The Big Idea: David J. Peterson

Here’s a word for you: “Conlanger.” Do you know what one is? And what one does? And how they relate to some of your favorite fantasy and science fiction movies in the last several years? David J. Peterson, author of The Art of Language Invention, will catch you up on all the details — and they’re very cool details, to be sure.

DAVID J. PETERSON:

I am a conlanger.

If this were the year 2000, one in every ten thousand or so people would know what that meant. Now in 2015, I’d say one in every four or so people have an idea what that means. That’s huge. And for those of us that are conlangers (or language creators, for the other three quarters), the notion that language creation is now a publicly discussed, if not understood, phenomenon is still surreal.

After all, it wasn’t too long ago that conlanging as an activity was still quite obscure. The rise in notoriety of language creation wasn’t gradual, but exponential. Starting with James Cameron’s Avatar at the end of 2009, and followed closely by Game of Thrones in 2011, conlanging’s star has risen more dramatically in the past five years than it had in the previous 900.

The meteoric rise of conlanging coupled with a sea change in how we interact with the internet (younger folks especially) has left us with a strange reality. Scores of new would-be conlangers are coming to the craft specifically because of examples they’ve encountered in film and television in the past five years. Further, because of how they use the internet (Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook, Reddit—essentially media sharing and microblogging platforms), they’re finding each other, and finding discussions of well-known conlangs, but aren’t finding the older crowd—the original conlanging community.

The reason is simple enough. The older conlanging groups are housed on e-mail–based listservs or phpBB bulletin boards—platforms that were hugely popular in the 90s and early 00s, but which don’t seem to enjoy a lot of use anymore. Additionally, most conlangs by older conlangers are presented on personal websites—often with hand-coded HTML and CSS—which are all but invisible now that webrings and link lists are passé.

Now don’t think for a moment I’m bemoaning the current state of the internet—far from it! Sharing/resharing has changed the world, and changed it for the better. Reddit has really filled the hole that the death of newspapers had left in my morning routine.

The problem lies not with new conlangers, but with the old guard—those that aren’t transitioning to the new internet. Unfortunately, it’s the new conlangers who are suffering for it.

Going back to the year 2000, I was a brand new conlanger who didn’t know anything about the craft or anyone else who created languages. After a year of fumbling in the dark with my first language I found the original conlanging community, and that’s where I learned everything I know today. That’s basically what everyone did back then: Found the community, listened in, shared, received critiques, and improved.

The best part was, as a community, we all got a lot better at creating languages. Whether it was a language for a fantasy novel one was working on, or a “what if” project to test the limits of our linguistic capacity, the projects that came out of that period were stellar. And it makes me sad to think that while conlanging is currently at its zenith, much of this work is more obscure than ever.

With The Art of Language Invention, my purpose was twofold. The first was to give the uninitiated a window into the world of conlanging: to see what it’s all about, to see the work that goes into creating a language, and, maybe, to see if it’s for them. The second, though, was to build a bridge between the original conlanging community and the conlangers to come.

Obviously, the most visible part of this bridge-building is sharing the conlanging strategies, tips, and tricks I’ve learned over the years and included in the book. These, of course, are not my own invention: they come from the education I gained as a member of the early conlang community. Beyond that, though, I wanted to advertise the fact that other conlangers have done great work, and they have a lot to share—and a lot to teach.

The reason this is so important to me is that I hold no illusions about the position I occupy in the world of conlanging and how I got there. I was fortunate to be born when I was born, and fortunate that, after creating my first language, I found the early conlang community. After putting in ten years learning how to create languages, I was fortunate to hear about the competition to create the Dothraki language for Game of Thrones (not all conlangers did), so when I got my shot, I worked my choyo off to get the job—not just because I wanted it (I did), but to honor those that helped to inform my understanding of the craft.

Because outside the accidents of history, I am one of the old conlangers. You can still see my old website with hand-coded HTML and CSS here (and, yes, I like those colors, and I’m not changing them!). Some of my old languages were just okay; some were pretty good. No one would have heard of them, though, just as few have heard of Kash, created by Roger Mills, who died this past September. He put a lot of work and a lot of love into that language, and it’s quite impressive (I love Kash’s reciprocative reduplication pattern). Work like this is worthy of study and admiration and deserves to be remembered.

So, since I got the opportunity to write a book on language creation—to write about the art that has been my passion for over a decade and is now my livelihood—it was my big idea to let everyone know exactly what’s behind some of the conlangs you hear and see on the big and small screen, and to acknowledge and celebrate the conlangers who came before me and helped me to become who I am today.

—-

The Art of Language Invention: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Twitter.

19 thoughts on “The Big Idea: David J. Peterson

  1. Hey, I know David! Great to see his book here, looking forward to reading it. One of these days I’m getting back into conlanging and attending another LCC, I swear. I’ve got some ideas floating around.

  2. I was not expecting to see David’s book on The Big Idea. Glad to see it here though :). And while I agree that there is a disconnect between the old conlanging community and the new generation, some of us old farts do try to bridge the divide, like myself :P. And there *are* younguns on the Conlang Mailing List, so it’s not as if it’s only populated by greying wise men who chase children off their lawns! In fact, as a community the Conlang Mailing List may be the most welcoming of newbies that I’ve ever seen!

    In the end, it’s not an either-or situation. One can be active on Tumblr *and* on the Conlang Listserv for instance. Let’s bridge the generation gap together! That’s how we’ll create a big resilient conlanging community ready for whatever the future brings!

