[] Jörg Rhiemeier's Conlang Page

A brief history of conlanging

Many people perhaps believe that conlanging was a phenomenon of our time, but in fact, people have been making up languages for centuries. It is only that most early conlangs did not get much attention and disappeared from history without trace.

The motivations for making up languages are manyfold, and their histories are indeed different stories best told separately, even if there have been cross-overs. I have thus divided this essay into four sections:

Languages for religious and magical purposes

This is perhaps the oldest motivation for conlanging. Special languages have been created to communicate with supernatural beings, for taboo purposes and to keep the uninitiated out. Such languages (mostly, though, simple "language games" or alternative vocabularies to which the grammar of the community's normal language is applied) are attested for many cultures. One of the most famous is perhaps Damin, a secret language used by members of the Lardil aboriginal tribe in Australia.

The perhaps earliest known constructed language of the Western culture also belongs into this area. This is Lingua Ignota (Latin: 'unknown language'), a mystical language created in the 12th century by St. Hildegard of Bingen (who has thus been dubbed the 'patron saint of conlangers'). It is attested in two manuscripts that were written around the year 1200. Lingua Ignota is not a complete, self-contained language, but consists of a list of strange words interspersed in Latin texts. Example (the underlined words are Lingua Ignota, the rest is Latin):

O orzchis Ecclesia, armis divinis praecincta, et hyacinto ornata, tu es caldemia stigmatum loifolum et urbs scienciarum. O, o tu es etiam crizanta in alto sono, et es chorzta gemma.

Conjectured translation:
O measureless Church, girded with divine arms and adorned with jacinth, you are the fragrance of the wounds of nations and the city of sciences. O, o, and you are anointed amid noble sound, and you are a sparkling gem.

Another European magical language is Enochian. This language was used in the 16th century by the English occultist John Dee and his medium Edward Kelley to communicate with angels. It is attested in nineteen "Calls"; and while translations of these Calls are given, it is controversial whether it is a self-contained conlang, a cipher of another language or just random gibberish. (I think we can leave aside the claim that it was an actual angelic language here.) Example (the first sentence of the First Call):

Ol sonf vorsg, goho Iad balt, lansh calz vonpho.

I reign over you, sayeth the God of Justice, in Power exalted above the Firmaments of Wrath.

As the example shows, Enochian can hardly claim angelic beauty, unless you consider weird consonant clusters beautiful.

Magical languages were also developed elsewhere. An example from the Islamic world is Balaibalan, probably designed and used by a sufi sect in the 16th century. The language is broadly Arabic in appearance, but is also influenced by Persian and Turkish. Example (after Bausani 1970):

Bašāna y-Āna yafnāna yahabān. Yasnam ray-Ān čunā wazanas ragiwzāwa inaša fājā, afajaš famīma imafnā ra‘ālābī qājā, airfam aimafam ja maknad Sanaš zāt jāma inanšanā ayaxšanā, aja maqri almnābī čunāyā raikarfanā rāyā ya‘šanā.

In the name of God, the Indulgent, the Merciful, Praise (be) to God, the Creator of the origin of all things (as) light, who (as) revelation originated from the mouth of those who praise his signs; ... and prayer and praise (be) to our Lord the Praised (Muhammad), origin of all derived and simple things, and (praise) to his family and his companions, who work for those well-meaning to them as mediator.

International auxiliary languages

Perhaps the best-known purpose to the public, and certainly the one that is considered most respectable today, is the international auxiliary language - an artificial language designed to facilitate communication between people of different native languages. The adherents of the IAL movement opine that an artificial language, designed to be easy to learn, was more suited to this purpose than any natural language. A common misunderstanding about the IAL movement is that they want to replace the diversity of human languages by a single uniform language. While there are indeed a few radical mavericks who dream of this, they are an isolated minority. The vast majority of the auxlangers do not wish to destroy linguistic diversity, they only want to establish a universal second language. They even argue that this serves to protect endangered languages, as - so goes the reasoning - the pressure towards language shift is taken from their communities.

One may think that the international auxiliary language was a recent invention, but in fact, the earliest proposals were made in the 17th century. Mediaeval Europe had no need for an artificial IAL: the educated knew Latin, the rich could afford translators - and the rest usually had no business with people from foreign countries (or even from remote parts of their own country where a different dialect was spoken). This changed after 1600, when Latin had fallen into decline, and the vernacular languages of Europe were put to writing (and printing) to a larger scale.

