Defining Constructed Languages. Definition and Basic Overview over the Concept

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2021

35 Pages, Grade: 1.0


Table of Contents

List of Tables

List of Figures

List of Images

1. Introduction

2. Literature

3. Perspectives on Constructed Languages
3.1. Purposes of Constructed Languages
3.1.1. Artistic Languages
3.1.2. Auxiliary Languages
3.1.3. Engineered Languages
3.1.4. Classification Models
3.2. Structure
3.2.1. Source Material
3.2.2. Structure Compared to Natural Languages
3.3. Historical Developments
3.4. Approaches to Constructed Languages
3.4.1. Linguistics
3.4.2. Literature and Literary Studies
3.4.3. Teaching
3.4.4. Culture Studies

4. Conclusion


List of Tables

Table 1: Volapük structure (derived from Okrent, 2020, p. 106)

Table 2: Historical Developments

List of Figures

Figure 1: Gnoli Triangle (Stria, 2016, p. 97)

Figure 2: Gnoli Triangle, colorized (Stria, 2016, p. 97)

Figure 3: Hexagon by Jan van Steenbergen (Stria, 2016, p. 98)

Figure 4: Final definition

List of Images

Image 1: Analysis of the heptapod language from the film ‘Arrival’

1. Introduction

Humans have been concerned with language for centuries. With this, language has not only fulfilled its purpose as a communicative medium, but it has left an impression on generations and nations. According to the Bible, the earth used to be of one people and one language until the people became boastful and began building a tower to reach heaven. When God saw their arrogance, he decided to confuse their languages so that they were unable to proceed with their project and instead scattered all over the earth (cf. King James Bible, 1796/2021, Gen. 11:1-11). Looking at the situation more closely, the history – and the concept – of language is much more complex and far-reaching than this story may imply. The matter becomes only more complicated with a human phenomenon called metalinguistic awareness. Moreover, this awareness has not only led to libraries of books about natural languages, but it has also given humans the ability to take their insight into the structures of languages and modify them in a way that creates new languages. These languages are also referred to as ‘constructed languages’, which is a term that will be further clarified in the following segment. The origin of ‘construct’ lies in the Latin ‘construo/construere’, where it consists of the preposition ‘com’ – with, together – and the transitive verb ‘struere’ – to build (Mahoney, n.d.). This means that something constructed is something that has – in its literal sense – been built together or put together. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines the verb ‘construct’ as “to make or form by combining or arranging parts or elements” (Merriam-Webster, n.d.). Keeping this definition in mind and developing it further, it can be determined that constructing or building together is an action that must be actively pursued; the action implies an indispensable intention of the agent. This, in turn, leads to the conclusion that something constructed can be considered unnatural, meaning that there is no natural or random occurrence of it. Hence, a constructed language stands in contrast to natural languages because it does not exist in natural reality; instead, it has been actively created and intentionally put together, which builds a strong connection to metalinguistic awareness. To construct a language, the creator must be aware of the underlying language systems and structures.

Having examined the first part of the term ‘constructed language’, it is now the next step to define the second. The Britannica encyclopedia entry for ‘language’, which was mainly written by David Crystal, provides the following definition: “Language [is] a system of conventional spoken, manual (signed), or written symbols by means of which human beings, as members of a social group and participants in its culture, express themselves. The functions of language include communication, the expression of identity, play, imaginative expression, and emotional release” (Crystal & Robins, 2020). There is another characteristic of language mentioned briefly in the definition: “[…] by means of which human beings […] express themselves” (Crystal & Robins, 2020, emphasis added). While inter- and intra-species communication have been observed in almost all animals, the human concept of language is precisely that – exclusive to humans (Goldman, 2012). Keith Allan (2015, p. 2) states that “humans interact with their environment in many ways, of which human communication using language is the most sophisticated and results from intentional behavior” (p. 2).

Following, for the establishment of a starting definition Ds of constructed language, the two elements must be combined.

è A constructed language is a system of symbols, which is used as a means of expression and does not occur naturally, but that has instead been purposefully and intentionally created.

It could be added that such a system must be created by one or more human(s). However, it has been previously established that language per definition is exclusive to humans, which would make the addendum redundant.

This paper aims at developing a comprehensive definition of the concept of constructed languages, taking into account the history, purposes, structures, and approaches to language construction. To achieve this goal, the paper will give a brief overview of existing literature concerning constructed languages or in any way relevant and provide a collection of current definitions. This literature review will lead to an intensive investigation and examination of several aspects that make up the concept of constructed languages and language construction. In conclusion, an expressive and profound definition will be derived from the aspects discussed to provide a universal understanding of the concept. In short, the beforementioned definition will be tested through several perspectives on constructed languages with the aim of a comprehensive definition.

All preliminary definitions will be marked with the symbol ® for a quicker overview.

