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artificial languages FAQ

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Archive-name: language/artificial-languages-FAQ
Last-modified: 2005.06.21

See reader questions & answers on this topic! - Help others by sharing your knowledge

[0] what terminology is used to describe artificial languages?
[1] how are artificial languages useful and interesting?
[2] what resources are available for constructed language enthusiasts?
[3] how does one design a language?


[0] what terminology is used to describe artificial languages?

An artificial language is a language that has been deliberately
designed by one person or a small group of people over a
relatively short period of time.  Synonyms for the term
artificial language include planned language, constructed
language, model language, and invented language.  Artificial
languages designed for specific purposes are also known by an
array of other terms.  Those used in works of fiction are
called imaginary languages or fictional languages.  Those 
designed to facilitate global communications are called universal 
languages, auxiliary languages (auxlangs), interlanguages or 
interlinguas, international languages, etc.  The realm of 
artificial languages also includes logical languages, number 
languages, symbolic languages a.k.a. icon(ic) languages, and 
pasimologies (gesture languages).


[1] how are artificial languages useful and interesting?

[1.1] linguistic research

Linguists sometimes create small model languages to study the
ways in which people learn languages.  In this situation, a
specially created language has the advantage that its
characteristics can be carefully controlled.  The model language
is then taught to a group of people, and their ability or
inability to learn it, or its effect on their brain activity or
their perceptions of the world can be analyzed and conclusions

[1.2] artificial intelligence

Artificial languages are used in conjunction with computers. 
Examples are the "pivot languages" or "interlinguas" used in some
methods of automated translation.  Some of the knowledge
representation schemes used in artificial intelligence research
resemble the "philosophical languages" and the systems of
"semantic primitives" that were once trendy in the auxiliary
language milieu.  When humans want to teach computers how to
perform certain tasks, the instructions must be written in
computer programming languages, which are also a type of
artificial language. (Although some object that programming
languages are not really *languages* because the recipients of
the instructions are neither sentient nor sapient.)

[1.3] international communication

Many people believe that an artificial language could serve as a
neutral, easy-to-learn auxiliary language for those who engage in
international communication: tourists, businessmen, researchers,
scientists, etc.  International organizations such as the United
Nations and the European Union could benefit greatly from the use
of a politically neutral auxiliary language; representatives
would be able to speak directly with one another, and the
possibility of dangerous or costly misunderstandings arising from
misleading translations would be reduced.  The cost of providing
translations would also be minimized.

[1.4] works of fiction

Novels and movies sometimes use invented languages as "props" to
add flavor to an imaginary culture.  In some cases, these
fictitious languages become popular and take on a life of their
own.  Tolkien's "elvish" languages, the Klingon language from
Star Trek, and the feminine language Laadan from Suzette Haden
Elgin's novels are examples of this fascinating social

[1.5] art for art's sake

Some people view language design as an art form; they do it as a
hobby, because it gives them pleasure, just as others derive
pleasure from making quilts or building model railroads. 
Artificial languages created primarily in response to aesthetic
impulses are called artlangs.

[1.6] secret languages

Individuals and groups will sometimes invent secret languages to
keep information private from persons who have not been
initiated.  Pig Latin, used by some English-speaking children, is
probably the most famous example, but it is little more than a
re-arrangement of the phonemes in English words; other cultures
have produced secret languages that are more effective at
concealing information.  Damin is an example.

[1.7] psychiatry

A psychiatrist can gain insights into a patient's mind by
studying the patient's invented language(s) or by studying the
ways in which a patient uses an artificial language to express
himself.  Dr. W. John Weilgart, inventor of the artificial
language aUI, was a pioneer in this field.

[1.8] helping the handicapped

In the 18th century, the idea of helping deaf people communicate
with others via gestures that represent concepts began to spread.
This eventually resulted in the creation of American Sign
Language which has evolved into a rich and complete language. 

In the 1940s Charles K. Bliss became fascinated with the idea of
a pictorial symbol language to facilitate international
communication.  His universal language scheme, first called
Semantography and later Blissymbolics, never caught on as a
global lingua franca but it did end up helping humanity in an
unexpected way.

Inability to speak caused by cerebral palsy, brain injury or
other difficulties causes practical problems and a feeling of
isolation for those affected.  In 1971 teachers at the Ontario
Crippled Children's Centre were searching for some way to make it
possible for non-speaking children to communicate with the world.
They stumbled across Blissymbolics and found that the children
could learn the symbols easily.  After years of development a
slightly modified version of Blissymbolics is helping hundreds of
children and adults to communicate with their friends and


[2] what resources are available for constructed language enthusiasts?

[2.1] World Wide Web pages

Assembling and maintaining an all-inclusive list would be
difficult or impossible.  Here is one place to start:

Spending some time with a good search engine can also unearth
dozens or hundreds of constructed language projects.  The
descriptors mentioned in section [0] of this FAQ are good search
terms to use with a search engine.

[2.2] Usenet newsgroups

soc.culture.esperanto is the main newsgroup for discussion in/of

alt.language.artificial is available for discussion in/of other
constructed languages.

[2.3] hardcopy

From time to time periodicals have been devoted to artificial
languages.  International Language Review and Journal of Planned
Languages covered a variety of language projects during their
lifespans.  (JPL is on hiatus now but might attempt a comeback
someday.)  Periodicals devoted to particular auxiliary language
projects (e.g. Rund um die Welt and Cosmoglotta) sometimes
covered other language proposals, or so I've been told -- they
are not easy to find.

A bibliography of relevant books is at


[3] how does one design a language?

A language design includes many interacting elements such as
phonemic inventory, phonotactics, choice of writing system,
morphology, grammar and syntax, semantics, and the communicative
needs of the culture that might use the language.  And as Jeff
Prothero observed, "To make any sort of optimality argument, or
indeed any sort of rational engineering decision, one needs a
fairly precise characterization of the problem to be solved."

Before embarking on a voyage of language creation, newbies would
be well advised to spend a few years studying general linguistics
and examining the artificial languages for which detailed
descriptions are available.  Reading some descriptions of natural
languages that are drastically different from your own native
tongue should also be considered a prerequisite.  Books about
Navaho, Swahili, Chinese and other non-Indo-European languages
are readily available from libraries and on-line bookstores.

Some ideas about language creation are discussed in the web
pages listed below.  Ready to use vocabulary lists, software 
that randomly creates new words, and parsers to help you 
explore syntax design are also available throughout the web.


This FAQ is written by Rick Harrison.  My email address is 
[firstname] @ [lastname] dot net


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