Syntax Hacks

by Brian Sawyer

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For a few weeks now, I've been noodling around the idea of some kind of Eats, Shoots & Leaves meets Chicago Manual of Style cum writing style guide and technical publishing primer, all wrapped up into a collection of tips and tools under the banner of the Hacks series. I even mocked up my dream cover for the book I'd tentatively titled Syntax Hacks: Tips & Tools for Better Writing and Editing.

Though such a book ended up striking me as overly ambitious and more than a little bit daunting, and thus remained in the purgatorial state of an idea that exists in name only (I really liked the title, though I found myself forcing content into it that would really better suited by the more boring but more accurate title of Writing Hacks), it took a walk by my local comic book store to realize exactly how small time my idea actually was.

The cover of the May issue of The Believer (a magazine I've raved about elsewhere) caught my eye with a story on "DIY Semantics" by Annalee Newitz. The story inside, actually titled "The Conlangers' Art" (excerpt available here) is given this description in the magazine's TOC: "Over eight hundred Klingons and other inventors of language are overhauling the DNA of consciousness." Now this is the description of a Syntax Hacks worth getting excited about (or humbled by, if you've been trying to fit more banal, pedantic content under the same rubric).

Why would you want to create your own language? Perhaps your goal is political and humanitarian, to allow people of different languages to form alliances and understand each other through an auxiliary language such as Esperanto. Perhaps you want to create an imaginary fantasy world to populate with a unique native tough, such as Elvish or Klingon. Whether they're creating a computer scripting language, such as Perl; a langauge of which they're the only speaker and chronicler, such as Doug Ball's Skerre; or a perfectly logical language that removes all ambiguity, such as Lojban, Newitz argues that inventers of language share one crucial trait: they're idealists.

So, for whatever reason (and, as I've briefly summarized, there are many), you've decided to create your own language. Exactly how do you go about doing so? In as droolworthy a centerfold as I've ever seen in an issue of The Believer (this is a magazine primarily devoted to book reviews, after all), Newitz outlines the steps necessary for creating your own language (she expands on each step with rich description in an eye-catching and nicely laid-out chart):
  1. Pick a Syntax
  2. Generate Phonological Features
  3. Create a Lexicon
  4. Make Your Own Writing System
  5. Develop a Speaking Community
  6. Determine How Your Conlang Will Handle Ambiguity
  7. Contemplate Adding Emotional Markers to Your Language
  8. Pick One: Artlang or Auxlang
  9. Determine Whether Your Conlang Has a Political Purpose
  10. Determine Whether Your Conlang Presupposes 2000 Years of Historical Development.
  11. Pick a Name for Your Language and Post it Online.
Make each of these steps a chapter title and fill each chapter with hacks, and you've got yourself a more compelling Sytax Hacks than the one I've been noodling, though with an admittedly much smaller audience. If these steps, or the article I've inevitably done an injustice by summarizing too briefly, interest you, do check out the May issue of The Believer before it's replaced on news stands by the June Music Issue.

Got a hack?


2005-05-17 12:00:00
Very cool idea
I don't know how to say it in Klingon, but I think you should go ahead with your Syntax Hacks book. It's a great idea. Need a co-author? My Natural Way to Write isn't the same thing, but check it out...
2005-05-20 11:21:35
Step 5 is the hardest part
Invented languages have been around for millenia. Contrast Esperanto with Klingon and you have the major reason why Klingon has seen massive uptake whereas Esperanto is still an intellectual curiosity: Unlike Esperanto, Klingon has a culture comprising a massive and very motivated community of speakers!

The lesson is that language details - phonology, morphology, lexicology, syntax, semantics - all take a back seat to the active culture of the speaking community. It doesn't matter how linguistically imperfect your toy language is - if there is a community of people to speak it, and a reason for them to speak it, then those imperfections will get corrected as a matter of everyday use. (Pidgins have evolved into creoles this way all throughout history -- our own English language is one such example.)

If your language does not have a speaking community grounded in a shared cultural context, you can forget it. End of story.

2005-05-20 11:32:29
on a similar note
I think it's worth noting that one modern language that has millions of native speakers today was dead only 100 years ago: Hebrew.

Although ancient Hebrew was probably spoken in one form or another for a millenium or two, from the Babylonian Diaspora to the turn of the last century, the language of the Jewish people was used almost exclusively for ecclesiastical purposes.

By 1900, Jews had begun immigrating to Palestine from all over the world. Although they shared a cultural heritage, they lacked a common language. It only took one man, by the name of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, to compile a dictionary and a lexicon oriented towards modern use, and voila, modern Hebrew was born. Today about five million people speak Hebrew, probably half that many or more as their first language.

Once again, a shared culture and the motivation to speak a common language are all you need to form that language and make it live -- all the other details are almost irrelevant.