Film Review: Conlanging (Warning: May nerd-splode)

This past weekend, I was lucky to be able to attend the premiere of the documentary film Conlanging: The Art of Crafting Tongues. For those unaware, “conlang” is short for “constructed language”, so “conlanging” would be the verb form, because of course it

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Film logo from http://conlangingfilm.com/

needs a verb form. In contrast to natural languages, which develop in social groups without a large scale plan by a single creator (or a few creators), conlangs are consciously developed for various purposes. This is a film that engages with the people who create languages, professionally or privately, and those who learn and use them. It’s a film that cares deeply about the conlang community, and many of the people in it were present at the premiere because it was scheduled to coincide with the 7th Language Creation Conference. I will cut to the chase in my review here: this movie is fantastic. If you are in any way a language nerd, it is amazing. If you are some other kind of nerd, I think it would also be amazing. If you are not a nerd at all, I don’t know what you like, so I have no idea, but maybe one of you can tell me what you think after I make you watch it for my class. [Full disclosure: One of the executive producers, Christine Schreyer, is a close friend of both of the bloggers here, and the reason I went to the film in the first place. You should still believe what I have to say about it].

 

The film traces the history of constructed languages, which dates back to the 11th century or so. I was fascinated to learn that the first known (incomplete) conlang was developed by a relatively anonymous nun, who was subsequently followed by some well-known luminaries in philosophy, like Sir Thomas More. From the beginning, the filmmakers establish a thread of examining what motivates people to create languages, and this human focus is what gives the examples weight beyond the fun language nerdery. There are two main threads that run through these motivations, which actually pull in opposite directions. On the one hand, encapsulated in relatively well-known languages like Esperanto, there is the desire to overcome the messy baggage of trying to communicate across deep differences. One woman, raised with Esperanto as one of her native languages in the former Soviet Union, expressed her appreciation for the language as transcending culture and politics  (something that made this anthropologist give the screen a little eyebrow raise, but it’s an interesting view of linguistic utopia). On the other hand, several language creators found something profound in this craft because they were able to give voice to the profound difference that they felt, to a sense of self that was indescribable using the limited tools of socially developed and agreed upon tongues. One of the most powerful expressions of this view comes from a young trans man who found not only honesty, but also safety and secrecy, in a language his abusive parents could not access.

What all of the creators share, and what I think many linguists and others would find surprising, is a deep sense of the artistry of what they do. Language creation is complex, planned, expressive, and creative. This might make sense, as many of the most well known conlangs (like Klingon or Na’vi) are part of elaborate alternative worlds, but there are also those who play more directly with the forms available to them in their chosen medium of language. When they share their creations with others, whether it’s through conference presentations, online chats, or actively learning the languages someone else has created, there is a powerful admiration for and consciousness of both form and meaning embedded within them. The film highlights both product and process, giving examples of languages based on communication by handholding touch (developed by a couple who can communicate subtly when in a crowd), languages that are exclusively written (drawing attention to all the ways that this would be different from the ways we currently use writing in a linear way to represent speech), or even to creative ways of expressing verb tense. A resonant image comes from the language creator who articulates how, when pre-existing language is stripped away and you try to imagine how you would describe an object like a flower, you see that flower differently, recognizing its component parts, its placement, its smell and feel.

And of course, there were also some wonderful pieces of pop culture and behind-the-scenes anecdotes of language creation for film and television, which is probably the easy draw of this film. Finding out how constructed languages change differently from natural languages (a lot of weight can be given to what happens when an actor makes an error in their Klingon, for example) was something I desperately wanted more of (and, fortunately, was able to get, as Paul Frommer, who created Na’vi, and Mark Okrend, who created Klingon, were both extremely forthcoming in a Q and A session, as well as in conversation afterwards, revealing patterns of emergent language ideologies in conlang communities that I have filed on my list of research topics for when I run out, because that will totally happen). I also appreciated the amount of time dedicated to what I know to be my friend Christine’s incredibly insightful work on how revitalization efforts for endangered languages can learn from conlang communities. In both cases, traditional second language learning methods are not necessarily available (you can’t just move to Pandora for a summer for immersion Na’vi, for example), speakers and learners may be geographically and socially distant from one another, and an awful lot of work may have to be done from written texts. This is a connection that, I noted several times in conversation, more endangered language activists need to think about.

