Sapir-Whorf Soliloquy

Starting in middle school or thereabouts, I moved from being interested in language to a more fraught state of philology.  I fell in love with the Lord of the Rings books and the idea of creating languages as a hobby and, almost, as a calling.  It was around the same time that I began taking Latin, my first formal training in a foreign language, and we learned the poem Jabberwocky in English class.  With all of these ideas swirling around in my brain, I began to develop a language and a story to accompany it.  I decided for it to be a proper language, it needed a writing system.  I developed a semi-phonetic alphabet, albeit one that was not necessarily suited to the language I was also building at the time, and to this day, I still use the alphabet, even though the larger writing project and language are dormant projects of mine.

Later on, I got involved in a constructed language project on a bulletin board, with the goal of creating a root-stem sort of language more in line with linguistic ideas of proto-languages and descendant tongues.  That one had a writing system, but one I did not learn well enough to make use of now.  It was exciting – we were building a world around the language, explaining how different words worked in practice, naming places after the historical fashion (it is a lost art in many ways, in English, to give practical, descriptive names to buildings, habitations, and landforms.)*  The project brought together people from around the world, and ended only as people slowly lost interest or moved on to other communities and projects.

Eventually I got to a point where I wanted to explore grammar – a friend and I developed a world and some stories, and I decided to create the languages.  At my worst, I developed a language that performed nearly all grammatical functions on a set of definite and indefinite of articles, prefixed and suffixed like a Native American polysynthetic language modifying some very basic nouns.  The intent was that these languages came from a family cluster, except for one spoken by inhumans.

In college I played around with some constructed languages, trying my hand at designing character dictionaries akin to Chinese blocks, vertical scripts like Mongolian, semitonal grammar, complex mood and aspect encoding, etc.  I looked into things like Virtual Verduria and other online constructed language communities.  It was a good time to be interested in the hobby – first came the Lord of the Rings movies, then Star Trek revivals, then Game of Thrones, and a host of video games with “functional,” fleshed-out constructed languages.  While it never made me popular, it definitely made me feel less alone in my interest.

What I thought about the other day, however, is where the title of this post emerged.  Nearly all of these constructed languages are either limited to a usage-community of none, or at the most several dozen people.  This would be a good time for some virtue signalling on my part about the frivolity of creating languages in the face of mass linguistic death across the globe, but honestly, I have literally invested in projects to preserve moribund languages and done my part in researching them and methods for their preservation.  To me, it can be just as important to create as to preserve in this case.  What I think is interesting, though, is the idea of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.  It is not a “hard science” hypothesis, in that it is difficult to nigh impossible to prove its correctness.  The hypothesis formed the thematic basis for Ted Chiang’s “Story of Your Life” and the phenomenal film Arrival.  In the most basic concept, the hypothesis is that the language a group of people speak also affects their perception of the world around them – for example, the idea that a society which has no linguistic concept of certain colors is, in effect, unable to “see” those colors, even if their optic nerves are no less capable of receiving the same wavelengths as any other humans.

Where that fits in with constructed languages is, to me, a fascinating thing to contemplate.  Natural languages are dynamic, complex, and often heavily “constructed” by social status, language authorities and standards, quirks of individual but influential speakers (witness the adoption of “quark” in English), and traditions or religious strictures.  Constructed languages reflect the mindsets of only a few individuals, or even just a sole developer, as is the case with J.R.R. Tolkien’s Elvish and other tongues. Many creators of languages for literary purposes slap things together without an eye towards how natural function, sometimes substituting vocabulary into an English grammar and syntax, sometimes attempting to generate certain acoustic qualities with a retroactive gloss of meaning, and sometimes taking a non-English language’s grammar and dropping a whole new vocabulary and morpheme set into a grammar and syntax like Latin or another Indo-European language.  The development of constructed languages, in cases where creators and “consumers” alike use them actively in everyday, could very well provide an insight into the validity of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.  Do people conceive of time differently when they use their constructed language, or is it tied to the grammar they develop, which may reflect their native tongue’s “habits” in dealing with time, space, color, social organization, etc?


* The idea I am getting at there is that in which many names for places, buildings, and natural features are originally simple terms.  Much like medical jargon takes simple concepts (“myocarditis” = “swollen heart muscle”) and mystifies them through Latin and Greek combinations, place names used in English often have basic roots.  A good example is the name of Dublin.  In Irish, it originates from “black pool” describing a landform (dubh linn) but in English it is a unique, singular word without descriptive value dissociated from the city.

Author: Fravashi

Just a man, writing like any other guy.

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