The Art of Language Invention – David J. Peterson

If you’re looking for a quick and fun read about the experience of creating languages for and maybe behind the scenes scoops about Game of Thrones or Defiance, this is not it. If you’re looking for a long, complex, and fun read about the experience and practice of creating languages in general, this is definitely it.

I admit, I was expecting the former, which was why I requested a digital galley from Penguin’s First to Read program. And it was, shall we say, startling to very early on begin to explore the nuts and bolts of language invention – conlanging. Here, suddenly, were terms I hadn’t seen since the days when some school friends and I wandered the halls on our way to Latin class chanting “Nom Gen Dat Acc Abl… Nom Gen Dat Acc Abl… ” (which stood for Nominative, Genitive, Dative, Accusative, Ablative.) (Yes, we were weird.)(You probably should have gotten that from “we voluntarily took Latin”.) I hadn’t given those terms another thought since. (I kind of liked it that way.) And then came flurries of terms I had never heard before in my life…I admit it: I skimmed. But I never quit, because the writing was so entertaining. (David J. Peterson hates onions. Just saying.)

Every time the skimming almost did turn into “ok, that’s enough, moving on”, I came across a cool fact – like “The tilde on top of the ń began its existence as a second letter n written directly above the main n” (or “…In American Deaf culture, deaf with a lowercase d refers to the inability to hear; Deaf with an uppercase D refers to the ability to sign.”); or an even cooler revelation about language, or life, that made me blink and smile and even possibly let out a faint squeak, like the bit about the pronunciation of “knight”. (And “And stories like this one lie behind all grammar.”)(And “…Is one a word? Sure. Two? Of course. Twenty-three? Yes… But if that’s the case, doesn’t English then have an infinite number of words…?”) The examples given are interesting and attention-retaining. (“What is David Bowie?”). Even skimming, I learned quite a bit from this book, and had fun doing it.

The next time anyone complains about English being a difficult language, point them to Finnish. Or Chinese. Or “the Tsez language, spoken in the Caucasus mountains, [which] has sixty-four cases, fifty-six of which are local (not a joke).” “It rained. What rained? The clouds? The sky? The … weather?” (“…English, whose orthography was devised by a team of misanthropic, megalomaniacal cryptographers who distrusted and despised one another, and so sought to hide the meanings they were tasked with encoding by employing crude, arcane spellings that no one can explain. (“Ha, ha! I shall spell ‘could’ with an ell! They will powerless to stop me!”)

One of the things I learned was that, quite possibly, conlanging is one of those things – like crochet and making gifs – from which I need to put my hands up and back away slowly, because I could far too easily become interested, find myself sucked down a rabbithole, and *poof* would go vast tracts of time I should be spending on one of the things I’m already involved with. I don’t know if I would ever take the plunge – but I have too many hobbies and potential hobbies and projects and distractions than are good for me. Until I learn to do without sleep, I need to keep my distance from anything else that might suck me in.

And remember – “Do not call a conlang a fake language. Those who do only make themselves look foolish.”
First To Read
A few more quotes I highlighted:

No human has ever done anything on their own. Ever. None of us would be alive if those who gave birth to us didn’t feed and shelter us when we were defenseless. Humans exist and act thanks entirely to the charity of other humans. I exist because the entirety of humanity has allowed me to exist up to this point. For that, I thank everyone.

There were regular stress rules for English at one point, but with the way the language has evolved, it just threw up its hands and said “whatever.” English pretty much just sits around all day unwindulaxing on the couch in PJs watching reruns of Chuck (in other words, English is a lot like me).

And something I will keep in mind if I ever get closer to finishing my book(s) (which I will never do if any more Projects take over my life):
Probably 0.001 percent of films and television shows would benefit from including one or more created languages. Almost 100 percent of fantasy works, and maybe a healthy 45 percent of science-fiction works, would benefit from including one or more created languages. While you, the writer, could give it a go and create the languages yourself, or go the George R. R. Martin route and create language-like bits, you know what else you could do? HIRE A CON-LANGER. There are literally thousands out there who are highly skilled and would take a bath in boiling hot, Texas-style ginger ale for the opportunity to see their work in print. I understand writers don’t make a lot of money, but if you can’t offer anything else, offer a percentage of the royalties. Offer to share authorship. Offer to name a character after their cat (that’s how Nina Post got me to create a language for her book [and, no, that won’t work again]). Give a conlanger the opportunity to improve your work and to prove themselves as conlangers. At the very least, you won’t ever get stuck coming up with names.

And nota bene: Metaphors We Live By by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, “which I strongly recommend all humans read”; also books on grammaticalization

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