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OT: What makes a good conlang? (was Re: Super OT: Re: CHAT: JRRT)

From:Jörg Rhiemeier <joerg_rhiemeier@...>
Date:Monday, March 8, 2004, 21:37

On Sat, 6 Mar 2004 18:38:58 -0000,
And Rosta <a.rosta@...> wrote:

> David P: > [...] > > > > I would like to try to convince you, then, but first I need to > > > know what you think are the criterial properties of being a > >> good conlanger. > > Joerg: > > A good question, and not an easy one.>> > > > > Yeah, I think I was assuming too much when I said this. I think > > I was assuming that Tolkien meant for his languages to be realistic, > > but now that I'm thinking about it, I have no idea. > > Contrary to Mark Reed's reasonable views, I think that the Elvish > languages were intended to be realistic, and are realistic.
It can be argued whether the assumption that languages of immortal Elves change like human languages, only slower (or even that they are like human languages at all), makes sense or not, but what matters here is that Tolkien made that assumption (and we cannot falsify it because there are no immortal Elves in the real world) and that his conlangs perfectly live up to it.
> Further, Joerg brought up the comparison to > abstract art. I would compare it not to abstract art, but to some earlier > form of art.
I likened conlanging to art as a whole, naturalist conlangs to representational art, engelangs to abstract art and rejection of engelangs because they are unnatural to rejection of abstract art on the ground of its non-representativeness.
> I'm not too good with visual arts, but let's say in > comparison to > Shakespeare, since he's been discussed. Were Shakespeare's plays realistic > > my judgment of what's good and what's not (since I base it on realism, > > unless the language is *overtly* striving for something completely > > different [I assume realism/naturalism to be the default (which is > > not an uncontroversial assumption, I realizse)]) > > I think verisimilitude is a major ingredient of what I most value > in an artlang, too. How do you judge 'realism'? To me, it's mainly > a matter of complexity, of scale, and of completeness. The more > complex, the more large-scale, and the more complete it is, the > more realistic it is.
Not necessarily. A brief sketch can also capture a small part of an imagined reality quite well. It may not look like a complete natlang, but like a brief sketch of a natlang. One should not confuse quantity and quality, neither in conlanging nor in any other art, as masterful haikus on one hand and Nazi monumental buildings on the other hand demonstrate. I'd always prefer a brief sketch which shows masterful treatment of certain details over a complete conlang which consists of a humdrum, obviously unreflected SAE grammar and a randomly generated vocabulary.
> If this is enhanced by something like > the Joseph/Alma Walker framing of Tepa, the delightful effect > is intensified.
True. A naturalist artlang gains much from an imagined culture and history connected with it. This is indeed what Tolkien felt, and it is why he wrote the _Silmarillion_ and later _The Lord of the Rings_ at all: it all was done because his conlangs called for an elaborate backdrop.
> This means that I find a conlang sketch that > fits neatly into orthodox natlang typological patterns less > realistic than, say, Teonaht, which is fantastical and is created > by someone who by present-day conlanger standards knows > comparatively little about linguistics and doesn't understand > fully at a conscious analytical level, as opposed intuitively, > how her conlang works.
People who follow their intuition often create better and more realistic art than people who try to be exact. I have made that experience more than once in visual art. When I constructed a perspectival drawing exactly, it often looked wrong; I had to erase the carefully constructed lines and redraw them according to my intuition in order to make it look right. It is similar with artlangs. One should not get too much hung up with language typology and linguistic universals, but create what feels "right". For example, when I designed the argument marking pattern of Nur-ellen four years ago, I didn't know about active-stative languages and the typological implications connected with that, but did what I thought would fit the thought patterns of the "Elves" I designed the language for, and indeed the Nur-ellen system turned out to show some atypical traits when I familiarized myself with the active-stative type of languages. And it is these atypical traits that made the Nur-ellen system realistic and interesting. (Meanwhile, Nur-ellen has been taken back to the drawing board, but the atypical active-stative system has been one of the most stable features of the language because I still feel it is "right".)
> On the other hand, languages that seem > to go beyond what is plausible for a human language, such as > Ebisedian and Ithkuil, I don't find realistic (though they > have other attractions).
Ebisedian represents a language from a *very* alien universe, thus one should not expect it to look like a plausible human language. Ithkuil is an engelang (or at least that is what I understand it to be), and doesn't really attempt to represent a possible natlang.
> [stuff on literary criticism etc. left uncommented, and snipped]
Greetings, Jörg.


H. S. Teoh <hsteoh@...>
And Rosta <a.rosta@...>