I walked away from the film inspired to try my hand at conlanging, just to see what I might find myself having to say if I did it (and if I do, I will definitely blog what I learn). If I do, I may also find an answer to my most burning question: what makes a bad conlang? I can’t imagine a bad language, so it feels to me that as long as the language is a complete one, it will have something interesting in it. A few creators talked about their earliest efforts as teenagers, noting that, like my old terrible teenage poetry, these would be better left uncovered, and…that just made me want to uncover them, to see what a bad language might look like. The only clear consensus on bad language creation was that not bothering to create the language (putting up meaningless gibberish) would be bad (note: during the Q and A, both the panelists and the conlangers in the audience were clearly anti-Arrival on this basis).

In sum: The film should be available to order in August, and if you are interested in language, in diverse arts, or in how people see the world through multiple lenses, you should buy it. If you teach in a linguistics or anthropology department, you should get your library to buy it, and you should show it to your intro classes. It does a better job articulating what is fascinating, exciting, and fun about linguistics than just about anything I’ve come across.

OK. I’ll covfefe.

See what I did there?

I took that weird typo Donald Trump made last week and I stuck it into a sentence. I used it as a verb, and a specific type of verb at that – you can tell, because this is a familiar sentence format in English, where we would usually use something like “play”. And because covfefe has no actual denotational meaning, it gets to take on the meaning of the usual word, but with a strong connotational or indexical meaning of “I am making fun of Trump”.

The bulk of the covfefe fun went down while I was sleeping, and by the time I got to the internet, it was a tired mess of its usual self, the stink of the covfefe hangover lingering strong in the air. Since then, covfefe has gotten the linguistic treatment in media from Gretchen McCulloch, who writes about the morphophonemics of the word, on the popular blog Language Log, where they’ve mostly focused on compiling the best examples of covfefeism, and by Language Jones, who ran a complex semantic analysis of Trump’s tweets to define the lexical space into which covfefe would fit.

There’s something about covfefe, though, that helps break my blogger’s block and gets me wanting to add to the pile. What’s interesting from a linguistic anthropological perspective is how this word, with it’s really unusual origin story, is having its meaning assigned, changed, extended, and changed again in very rapid succession by the ways it is used. There are people suggesting it should be a Starbucks drink. Companies are incorporating it into their advertising slogans. Hillary Clinton inserts it twice into a common cliché, making it play the role of both the fragile glass and the damaging stones in Trump’s metaphorical house. On the pro-Trump side, several people react to the mockery by using covfefe to murbandictionarycovfefeean things like “irrational“, or “deserved punishment“. While traditional lexicography can’t possibly deal with something that moves this quickly or has this much oddness to it, the user-driven Urban Dictionary and game-based Words with Friends dictionary operate by different rules and have each tried to summarize the meaning of this elusive new ‘word’.

In trying to understand what covfefe means, it quickly becomes apparent that it means nothing, but also everything. As I mentioned above, we ascertain some basic information about each use of covfefe by interpreting it in light of what it’s replacing within familiar phrase structures, but it’s still hard to define what it actually means even in those limited contexts. We can basically understand that Clinton’s use makes covfefe refer to some kind of material, but not what kind of material it is – it’s both like glass and like stone, and it doesn’t really matter that it’s performing a dual function. I’m not sure there’s a word for this type of item, but I want to call it something like an empty lexeme, because we can pour whatever meaning we want to into it, and it takes it on. In another sharp point of insight, Gretchen McCulloch points out that the -fefe morpheme is self referential – they refer back to the meme itself, not to anything outside of it. Usage patterns for covfefe tell us little about what the speaker thinks about this very new word with an already odd birth story, but that doesn’t mean they’re meaningless. What they actually tell us is how the speaker feels about Donald Trump, his careless Twitter presence, and his tendency toward bullshittery in the extreme. This last component was only made more prevalent when White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer claimed that “the president and a small group of people knew exactly what he meant” (Ed: Wait, what’s up with that headline, though? Covfspiracy? Seriously? SS: Too many morfefes, too little time).

Maybe it’s my tired brain, but I honestly can’t think of another example of a word with this kind of flexible denotation but very specific implication. And while of course I know there are more important things going on in the world, there’s something about this particular brand of language fun that I can’t quite let go of, so excuse me while I go grab myself some covfefe and get down to serious covfefe.

