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Why Invent a Language?

Wondering what all this conlang business is about? There are many reasons why you might want to create your own language. I describe a few of them in this article.

Artistic Expression

One of the main reasons people create languages is for the sheer joy of inventing beautiful words and imagining the people who might speak them. This was J.R.R. Tolkien's primary motivation for creating Sindarin and Quenya, the two major Elvish languages featured in The Lord of the Rings.

Be warned, though: art-languages have a tendency to grow beyond their original bounds! Tolkien's dabbling in Elvish language started when he was in his early twenties, and occupied his interest for the next sixty years of his life!

Adding Depth to a Fictional World

This is closely related to artistic expression, but distinct. When you invent a language primarily for a fictional world, the language itself may not be especially beautiful. It may even (as is the case with Tolkien's Orkish) be intentionally ugly or strange. The language exists to make the fictional world feel distant and unlike our own world.

While the use of an invented language can make a fictional world feel alien, it can also highlight the ways in which that world is akin to our own. Tolkien's Elvish languages are crafted to sound like European languages, because Middle-earth was supposed to represent (more or less) a mythologized ancient Europe.

Tolkien fleshed out his languages with incredibly detailed histories and thousands of words, but there is no reason you have to go to such lengths to include an invented language in your novel or RPG setting. You can add lots of flavor to a world just by inventing names, and for that you only need a consistent sound-system (a phonology, in linguistics terms), a few dozen words that use those sounds, and some rules for putting them together into names.

Zompist's Language Construction Kit Book has a chapter on how to create such a "naming language"—plus everything you'd need to develop it into a full-fledged language if you later feel the urge.

International Communication

Quite a few languages have been created with the aim of fostering international empathy and goodwill by easing communication between people of different linguistic backgrounds. These languages have, in general, not succeeded at their aims, but a few of them have a fair number of speakers. These languages are called international languages auxiliary languages or auxlangs. Examples include Esperanto, Ido, Neo, and Volapük.

Learning a Foreign Language

One of the reasons I started conlanging was to get better at Spanish (my second language). Spanish has a lot of grammatical features that English doesn't, and my conlang helped me internalize the various ways in which languages can differ from English.

Secret Communication

If you can convince someone else to speak or write your conlang, you can have fun using it for private conversations or secret notes. You're probably familiar with language-games like Pig Latin; having a real language that's totally separate from English takes this idea to a whole new level.

J.R.R. Tolkien participated in two different secret-language communities in his youth: his first such language, Animalic, operated by substituting animal names for ordinary English words. For example, Dog nightingale woodpecker forty meant "You are an ass". His second language, Nevbosh, was a little more sophisticated: it was mainly built from distorted Latin, French, and English words.

Change How You Think

The final reason to invent languages is to change how you perceive the world. Different languages force you to focus on different things. For instance, in Turkish, verbs take different forms depending on whether the speaker saw the action happen, or merely heard about it from someone else. This means you always have to be aware of where you got your information!

One language designed for this purpose is Toki Pona, which for some reason seems to have a significant Neocities presence...

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