2. Literature

Especially in academic contexts, constructed languages have recently not been very present in literature and conversation. Hence, this literature review will give an overview of academic works to explain metalinguistic awareness as a foundation for language construction, then provide definitions of constructed language from academic and non-academic sources of diverse natures and backgrounds.

The reason to explain metalinguistic awareness more profoundly lies in the immediate connection to language construction. Constructing a language according to the definition in the introduction is only possible because of metalinguistic awareness. Ramirez et al. (2013, as cited in Altman et al., 2018) describe metalinguistic awareness as the “ability to distance oneself from the content of speech in order to reflect upon and manipulate the structure of language” (p. 3). Tunmer et al. (1988) agree with this definition insofar that metalinguistic abilities allow for manipulation of the structural features of language, more precisely – spoken language, but they also add the clarification that “unlike normal language operations, which involve automatic processing, metalinguistic operations require control processing” (p. 136, emphasis in original). They further distinguish between four categories of metalinguistic awareness: phonological awareness, word awareness, syntactic awareness, and pragmatic awareness (p. 136). According to Altman et al. (2018), metalinguistic awareness develops around the age of 5 (p. 3). They also add morphological awareness to the list of categories (p. 1). For further clarification, it must be stated that there are disagreements and overlaps in the terminology of this concept. Another common term is ‘language awareness’, but as mentioned before, there are no clear definitions that would make unambiguous distinctions possible. In an attempt to give an overview of the current terms and their usage, Jessner (2008) calls the terminology “confusing” and discusses the “main terminological and conceptual differences resulting in a number of dichotomies” (p. 364).

The importance of metalinguistic awareness for language construction can be derived from its definition given before. To develop new language systems for a constructed language, the creator has to be able to distance himself from speech itself and “reflect upon and manipulate the structure of language” (Ramirez et al., 2013 as cited in Altman et al., 2018). These are the processes taking place during language construction: phonological awareness for developing a phonological system for the target language; word awareness (also called lexical awareness), which makes the construction of a lexicon possible; morphological and syntactic awareness to decide on the structure of words, phrases, and sentences; and pragmatic awareness to create a level of understanding that goes beyond the literal meaning. Therefore, metalinguistic awareness is not a component in language construction, but it can instead be considered the prerequisite to creating unnatural languages.

One aspect that already posed a challenge in defining metalinguistic awareness and does the same for the definition of constructed languages is terminology ambiguity. Other terms for constructed languages are invented languages, artificial languages, and created languages. While ‘constructed language’ is supposedly the most broadly agreed-upon term (Peterson, 2015, p.18), all other terms still frequently appear in research. Especially in the literature published before 1930, the more popular term seems to have been artificial language, but it also mostly referred to auxiliary languages because they had been on the rise during the 19th century (Peterson, 2015, p. 8). For clarification purposes, the concept will be called ‘constructed languages’ throughout the paper, unless there are deviations from this terminology in the source material, which will be mentioned accordingly.

Constructed languages are still broadly overlooked in scientific and academic literature. Even popular overviews of language or introductions to the concept of language and linguistics such as ‘How Language Works’ and ‘A Little Book of Language’ by David Crystal or ‘The Unfolding of Language’ by Guy Deutscher fail to mention language construction as part of history and current developments, even though they were all written by highly esteemed linguists. It seems to be merely books or articles focused explicitly on language construction that acknowledge the concept's relevance. In many older sources, constructed languages (then mostly called artificial languages) are defined in contrast to natural languages. For example, W.A. Verloren van Themaat (1962) describes natural languages as languages which “were spoken for centuries, during which time nobody queried, why one spoke the way one did […]” (p. 320) while formalized or artificial languages are “the reflexion [sic] how to express one’s thoughts in the simplest, clearest, most logical and most unambiguous way” (p. 320). While this may have been true for philosophical languages, which will be explained more thoroughly during the chapter on purpose, this distinction did not always seem satisfactory. In fact, in 1929, Otto Jespersen’s article in the journal American Speech states the following:

It is customary to speak of such languages as English, French and German as natural, and such languages as Esperanto, Ido, Volapük, Occidental, Novial as artificial. It will be my task in this paper to show that this distinction is not exact, as the difference is one of degree rather than of species; very much in the so-called natural languages is ‘artificial,’ and very much in the so-called artificial languages is quite natural […]. (p. 89)

