lumped together in one’s own language. Well, from this book, it appears Yidiny does a good job of illustrating this:
dalmba – sound of cutting
mida – the noise of a person clicking his tongue against the roof of his mouth, or the noise of an eel hitting the water
maral – the noise of hands being clapped together
nyurrugu – the noise of talking heard a long way off when the words cannot quite be made out
yuyurunggul – the noise of a snake sliding through the grass
gangga – the noise of some person approaching, for example, the sound of his feet on leaves or through the grass — or even the sound of a walking stick being dragged across the ground
I for one would not have thought of assigning lexemes to those concepts.
Additionally, Pacific Languages: An Introduction provides a reminder that even different stages of a coconut’s growth can be assigned different words: a coconut fruit bud (iapwas), young coconut before meat has begun to form (tafa), nut with hard well-developed meat (kahimaregi), etc., etc., etc.
Hmmm, all these languages have me thinking about my own Elasin after a looong hiatus. Might be time to go back and start “reconstructing” the work of Paiwon Lawonsa on the Uhanid languages.
Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle recounts the experiences and research of author Daniel Everett with the Pirahã. Their language, also known as Pirahã, is notorious in linguistics circles for numerous traits uncovered by Everett. The New Yorker published an extensive article about Everett and his work in 2007 that does a good job of introducing readers to the controversy. Being neither a professional linguist nor having a particular linguistic axe to grind, I can’t contribute anything to that debate (nor would I want to wade into those waters); however, I can share some thoughts on the book and its story from a layperson’s perspective as well as provide some interesting conlinguistic titbits that the book has to offer.
The book’s title comes from a common "Good night" phrase that the Pirahã say and is good advice for a culture living deep in the Amazon jungle. The native culture in which Everett and his family find themselves is vividly portrayed (and not sugar-coated). The book’s first section, roughly two-thirds, recounts the story of Everett and his family among the Pirahã; the last third goes into more depth on the Pirahã language itself. Both sections are fascinating and include glimpses of the missionary zeal of Everett and his wife, unsettling cultural practices of the Pirahã, humorous cross-cultural incidents, and much more.
As usual, in book reviews here at The Conlanging Librarian, let’s examine some interesting linguistic twists that an enterprising conlanger might take advantage of from Pirahã. We’ll avoid the ones that many people may already know, including the language’s lack of recursion (see here). The first concept that struck me was the idea of kagi. Let’s take some examples from the text to see this in action first:
- “rice and beans” could be termed "rice with kagi"
- Dan arrives in the village with his children: "Dan arrived with kagi"
- Dan arrives in the vilage with his wife: "Dan arrived with kagi"
- A person goes to hunt with his dogs: "He went hunting with kagi"
Everett ends up translating the term kagi as "expected associate" with the expectation being culturally determined. A man's wife is expected to be associated with him. One expects a person to go hunting with his dogs. And so on.
The terms bigí and xoí are also associated with a culturally-determined meaning. The Pirahã believe in a layered universe. The bigí is the boundary between those layers. The xoí is the entire biosphere between bigí. To go into the jungle is to go deeper into the xoí. To remain motionless in a boat is to stay still in the xoí. If something falls from the sky, it may be said to come from the upper bigí. This way of dividing up the universe is similar in some ways to the way Deutscher described splitting up the visible spectrum in his book. Deutscher’s book also mentions fixed directional systems, and the Pirahã also use an upriver-downriver fixed point system instead of our left-right orientation. I still find this an interesting set of concepts to play with in a conlang.
Everett also contends that the Pirahã do not have a number system. According to him, they use a system of relative volume: hoi can appear to mean "two" but, in reality, can mean simply that two small fish or one medium fish are relatively smaller that a hoi fish. Everett recounts the trials of attempting to teach a number of Pirahãs to count in Portuguese, with very little success. He even goes so far as to say that there are not even words for quanitifers like "all, each, every, and so on." Instead, there are "quantifierlike" words (or affixes) that translate as "the bulk of" (Lit., the bigness of) the people went swimming and other relative terms. There are other words that mean the whole or part of something (usually something eaten). This way of looking at amounts, numbers, portions, etc., is fertile ground on which to play once again.
