5 Complex Languages Invented by One (Crazy) Person
Languages are complicated. There are things like conjunctions and gerunds, and things can dangle, and it's all just way too much for most people to wrap their heads around. In fact, despite the best efforts of teachers and boring people everywhere, most of us go through life without really learning any of this stuff, and instead just try to write and talk like our peer groups so we don't get mocked.
"TAKE YOUR APOSTROPHES BACK TO YOUR IVORY TOWER, EGGHEAD."
But some people do understand all this stuff and are capable of not just diagramming the features of an existing language, but coming up with entirely new ones to inflict on a world that isn't lacking for things to be confused by. Below then are five examples of the most famous artificially created languages around.
Although we know him best for his three-part masterpiece, The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien was a philologist by training, a field that's essentially a rich stew of history, literature, and linguistics. Tolkien believed that perhaps the most important factor that explains how a language develops is the culture and history of the people who speak it. This belief led him to begin inventing not just a language, but the fictional history of the people who would speak it. This language he would call Quenya, which became the first of a whole family of languages we would now generally call Elvish.
Here's a sample of an Elvish poem, which, roughly translated, advises the listener to bring the motherfuckin' ruckus.
Tolkien worked on his invented languages for years, the same way that you or I might do literally anything else. He developed progenitor languages and daughter languages and filled everything with complex vocabularies that changed over the fictional eras he was writing about. This impossibly heavy nerd-lifting paid off in a bit way when he eventually wrote The Lord of the Rings, as by that point he already had a massive world with a rich history to set it in. Much of the history itself would end up in his later work, The Silmarillion.
Which reads a little bit like getting hit in the face by an encyclopedia.
In short, it's not a great exaggeration to state that the greatest fantasy epic ever written owes much of its success to the hard work a lunatic put into talking to imaginary friends. So if you enjoyed The Lord of the Rings for the adventuring, or the battles, or the woman shunning, you were wrong and missed the best part. The best part was the singing around the campfires.
The fact that the world is full of people who speak completely different languages from one another is the source of both confusion and hilarious anecdotes people bring back from their week in Asia.
In all fairness to Asia, that room is incredible.
In the late 1800s, after what must have been a pretty hilarious week in Asia, a man called L.L. Zamenhof realized that a single language that was straightforward and culturally neutral could serve as a middle ground for speakers from all over the world, facilitating greater understanding among foreigners and even helping to spread peace. The language he invented to do this was called Esperanto, and it remains to this day the most widely spoken constructed language in the world. Estimates range from a few hundred thousand up to 2 million people capable of speaking it, primarily in Europe and Eastern Asia, which means that unlike some of the other languages on this list, there are enough native speakers of Esperanto to form an actual culture and create original works in it, including books, poetry, and music.
Their limericks are known for being filthy in a culturally unbiased way.
It is, however, primarily an "auxiliary" language meant to serve as people's second language; very few people speak Esperanto in place of all other languages. You'll also perhaps notice that you don't speak Esperanto, and that the world is still filled with misunderstanding and unpeace. Although a couple million is pretty impressive, it's far, far from universal, and it points to kind of a flaw in the very idea of auxiliary languages. The reason most people learn a new language is because they need to communicate with someone who speaks or writes that language. If your company's sending you to its branch office in Japan or Europe or whatever, you're probably going to need to learn Japanese or Europese or whatever. And because no one knows Esperanto exclusively, if you need to communicate with an Esperanto speaker, you could always learn their "real" language instead. There is some evidence that people who learn Esperanto are more capable of learning additional languages, but that seems like a lot of extra effort to go to.
"So I get to learn two languages for the price of ... two?"
And of course, since the invention of Esperanto, the role of a global language has kind of, sort of, whisper it, been taken up by that filthy mongrel English tongue, mainly because of the Internet. So if there's any more wars or misunderstandings, just blame the English, I guess.
Similar to Esperanto, Lojban is an artificially constructed language that was designed to tackle a slightly different problem: ambiguity. Most natural languages are full of homographs (words that look the same but mean different things) and other ambiguous constructions that can be a little difficult to understand. Lojban was designed to allow no such ambiguous constructions at all, meaning that if you promise to toss someone's salad in Lojban, everyone will understand exactly what you mean and no one will laugh at you at all.
"Oh, grow up, everyone. You know I meant 'pianist' like a piano player."
"What did you mean by 'suck'?"
"FUCK YOU. I'm going to invent my own language and invite none of you to speak it!"
Without going into all the details, because I don't really understand all the details, Lojban's vocabulary and grammar prevent ambiguity; a correctly formed Lojban sentence will have only one semantic meaning. You can sort of see how this would appeal to a certain mind, someone who has posters of well-designed data structures on their walls and cries during Kraftwerk shows. But as a writer, one obvious-sounding limitation of a language like this is the fact that ambiguity is one of the things that makes languages fun. Entire branches of humor are predicated on hilarious double meanings. Although most double entendres are now horrible cliches, the premise behind them lies at the core of many, many other chuckle delivery vehicles.
