Friday, June 10, 2005

A Language of My Own

When I was 13 years old, in eighth grade, I started constructing my own language. We're not talking a short word list or a few limited pieces of jargon, we're talking an entire functioning language. With its own grammar, its own vocabulary, its own idioms, and its own meanings which are often hard to translate into English. I kept on working on this language for years. I'm still working on it today, 35 years later.

Mna Vanant Fnidis Dhalathlo mna Sthiloth
The language— which is called Hermetic, or in Hermetic itself, mna Vanantha— rapidly took on a life of its own. I'd heard of "international" languages like Esperanto or Volapük, but those first few years I was working on my own language, as far as I knew I was the only person in the world who had ever constructed his own language for no practical reason at all, just out of sheer love of the language itself as it emerged and grew.

Then when I was a sophomore or junior in high school, my English teacher tipped me off about Tolkien and Lord of the Rings. I immediately recognized a kindred spirit in Tolkien: he was the first person I ever heard of who had done with constructed languages what I was doing with them. Though by then, Hermetic was too far along to be influenced by Tolkien.

The Hermetic noun has three numbers: singular, dual, and plural. Ten noun cases: nominative, accusative, equative, genitive, dative, illative, locative, instrumental, interrogative, and vocative. The Hermetic verb has two persons, two modes, three tenses, eight moods, and five aspects, to say nothing of specially inflected forms for use in subordinate clauses.

Mna Dhalathlw'Adis Sitavisa cai Tistrya
Ai, gaimoz it dhalvanov mna pano vagov avnav icvaolis?! (English translate: "What the deuce is a person supposed to do with all this, anyway?!") Well, at age 17 I wrote a book in my language, entitled Mna Sipri Cilama ("The Celestial Labors"). By this time I was also working out the Hermetic people and their culture, and this book was the apocalyptic scripture of Hermetic Dualism, which is in some ways a take on gnosticism, although here it was the evil sun-god, Rotas, who was trying to free the world from multiplicity and return it to the undivided unity of the primordial point. While it was the good moon-god, Dhalbembu, who was struggling to preserve the "myriad-faceted jewel" of this tangled world in all its diversity. Think the Silmarillion, only worse.

Mna Cathis mna Sthiloth
To read and comprehend Mna Sipri Cilama in the original, you need to understand more than just Hermetic vocabulary and grammar. You need to fathom the nuances of Hermetic— the finely shaded inward "feel" of the language, of terms and idioms and concepts which defy translation. How can I convey the meaning of Hermetic terms such as dhnamo and athlo? Each denotes awesome power, and yet dhnamo is the power of lightning, of the sword stroke, of main and might. While athlo is the power of the unforeseen chess gambit, of architectural form, of perfect balance, of the craftsman's master touch. To the Hermetic mind, it is obvious that the sun is dhnama, while the moon is athla.

I was speaking, reading, writing, and thinking in a language of my own. You want to hear how Hermetic sounds? Here's an MP3 of me reading aloud from chapter 25 of Mna Sipri Cilama.

Mna Dhalbembu Thalis Pirisa Zvirol
Try to grasp how alien Hermetic is, not just outwardly but inwardly. Not only had I constructed a language of my own, but in a sense I had become a one-man folk. Here I was, 17 years old, living in a small town in southern Wisconsin, and spontaneously inhabiting a thought-world purner as alien and as remote as the culture of the ancient Maya.

Yet at the same time I remained a committed and quite traditional Presbyterian. Hey, no problem: by this time I was reading things like Tolkien's essay on "subcreation." I totally grokked what Tolkien was up to; because, from before I ever even heard of Tolkien, I'd been doing the same thing myself.

But like I say, I was inhabiting a world of my own. A world which was (and is) an important part of who I am. But a world which, by its nature, I was unable to share with anyone. That can be very lonely. In the late 1970s I was in correspondence, for a time, with a couple of people out there in "fandom" who had created their own languages. And down through the years, I heard odd rumors here and there. But until just over two years ago, I thought that we language-makers must be an exceedingly rare and almost unheard-of phenomenon.

Then I stumbled across the website of Sally Caves, an English professor who had begun creating her own language, Teonaht, when she was only nine years old. And through her site I found all sorts of other sites of people who had their own "constructed languages" or "conlangs." I thought to myself, Ai, gaimoz il yothov dhalvanof vagi ridalcary'avn'ist? ("What the deuce are all these websites about, anyway?") I contacted Sally, and she introduced me to the conlang community out there on the Internet.

Turns out that constructing a language of your own is uncommon, but hardly unheard of. There are hundreds of us out there. Some people nowadays do it because of Tolkien, or because they heard of "conlanging" and wanted to try it out for themselves. But there are a good number of us conlangers— like Sally Caves or myself— who simply started making up a language of our own spontaneously, often in childhood, for no practical reason, in endless detail, and with no idea that anyone else before us had ever blazed this trail. It's like being driven. It becomes an obsession. It's almost like glossolalia on a slow burn.

The other day I turned on the radio, and the AM stations were drowned out by the loud crashing static of summer thunderstorms. The first thought that came into my mind— I kid you not— was, O chimo pronthisol cijal! Rough English translate: "Listen to the echo of distant thundering!"

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for the conlang link!Now I feel less alone.

Friday, June 10, 2005 8:19:00 AM  
Blogger Paul Burgess said...

Omigosh!! So you're a language-maker, too!

Like I say, apparently it's not unheard of. Though for many, many years I assumed that, for all practical purposes, I was alone.

To me, this is one of the most amazing aspects of the Internet— it brings together people of like interests, people for whom only 20 or 30 years ago there was in all our society no public outlet, no forum or exchange where they could ever hope to meet another soul who shared the same interests. Such as constructed languages. Today there are sites and virtual communities based on interests which, just a generation ago, were not even a blip on the cultural radar screen.

I have to admit that I haven't kept up with that Yahoo conlang group— at one point, it was generating upwards of 200 messages a day, too much to keep up with even by just scanning the subject headers. But there's plenty of fascinating material in there, from a horde of people out there who've created their own languages.

Friday, June 10, 2005 8:54:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sometimes I wonder what percentage of your brain you're using. I'm a bit convinvced that your percentage is higher than most and a TOTALLY different bit of brain than what I'm using!

Friday, June 10, 2005 11:10:00 AM  

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