Babel-esque hobby grows
Los Angeles Times
Sept. 2, 2007
Web site counts nearly 2,000 new invented languages
by Amber Dance
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. advertisement
"Ale li pona," she told herself. "Everything will be OK."
Kisa eventually sorted through her thoughts and, to her great surprise, her
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 practice 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 Web site Langmaker .com now lists more than 1,000 language inventors and
1,902 made-up languages, from Ayvarith to Zyem.
The language inventors have, of course, created a word to describe what they do
- "conlang," short for constructed languages.
Created languages may have no hope of supplanting the real thing, but for most
conlangers, that is hardly the goal. Hobbyists such as 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 the majority of 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 brush strokes of
Kisa created Toki Pona as an exercise in minimalism, looking for the core
vocabulary 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
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.
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 simply to 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 sprachgefuhl - "speech
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 Web site developer in Sacramento, Calif., who created
There are rules to this game. Human languages - known as "natlangs," for natural
languages - follow universal linguistic patterns.
For example, few human languages use the raspberry sound, but all have an "ah"
sound. To create a pseudo-natlang, the conlanger also should follow those rules.
Of course, there are instances when one doesn't want to follow the rules. In
creating Klingon for Star Trek, Marc Okrand, 59, said, "I looked at all those
kinds of rules and then violated them on purpose."
If a conlang is to be a language for non-humans, the conlanger must consider
their biology - if they lack teeth or vocal cords, the language's sounds will be
The conlanger also must ponder the grammar. For example, will the word order be
subject-verb-object, as in English, or perhaps object-subject-verb, following
the example of Yoda?
Okrand chose the rarest of grammatical structures, object-verb-subject. A
Klingon would say, "The Enterprise boarded I."
He purposely picked sounds that never would be found together in the same human
Once a language is released from the notebooks and index cards of its birth,
other speakers might use it for purposes its creator never intended.
Since Kisa let Toki Pona loose on the Internet in 2001, it has spread from
Toronto to speakers all over the world.
Massachusetts Institute of Technology routinely offers a seminar about the
Kisa has received e-mails from Russians learning Toki Pona and a Finnish
therapist who wants to teach it to his depressed patients.
Occasionally these correspondents offer criticism as well as praise.
Kisa has given in to a few complaints. It's only natural for language to evolve,
"It's like a living thing now."