Stand Back, I’m Setting These Words On Fire


Can you read this?

For some writers, words on a page are not enough. The writers want the words to whirl out like comets, to shimmer like rainbows, grow and twine like a jungle, until normal language seems like concrete blocks compared to a Tiffany window. Various writers handle this impulse in different ways.

For some, using more than one language creates the linguistic tension that stretches outside the routine. Many modern American writers with a Spanish language background, for instance, might mix English and Spanish in their writing, such as the Puerto Rican writer Giannina Braschi with her novel Yo-Yo Boing! As an older example of language mixing, Leo Tolstoy uses a surprising amount of untranslated French in his novel War and Peace.

Still other writers address the impulse to set comets free by using their native language but seeing how much they can twist it into new forms, new styles, new ways of doing things. Faulkner did this back in 1929 with the novel The Sound and the Fury, which can still be very difficult to read. James Joyce stretched even further with his novel Finnegan’s Wake, which is completely impossible to read. In poetry, e. e. cummings set his linguistic imagination free, with lines like “till my thighs are steeped in burning flowers”.

Possibly the most ambitious approach to breaking free from the surly bonds of, well, an actual language, is the rare example of writers who literally try to create a new language. The most famous example in literature is surely J. R. R. Tolkien, who puts not just one but multiple invented languages in The Lord of the Rings books. In addition to being a writer, Tolkien was a linguist, and he has said that his real interest was in his created languages, like Elvish (actually, he created many different Elvish languages). Probably more famous as an invented language was the example popularized by TV and movies, the Klingon language from “Star Trek”.

What would it take to create a language? One thing it would take to make a real language is more than one person. No matter how smart the creators of these languages were, and in spite of clever subsequent games like a version of Hamlet written in Klingon (I didn’t make that up), could either Elvish or Klingon translate the sentence “While my laptop was booting up I went up to the counter to order a latte”?

Outside of literature, there is a real language that was invented just as much as Klingon. Way back in 1887, L. L. Zamenhof created the language Esperanto, which he intended to be a neutral international language. Esperanto is not as linguistically neutral as some people might claim, as it is based on the Indo-European (basically European) languages, but no artificial language could really be neutral, since human beings would be making it up, and they would be influenced by what they know. The idea of Esperanto as an international language was a beautiful idea, though eventually English has come to play that role, with Esperanto not even in real competition. The popularity of Esperanto has grown, however, so someday, who knows?

There are two ancient languages (that I know of) that pretty much died as spoken languages, yet which continued to be used. If we think of a “living language” as one that babies learn from their mothers, then both Latin and Hebrew were completely dead, yet for centuries people continued to learn both in school and used them as adults. From the point of view of babies, Latin is still dead dead dead, although look at this news report from 2003 in Latin. The fate of Hebrew, however, has been an inspiring linguistic miracle, brought back from the dead to become a true living language in Israel.

A careful reader of this blog entry—not that I’m accusing you of that—might say I’ve wandered mighty far off topic, from writers playing with language to creating languages to reviving dead languages. That accusation would be true, if I had started out with any intention of being coherent. But that would take so much effort, and this is only a blog, n’est-ce pas? I mean really, ylDoghQo’ (Klingon for “don’t be silly”).



Filed under Language

2 responses to “Stand Back, I’m Setting These Words On Fire

  1. dhsklf;yddhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh’ new language or Poe on the keyboard?

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