With nearly 7,000 natural languages in the world, there are a huge range of ways to express yourself. But this isn’t enough for some people. For centuries, philosophers, writers, and language lovers have invented their own artificial tongues.
The reasons are diverse. Perhaps the best-known artificial language, Esperanto, was conceived as a way for speakers of different languages to communicate with one another. Rather than using a common lingua franca (usually English these days), the invented language put everyone on an equal footing. Its developer, L. L. Zamenhof, used parts of other European languages to make it easy and logical to learn.
Another example, Volapük was invented by a Roman Catholic priest in the 19th century. At the height of its popularity it had almost a million speakers, but fell into disuse.
Other languages are developed as fictional devices. Klingon, the language spoken by a fictional warrior race in Star Trek, now has thousands of speakers worldwide. And J.R.R. Tolkien was inspired to write the Lord of the Rings as a way of using the languages he invented.
Most natural languages include a lot of irregularities – English is a good example. For many inventers, an artificial language is an opportunity to create a more logical way of expressing yourself, without the exceptions to rules found in almost every language. Many constructed, or “philosophical” languages of the 17th and 18th centuries fall into this category.
It’s also a way to test linguistic theories. Dr. Suzette Haden, a linguist, created Laadan in response to the theory that most human languages are better adapted for men than women.
In a feature for the New Yorker, Joshua Foer meets John Quijada, the inventer of Ithkuil, who used parts of other languages to create a highly structured artificial language, which is mean to be a clearer means of expressing thought. It was so successful that it attracted attention from a research institute in Russia, with learners believing it could help them think more logically. Foer follows the progress of Quijada, who ultimately feels he has lost control of his own invention.
There’s even a term for people who invent languages – “conlangers”. For most people today, it’s a hobby and a way of expressing themselves. Although there are hundreds of invented languages, you might not be surprised to find out that most of them have only one speaker!
But that’s not always the case. Esperanto is sometimes considered a failed attempt at developing a universal language. But according to some estimates there are up to 2 million “active” speakers worldwide, as well as 1000 native speakers. There are numerous clubs for speakers, and an extensive literature in the language. Meanwhile, the Klingon Language Institute offers courses for Star Trek fans and translations of Shakespeare’s plays in the language!