The Etymology of Conlang

An introduction to the word conlang

Merriam-Webster: CONLANG, N. an invented language intended for human communication that has planned and cohesive phonological, grammatical, and syntactical system.

The word conlang serves as a compound of the words constructed and language; it was added to the Merriam-Webster dictionary in February of 2017. A conlang is an artificial language with phonology, grammar, and vocabulary created as human or human-like communication, instead of having developed naturally. The word conlang can also be synonymous with “artificial or invented language” or “fictional language.” However, some philosophers argue that all human languages are artificial. One of the most popular quotes on this debate is from French Renaissance writer François Rabelais, who in translation said, “It’s an abuse to say we have a natural language; languages are arbitrary and conventions of peoples by institution.”

According to the OED, the first known use of the word was in 1991 in a Usenet newsgroup online, by a user arguing the conlang Loglan has the best chance of gaining acceptance: “I think Loglan has more chance than any other con lang (except perhaps Esperanto) at gaining acceptance, primarily because of its variety of practical applications.” The OED shows that con lang did not combine into one word until 1999 in a Toronto newspaper: “A linguistic gateway to several dozen artificial tongues (‘conlangs’ or constructed languages).”

There are two types of conlangs. An a priori language is a conlang of which all or many features are not based on existing languages, usually intended to eliminate any unfair learning advantages for those learning the language. Experimental a priori languages are constructed to test linguistic hypotheses and/or to explore innovative or invented linguistic features. For example, the conlang Loglan was created in the fifties to investigate the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, a hypothesis exploring that a language affects its speakers’ world view or cognition. Artistic a priori languages, or artlangs, are created for amusement or as a language for a fictional world. The second type of conlang, a posteriori language, is a constructed language with elements borrowed from or inspired by existing languages. When a conlang has a regulated, original grammar, it is considered schematic.

How is conlang used?

Conlang can be used as a verb as well as a noun, and a conlanger is someone who creates the conlang or speaks a conlang. For example, “Conlanging is one of John’s hobbies. As a conlanger, John understands the importance of systematic grammar in a conlang.”  Conlanging may not be a popular hobby, but there is a crowd-funded documentary on the art of conlanging, aptly named Conlanging, expected to be released this year.

Creating a conlang

To invent a mature conlang, the creator must develop the phonology, grammar, morphology, syntax, diacritic, stress, consonant, vowels, diphthongs, and digraphs of their conlang. Most importantly, the fundamental differentiator between just a collection of made-up words and real language is its grammar, because grammar is what makes conlangs like Klingon from “Star Trek” and Na’vi from “Avatar” learnable.

Tolkien’s influence on modern-day conlangs

In the conlanging community, J.R.R. Tolkien is considered the father of modern-day conlanging because of his creation of several artificial languages with their own families, such as Elvish, Dwarvish, and Mannish. The languages Tolkien developed are so mature that they have their own dialects, connections, and origins, some with thousands of words and comprehensive grammars. In a Tolkien biography, it’s said he did not invent languages for the books so much as he invented the story to fit the languages (Bramlett). To further illustrate this point, Tolkien’s essay “A Secret Vice” says that “the making of language and mythology are related functions” (A Secret Vice, Tolkien).

The migration of constructed-language to conlang

Constructed languages can be dated back to biblical times. The first mention of the concept of constructed language in literature is in an Irish legend recorded in a seventh-century text, Auraicept na n-Éces. It claims the Irish mythological king Fénius Farsaid invented Old Irish and the Ogham alphabet with the help of seventy-two scholars in the Tower of Babel in response to the story of the confusion of tongues in the Bible. (Nyland). After ten years of their combined research, Fénius created “the selected language,” taking the best of each of the confused tongues, called Goídelc (Nyland). The use of constructed language closer to today, however, is most commonly by those wishing for a unified, international language, writers to give fiction an added layer of realism, and for those experimenting in the fields of linguistics.

Nineteenth century: Esperanto

Developed in the late 1870s to early 1880s, Esperanto is the most widely spoken conlang to date with up to two-million speakers worldwide and around 1,000 to 2,000 native Esperanto speakers, according to Esperanto’s national website. The site also describes the conlang as a language easier to learn than English. There is no record of its first use, but Esperanto seemingly wasn’t dubbed as a conlang until the early 1990s when the compound-word became popular. Prior to then, it was thought as a constructed language. Growing up in multi-lingual Warsaw in Russian-Poland, Polish ophthalmologist and creator of Esperanto, L.L. Zamenhof saw the demand for a worldwide common tongue. He spent ten years developing Esperanto in hopes of reducing the “time and labour we spend in learning foreign tongues” and to foster harmony between people from different countries (Ulrich). The conlang became popular enough that a recorded message in Esperanto was included in 1977 Voyager 1’s Golden Record. There are some critics of Esperanto, however, including the godfather of conlangs, Tolkien. Tolkien wrote about Esperanto in a letter in which he said it was “far deader than ancient unused languages,” because there were no legends behind it (Letter 180, Tolkien).

Twentieth century: Klingon from Star Trek

The first conlang that achieved widespread attention is Klingon, developed linguist Marc Okrand for Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984). A Klingon dictionary for the conlang was published in 1992 by Okrand. Most of it was made up, but Okrand did have some raw material to begin with: Klingon names, improvised speech from an earlier film, and aspects of Klingon culture (Saporito). “Klingon is advanced enough that fans can engage in full conversations, works of literature have been translated into Klingon, Bing offers it as a choice in their online language translation tool” (Saporito). Klingon is complete with its own alphabet and writing system created by Okrand, shown in figure two.

Conlang today: a conclusion

Although the word conlang is not commonly used in everyday discussions, it will continue to be a term and a tool utilized by writers and linguists. There is a Language Creation Society (LCS) founded in 2007 and dedicated to promoting and furthering the art, craft, and science of conlanging with 137 members in 25 countries, according to their website ( The LCS also runs a Language Creation Conference where technical linguistic discussions are held, as well as conlang-related artistic, sociological, and philosophical discussions. The migration from “constructed language” to “conlang” took centuries, but the compound-word has become more acknowledged in the last decade.




Works Cited

Bramlett, Perry C., and Joe R. Christopher. I Am in Fact a Hobbit: An Introduction to the Life and Works of J.R.R. Tolkien. Macon, GA: Mercer U, 2003. Print.

Matthias, Ulrich. Esperanto: The New Latin for the Church and for Ecumenism. Belgium. Flandra Esperanto-Ligo. 2002. Print.

Nyland, Edo. Linguistic Archaeology. Victoria, CA: Friesen, 2016. Print.

Saporito, Jeff. “How Was the Klingon Language Developed?” ScreenPrism (Digital Library of Film and Television), 14 Feb. 2016. Web. 17 Apr. 2017.

Tolkien, J. R. R. A Secret Vice. Ed. Dimitra Fimi and Andrew Higgins. London: Harper Collins, 2016. Print. Essay originally written by Tolkien for a lecture in 1931.

Tolkien, J.R.R. “Letter 180.” Letter to Mr. Tompson (draft). 17 Jan. 1956. The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. 1st ed. Great Britian: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1995. N. pag. Print.


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