"No, you can suck my Lojban, Gary."
To be a little more accurate, speakers of Lojban, and its predecessor, Loglan, are trying, in part, to test the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which essentially states that the language we use has effects on the way we think. A language constructed on logical principles, which minimizes ambiguity and confusion, wouldn't just lead to more rapid and accurate communication and collaboration, but more rapid and accurate thinking.
"Oh, and I and all my new language buddies will be smarter than you assholes, too!"
Testing Sapir-Whorf is a cool idea, but to realistically do that, you'd need a large population of second generation Lojban speakers, people who grew up in Lojban-speaking homes. And because we have yet to find thousands of people who can be crazy enough for the decades needed to do that, it's hard to see how that will happen. This has kind of reduced Lojban to a hobbyist thought exercise, with maybe 50 to 100 people who can actually use it. It's a cool idea that some people play with instead of video games, but don't expect the dawn of a new age of consciousness anytime soon.
"Better get your knee pads ready, Gary, because you norms will soon kneel before me, the new language pope."
Klingons are probably the most famous alien race from the Star Trek franchise, renowned for their militaristic culture and ferocity in battle.
And their sensuous, walnutty skulls.
During the initial series, Klingons only spoke in English, but when someone was tricked into giving the creators money for an actual Star Trek movie, they realized that that wouldn't do anymore. They'd have to put a little more effort into it and invent an actual language. So they got the actor who played Scotty to record some gibberish into a microphone and used that. No shit.
"I'm an engineer, Captain, not a philologist!"
By the time they got around to making a third Star Trek movie, Leonard Nimoy, who was directing this one, hired Marc Orkand, an actual linguist, to take the gibberish Scotty invented and turn it into a proper language. With one condition: Whatever was invented had to match up with the lips of actors who had already recorded a scene in English.
"So I said, 'Let's try, but there's no need to take this lightsaber stuff too seriously, fellas.'"
But the linguist did a fairly credible job of it, and by the time later movies and Star Trek: The Next Generation rolled around, Klingon had become a complete, coherent language with its own dictionary and grammar and everything. At this point, it was still solely for the benefit of the show and movie's writers. They published a dictionary containing the language, almost as a lark, but no one expected that their audience composed entirely of power-nerds would try speaking it for themselves.
"The conventions? Oh man. They all have just the hammiest handshakes. Ham-like, you know?"
But oh yes, the power-nerds did. Although most only know a few words or phrases, there are definitely a few who are actually fluent in it. The main problem is that Klingon was purposefully designed to be alien sounding and as unlike English as possible, filled with a crazy stew of grammatical features from a variety of other, mostly Eastern languages. And the vocabulary itself is fairly limited, with rather a large part of it having to do with space combat, and not, for example, grocery shopping. That didn't stop one dad from trying to raise one of his kids as a native Klingon speaker. That slightly weird story has a happy ending, at least: The kid doesn't remember a thing.
"jISaHbe' vav." ("Whatever, Dad.")
The Voynich Manuscript
Cracked has talked about the Voynich manuscript before, but no one's figured it out since then, so we're going to keep talking about it until one of you lazy bastards cracks it. Because it's certainly one of the most famous invented languages ever observed, unless it's gibberish, which it still might be.
This could be nothing, or hilarious, or really, really racist. We just don't know.
If you aren't familiar with it, the Voynich manuscript turned up in the collection of a literary collector in the early 20th century, but it's been carbon dated to sometime in the early 15th century. It's written in a completely unknown language using a completely unknown alphabet, and, just for fun, it's filled with strange drawings of completely unknown biological things and plants. "Bigfoot" is as good an explanation for its origin as any. "Bigfoot wrote this and read it back to himself while jerking off" is even better.
"Yessssss. All Bigfoot's shorties up in the green soup, getting all soupy."
All sorts of cryptographers and linguists have tried to crack the language, revealing a grand total of jack zilch. It's a little like existing languages, but not a lot, and it's full of strange features that don't show up anywhere else in the world. The best guess right now is that it's either a cypher of some kind, which is sort of plausible but for the fact that people back then weren't that good with codes, or a hoax, which is sort of plausible but for the fact that it really, really looks like an actual language, and people weren't that good at creating fake languages back then.
Edward Kelley was suspected of creating it as a hoax, primarily because of his
reputation as a schemer who always kept fake manuscripts hidden in his hat.
So we don't know. Do you know? You should tell someone.
Chris Bucholz is a Cracked columnist who likes it when they get all soupy, too. Join him on Facebook or Twitter to express your disgust.
For more from Bucholz, check out 5 Facts About Colors That Will Change How You See the World and So You're Now a Mech Warrior.
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