  3. To all of the interested people, there are conlang groups on Facebook and G+:
    https://www.facebook.com/groups/Conlang/
    https://www.facebook.com/groups/constructedlanguages/
    https://plus.google.com/communities/110060988583193080054

    as well as the old guard conlang-L mailing list:
    https://listserv.brown.edu/conlang.html

    Forums like Zompist (http://www.incatena.org/) are key hubs as well.

    There are great informational sites like the homepage for the Language Creation Society (conlang.org) and FrathWiki (http://www.frathwiki.com/) and even a podcast, Conlangery (http://conlangery.com/)

    Check out some do some searches and you’ll find us!

  4. This is definitely a must-read for me. I was fiercely interested in Conlangs right around the period Mr. Peterson describes, and I likely visited very many of the same hand-coded websites and email listserves that he mentions. My passion for Conlangs never really went away, but I never really became immersed in the community and my passion damped down to a dull flame throughout my college years and after. But for a few choices, I probably would be in a position to write much the same book!

    In any event, I still absolutely love languages and language invention. Thank you, John, for running this Big Idea piece and bringing this book to my attention!

  5. If Mr. Peterson is reading the comments: I’m surprised your website on conlang.org doesn’t even mention your work on Defiance. The alien languages add so much flavor to that show.

  6. @Zack Many conlangers consider St Hildegard von Bingen as the first conlanger (that we know of).

    @John Small Berries conlang.org is the website of the Language Creation Society. It is not David’s site, despite David being a co-founder and past president.

  7. And then you get people like Suzette Haden Elgin, who not only was a conlanger herself, but wrote a series of three SF books about conlang creation for social purposes, as kind of a flip version of 1984’s NewSpeak.

  8. Thank you for posting this! I will most definitely check out this book! I created a language a while back to be the most optimal tool for international (cross-cultural) communication possible. It was a lot of fun even if it took me many years and never went anywhere.

  9. I think I’d personally pull the arc of 21st century interest in conlanging further back and trace its beginning to the release of the Lord of the Rings films, which brought Tolkien’s language invention so much general attention. With the Harry Potter franchise and the first Spider-Man movie I think it really set the stage for the triumph of geek culture (including conlanging) and its current golden age.

  10. @Zack Yeah, the title of first conlanger currently must go to Hildegard von Bingen. That’s the earliest conlanger that we know of. There may have been (and, indeed, likely were) earlier conlangers, but we don’t have any record of their work. Hildegard, though, living in the 12th century, far predates J. R. R. Tolkien—and there were many, many in between.

    @John Thanks! I’m glad you enjoy the languages on Defiance. For the most part, I don’t think the conlang community has paid it much attention, which is too bad. I do the most work there, by far.

    @Kellan: The Lord of the Rings movies certainly did bring language creation to people’s attention, but I don’t think it actually made as large an impression as Avatar did (and by that I mean I don’t think it inspired as many conlangers, for whatever reason). I have said before, though, that I believe the Lord of the Rings movies and movies like, oddly enough, Passion of the Christ and Apocalypto paved the way for movies like Avatar, and, ultimately, Game of Thrones and shows of that caliber. However, in addition to that, it is well observed that the impact Spider-Man and the Harry Potter franchise had on the rise of geek culture can’t be overstated. Especially Spider-Man. It’s so easy to forget about that movie now that we have so many superhero movies, but I remember watching Spider-Man in college. I hadn’t seen anything like that. It was quite exciting! Very nice point!

  11. @bobmunck no. Programming Languages are not languages in the linguistic sense (since one does not use them for communication so much as to instruct a dumb machine to do stuff), so unless Wirth has created a language meant for actual, two-way communication (whether for real life or for fiction), he cannot be called a conlanger.

  12. I am not a conlanger but I was aware of Tolkien Elvish, of Klingon, of Esperanto (and another constructed language whose distinguishing feature was that it used only phonemes that all languages had in common (which probably should have rung an “are you certain? How do you know?” bell in my head at the time) and Laaidan. I only heard about the latter language in passing in college and don’t remember the name anymore, unfortunately. This was all back in the early 80’s (Elvish) to mid 80’s (Esperanto, nameless language) to mid-90’s (Klingon) to um…early 00’s? (Laaidan.)

    Do conlangers ever try to introduce new words into their native languages? Suzette Haden Elgin’s conlang fiction had the concept of (if I remember the term right) “encoding” which is making up a new word for a concept that is important but clunky to express in the previous words. The example that popped up in the story was making up a word for “not asking–refraining from asking when one knows the other party wants to be asked.”

    It also seems to me that if conlangers aren’t familiar with Elgin’s work, they might enjoy it. “Native Tongue” and “The Judas Rose” are the titles that spring to mind at the moment.

    Anyway, this sounds like an interesting book. I’ll check it out!

  13. @tselacg: “Programming Languages are not languages in the linguistic sense (since one does not use them for communication so much as to instruct a dumb machine to do stuff)”

    Ah, not true. The much more important role of a programming language is communicating to other people what the program does. Wirth believes that; we had a discussion about it when he was at PARC and I was struggling with their MESA language. Very few programs are written once and then never looked at again; the more important a program is, the more people that will need to read and understand it. Comments in the code, written in a natural language, just don’t do the job for a huge number of reasons.

    Adm. Hopper also believed this; that’s why COBOL was such a success for so long, despite having been designed in the stone age of programming.

  14. No one has mentioned Loglan/Lojban yet; I would think it would be one of the more widely know of the constructed languages. I was a member of a Cambridge (MA) Loglan group for a couple of years in the late 70s/early 80s. Is James Cooke Brown a conlanger?

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