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Lighting Some Flames: Towards conlang artistry

From:Jesse Bangs <jaspax@...>
Date:Tuesday, March 12, 2002, 4:19
To All Who Care About Conlanging:

The conlang community, both on this list and off, has been growing
steadily in the past several years, and it has just gotten another big
burst of growth from the release of the LOTR movies in the U.S.  We now
have a famous, visible patriarch in the person of JRR Tolkien, at least
one professional member, Mark Okrand [sp?].  Quenya and Klingon have
entered the common parlance as names of languages, and they have a
growing body of L2 speakers, a subculture, and media presence.  Add to
this the hundreds of conlang websites that may be found in the Internet
and the presence of this community itself, and it seems that conlanging
may be on the verge of breaking into mainstream awareness and acceptance.
 The "secret vice" has been out of the closet for a while, and it may
soon be into the limelight.

Yet there are still major obstacles to conlanging's acceptance as an art
form, both within the community of conlangers and without.  The obstacles
from without include prejudices against conlangs as real languages, the
"nerdy" perception that conlangers have (and often cherish), and distrust
from the linguistic community.  These problems have been addressed and
rebutted before, so I won't do it again here.  Only time may remove all
of those problems.  However, the obstacles from conlangers themselves are
greater, and can be addressed immediately.  Of these problems, the one
that I wish to address here is the lack of a critical perspective within
the conlang community.

It should not need to be proved that some art is better than others.  If
we as conlangers wish to gain acceptance for our art, then we need to
acknowledge this and allow for the judgement that some conlangs are
better than others.  We need a serious body of *conlang criticism*.
Currently, this is almost entirely lacking on the Conlang list.  When
someone posts texts or grammatical sketches, the responses are generally
entirely congratulatory, or they are concerned only with correcting
technical errors or confusions within the grammar.  Often there are no
responses at all.  While technical accuracy and consistency are
important, it's outrageous that this is where our critique stops.  We
need to move beyond the foundation of technical accuracy and allow for
the artistic analysis of our conlangs.

Of course the objection is "by what criteria?"  It's clear that we can't
all agree on one style of phonetic beauty, much less on which syntax,
morphology, or vocabulary is best.  But this is, in fact, exactly what we
expect.  The study of the history of art, music, or literature is a long
series of redefinitions of what is proper, what is better, and a constant
critical re-evaluation of everything that's gone before.  This
chronological tension is an essential part of the formation of
literatures and arts, and if conlanging is to be an art instead of a
hobby, then it must also expect this.  The important thing is that
conlanging start to have a critical apparatus within which the artistic
merits of conlangs can be evaluated and where different schools of
thought can define and defend themselves.

The thing to do, then, seems to be to start such a school, and simply get
down to the business of evaluating conlangs as works of art.  I therefore
announce the founding of the Naturalist school of conlanging, which
regards the following three things as values:
  *  Naturalness, as the name implies.  We prefer languages that resemble
natural languages, that could fool a linguist examining them into
thinking that they actually existed somewhere on the globe.  Auxlangs and
philosophical langs are anathema because their very nature goes against
this value.
  *  Complexity and completeness.  No natural language is completely
regular or completely simple, so neither will our languages.
Furthermore, we seek to describe and develop our languages as completely
as possible.  Those who make dozens of half-finished sketches are
creating the equivalent of commercial jingles.  We seek to create
  *  Creativity, defined as difference from your native language.  If
your native language is Chinese, your target should be Ancient Greek.  If
your native language is English, your target is Dyirbal (tonal, ergative
Australian language).  Those who speak Italian and are only interested in
Romance-style conlangs earn no respect in this area.  Those that seek to
challenge themselves and their learners are applauded.

Of course this won't be popular with everyone, especially not when I
start telling people why their conlangs suck.  Why should it?  If you
disagree with me, form your own school.  But by all means, we have to
start allowing for the critical analysis of conlangs to make them into an
actual art form.  As a side effect of this, we also have to start taking
each others conlangs seriously--putting in the time to understand and
evaluate them.  Like everyone else on this list, my time is limited and I
can hardly take the time to look at every conlang that comes my way.  But
I intend to start taking time to look closely at the conlangs of others
and myself and seeing how well they hold up to the Naturalist values.  I
also intend to post my critiques to the list.  Hopefully, we're mature
enough (as individuals and as a community) to take and give criticism
without resorting to whining and hurt feelings.  And once again, if you
don't like it form your own school.

Responses, comments, counter-flames?

Jesse S. Bangs     Pelíran
"Skin and tragedy always attract a crowd."
    --Pedro the Lion


Patrick Dunn <tb0pwd1@...>
Arnt Richard Johansen <arntrich@...>
Peter Clark <pc451@...>
John Cowan <jcowan@...>
Dirk Elzinga <dirk_elzinga@...>
Dirk Elzinga <dirk_elzinga@...>
Jesse Raccio <jraja0722@...>
Clint Jackson Baker <litrex1@...>Art and hobby--Re: Lighting Some Flames: Towards conlang artistry
Raymond Brown <ray.brown@...>
Stephen Mulraney <ataltanie@...>
Muke Tever <alrivera@...>
Michael Poxon <m.poxon@...>