Conlanging today: an infantile disorder?

My recent study of the history of utopianism and science fiction has spilled over into my musings about conlangers and speculations about alt culture. I think there is something essentially trivial about today's conlangers as there is about TV/cinematic sci fi. And therefore I think there is something grievously missed on the sociological plane by Arika Okrent who has otherwise rendered a great service by documenting this phenomenon. I also think that the otherwise admirable Sam Green made some serious and harmful errors in his two documentaries on utopias and Esperanto, for which Okrent is also egregiously guilty in the latter. She is a linguist, not a historian or social theorist. Thank Godless I'm a baby boomer. These younger folks have no sense of history.

 I am being uncustomarily diplomatic here.  Somewhere I wrote what is wrong with the Esperanto documentary. I think Sam compounded Okrent's misrepresentation of the era that produced Esperanto. As for the Four Utopias and Sam's documentary approach, Stephen Squibb nailed what is wrong with it.

I get constant updates in my Facebook newsfeed from conlangers, and while I find the resources available in this area far more sophisticated than what I recall being available in the era of marginal print culture when I was a teenager, something has declined in one area as sophistication has grown in another. In the old days, most of the conlangers (when the term did not exist) at least pretended to be interested in an international auxiliary language, with an admixture of eccentrics and outright cranks making big claims, especially those inventing a priori languages. (I am so glad I was finally able to acquire my own copy of Fuishiki Okamoto's 1962 book on BABM at the 2010 Esperanto USA congress, which I recall from my nerd salad days haunting the Buffalo main library.) In those days the figure most known for inventing languages for the hell of it was J.R.R. Tolkien (whose medieval nostalgia I soon learned to disdain), which he referred to as a guilty pleasure. It was something for male nerds just past puberty to do in those days, in a far more innocent but hardly idyllic time.

Now artificial languages are commissioned ad hoc for superficially sophisticated sci fi and fantasy films and TV shows. But Dothraki could not get me to endure Game of Thrones.  And my opinion of Avatar was none too favorable either. I have already expressed my "esteem" for Klingon (see the post reproduced below).

All of this reminds me of a visit to Buffalo in the past year, in which I was taken to a congregation of a sci fi film club, coincidentally located a block from where I grew up. I had to endure episode 6 of Star Wars all over again, a scenario so preposterous even the person who brought me found it dubious. Every stereotype you can imagine about this subculture is true; the reality is even worse, much seedier and much more awful than anything I grew up with. It's a sad case of arrested development.

There are, of course, a few conlangs of philosophical or ideological interest: Lojban, Laadan, maybe Toki Pona and a few others. I don't think so highly of these either, but the conlanging hobby as I see it flowing into my newsfeed strikes me as decidedly infantile, as infantile as blockbuster films and "reality" TV, more childish even than all the crackpot Esperantists combined I've encountered over the past 45 years. Esperanto, at least, was designed for a serious purpose, and its subcultures exist at least to communicate, and while conlanging is a creative endeavor as any other, most of it in the final analysis is as pointless and redundant as the latest American film or TV series. O Stanislaw Lem, where art thou when I need thee?

Sociology of Klingonism, 23 December 2010

If I could have projected my 14-year old self forward in time more than four decades, I would have reveled in today's conlanger world. While I outgrew direct involvement in this sort of thing, I retain an interest in documenting it, and I can more or less respect the hobby . . . except when it comes to Klingon. Arika Okrent has provided a forceful argument that involvement with Klingon is not contemptible after all, which almost had me convinced, but ultimately I revert to the anonymous cynic who insisted that the existence of Klingon speakers is an argument for forced sterilization.

Now comes this sociological study, parts of which I find quite fascinating, as Mr. Spock would. Who knew that Pierre Bourdieu would be marshaled to analyze the Klingon phenom?

Klingon as Linguistic Capital: A Sociologic Study of Nineteen Advanced Klingonists
[Hol Sup 'oH tlhIngan Hol'e' wa'maH Hut tlhIngan Hol po'wI' nughQeD ]
Yens Wahlgren, Bachelor’s thesis, Soc 346, 41–60 p, Spring semester 2004, Department of Sociology, Lund University

Esperanto is cited for comparison, including Peter Forster's 1982 sociological study, The Esperanto Movement.