He continued to use the terms ‘national languages’ for natural languages and ‘constructed languages’ for artificial languages. However, it must be noted that he spoke about international auxiliary languages exclusively using the term ‘constructed language’ (p. 89), which makes Jespersen the first recorded user of that term, even though it disagrees with the current definition (Adelman, 2014, p. 545). The next source differs greatly from the setting of Jespersen’s text insofar that it is an article that directly focuses on non-natural languages in science fiction, which describes an utterly different category of constructed languages. Ria Cheyne (2008) states that “rather than evolving out of earlier languages, as natural languages do, an artificial language is a deliberate construct designed at a particular time for a particular purpose” (p. 386). She later decides to use ‘constructed language’ as a consistent term throughout her article. Despite the different backgrounds of the articles, their definitions of the term ‘constructed language’ are mostly congruent. They do, however, contain relatively little linguistics-specific information on the concept. This changes slightly with the more recent definition by Adelman (2014), which was published in the Harvard Journal of Law & Technology. Adelman (2014) states that his use of the term ‘constructed language’ is to “denote a language that has a phonology, morphology, syntax, and sometimes alphabet attributed to an individual inventor” (p. 545). He goes on to explain the different terms and to cite Detlev Blanke (1997), saying that “[linguists] lack a generally accepted core term” (as cited on p. 545). Even though Adelman first defined ‘constructed language’ without basing it on the contrast to natural languages, he does return to this distinction because of the lack of a generally accepted term. Adelman states that natural languages have a history of evolving from other natural languages, which does not apply to constructed languages (p. 545). A definition that is closer to the version by Adelman first cited is provided by Megan Condis (2016) in the introduction to an interview with Dr Jessica Sams: “These invented languages are more than lists of made up [sic] words. They require structure and grammar and the development of new writing systems, which in turn are influenced by the cultures and even morphological features of the creatures who speak them” (p. 151). With the last words ‘of the creatures who speak them,’ it becomes clear that she is writing about fictional languages in this case, but the overall definition describes constructed languages in general reasonably well.

In her doctoral dissertation, Ida Stria (2016) attempts to sketch an overview of definitions and key points of constructed (in her text: artificial) languages, but she seems to focus almost exclusively on the function of auxiliary languages, which cannot provide a thorough definition of the broader concept. Lastly, there are two definitions in non-academic literature, albeit from the field of linguistics. The first definition can be found in the book In the Land of Invented Languages, written by linguist Arika Okrent and published in 2010. In her book, Okrent aims at creating an introduction to language construction for a broad audience and describes the first constructed languages she had encountered, saying:

They were invented on purpose, cut from whole cloth, set down on paper, start to finish, by one person. They had chapters and chapters of grammar and extensive dictionaries. They were testaments not to the wonder of nature but to the human impulse to master nature. They were deliberate, painstakingly crafted attempts to tame language by making it more orderly, more rational, less burdened with inconsistencies and irregularities. (p. 6)

Okrent herself usually calls constructed languages ‘artificial’ or ‘invented’ languages in her book, which can be attributed to the fact that the discussion about the terminology was still ongoing. It had, however, changed until six years later, when David Joshua Peterson wrote his book, The Art of Language Invention, which is a guideline aimed at inspiring others to pursue language construction. There, Peterson (2015) states that constructed language and the respective abbreviation ‘conlang’ is the “consensus term for a created language” (p. 18). He continues to explain that “any language that has been consciously created by one or more individuals in its fullest form is a conlang, so long as either the intent or the result of the creation process is a fully functional linguistic system” (p. 18, emphasis in original). The emphasis on the intention of language creation reinforces the indispensable intention of the agent, which was explained in the introduction of this paper. This intent seems like a golden thread running through all attempts at defining constructed languages because it is one of the main factors that distinguish constructed from natural languages.

Lastly, there is one more distinction to make: the differentiation between language construction and language planning. Whereas ‘planned language’ and ‘constructed language’ are sometimes used synonymously and are related, language planning is a different undertaking with close to no connection to language construction. Language construction describes the invention of a new language with new language systems; language planning describes the governmental action of imposing language policies and language education policies on the national language(s). The International Encyclopedia of Linguistics defines Language Planning as a “deliberate response to language problems – systematic, future-oriented, and based on a theoretical framework” (Clyne et al., 2003).

Concluding this chapter on existing literature, it can be said that even though constructed languages have been an issue for niche discussions in both academic and non-academic settings, there still is no definite consensus on the concept, let alone the terminology. Despite several attempts at standardization in terms and definitions regarding constructed languages, it is still unclear how to differentiate between artificial, invented, imaginary, created, and constructed languages. While some authors use ‘artificial languages’ as mostly about what is otherwise called ‘auxiliary languages’, there is no consensus about this use, leading to an ongoing confusion in academic and non-academic works. To further clarify these terms, the following chapter will focus on different perspectives on constructed languages, including the major classifications.

3. Perspectives on Constructed Languages

Constructed languages can be observed from different perspectives, which helps gain a more comprehensive understanding of the concept. The first of these perspectives to be considered is the purpose of constructed languages because it is one of the major points of differentiation. This includes an overview of the purposes themselves and an introduction to some of the models that were developed over the last decades to facilitate classification. The presentation of the purposes will lead to the classification based on structure, depending on the source of constructed languages. The last perspective will be historical, facilitating understanding how constructed languages have developed from their first recorded use until the 21st century.

