Constructed languages, linguistic universals, and language policy

No prereqs!

From Tolkien's Elvish through modern-day Klingon, we'll survey different types of constructed languages, why people bother to make up languages in the first place, and what these artificial languages can tell us about natural language.

IMPORTANT NOTE FOR MAJORS: If you are interested in taking this class, but you need it to count as an upper-division elective for your degree, you can arrange to take it as a 405 reading and conference, with extra work that will change it to an upper-division class. Please contact me to register for 405 credits, or if you have any questions (including what the increased workload will look like).


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Our travel guide through constructed languages will be In the Land of Invented Languages by Arika Okrent.

We'll also have occasional other readings, examining specific languages in more depth; these will be provided as pdfs on Blackboard.

Course Outline:

Part 1 - What is a constructed language?
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We'll begin with an overview of what a constructed language is, including the different motivations for making up a language from scratch. We'll also do a whirlwind tour of the field of linguistics to help us understand how and why the languages we look at are doing what they do.

Part 2 - Artistic Languages
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Artistic languages are made by fiction writers and film makers to provide a sense of depth to their created worlds. During this section of the course, we'll consider three of the most famous examples: Elvish from The Lord of the Rings series, Klingon from the Star Trek franchise, and Na'vi from James Cameron's Avatar, along with a few other examples of other, "alien" communication systems.

Part 3 - Experimental Languages
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In addition to inventing languages for purely artistic reasons, some languages have been invented to test how the language that one speaks influences the way one thinks. We'll consider two of the best-known examples: Láadan, a language designed to better express the views of women, and Lojban, an unambiguous language based in large part on predicate logic.

Part 4 - Universals and Language Policy
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This final portion of the course will consider how constructed languages inform us about universals of human language. If languages like Na'vi and Klingon intentionally violate these universals, but are still learnable by humans, what does this tell us about our theories of why there are such universal tendencies in human language? And what do the motivations of those who learn such languages, most often in isolation, tell us about the importance of motivation for language revitalization programs?