Why Do We Make Worlds and Languages?
Here are some ruminations on various aspects of the often intertwined arts of glossopoesy and geopoesy, in part personal statement, in part discussion with others considering the same questions. First the definitions. Etymologically, both words contain the Greek word poiein, to make or compose, in its nominal form, poiesis, to fashion or compose, which comes down to Latin and French and ultimately English as an old word for poetry. And indeed, what we are doing is indeed a kind of poetry. To this Greek word we simply add another Greek word for the thing we are making. In the case of glossopoesy, this is glossos, tongue; and for geopoesy, this is gea, Earth (or world in more generic terms). Thus, glossopoesy is the art of devising tongues, while geopoesy is the art of composing worlds.
Before we get on with the philosophy, a story first. Or at least part of a story!
For in that time before all things was only LOVE, as a flame imperishible and a power mighty above all others. And came then our Heavenly Father who had even conceived a new World, a place where at last Love could be. In all the heavenly realm in those timeless times was the Father, the One, and with him was the Word, and the Word was him, and he was the Word, and the Word was LOVE. And the Word spoke and began to create!
Nigh the Father are the principles, Wisdom and Prudence, and they are with the One before all worlds were sung into being, and before all the angels and even the Powers came into existence. Next the Father are the Spirit of God, the Mercy of God and the Compassion of God. And then the Logos, that is the Word, the Lord Krist, the Blessed Son, sitting at the foot of his Father: before him is the Codex — written with seven kinds of searing fires upon an enduring flame are the eternal Torah, the Law, and the eternal Evengelium, the Gospel.
It was long — long ages of our reckoning it might be — before the One called his children to gather round him again. Some thought they would sing again, others wondered why they had been summoned. At last their Father spoke, but they understood not at first to whom he was speaking. Four words he spoke simultaneously: HURYO, the unshapen writhing in the Deep; SSAMYO, in the blackness before light and dark; AIYO, the first word is uttered; KSSILIYO, creation springs forth like a mountain stream. And then turning away from them, he spoke into the Voids beyond the abode of heaven, a single word whispered with the depth of longing and the tenderest of love: AKHIIYAM!, which is to say: BE!
Then turning to them he said: Behold the eternal record of your choristry! And there, away and outside the halls of heaven, they saw clothed in a fine mist, as if it were a veiling cloth, a thing of utmost beauty, a thing conceived and fashioned in Love. It was a world — it was the World. The Father then spoke to the Powers: Go now and bring these created worlds to their fullness of shape, form and nature!
And therein lies some of the oldest layers of work related to The World -- not so much the idea of creation by uttered word, after all, anyone who paid attention in Sunday School knows already that God is the ultimate glossopoet! -- but the conjunction of those four particular word-symbols, and then ratified as it were by gentle fiat.
So, What Is It and Why Do We Do It?
If you want to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe. (Carl Sagan) Pretty deep, and I think an observation that all of us can easily relate to.
Glossopoesy, also known as Conlanging, is simply the art and craft of creating languages. It has historically been called the Secret Vice, by none other than Tolkien himself, on account of it being a relatively unknown art, as well as a somewhat despised art. Certainly in his time, it was an utterly unknown and private art, for he himself admits that glossopoets rarely if ever met to discuss the fruits of their solitary labours. Now, when I first wrote this article a decade or so ago, I had written "is historically called", because at that time glossopoesy was still really a secret thing, shared perhaps only with one's most intimate friends and loved ones, if shared at all. In those days, Star Trek's Klingon was about the only widely known conlang to be found outside of Lord of the Rings, and was also the only conlang to be heard as well as seen being spoken by its people. Before them, the art, as a matter of public outreach, was the sole domain of the auxlangers (Dr. Esperanto inter alia). More recently, however, we've seen the movie adaptations of Tolkien's works, and several other movie franchises have brought the art of glossopoesy into the public awareness. Of course, here I'm thinking Na'vi and Dothraki in particular.
Languages do not exist in vacuuo of course, and a natural companion to the art of glossopoesy is that of geopoesy, the art and craft of creating worlds for the speakers of these conlangs to inhabit. It is closely allied to the whole D&D and RPG phenomenon (more from the DM's perspective, perhaps, than the players' perspective), as well as the more 'acceptable' story telling arts of the novel or short story author. After all, what is a famous sci-fi author if not a world builder and conculturer! But for all the respect famous sci-fi and fantasy authors receive, these arts themselves, and perhaps especially when pursued not by famed authors, but by ordinary and unknown artists, still has attached to it a certain amount of disdain. It was not so long ago that a fellow named Robert Lindsay wrote in his blog, Beyond Highbrow, and upon discovering a shared otherworld called Ill Bethisad, the following: "What the Hell is it? What’s a conculture? What’s alternative universe building? Have they made up some alternate reality world with its own countries, history, wars, militaries, languages and whatnot? That’s really weird, man."