Finally (but no means the last intriguing concept in the book), Everett talks about the tribe's use of the term xibipíío which, loosely translated, means something like "the act of just entering or leaving perception, that is, a being on the boundaries of experience". "The match began to flicker. The men commented, 'The match is xibipíío-ing' . . . A flickering flame is a flame that repeatedly comes and goes out of experience or perception." However, the word can also be used for someone disappearing in a canoe around the bend in a river or for an airplane that just comes into view over the trees. The word has much wider connotations that an English-speaker saying something appears or disappears.
I have no idea what Everett thinks of conlangers or the art of language creation or if he is even aware of us. The final section of the book is entitled "Why Care About Other Cultures and Languages?" and lays out a good rationale for why this is important. In the end, there really is no comparison between language creation and preserving endangered languages. As M.S. Soderquist said on CONLANG-L: Creating a new hobby language doesn’t affect natural languages any more than playing Monopoly affects the economy. Conlangers can get their inspirations from any source, and Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle is a treasure trove of novel ideas as well as a a glimpse into another world and another culture and another way of seeing the world.
Through the Language Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages, the most recent book by Guy Deutscher, is a thought-provoking, highly-readable romp through some of the more unexpected realms of language. Deutscher is more than happy to take on with relish those ideas considered orthodox or “common sense” and to defend his own views, backing them up with facts and research. A number of very positive reviews of Through the Language Glass can be found online (such as here, here, and here, just to note a few), but what does the work have to offer conlangers? Being primarily an artlanger, I apologize ahead of time if this review strays too far in that direction. Deutscher’s book examines three main areas in-depth: color terms, grammatical gender, and spatial orientation. Let’s look at each of these in turn.
First, we examine color terminology. Deutscher examines how different languages split up the spectrum, and it turns out that my *blue* may not necessarily be your *blue*. In explaining the history of color terms, the author reaches back to W. E. Gladstone’s Studies on Homer and the Homeric Age, Volume 3, and its section entitled Homer’s Perception and Use of Colour and continues all the way up to the World Color Survey. The idea of slicing up the WCS-Munsell Color Chart or the CIE Color Space in novel ways to highlight the alien-ness or foreign-ness of a conlang’s speakers appeals to me. As Deutscher points out clearly, there are a number of interesting variations on the theme of how colors are designated in the world of natural languages. Even a language as familiar as Russian has "синий" and "голубой" whereas English simply has "blue". Granted, we English-speakers have shades of blue (light, dark, navy, baby, sky, etc.) and blue-related colors (turquoise, azure, indigo, etc.). Is purple a kind of blue? These are all concepts that can be played with in a conlang.
Next, let’s look at grammatical gender. Personally, I think this is a largely untapped field for conlangs to play in. Some of the African and Australian gender systems are very tempting to riff on. Deutscher talks about the “Bantu languages such as Swahili [which] have up to ten genders, and the Australian language Ngan’gityemerri is said to have fifteen different genders.” Of the 319 languages which specify use of grammatical gender in the Conlang Atlas of Language Structure database, over half (175 or 54.8%) use no gender at all. More interestingly, 84 conlangs use the familiar sex-based gender system and only 60 are non-sex-based. Another thing to consider is that it might be fun to determine how gender is assigned to words in one’s lexicon. One of my favorite stories related by Deutscher (in both Through the Language Glass as well as The Unfolding of Language) is how the Gurr-goni word "erriplen" (English "airplane") ended up in the vegetable gender category. It makes perfect sense when the history is known (or surmised), but, on first glance it makes no sense at all. Of course, if one is attempting to streamline or simplify language, gender is probably first on the list of things to excise. Alternatively, a conlang that attempts to be akin to natural languages would be more than likely to have grammatical gender. Why not have fun with it?