One surprising--to me--twist here is the dissociation between Klingonists and Trekkies. (I think they prefer to be called Trekkers, but I prefer the more supercilious term). I would think that Klingonism would be Trekkiehood taken to the point of a psychotic break, but oddly, many Klingonists begin with a fascination with the language and not with the fictional universe from which it originates.
Many Klingonists seems to lose their interest in Star Trek after speaking Klingon a while. This may be a result of that the average age is higher among Klingonists than Klingon fans. Star Trek fandom is in many ways a youth culture (Gibberman, 1991).

However the KLI as a socializing institution is probably one reason for the fact that many Klingonists not consider themselves as trekkers anymore. In the process of Klingonists becoming Klingonists is not only the process of languages learning. A kind of secondary socialization (Berger & Luckmann) is occurring when interacting in the peer group of KLI. Officially the KLI emphasize that they not are a fan organization. Their journal it is not a newsletter or a fanzine, it is supposed to be a scholarly journal, indexed by the Modern Language Association, that uses blind peer review. The education level of the Klingonists is as we have seen very high and it would be reasonable to assume that the use of an academic language and style is endorsed.
But compare this to respondent Adam:
The fact that there’s a rich fictional background to the Klingons gives this language incredible character, and makes speaking it fun.
If you’re speaking Esperanto, you can’t ask yourself, ‘how would an esperantoan express this idea,’ because there’s no such thing as an Esperantoan. There are fictional Klingons with a fictional culture, so one can ask ‘How would a (fictional) Klingon express this idea,’ and that makes it more fun.”
Note the perversity:
Many Klingonists choose to perceive and treat Klingon as a “real”, actual alien language and not as an artificial language. Thus they are not interested in creating new words for human concepts. Their goal with the language is not that it will be as easy as possible to use for humans, but rather they want to understand how Klingons use their language. This adds another dimension to the Klingon community. To become a notable member among Klingonists linguistic capital is not enough -- you need cultural capital as well to know how a Klingon would think in a certain situation. Or more specifically: how the group of Klingonists think Klingons think.
However, the influence of attempting to adapt Klingon to earthly needs is also felt.

The dissociation between interest in the Klingons in the Trekkie universe & the Klingon language is quite intriguing:
In the ordinary Klingon fan world where role-playing and dressing-up as Klingons is the major activity, the knowledge of Klingon is to be considered as sub-cultural capital, in the eyes of the relevant beholder. Though to be a Klingonist seems not automatically to get you sub-cultural capital. By judging from my informants opinions there is a conflict between Klingon fans and Klingonists. To actually learn the full Klingon language is seen as a waste of time and somewhat strange. In my opinion this conflict can be connected to the fact that the KLI states that it is not a fan organisation. It may as well be a result of different focuses; the KLI’s primary concern is intellectual and the fan groups activities is more practical (creating uniforms, Klingon weapons etc.)
Different respondents have different views, of course, so I may sense a contradiction based on conflating informants, but it's odd, I think, to wonder how a Klingon thinks without being interested in Klingons, i.e. as they exist in the Star Trek cosmos. It's like being interested in a culture without being interested in it. I suppose this could be just a small step beyond being interested in a language only for the language. So I guess this is not as pathetic as dressing up as a Klingon after all. Still, wondering how a Klingon thinks is like wondering how a thug from South Buffalo would express himself, and I'm glad I haven't had to think about that for some decades.

1 comment:

Matthew said...

re: Klingonists-- there are so few fluent ones that talking about what the KLI thinks is talking about what two or three guys think.

re: Youth-- Yeah, you tell 'em, get off your lawn already! Unless there is money or a non-recreational need, fake language is the domain of the young and idle, mostly. I've met (in the DC area no less) one lady that worked with the profoundly disabled where often they create fake languages (point boards and the like), but oblivious that they are doing so. Eo was started when Zamenhof was young enough that his dad could burn version 1.

re: Dothraki. The real crime there is that dothraki is mostly under lock and key. Not enough of it has been published for a fluent fan community to form. HBO owns it and I think there is a real possibility that HBO will kill it.