While all story tellers in some way fashion worlds, sometimes tailoring our primary world to suit, other times cutting from whole cloth, not all glossopoets build worlds for their languages' speakers. But even so, most at least recognise that culture is a strong informer of language and shapes how a language does its job. Not all geopoets bother to construct languages for the peoples of their worlds, though most understand that language is a part of their cultures. It is certainly possible to do one without the other, but quite a number of us do both.
As for what geopoesy actually is, that's fairly straightforward. It is simply the creation of an otherworld, a secondary creation or faerie in which places and events and people that may or may not exist *here* take form and exist *there*, interacting in new and different ways.
As for why people do it, the answers are more varied.
Elemtilas said: "One possibility is that when we subcreate such a place as an otherworld, a faerie, we are in fact reaching out into the Dreaming, into the very source of our own existence, to touch another reality and give it shape and form in this reality. As if we were a kind of interdimensional focus that transmits what's going on Elsewhere and describing it to an audience *here* in the primary world."
Lee said: "Perhaps that is also why I conlang... To provide another means of expression to parts of me ordinarily suppressed in ordinary, interpersonally public life."
Mia Soderquist said it very nicely: "Actually, I've given a lot of thought to why I conlang. I mean, I started out just playing with language, but what is it that drives me to keep doing this all these years later? For me, I'd say it is an attempt to more perfectly express myself and the way I see the world from inside my head. In that regard, it is both meaningful and intensely personal to me, bordering on spiritual. And then there's some tiny part of me with a perverse desire to not be understood."
Amanda said: "Why do I (continue) conlang(ing)? I like having my own private way to say something. Things sound more meaningful in merechi. This is somewhat paradoxical - they are less meaningful to everyone else! And the greater meaning I find in the merechi words is obviously purely invested in them by me - no one else could find it by looking at my glossary (my dictionary is mostly glosses) or even by analyzing my tiny corpus."
Daniel Bowman said: "Often, the theme of "self expression" comes up. In particular, Amanda noted that things are more meaningful to her in merechi, but less meaningful to everyone else. It is easy to see how particular speech games can divide insider from outsider by the use of certain language incomprehensible to the world at large. Sometimes, conlanging acts as the ultimate extreme of this phenomenon. For example, Angosey sets me as the one insider against the world as outsider. The amount of time someone would have to invest into learning the language to approach my fluency level is far too inhibiting. Therefore, I am its only speaker, I have drawn the linguistic equivalent of a line around myself, a line that no one else can cross.
Sometimes I wonder if meaning is inversely proportional to the number of people who understand it. One thing I have struggled with in the past: how to resolve the paradox between intense meaningfulness and utter irrelevancy. I've come to the conclusion that there is no resolution. Angosey is like a memory to me, a memory I can describe to others but never truly give them. A language that requires another language to describe it, and thus imperfectly conveyed."
Christophe said: "In my case, because it's fun, plain and simple. It titillates my brains in a way no other activity manages. It's active and yet relaxing. It's one of the few activities where I feel I actually have a talent for, and it helps me learn something new everyday. And languages are cool :) ."
Thaen said: "I'm no expert on the multiverse theory, but if it works like i think it does, then somewhere out in the infinity of universes, there is a culture of people you have described here, speaking languages you have described here. So that means there is no "conlanguage" or "conculture," only languages and cultures that our subconscious mind "picks up on" from other alternate universes, and we interpret it as creation. That may not have come across clearly, but it's pretty deep, IMO. Somewhere someone was born into the Mithara culture, speaking Mithara. Someone else, Siwa. Ithkuil. Project Steppe. Feayran. Pazmat. Somewhere someone is spinning a katana-shotgun bow staff that rips open reality. And we get to witness it. Know it all intimately. We are Oracles. Seers. We are Bridges and Beacons. We are Conlangers."
It is certainly possible to lose oneself in Faerie, and there is a real danger. It may not be quite so bad as actually disappearing from this world and being compelled by the Faerie Queen to live in her realm for a time; but excessive immersion in any entertainment or diversion can become unhealthy. However, the positive aspects to wandering the byways and wild woods of Faerie well outweigh the evils. Those of us who are able to trawl the waters of Faerie bring back a rich catch of story and novel experience for those others who can not or will not venture with us to enjoy from the (relative) safety of their arm chairs!
On DISCOVERING Worlds Rather than Creating Them
There are many Philosophies of glossopoesy, but the one I wish to focus on here is Discovery Rather than Creation.