 

Translating “Mansplaining”

This article on The Establishment has been thoroughly linked in the rounds of linguist Twitter (sidenote: my favourite Twitter [ed: wow, you really are a nerd]), and for good reason. It contains several fun and informative things – an account of how useful new terms work, crowdsourcing, and creative multilingual language play. On the one hand, it speaks for itself, but I want to add to a few of its points, and then be a killjoy just for a minute.

  1. The ‘splain morpheme as a wondrous piece of semantic change. While the article covers the origins, meaning, and spread of the term “mansplaining” quite well, it only briefly touches on how productive the “splain” morpheme has become. There are widespread examples of it with any form of dominant identity as the prefix –
    mansplainer1
    Grateful acknowledgment for this meme goes to Femina Invicta 

     

    whitesplaining, cis-splaining, profsplaining, etc etc etc. It can even be used on its own, as simple “splaining”. Although this Merriam Webster [ed: the go-to dictionary of the resistance…because who knew that would be a thing?] post argues that ‘splain’ predates mansplaining, in the sense of a reduction of the original term “explain” (as in the famous “Lucy, you got some splaining to do” formation), its current use does shift that meaning. “Splaining” is not just “explaining” – it’s a condescending, unnecessary explanation based on the presumption that the splainer knows things and the splainee doesn’t. It’s such a great word that captures such a clear meaning, it’s almost hard to believe it’s not even a decade old.

  2. Semantic traveling. ‘Splaining’, and mansplaining in specific, is also a concept with legs, and as it was likely born on the internet in an age of internet communication, it’s only natural that it should strike some of those who encounter it in English that it may be useful in their native languages as well. Two different types of such applications were documented naturally, as Swedes comfortably borrowed the English term, while Icelandic speakers created a translation with relevant nativized terms and metaphors. Both excellent strategies for different contexts. The later “crowdsourced” list also includes a few examples that have developed on their own (as in they weren’t made up just for the sake of making the suggestion), like the French “mecspliquer”. As a reasonably decent French speaker, I particularly like this one, because it captures the “guy + explain” basic structure, but has the added bonus of punning on the reflexive “m’expliquer” (explain to me).
  3. THAT CROWDSOURCED LIST, OMG. It makes me happy for so many reasons. First, it reveals the varied strategies and selections from homophones to make the words fun and flowing. The Chinese correspondent used discourse-level markers (the wind character) to reinforce the perception of a haughty attitude. Some of the correspondents hesitated because their language lacks some key features – like say, gender marking in Swahili – that are necessary to capturing the translation. It wasn’t impossible to convey the term, you’ll note (the trope of ‘untranslatable terms’ is one for another day), but the structures of the language really do create different ways of expressing ideas.
  4. Inclusion of unusual languages. This deserves its own marker – there are even some endangered and marginalized languages on that list of only 34, which is something distinctly rare. The Mohegan example is particularly striking – the language had its own term for a concept like this, and in response to the inquiry about ‘mansplaining’, a correspondent brought it forward to illustrate a similar concept with different cultural roots. Irish and Welsh are also nice inclusions. Language endangerment contexts often involve a lot of opportunity to think creatively about the languages, developing new forms that sound and feel natural on the languages’ own terms, so it’s nice to see that represented here as well.
  5. We are all verbal artists. One more highlight – it’s worth noting the extensive engagement with the way the words sound. It might be easy to think of new word creation as a somewhat utilitarian enterprise, but as these show, it’s also fun because of semantic play, and it’s poetic. The words take hold because they capture something not just in their meaning, but in the way they sound/feel as we say them. We don’t always pay much attention to this fun point of language, treating it as something that professional wordsmiths get, but normal people don’t. In fact normal people are pretty linguistically fun, which is why I like paying attention to them.
  6. It’s all fun and games, except…Finally, my killjoy moment – yes, it’s presumably intended to be cheeky, but I hate when “cultural universal” is demonstrated by a few dozen examples, the vast majority of which come from Indo-European cultures or a couple of large major non-European ones like Chinese or Arabic. This one admittedly goes farther than most, with the inclusion of Swahili, Mohegan, Tagalog, and Indonesian…but please stop with the use of “universal”. Please?