Play and Aesthetic in Contemporary Language Invention

  • Sarah L. Higley
Part of the The New Middle Ages book series (TNMA)


So did George Psalmanazar defend his pretense in the second edition of his Historical and Geographical Description of Formosa (1705), claiming, as Michael Keevak writes, “that no one could possibly have made it all up.” 1 This chapter examines the twentieth-century language inventors who are not only undaunted by “the fatigue of forming a whole language,” but are women and men of prodigious parts who describe countries, contrive religions and laws, and invent languages and letters—for fun. I will argue ultimately that the Internet and its chambers of play provide a respectable medium for personal pursuits—unattached to fiction or vision—that until now could only be expressed by fiction.


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  1. 1.
    George Psalmanazar, An Historical and Geographical Description of Formosa, an Island Subject to the Emperor of Japan, second edition (London: 1705) sig. A4, qtd. Michael Keevak, The Pretended Asian: George Psalmanazar’s Eighteenth-Century Formosan Hoax (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2004), p. 62.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Brian Sutton-Smith, The Ambiguity of Play (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997), p. 47.Google Scholar
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    Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture (Boston: Beacon Press, 1950, 1955), pp. 11, 48.Google Scholar
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    Ibid., p. 9.Google Scholar
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    I refer to George Lakoff and Mark Johnson’s Metaphors We Live By (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1980), which examines the fundamental physical apprehensions of the world that shape our language and thinking. No matter how unique their syntax and morphology, inventors of naturalistic languages are challenged to break away from the image schémas of their native languages: does a shoe go “on a foot” or is a foot “embraced by the shoe”? Does one “wear” a shoe or “penetrate” it? Every natural language has a different visceral concept of such things, and language inventors today continually show their awareness of this fact.Google Scholar
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    John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, “A Secret Vice” in The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays, ed. Christopher Tolkien (Boston: Houghton Mifflen & Co., 1984), p. 207.Google Scholar
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    Suzette Haden Elgin, Native Tongue (New York: Daw Books, 1984); The Judas Rose (New York: Daw Books, 1987); Earthsong (New York: Daw Books, 1994), reprinted together by The Feminist Press at the City University of New York, 2000.Google Scholar
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    The language experiment “E-prime” does much the same thing by banishing the copula and forcing speakers to include observation and/or opinion. 1 offer my own example: rather than saying “Chaucer is more interesting than Lydgate,” 1 should say “As a Chaucerian 1 prefer Chaucer to Lydgate because …” E-Prime was inspired by Alfred Korzybski in Science and Sanity: An Introduction to Non-Aristotelian Systems and General Semantics (Chicago: Institute of General Semantics, 1933) with the intention that scientists clarify and disambiguate their pronouncements. Most people 1 have queried consider it weak in ordinary parlance, partly because providing an equation seems decisive, succinct, and discourages contradiction. See Robert Anton Wilson’s essay: (accessed July 14, 2007).Google Scholar
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    Le Guin admits to this fact in her foreword to the Encyclopedia of Fictional and Fantastic Languages, ed. Tim Conley and Stephen Cain (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2006), p. ix.Google Scholar
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    Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations: The English Text of the Third Edition, trans. G.E.M. Anscombe (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1958).Google Scholar
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    To view this icon, see the website designed by EUen B. Wright for the “First Language Creation Conference” held at Berkeley on April 23, 2006: (accessed July 14, 2007). This conference, organized by Sai Emrys a.k.a. Ilya Starikov, focused particularly on the conlang community and its creations. Emrys has already started the Language Creation Society. The second conference, again held at Berkeley, took place July 6–8, 2007.Google Scholar
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    An interlinear translation of the whole text of “Galadriel’s Lament” from The Lord of the Rings can be found in Tolkien’s The Road Goes Ever On, A Song Cycle: Music by Donald Swann, Poems by J.R.R. Tolkien (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1967), p. 66. For more detailed information about Tolkien’s languages, see Tim Conley and Stephen Cain’s Encyclopedia of Fictional and Fantastic Languages (Westport CT: Greenwood Press, 2006), pp. 116—121; also Verlyn FKeger, Splintered Light: Logos and Language in Tolkien’s World, second edition (Kent State University Press, 2002). For one of the best Internet sites for Tolkien’s languages see Helge K. Fausganger’s “Ardalambion”: (accessedJuly 14, 2007).Google Scholar
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© Sarah L. Higley 2007

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