The first schemes were not really languages but mechanical translation schemes called polygraphies. The 17th century was a time rife with political and religious discord which reached its gory climax in the Thirty Years' War. In this atmosphere, cryptography flourished. Some thinkers, inattentive to the difference between a cipher and a language, devised schemes that - so they thought - could reduce the problem of translation to the mechanical application of a "key". This was bolstered by the discovery (by European scholars) of the Chinese writing, which was thought to represent ideas directly, rather than words in a particular language. The polygraphists thought they could tackle the universal language problem in a similar way.

However, as soon turned out, the polygraphists were wrong on both counts. Languages cannot be "keyed" into each other. The words do not correspond in a 1-by-1 way, and each language has its own distinct grammar. The Chinese characters represent not ideas but words, and while you can learn their meanings without knowing how the words are pronounced, you still need to know Chinese grammar to read a Chinese text. Anyone who has wrestled with the user manual of a cheap Chinese electric appliance that had been translated word for word into English, keeping the Chinese syntax intact, can certify this.

This led to the invention of actual constructed languages. These philosophical languages were designed primarily as tools for scientific reasoning, though their authors also suggested their use for general international communication. The idea was that the words should not be arbitrary, but reflect the nature of things. This led to the development of elaborate taxonomic schemes. For instance, in the language proposed in the Essay towards a Real Character, and a Philosophical Language by John Wilkins (1667), the root zi meant 'beast', and words for various animals were derived from this by suffixes, thus e.g. zibi 'elephant'. The philosophical languages will be discussed in more detail in the next section. Here, it suffices to say that while being somewhat popular in intellectual circles of the late 17th century, the philosophical languages never caught on as means for international communication, and by the end of the century, they had fallen out of fashion.

Various auxlangs were proposed in the 18th and 19th centuries, often quite eccentrically designed, but most were quickly forgotten. One of the more remarkable schemes was Solresol (F. Sudre, 1817), a language based on musical notes. The language could be spoken, sung, or played on a musical instrument. All words consisted of the syllables do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, si, or the corresponding musical notes (C, D, E, F, G, A, B).

More successful were some attempts in the late 19th century. These schemes turned away from the a priori philosophical languages towards a more practical a posteriori approach, using words selected from various natural languages. The first IAL proposal to achieve a substantial popularity was Volapük (J. M. Schleyer, 1880). Volapük was partly a priori and a posteriori. Most words were taken from various European languages, especially from English, but they were deformed beyond recognition. The grammar was regular, but rather complicated.

The Lord's Prayer in Volapük:

O Fat obas, kel binol in süls,
paisaludomöz nem ola!
Kömomöd monargän ola!
Jenomöz vil olik,
äs in sül, i su tal.
Bodi obsik vädeliki govolös obes adelo!
E pardolös obes debis obsik,
äs id obs aipardobs debeles obas.
E no obis nindukolös in tendadi;
sod aidalivolös obis de bas.

The language was received with enthusiasm, which showed that there was a real demand for an artificial international language at its time. However, it ended in disappointment. The language turned out to be too difficult and cumbersome to use, its author took an authoritarian and proprietary attitude towards it and rejected all reform proposals, and as soon as a better candidate turned up, the Volapük movement faltered quickly.

This better candidate was Esperanto (L. Zamenhof, 1887). Esperanto moved a further step towards an a posteriori design. The vocabulary of Esperanto is taken mostly from Latin and Romance (ca. 75 %) and Germanic languages, with a few items from Greek and Slavic languages. Unlike Volapük, the words remain largely recognizable. These roots are subjected to a strictly regular system of derivation and inflection. The grammar of Esperanto is indeed rather simple, much simpler, at any rate, than the grammar of Volapük. The popularity of Esperanto soon eclipsed that of Volapük, and has been quite high ever since. It is estimated that more than 1 million people have learnt Esperanto. (That's of course still far from being established as an international language, though.)

The Lord's Prayer in Esperanto:

Patro nia, kiu estas en la ĉielo,
Via nomo estu sanktigita.
Venu Via regno,
plenumiĝu Via volo,
kiel en la ĉielo, tiel ankaŭ sur la tero.
Nian panon ĉiutagan donu al ni hodiaŭ.
Kaj pardonu al ni niajn ŝuldojn,
kiel ankaŭ ni pardonas al niaj ŝuldantoj.
Kaj ne konduku nin en tenton,
sed liberigu nin de la malbono.

The overall impression is that of a Romance language, as about three quarters of the vocabulary have Latin or Romance sources. Esperanto satisfied the needs of the vast majority of those who believed in the utility of an artificial international language, and continues to satisfy them until today.

