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Conlinguistics - My Secret Vice

"You must remember that these things were constructed deliberately to be personal, and give private satisfaction—not for scientific experiment, nor yet in expectation of any audience. A consequent weakness is therefore their tendency, too free as they were from cold exterior criticism, to be 'over-pretty', to be phonetically and semantically sentimental—while their bare meaning is probably trivial, not full of red blood or the heat of the world such as critics demand. Be kindly. For if there is any virtue in this kind of thing, it is in its intimacy, in its peculiarly shy individualism. I can sympathize with the shrinking of other language-makers, as I experience the pains of giving away myself, which is little lessened by now occurring for the second time."

from The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays - A Secret Vice,
by J.R.R. Tolkien [Houghton Mifflin Company 1984)

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While I have no formal training in linguistics, interest in constructed languages has been a "Secret Vice" of mine for all of my adult life. My earliest recollection of this odd interest is a discussion about cryptography with my older brother when I was about 12 or 13 years old. In my naiveté, I could not understand why cryptographers didn't simply "invent" a language in which to communicate, thereby disguising such communications from all but those fluent in this crypto-language. My brother, being neither a trained linguist nor a trained cryptographer was unable to adequately challenge my assumptions and so I embarked on my linguistic adventures.

These adventures were ultimately to take me, through the inspiration of J.R.R Tolkien, to the mythic land of ámman, home to a family of constructed languages that will be a major topic for this site.

After reading Tolkien, I began to accept his hypothesis that a 'living' language had to have a place and a past in which it lived and that language should be conceived in a deeply historical context. This was reinforced by a personal interest in diachronic language development. I found fascinating, the idea of a conlang that did not spring forth full blown out of the mind of one man (ala Esperanto), but evolved from some ancestor tongue in a manner similar to the evolution of natural languages.

Armed with these assumptions, I began to conceive of ámman, my 'Blessed Land', in which my languages could evolve. I began by constructing maps detailing rivers, forests, and mountain ranges. I resisted the temptation to name these places, as I wanted their names to reflect the languages that would eventually evolve there. I then populated ámman with four groups of people and allowed them to establish settlements. The æárhost occupied the coasts along the remote northwest and were a seafaring folk. The áldrost settled in the forests near the mountains. The nárdhost occupied the Great Plains of the southwest and the órdhost lived in the mountains. A fifth group, the rándhin nomads of the enénsahar desert east of the mountains were a later addition to account for a descendent language that remained morphologically closer to the protolanguage. I even attempted some short stories in an effort to breathe life into this land, but alas I am no Tolkien. The only one of these that even approached completion told the story of how the peoples came to be divided in some mythical past, thus serving as a foil for the concept of a protolanguage from which each of the derivatives were to descend. The plan was to distribute to each group of people a set of interesting linguistic parameters that would drive the development of that group's language from the protolanguage along diverging pathways. I was young and had no idea what a massive undertaking I had set for myself.

Many years later, only the language of the nárdhost has any real depth to it. Although I no longer write stories to support my linguistic ideas, I do still think in those terms. Thus, in my mind, the nárdhost began to dominate the western lands of ámman and their language became a lingua franca giving me the excuse I needed to ignore the 'minor tongues'.

Although I owe a debt of inspiration to Tolkien and my sense of phonetic esthetics is close to his, (I too love the sound of 'cellar door'), you will find that ámman îar is not a Quenya/Sindarin rip-off. Its grammar and syntax has evolved from independent solutions to what I have perceived to be grammatical and syntactic challenges. These solutions are totally independent of those made in Tolkien's elvish tongues and few if any resemble his choices. The vocabulary and scripts of ámman îar both exhibit clear if non-obvious influences from the Eldarin tongues. This is accounted for by the historical meeting of Dunedain seafarers in the early history of ámman and the profound influence this had upon the language and culture of its inhabitants.


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