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Constructed Languages

Nov 2014

Language ,

Constructed Languages

In the late 1870s a language was created. It did not evolve, like most others do, over many thousands of years, it did not owe its vocabulary to art, history, literature and culture and it owed its existence to machinations of one man.

I refer, of course, to Esperanto, the world’s most widely spoken constructed language.

To understand Esperanto we have to go back to the final decades of the 19th century. Ludwik Lazarus Zamenhof was a Polish-Jewish ophthalmologist living in Białystok which was part of the Russian Emprire. Białystok was a town defined by language. Indeed it was language that caused the town’s segmentation into four distinct parts: Russian, Polish, German and Jewish.

“In Białystok the inhabitants were divided into four distinct elements: Russians, Poles, Germans and Jews; each of these spoke their own language and looked on all the others as enemies.” – Zamenhof

Esperanto, a universal language, was Zamenhof’s attempt to bridge the divisions in Białystok. The ability to communicate, thought Zamenhof, was the key to peace in the region. For ten years he toiled and developed his language, focussing on political neutrality, ease of acquisition and simplicity of use.

People reacted positively and Esperanto gained a lot of traction in the years after World War I. However, political suppression and the collapse of several key supportive organisations ultimately doomed it to the annals of history.

While Esperanto fell short of Zamenhof’s aspiration of an international language, it is still spoken by an incredible number of people today. Accurate estimates are notoriously rare and the figure has swung wildly between 100,000 and 8 million.

Esperanto is not the only man made language, though. Across the world there are hundreds of tongues that owe their existence to the the machinations of man. Here is a whistlestop tour of some of the more interesting ones.

Constructed Language Sudre


Solresol was created by Jean-François Sudre. Sudre, a violinist, composer and music teacher, was heavily influenced by music. His language has only seven syllables, the names of which he borrowed from the musical scale: do, re, mi, fa, so, la, si.

Solresol’s seven syllables could also be expressed using seven colours, seven numbers and seven glyphs. Its varied methods of transcription meant that the language could be communicated by speaking, singing, semaphore or even painting.

While Solresol was the world’s first recognised constructed language it failed to gain any appreciable momentum. Solresol peaked in 1902 after the posthumous publication of Sudre’s Grammaire du Solresol and has gradually faded into obscurity since.

Constructed Languages 1984


George Orwell published his dystopian masterpiece Nineteen Eighty-Four in the late ‘40s and introduced the world to Newspeak. Newspeak was a controlled language devised by the state and used as a tool to limit dissenting ideas, including individuality, peace and self-expression.

Newspeak is defined by its commitment to the destruction of Oldspeak, current English. Its grammatical rules are largely similar but its vocabulary is forever shrinking. The state constantly removes any ambiguous terms and replacing them with simpler concepts. For example, Newspeak discards negatives and instead uses a modified version of the positive. Bad is removed and replaced with ungood.

The influence of Newspeak is still felt today. Several iconic words have migrated into current English. Doublethink, ungood and doubleplusungood all remind us of Big Brother’s looming boot heel.

Constructed Languages Laadan


The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis states that that language determines thought. For example, Spanish has words for gender-specific cousins but English does not. According to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, how native English speakers think about their cousins will significantly differ to how Spanish speakers think of theirs.

In 1982, Dr Suzette Haden Elgin created Láadan as a means to test the effects of a feminist language on a culture. Paired with this was an underlying belief that Western natural languages are better suited to expressing the views of men than women.

Láadan allowed speakers to convey aspects of English that are only expressible via body language and tone. For example, there was a particular word to mark a sentence as a warning.

Additionally, Láadan featured a vastly expanded emotional repertoire. Happy was fractured into a web of different feelings: happiness for a good reason, happiness for no reason, happiness due to other’s suffering, etc..

According to Elgin, Láadan is designed to promote clarity and counter existing limitations on women.

Are all constructed languages doomed to fail due a lack of history and culture? Let us know what you think on Facebook or Twitter.

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