Yet, the story does not end here. Several auxlangers have taken exception at various perceived weaknesses of Zamenhof's design, and proposed their own schemes. The most important Esperanto reform scheme is Ido (L. Couturat, 1907). The language is overall very similar to Esperanto; only a few minor details have been changed, and some regular but unnaturally schematic derivations in the Esperanto vocabulary replaced by more "natural" (Romance-derived) words.

This trend towards more "naturalism" was continued in several other IAL proposals that followed: Occidental (E. de Wahl, 1922), Novial (O. Jespersen, 1928) and Interlingua (A. Gode, 1951) being the most popular ones. These languages look even more Romance than Esperanto or Ido.

The Lord's Prayer in Novial:

Nusen Patro kel es in siele,
mey vun nome bli sanktifika,
mey vun regno veni,
mey vun volio eventa sur tere kom in siele.
Dona a nus disidi li omnidiali pane,
e pardona a nus nusen ofensos
kom anke nus pardona a nusen ofensantes,
e non dukte nus en li tento
ma fika nus liberi fro li malum.

The Lord's Prayer in Interlingua:

Nostre Patre, qui es in le celos,
que tu nomine sia sanctificate;
que tu regno veni;
que tu voluntate sia facite super le terra
como etiam in le celo.
Da nos hodie nostre pan quotidian,
e pardona a nos nostre debitas
como nos pardona a nostre debitores,
e non duce nos in tentation,
sed libera nos de malo.

None of these proposals could ever come close to the popularity of Esperanto. They all have their dedicated followers, though. Besides these "mainstream" IALs, hundreds of artificial languages have been proposed as IALs, very different from each other in their designs. Even philosophical languages and other baroque unworkable schemes are still being peddled by their inventors - and dozens of Esperanto reform projects and similar schemes. Blanke (1985) estimates that about 1000 different auxlangs have been published.

Public interest in international auxiliary languages, and accordingly, the number of published proposals, has been rising and falling over history. IALs were especially popular in the 17th century, and again in the late 19th and early 20th century. There is a close correlation with the rise and fall of natural international languages. The first "high" period of IALs began when Latin gradually lost its importance as an international language it held in the Middle Ages, and ended when French became the international language of the European upper classes during the reign of Louis XIV. The second IAL boom occured in a time when French was in decline as an international language, and abated as English rose to the position of the world's most important language. Nevertheless, the idea of an artifical international language has always been alive since its beginnings in the 17th century, and likely will live on in the foreseeable future.

Engineered languages

The category of engineered languages overlaps to a great extent with the IALs. The 17th-century philosophical languages are probably the earliest engineered languages, and designers of engineered languages often propose that their languages be used as IALs. Designers of engineered languages often believe in the "Sapir-Whorf hypothesis" which states that the structure of the language determines the patterns of thought, and seek to improve the patterns of thought by designing "superior" languages. Most engineered languages are products of the modern era, though the beginnings of language engineering, as said above, go back to the 17th century.

The idea of a "philosopical" (i.e., scientific, as that was the meaning of the term back then) language was discussed by the French scholars René Descartes and Marin Mersenne in the first half of the 17th century. They envisioned a language where the relationship between words and concepts was not, as in natural languages, arbitrary, but the structure of the words reflected the nature of the things the words referred to. In practice, most philosophical languages derived words from a general taxonomy of ideas. This is the case with the two best-known and best-developed schemes: Ars signorum by George Dalgarno (1661) and the Essay towards a Real Character, and a Philosophical Language by John Wilkins (1668). Dalgarno, a Scottish-born Oxford schoolmaster, and Wilkins, first Secretary of the Royal Society, knew each other and originally attempted to design a philosophical language collaboratively; however, they could not agree on a taxonomy, as Dalgarno wanted to restrict the taxonomy to a limited set of root concepts from which more specific terms could be derived by compounding, while Wilkins favoured an all-encompassing encyclopedic taxonomy. They thus decided to each design his own language. Accordingly, the sizes of their taxonomies differ: while Dalgarno has about 1000 items, Wilkins has more than 4000.

The Lord's Prayer in Dalgarno's language:

Pagel lalla lul tim bred Nammi,
tofu lηla skamroso.
Kanu lηla prηdeso.
Tυsu lηla samoso ben Nommi, slυn ben Nammi.
Strifeso shod lalli loldanve, flamu lalla danvesa.
Stυpeso shod lalli strekku lalla,
slυn lalli stυpesi shod strekkel lalla.
Trim pηteso lalli tηdosυ,
shom sobreso lalli sod shimu.
Sas, Kanu, Sefu, tηnu tim lηa, loldan tηf sundan.

