What Interests Me in Language: an Essay

To a large extent this page is prompted by a request that Jim Henry made to me, asking whether I would like to see people learn Voksigid and practice with it. To me it was so obvious that I would that the question actually came as a surprise! And thinking onward from that point prompted me to compose this page.

I have been interested in languages and linguistics from a very early age, nine or earlier. Mostly, it started because everyone speaks some language (using "speak" to include signing in the case of the deaf!) and yet these languages vary so much, so I've been interested in their similarities and differences. And so, in linguistics, the areas known as comparative and historical linguistics were the first to get my attention and still hold a great deal of interest for me. But the ideas of Noam Chomsky, to which I was first exposed in 1960 or thereabouts in college, and his rivals (who have taken their own directions) have also held a great appeal, because of their attempts to deal with language with the scientific approach familiar to me from my studies of chemistry and physics. So clearly, when we consider natural languages, these three areas are the ones I care most about: the older disciplines of comparative and historical linguistics, and the new generative grammars.

But I have also been interested in language construction since I was a pre-teen. I do not read fiction (except for some science-fiction, and not a lot of that), so the languages created for such, whether Tolkien's languages or Klingon, have no particular interest to me, and there are really two categories of constructed language that I do find interesting. On the one hand, there are the "international auxiliary" languages (IALs), designed to serve as a way that people with different first languages can more easily communicate, and on the other, there are the languages intended to set up rules for a hypothetical language and build the language to see whether the language might lead to interesting ideas based on the attempts to render ideas into such languages. Many people these days refer to this category as "engineered languages" (or "engelangs" for short) but I prefer to call them experimental languages. Of the first, Esperanto seems to be the most popular, but it still clearly has not gotten the following that an IAL needs to be useful, and I have ever since my youth been involved in the quest to create an IAL (or adopt one created by others) which will do the job well enough that it will be taken up by enough people to be useful. In the second category, I was first exposed to it in 1970 when Loglan was presented in an article I read in Scientific American, and the idea of building a language based on pre-defined rules, to see whether it can be learned and used by people, and how the process of analyzing one's speech and/or writing for the purpose of casting it into an unconventionally-formed language might affect one's thinking, has long appealed to me. Voksigid was in fact only one of my creations in this direction, but it went further than most in that most of them existed on single sheets of paper, written up and filed away.

So I would be happy to see the results of anyone's cultivating an experimental language I developed, to see how well it works. Of languages I did not help develop, of course, Lojban, in particular, has seemed to work halfway. People have succeeded in learning it well enough to use it, but there are probably only one or two in the world who have developed any fluency in Lojban.

If you want to comment, send me e-mail.

Last modified by B. R. Gilson (brg1942@gmail.com) September 4, 2009.

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