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COLUMN ONE

Babel's modern architects

Hush now, Tolkien fans and grunting Klingonists. More newly created tongues are getting their moment, thanks to the Web.

August 24, 2007|Amber Dance | Times Staff Writer

In any language, Sonja Elen Kisa was depressed.

The world was overwhelming, and the thoughts that swirled through her mind in French, English, German or Esperanto echoed that.

So Kisa, 28, a student and translator in Toronto, decided to create her own language, something simple that would help clarify her thinking. She called it Toki Pona -- "good language" -- and gave it just 120 words.

"Ale li pona," she told herself. "Everything will be OK."

Kisa eventually sorted through her thoughts and, to her great surprise, her little language took off, with more than 100 speakers today, singing Toki Pona songs, writing Toki Pona poems and chatting with Toki Pona words.

It's all part of a weirdly Babel-esque boom of new languages. Once the private arena of J.R.R. Tolkien, Esperanto speakers and grunting Klingon fanatics, invented languages have flourished on the Internet and begun creeping into the public domain.

The website Langmaker.com lists more than 1,000 language inventors and 1,902 made-up languages, from `Ayvárith to Zyem.

The language inventors have, of course, created a word to describe what they do -- "conlang," short for constructed languages.

The awareness of invented languages has been driven in part by their use in popular films, such as Ku, a fictional "African" language spoken by Nicole Kidman in the 2005 film "The Interpreter."

Created languages may have no hope of supplanting the real thing, but for most conlangers, that is hardly the goal. Hobbyists like Kisa find it a fun or therapeutic practice. Linguists can use conlangs to dissect how real language works. For a select few who write fiction or work for Hollywood, conlanging can even be a moneymaker.

But to most linguaphiles, conlangs are simply art. Their palette holds not paints but the buzz of the letter "z," the hiss of an "s," the trill of an Italian "r."

And sometimes the howl of a Klingon scream: "Hab SoSlI' Quch!"

"Your mother has a smooth forehead!"

--

In this realm of art, Toki Pona is white canvas with scattered brushstrokes of primary colors.

Kisa created Toki Pona as an exercise in minimalism, looking for the core vocabulary that is necessary to communicate.

With only 120 words, a Toki Pona speaker must combine words to express more complicated ideas. For example, the Toki Pona phrase for "friend" is jan pona (the "j" sounds like a "y"), literally "good person."

Kisa, who is studying speech language therapy, tried to focus Toki Pona's vocabulary on basic, positive concepts.

"It has sort of a Zen or Taoist nature to it," Kisa said.

Tolkien liked to call invented language his "secret vice." He spent hours at the solitary hobby, designing grammars and modifying words from Latin, Finnish, Welsh and others for his languages.

Eventually, his languages needed tongues to speak them, and those speakers needed a place to live. And thus Middle-earth was born, with Tolkien's languages becoming the Sindarin and Quenya of the elves, the Khuzdul of the dwarves, and the Black Speech of the orcs.

People have been inventing languages since at least the 12th century, when the nun Hildegard of Bingen developed a rudimentary conlang she called Lingua Ignota, Latin for "unknown language."

No one knows its purpose. All that survives is a short passage and a list of 1,012 terms arranged from the highest form, "God," to the lowest, "cricket."

None of the invented languages has had much sticking power except Esperanto, which was created in the late 19th century by Polish doctor Ludovic Zamenhof.

His dream was to give humanity a common international language that would be simple to learn. Esperanto's vocabulary is small, word order does not matter, and there are no irregular verbs.

"Gi estas iom lingvo idealisma," said William B. Harris, director of the central office of the Esperanto League for North America in California. "It's somewhat of an idealistic language."

Today, as many as 2 million people speak Esperanto, which conlangers call an "auxlang," or auxiliary language. Among them are about 1,000 native speakers, who learned the language as children.

Learning is the easy part. Actually creating a language is a task only for the very tenacious. It took Kisa a year to put hers together, and her language was built to be basic.

It is not enough to simply replace existing words with invented ones. To a conlanger, such a construction would be a mere code.

The conlanger considers many factors, starting with the sound of the language.

Linguists call it phonaesthetics; Germans call it Sprachgefühl -- "speech feeling."

Tricky to define, it's that certain quality that makes French the language of love, and German the language that "makes you want to conquer Poland," said John Quijada, a Sacramento website developer and creator of Ithkuil, who attended an invented language conference at UC Berkeley this summer.

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