A discussion once came up, amongst some glossopoets, about what names the imagined speakers of the glossopoem, or conlang, would give that language. This led to a discussion about the general philosophy of how glossopoesy is done. Two basic perspectives came to light: that of creation, where the conlanger decides the structures and lexis of the language – in other words, she plans out every step and every evolution; the other is that of discovery, where the glossopoet allows the language to build itself in a more organic fashion. A natural enquiry at this time was to explore whether the conlanger consciously decided on one of these basic philosophies up front or whether there was an inner kenning, or realisation of how it best works for th at individual, after a while and whether conscious or unconscious.
Elemtilas answered: "Actually, neither. Discovery is simply how I’ve always done it; whether the language or the culture comes first doesn’t seem to matter. Mind you, it certainly is how it works for me!; though I never consciously sat down to think about it. I maintain that I don't actually "construct" anything -- I sit back, let the visions guide me and let the people explain their own selves or reveal their own language.
"As for the hows, I can say that I don't deliberately construct a language. I don't say to myself things like I think I shall give the language four tenses and two aspects and this is how they shall look. I work from the other direction, from the assumption that the language already exists, and that I'm trying to figure it out, teasing it from the aether the way a sculptor hacks away at stone to reveal the statue that's already in the block of marble.
"I’ve tried once or twice to actually create a language. The attempts always fail after an hour or two of staring at blank paper! Tallarian and Avantimannish (among others) essentially happened overnight, because I let them happen the way they wanted to be found. They were full blown languages right from the start - even if I couldn’t see them clearly - and simply had to be written down. Nothing could be easier!
"The philosophy came some time after joining the Conlang List, realising that there are other, if strange (and sometimes disconcerting), ways of doing it! I found here people that craft whole worlds and languages, speaking the words of command that impose shape and form on chaotic matter and sound; people that set up experimental snippets just to see how a piece of grammar works, the way a scientist might create a mini ecosystem just to observe; people that are driven by the need to make, but not maintain; people who love grammar but despise phonology; people who can never get past tinkering with how the language should sound; people that can’t conceive of a language shorn of its culture, and those who can do without the culture all together; and those like me who open the inner Eye and realise “ah, so that’s the way it is!”
"I can’t just sit down and say “these people I shall call ‘Dacridations’” on a whim. I have to visualise them, look around, explore and ask them what they call themselves. I would feel I’ve let them down, or in some way stomped all over the people of the conculture in question. After all, they made it up! I’m just the interested visitor.
Vassily C. answered: "For me, it used to be a realisation, and has become a philosophy. For example, I quickly found it boring to invent thousands of root words. Thus I stopped all attempts at a priori conlanging. Strangely, reforming a pre-existing system feels more... creative. And this has become my philosophy.
"Like, for example, asking myself what a given paradigm would get transformed into by this and this phonetic changes, and what all that would imply for syntax. Or, what a given syntactic construction can be substituted with, and which parts of paradigms can be thus forgotten, and which sound changes will be therefore more tolerable, etc...
"Even when I start from just one weird feature, I usually try to find out within what kind of a less weird system it could evolve, and why, and what it would nicely correlate with... and so it gets kind of refined, developing in its own way which I wouldn’t have been able to foresee.
"It doesn’t feel like anything mine after some point, and that’s where it becomes really fascinating."
Irina Rempt answered: "For me it’s a combination. The initial stages are pure invention. Then, after the skeleton is in place, I begin to explore it, trying out features to see if it works. Occasionally, I’ll discover a feature. If I don’t like it, I sometimes try to eliminate it. Sometimes its successful, but most of the times, I just have to accept it, because it feels “wrong” to do otherwise. Generally, however, for me it’s creating things and seeing if they fit into the growing structure. Although, as Uatakassi gets older, the discoveries become more common than the creations."
How Long Has All This Been Going On?
One time, Ben asked how this whole approach to alternative forms of reality gets started: So my question: since clearly, for me, conlanging is a basic part of my personality that I had formerly just not had a name for; can any of you relate? Do you have maps and diagrams from your own childhoods hidden in your desk drawers? When did you first feel the urge to construct a culture?
I think there must be something, perhaps commonplace if not universal, about the age of adolescence where this avocation / creative urge / artistic predilection begins to blossom. I can speak for myself, though would hazard the guess that others' experiences might be similar, in saying that I remember during those years many of my schoolmates were into Tolkien and writing messages in runes and eventually many took to playing D&D. Though I never got into D&D very much I certainly liked Tolkien well enough (and have re-read The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings over and over since first meeting them in the third grade), I think out of all us I'm the only one I know of who continued on with making worlds. But even before then, I was an avid reader of Dr. Seuss, and even when little, found On Beyond Zebra to be the most (intellectually) engaging of all his books. I still reread Seuss, decades later, and on thinking back, realise that I was that narrator, "not content with the confines of the ordinary alphabet, invents additional letters beyond Zed". Yep. I think that was a lot of us, even if we never read Seuss!