And in Wilkins's language:

Hαi coba uu ia ril dad,
ha bαbi io suymtα.
Ha salba io velcα,
ha talbi io vemgu,
mu ril dady me ril dad.
Io velpi lαl αi ril i poto.
Hαi sαba vαty,
na io sueldyus lal ai hαi bαlgas,
me αi ia sueldyus lαl ei
uu ia vαlgas ru αi
na mi uo velco αi rαl bedodlu
nil io oualbo αi lal vαgasie.
Nor αl salba na αl tado,
na αl tadalα ia ha piubyu,
mu io.

These languages were somewhat popular among intellectuals of their time, but never really caught on. One of the scholars who diligently studied them was Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, who, however, was not content with the achievements of Dalgarno and Wilkins. He wanted to break down concepts into semantic primitives, and envisioned a language that was not only a characteristica universalis but also a calculus ratiocinator, i.e. a formal system in which reasoning was reduced to calculation. He attempted to tackle this problem by means of a scheme in which the lattice of semantic concepts was mapped onto the divisibility lattice of natural numbers by assigning prime numbers to semantic primitives. (These numbers would then have been mapped on strings of pronounceable syllables.) For example, if the concept 'life' was assigned the number 2, all living beings would be represented by even numbers, and all inanimate things by odd numbers. In such a system, a sentence like A dog is a rational being could be proved false by the prime number for 'rational' not occuring in the number for 'dog', such that the division 'dog'/'rational' failed to yield an integer result. However, he never completed this scheme. The scope of such a project was simply too exasperating even for a mind as great as Leibniz.

By the end of the 17th century, the pioneering work of Isaac Newton had ushered in a paradigm shift in science, and taxonomy was superseded as a prime means of describing nature by mathematics. Consequently, the interest in taxonomic languages faltered.

Perhaps the most important subgroup of modern engineered languages are the logical languages. Logical languages are based on formal logic and are designed to exclude ambiguities of any kind. The most popular logical languages are Loglan (J. C. Brown, 1960) and its descendant Lojban (Logical Language Group, 1987). Loglan and Lojban are mixed a priori / a posteriori languages. Most of the words are derived from words in the major languages of the world, but the derivation is such that the words are unrecognizable.

The Lord's Prayer in Lojban:

doi cevrirni .iu noi zvati le do cevzda do'u
fu'e .aicai .e'ecai lo do cmene ru'i censa
.i le do nobli turni be la ter. ku se cfari
.i loi do se djica ba snada mulno vi'e le cevzda .e .a'o la ter.
.i fu'e .e'o ko dunda ca le cabdei le ri nanba mi'a
.i ko fraxu mi loi ri zu'o palci
.ijo mi fraxu roda poi pacyzu'e xrani mi
.i ko lidne mi fa'anai loi pacyxlu
.i ko sepri'a mi loi palci

There is a large variety of design goals found in engineered languages. Some language designers attempted to create languages that are more concise and less redundant than natural languages. An example is Ithkuil by John Quijada (2004):

Oumpeá äx'ääļuktëx.
On the contrary, I think it may turn out that this rugged mountain range trails off at some point.

Ithkuil thus gets close to Speedtalk, a language mentioned (but not elaborated) in the story Gulf by Robert Heinlein (1949), in which each morpheme consists of a single phoneme (out of a huge phoneme inventory).

Many engineered languages have self-segregating morphology: the morphemes are designed such that the morpheme boundaries can be predicted by means of a simple rule. Quite a few are oligosynthetic, i.e. they have a limited inventory of lexical roots. An example of such a language is Toki Pona by S. E. Kisa (2001), which can be considered the Yang to the Yin of Ithkuil. Toki Pona has only 125 root words, also a very limited phonology of 14 phonemes.

The Lord's Prayer in Toki Pona:

mama pi mi mute o, sina lon sewi kon.
nimi sina li sewi.
ma sina o kama.
jan o pali e wile sina lon sewi kon en lon ma.
o pana e moku pi tenpo suno ni tawa mi mute.
o weka e pali ike mi. sama la mi weka e pali ike pi jan ante.
o lawa ala e mi tawa ike.
o lawa e mi tan ike.
tenpo ali la sina jo e ma e wawa e pona.

Fictional languages

The notion of a fictional language is of course tied up with that of fictional worlds, countries and nations. The first literary fictional country to become known to a wider audience was Thomas More's Utopia. And there is indeed a Utopian language, which is one of the first fictional languages known. The language is an invention of More's friend Peter Giles, and described in an appendix of More's book (which is unfortunately missing in most editions). The language seems to be structurally similar to Latin, and resembles Latin and Greek in sound. An example is given in the book:

Vtopos ha Boccas peula chama polta chamaan
Bargol he maglomi baccan soma gymnosophaon
Agrama gymnosophon labarem bacha bodamilomin
Voluala barchin heman la lauoluola dramme pagloni

The commander Utopus made me, who was once not an island, into an island. I alone of all nations, without philosophy, have portrayed for mortals the philosophical city. Freely I impart my benefits; not unwillingly I accept whatever is better.

