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The Naturalist Manifesto revisited

From:Jörg Rhiemeier <joerg_rhiemeier@...>
Date:Friday, March 12, 2004, 17:30

The recent discussion on whether Tolkien was a good conlanger,
and what constitutes a good conlang, brought back to my mind
the manifesto that Jesse Bangs posted two years ago
(yesterday was its second anniversary) under the subject line
"Lighting Some Flames: Towards conlang artistry".

After addressing the need for an apparatus of conlang criticism
(which in itself is debatable), he proposed the foundation of
a "Naturalist school" of conlanging:

> 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.
This is a point I can whole-heartedly subscribe to. This is indeed the essence of naturalist conlanging: creating languages that resemble natural languages. But that doesn't mean that non-naturalist conlangs are bad conlangs. They simply epitomize a different school within the art of conlanging. As I have argued before (and most people certainly agree with me here), the gauge with which a conlang is to be measured are its design goals. Trying to apply the gauge of naturalness to, for example, a loglang would be meaningless. Auxlangs and philosophical languages might be "anathema" from a naturalist viewpoint, but that doesn't mean that they are bad conlangs; the lack of resemblance to natural languages is simply not relevant to their evaluation. In a similar vein, a language designed for a non-human race may violate well-established universals of human languages. One of the best non-human conlangs I have seen is Jeffrey Henning's Fith, which has a grammar based on a LIFO stack, which is unlike any human languages - the Fithian brain processes language in a different way than the human brain does. The system of colour terms of Herman Miller's Tirelat is unlike the colour term system of any human language: the speakers of Tirelat see colours differently. Both a stack-based grammar and a colour term system like that of Tirelat would be a big goof in a language meant to be spoken by, say, an ethnic minority of the British Isles. In a language of alien beings, both are fine!
> * 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 > symphonies.
This at least has to be qualified. One should not confuse quantity and quality. If size was the only thing that matters, Nazi monumental buildings would be great art, and a "good haiku" would be a contradiction in terms. Clearly, this is wrong. Every art finds expression in both large and small forms, and there are masterful small pieces as there are artless monumental works. Not every short piece of music is a commercial jingle. Of course, working out a complete language is a greater challenge than doing only a brief sketch. But, as I have already said in a previous post, a brief sketch that shows mastership in the treatment of some details is preferable over a complete conlang that is clearly a relex of English, with a humdrum SAE grammar and a randomly generated vocabulary, and apparently is so because the author was unaware of the alternatives.
> * 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.
This cannot be left standing the way it is, either. It is laudable to look beyond the rim of one's linguistic bowl, no question. But that doesn't mean that a good naturalist artlang needs to be as different from the author's L1 (or any language he learned in school) as possible. The point is that the author should consciously choose the features of his conlang, being aware of the fact that there are alternatives. There is nothing wrong with a native western European creating a language that is like a typical western European language if the author indeed reflects upon "Europeanness" and the choice is justified by the premise of the project. Comments welcome. Greetings, Jörg.


Herman Miller <hmiller@...>