As a child, I drew maps of strange fantasy lands with names in symbols only I could interpret. Some of the symbols looked (and sounded) like crude approximations of Mandarin Chinese characters, which in hindsight, was probably because Mandarin was the language I was grappling with then. Its characters were full of secret histories and meanings that, to my mind, fit in well with my imaginary topography of mist and danger.
I never did go on to try to develop even a rudimentary constructed language (or conlang as it’s more popularly known), but in the special feature articles of Unravel: Issue 10, we look at some of the motivations behind building and learning conlangs:
Esperanto, one of the most well-known constructed languages in the world today, was created exactly a 130 years ago to help people communicate across linguistic barriers. In Break, Break the Walls between People, Deak Kirkham gives us a comprehensive history of Esperanto including its survival across Europe during WWII and internal schisms, its key linguistic features, and how you too can go about learning this intriguing language. Daniel Adler’s Creating New Words in Esperanto, on the other hand, takes us through some of the fun nuts and bolts of the language to form new words that fit our modern context.
Communication seems to be the name of the game. Clara Miller-Broomfield’s language profile Interlingua: Constructed “Modern Latin” points out how unlike most other conlangs, Interlingua depends on human languages like French, Portuguese, and Latin for its vocabulary and grammar. It was “designed to be comprehensible to the hundreds of millions of Romance language speakers in the world”, she writes.
For Nuraliah Norasid, however, Tuyunri, the conlang of her prize-winning novel is a dead language. In her interview with Kevin Martens Wong on Constructing Tuyunri in The Gatekeeper, she talks about her interest in the idea that a “lost language is also a lost people”. Tuyunri, she says, is “meant to evoke that sense of submerged-ness and that marginality, that sense of lost culture and history—all we have left are the prayers and a few other words.” Her conlang is used to explore linguistic marginalisation, and the links between language, culture and land.
Speaking of death and dying languages, Mexico’s most widely-spoken indigenous language Náhuatl, despite its large speaker population, continues to face many challenges to its growth in the 21st century. Megan Frye profiles the language in Náhuatl: A Fond Farewell? Natalie Tong also looks at the relationship between death and language in her book review Making Sense of Final Words. In it, she reviews linguist Lisa Smartt’s book on the speech of the dying—Words at the Threshold: What We Say as We’re Nearing Death (2017)— which attempts to make sense of the often seemingly bizarre and hard-to-understand “babbling” of those nearing the end of their lives, including their talk of playing golf.
Both Drishti Baid and Emily Hunt further consider language, misunderstandings, and different cultures in their articles. In Lacuna Matata: Missing Words at the Dining Table, Drishti Baid asks, “Why are there untranslatable words?” She looks at the differences in dining customs across cultures and how they create their own unique words. Finally, Emily Hunt’s Anglicisms in Denmark debunks the myth of language purity in her article on the use of Anglicisms (i.e. loanwords, spellings etc. borrowed from English) in the Danish language. “As products of diverse and entangled social interactions,” she writes, “it is misguided to think that languages can ever symbolise pure, fixed cultural identities. In its truest sense, it must be recognised that ‘a pure language is a fossilised one’.”
In this issue of Unravel, we bring you language in all its mystifying, connective beauty. And, as always, we thank our extremely talented designers Daryl Han, Enisaurus, Felicia Follum, Frances Loke, Justyna Stasik, Kathlyn Loke Yi, and Jonathan Calugi. You have our heartfelt gratitude for your gorgeous cover images!
May you, dear reader, be inspired to pick up a new language, construct your own, or tell the stories of the languages around you.
Special Feature Editor for Unravel Issue 10