I can recall that as kids, around 7 to 10 years old, we'd play school and house and store and all those other games (ur-rpgs!); I also recall that we played theatre -- we'd set up a little stage and use cushions for props and had an old movie projector we'd use as a spotlight. And we'd draw tickets and try to sell them to Mom. We used to draw our own money for the store, and I used to make up names for the people that signed the banknotes. Eventually, I transformed our house into a country and made a Map of it. Not a lot of those early forays into the marches of Faerie ever became incorporated into any place that would eventually become part of The World, though a few names and places would filter through and find new expression *there*.
I know I was drawing alphabets and making words by nine or ten I guess, and found the gates of The World by 12 or 13. It was pretty well engrained by 15 and has been my only at all serious "project" ever since.
As for drawers full of old stuff, I do actually have a lot of early World related stuff -- a hand written and bound history of Hoopelle (an early version of Crabsucker's), some scriptural diddling (the nucleus for what would eventually become the Book of the Way), several terribly embarassing stories, some maps of cities, and lots of drawings of Daine, some embarrassing others not so much. I have also got a couple other tangibles: some Talarian money, a wewunio (a Daine rabbit hunting stick) and some other books. And of course, [the Map|Maps].
I don't have anything at all left from those earliest forays into making worlds. In drawers or elsewhere. No, that's not quite true. As part of playing house and store, the big room in the basement became the location for all these places, sometimes a shop, sometimes a school room, sometimes a television studio or even a church, and the stairs and hallway outside became a road that went through the place. There were still a couple "road signs" taped up to the walls here and there that have now been there maybe 30 years. There's nothing obviously concultural and conlinguistic about them, though, so probably don't exactly count. The address written on one of those "road signs", No. 31 Paribum St., has in fact become the address of an establishment called Joro's, a rather posh tavern and review hall that serves as a gathering place for the quality. It is located in the old manse of the Paribum family.
I did recently rediscover what must be my earliest "conlangs" (recorded at My First Conlang). In a poetry book we did as a project in English class in perhaps fourth or fifth grade, I have something of a "rosetta stone" bit of text in two different (but one at least obviously German influenced) conlangs.
On Fantasy and Reality in Making Worlds
Chrysaor noted that Steiner, in After Babel says about falsehood: any theory of truth should take falsehood into account, and falsehood of all kinds, from creative fiction to euphemisms and political propaganda, has been with us from the start of language. Key point: counter-factual statements and falsehoods are man's refusal to accept reality as it is.
This can be seen as another 'yeah, we knew that already' concept. But I would suggest that it is not so much Man's "refusal to accept reality" so much as Man's desire to remake reality along more aesthetic, or more ideal lines. Just because I accept "reality" as it seems to be, doesn't mean I have to like its particulars and doesn't mean I must or even ought to refrain from offering my own preferred vision of reality! Hence The World itself. True, it is a creative fiction, from the perspective of the present reality. It has nothing to do with refusal to accept this world's reality, however; but rather more about moving beyond this world's reality and exploring a new and different one.
Some Other Considerations
It will be interesting to see how the arts of geopoesy and glossopoesy in particular evolve over the next decades. Our generation -- those who first Awoke in perhaps the 1980s or very early 1990s -- the lynch pin between the dimly seen past and the unknown future, will really be the last (at least in the West) that started up and worked in isolation -- who went about things entirely old school. It is also the very first generation to firmly plant the flag of Conlangery within the territories of the Internet and social media. While most of us have had years or decades of wandering in lonely pursuit of beauty, most of the younger folk find out about the Conlang List or Zompist or CBB or the Facebook forum rather soon in their careers and many have been part of the greater community since their "birth" as glossopoets.
Coupled with the recent emphasis on Tolkien and now Lewis as (particularly Christian) mythmakers, and Tolkien as a glossopoet to boot, the future can be a very bright place. Though I sometimes wonder if the openness and publicity of the community could unwittingly cause "uniformity" -- the formation of schools of "how to conlang the Right Way". Most of us have been influenced in some way by one of the giants of the past, but I wonder now what sort of influence, generally speaking, the mass of community itself will have on younger glossopoets, and might this environment inadvertently stifle in young conlangers truly innovative and ideosyncratic constructions?