Finally, what about spatial orientation? This is the area that made the most impact on me. I really want to come up with a novel (or one that at least doesn’t have too many ANADEWisms) orientation system now. Deutscher provides several excellent alternatives to simple left-right-front-back. One is Guugu Yimithirr which uses an east-west-north-south system all the time. Another is Tzeltal (a Mayan language) which uses a downhill-uphill-across (in the direction of X). On the Marquesas Islands in French Polynesia, one finds mountainward-seaward-east-west. Depending on the geographical location of one’s conlang-speakers, I can see these or other systems being a lot of fun to create. Is there a specific location of historical/spiritual/geographical significance to your speakers? Orient towards that. This would also have some interesting connotations within a story as well (as well as lots of opportunity for misunderstandings… which could be a positive plot device).
These are just a few of the highlights in Deutscher’s new book. His The Unfolding of Language is one of my favorite narrative nonfiction books on language. (Arika Okrent‘s is, of course, another.) His new one is well worth the read, and has some great quotes, intriguing points, and enjoyable prose. Whether you buy it, check it out from your local library, or borrow it from a friend, make sure to put it on your conlang reading list.
One of my favorite books on language is Guy Deutscher’s The Unfolding of Language. It’s accessible, informative, and just a lot of fun to read. Well, I just discovered that he’ll be coming out with a new one on August 31 (That’s in 2 days!): Through the Language Glass. Here’s the product description from Amazon.com:
Linguistics has long shied away from claiming any link between a language and the culture of its speakers: too much simplistic (even bigoted) chatter about the romance of Italian and the goose-stepping orderliness of German has made serious thinkers wary of the entire subject. But now, acclaimed linguist Guy Deutscher has dared to reopen the issue. Can culture influence language—and vice versa? Can different languages lead their speakers to different thoughts? Could our experience of the world depend on whether our language has a word for “blue”?
Challenging the consensus that the fundaments of language are hard-wired in our genes and thus universal, Deutscher argues that the answer to all these questions is—yes. In thrilling fashion, he takes us from Homer to Darwin, from Yale to the Amazon, from how to name the rainbow to why Russian water—a “she”—becomes a “he” once you dip a tea bag into her, demonstrating that language does in fact reflect culture in ways that are anything but trivial. Audacious, delightful, and field-changing, Through the Language Glass is a classic of intellectual discovery.
Of course, I haven’t read it yet, but I’m looking forward to posting a review. There is an adaptation from an excerpt posted as an article online: “Does Your Language Shape How You Think?”. It’ll be interesting to see Deutscher’s take on the classic debate. Can’t wait.
The title of this post is pidgin Klingon for “conlangs all over the place”! I didn’t expect to have another post on Arika Okrent’s new book, In the Land of Invented Languages, so soon (especially since I haven’t gotten my copy from Amazon yet). However, I am ecstatic to announce that she (along with various conlangs) is getting a great deal of press coverage.
Due to this, several new additions to the Library need to be touted. You’ll find an article from Languagehat.com in the Magazine Articles area, a podcast from NPR’s Studio 360 in the Online Audio area, and (as if that was not enough) I have included a link to Arika’s timeline of conlangs in the About section.
Arika Okrent (pictured here in the back row of the Language Creation Conference II group photo and here in the second row at the Klingon qep'a') has now provided an important (and unique) contribution to the body of conlang literature scheduled for release on May 19, 2009: In the Land of Invented Languages: Esperanto Rock Stars, Klingon Poets, Loglan Lovers, and the Mad Dreamers Who Tried to Build A Perfect Language. Receiving a starred review from Publishers Weekly (5th from the bottom), Arika’s book is poised to become a favorite among conlangers and the general reader interested in language alike. Pre-order your copy today. For more books, visit the Books section of The Conlanger’s Library.