Many other fictional languages followed over the centuries. Some of these languages have characteristics of philosophical or other engineered languages, especially those designed in connection with countries meant to demonstrate (or satirize) ideal society models. However, only a few of those fiction authors who created fictional countries or worlds took the trouble of working out their languages.

Only in the 20th century, fictional languages became more common and known to a wider audicene. The modern conlang scene certainly owes a lot to J. R. R. Tolkien, creator of Middle-earth, who lovingly worked out the languages of his fictional realm: Quenya, Sindarin, Adûnaic, Khuzdul and several others. Tolkien's main innovation was not only the high amount of detail, but especially that his languages were naturalistic: they verily resembled naturally evolved human languages and had elaborate fictional histories. They are considered classics of the genre until today.

Example of Quenya (part of Galadriël's Lament from The Lord of the Rings):

Ai! laurië lantar lassi súrinen,
yéni únótimë ve rámar aldaron!
Yéni ve lintë yuldar avánier
mi oromardi lissë-miruvóreva
Andúnë pella, Vardo tellumar
nu luini yassen tintilar i eleni
ómaryo airetári-lírinen.

Ah! like gold fall the leaves in the wind,
long years numberless as the wings of trees!
The long years have passed like swift draughts
of the sweet mead in lofty halls
beyond the West, beneath the blue vaults of Varda
wherein the stars tremble
in the voice of her song, holy and queenly.

Another highly popular fictional language is Klingon (M. Okrand, 1984) from the Star Trek TV series. Klingon is a language designed to look alien; however, the result is probably still within the margin of what occurs in human languages (but who asks for real alienness in a TV series where the aliens are humans in funny masks, anyway?).

Example of Klingon:

DaH mojaqmeyvam DIvuSnISbe' 'e' vIHar
I believe that we do not need to limit these suffixes now.

Since then, thousands of languages have been created by hobbyists, many of them published on various web sites. There is now a vibrant international Internet community of conlangers. The bulk of these languages are fictional languages, mostly more or less naturalistic in style. Some of the most celebrated languages of this kind are Brithenig (Andrew Smith), a Celtic-influenced Romance language, Teonaht (Sally Caves) and Verdurian (Mark Rosenfelder).

Example of Verdurian:

Donireu dorot, ontenei miura!
Imžanenei säta esë,
Raconter pomäa, vëndrom, vagec!
Se ai Elordalu, aďië druk,
Řem er zol ir tësein uestuin;
Scurem šrifao, ženi, mažtanem.
Nun vocanei so muďe durnä
Lë itianië, vëndrom, vagec!
Kî gués teneo ke vaute esë?

Give us a sign, show us a wonder!
Enter here into my throne room,
Tell us a story, you prophet, wanderer.
I am the Emperor, friend of the Gods,
Holy and powerful above all men,
Knowing countries and peoples and cities.
So now call up the most fearsome
Of your spirits, you prophet, wanderer--
Which power of yours compares with mine?

Besides fictional ethnic languages, various fictional constructed languages have been invented. These usually represent engineered languages, which are based on some version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. The most famous of these is Newspeak from the novel 1984 by George Orwell. Newspeak is a language designed such that nonconformist thought could not be expressed in it, or so believes the totalitarian régime of Oceania (it is doubtful whether such a scheme would work in practice). Another example is S. H. Elgin's feminist language Láadan. There are also several science fiction novels whose plot revolves around a specific engineered language, such as Babel-17 (Samuel Delany, 1966) and The Languages of Pao (Jack Vance, 1958).


Bausani, Alessandro. Geheim- und Universalsprachen. Entwicklung und Typologie. Stuttgart 1970.

Blanke, Detlev. Internationale Plansprachen. East Berlin 1985.

Eco, Umberto. The search for the perfect language. 1995.

Maat, Jaap. Philosophical Languages in the Seventeenth Century: Dalgarno, Wilkins, Leibniz. Dordrecht 2004.

Wikipedia articles on the languages discussed.

Various posts to the CONLANG Mailing List.

The Lord's Prayer versions used to demonstrate some of the languages are mostly from this site.

© 2007-2010 Jörg Rhiemeier
Last update: 2010-05-03