When working on this chapter, the question arose, which order of perspectives would be the most helpful and logical. One option would have been to begin with the history of constructed languages to provide a chronological approach to these perspectives. It has, however, become clear that there are terms regarding constructed languages, which must be clarified and explained before being able to give an understandable historical overview. Hence, the purpose and structural perspective will be presented first to provide a foundation for historical developments. In this chapter, some of the sources were not published in an academic setting, albeit by authors of academic backgrounds. Arika Okrent and David J. Peterson are both linguists by trade, but their books were written and published for linguistic laypeople. Some other sources were published more than a century ago but can be considered of professional value due to their publications in journals. The third kind of sources is publications on Fiat Lingua, an online journal by the Language Creation Society. The journal is not peer-reviewed and can thus not be considered academic, but it is of high value within this niche community, and many of the authors hold academic degrees in linguistics and draw from years of experience and communication about language construction.

3.1. Purposes of Constructed Languages

Despite the disagreement in the definition of some terms, there are three primary purposes of constructed languages that frequently occur, especially in more recent literature. These three main purposes of constructed languages are artistic, auxiliary, and engineered. They will be presented in alphabetical order, and for every purpose, one or two languages will be explained more elaborately to give a more profound understanding of the use of these languages.

3.1.1. Artistic Languages

Artistic languages are a subcategory of constructed languages that has only recently experienced an upswing in popularity and relevance. The term is commonly shortened to ‘artlang’. The purpose of these languages is, as the name states, artistic. This includes language creation for aesthetic, fictional or even personal reasons (Peterson, 2015, p. 21). While there are several other types of artistic languages, such as alternative and personal languages, the two most important categories are fictional and experimental languages. However, experimental languages broadly overlap with engineered languages, which is why they will be discussed further in 3.1.3. Engineered Languages. Hence, the focus of this section lies on the major subcategory of fictional languages. This does not impede the understanding of artistic languages because fictional languages are, in fact, the kind of constructed language that has been on the rise since 1937 and have experienced a new high in recent years. Fictional languages usually do not stand alone; instead, they are part of fictional worlds or fictional contexts (Peterson, 2015, p. 19). Some of the most famous examples in this category are the languages by John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, who wrote The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and other works taking place in his fictional world of Middle-Earth.

Even though he was not the first person to create languages for fictional works, he was the first to create such elaborate language systems, language families and historical developments for his languages. Some of his languages are fully developed linguistic systems, with invented phonetics and phonology, morphology, syntax, semantics and even pragmatics and scripts. Tolkien called his passion for language construction ‘a secret vice’ or ‘a hobby for the home’ in his eponymous lecture held at the Johnson Society at Pembroke College in 1931 (Tolkien, 2020). This vice would not stay so secret much longer because he presented it to a public audience with the publication of The Hobbit in 1937. There is one other aspect of language construction making Quenya, Sindarin, and the other languages created by Tolkien different from those used in fictional works before him. Other authors crafted fictional languages for their worlds, but Tolkien’s approach was different: He had worked on his languages for decades before even beginning to write on his stories (Okrent, 2010, p. 284). Hence, his languages were not supposed to serve the finished story; instead, his fictional world was supposed to serve his languages. This becomes evident in Tolkien reportedly saying, “Nobody believes me when I say that my long book is an attempt to create a world in which a form of language agreeable to my personal aesthetic might seem real. But it is true” (Okrent, 2010, p. 283). Therefore, it can be concluded that Tolkien’s intention for language construction was purely aesthetic.

A second language, which could not be more different in almost all aspects, can be discovered in the movie ‘Arrival’ which came to movie theaters in 2016. The film tells the story of linguist Louise Banks, who is called to fieldwork at a US army base because twelve extraterrestrial spacecraft have landed on twelve positions on Earth. It is Banks’ task to communicate with the aliens, finding out what their intention is. The movie’s producers consulted Jessica Coon, an associate professor for linguistics at McGill University, as a linguistic assistant, and Stephen Wolfram as a scientific and engineering assistant to construct the heptapod alien language (Villenueve, 2016). The language developed in the course of the film production is a written language consisting of circular logograms that, opposed to most natural languages, does not have a spoken language to correspond with visual communication (Coon in Lubin, 2016). Jessica Coon also notes that the movie's alien language is not fully developed in terms of human linguistics (Lubin, 2016), but as it is extraterrestrial in the film, it is closer to xenolinguistics which is a section of linguistics focused on alien languages.


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Defining Constructed Languages. Definition and Basic Overview over the Concept
Technical University of Chemnitz
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defining, constructed, languages, definition, basic, overview, concept
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Katharina Maschke (Author), 2021, Defining Constructed Languages. Definition and Basic Overview over the Concept, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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