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It’s well-known that among inexperienced conlangers¹, many times their conlangs turn out to be way more European than intended, often showing features found only rarely outside of European languages, because the creator is not aware there was even an option.

What I’m curious now is whether among the “big names” such as Klingon, Na’vi, Dothraki etc. there are any such accidental Europeanisms? We can disregard Tolkien’s works as he was actively taking inspiration from various European languages (such as Welsh or Finnish²). Obviously auxlangs meant to suit primarily Europe can also be excluded, and whatever Esperanto is meant to be I’m well aware of the situation there, so you can exclude that from answers as well.


¹ Who are native speakers of an European language, i.e. statistically probably English.

² While not Indo-European, Finnish does share many features with other European languages.

20

While it's true that languages like Na'vi and Klingon (can't speak for Dothraki) do contain quite a few explicitly non-SAE (Standard Average European) features, it's worth noting that both Paul Frommer and Marc Okrand have stated that they were deliberately using less common and lesser-known features in their respective conlangs to make them sound more alien. Since avoiding features that would be considered common or familiar to their audiences (typically comprised of speakers of English and other SAE languages) was a goal during their language creation. I'd argue that deliberately avoiding all SAE features to make your language sound "strange" and "alien" is a sort of eurocentrism (though perhaps a less obvious sort than unthinkingly including all SAE features) in that your language ends up very influenced by European languages and their features.

9

The Na’vi language for the movie Avatar was created from scratch by a linguistics PhD, Paul Frommer. In an interview available on Unidentified Sound Object, he details how the language was devised. The director, James Cameron, had created about 30 words many of which he needed as place names. These helped Frommer understand what kind of sounds Cameron had in mind. They discussed what the language would need to be and sound like in general and then Frommer was on his own. Most notably, the only input from the director was a set of isolated words and confirmation that the primary way to differentiate between them should be stress.

Frommer decided that he wanted to employ all sorts of features of various human languages in a unique combination. Thus:

  • verbs are inflected by infixes, not the more common prefix or suffix models (suffix inflection is a feature of Standard Average European)
  • the case system is tripartite, a feature which exists but is rarely found in natural languages; SAE would be nominative–accusative
  • the language features ejective consonantes. Again, these are found in about 20 % of the world’s languages but only the Caucasian languages feature them in Europe

All in all, it seems like any features present in Na’vi that are also present in European languages would be a conscious design choice to not make it too non-European.

Furthermore, the interview also briefly mentions Klingon:

USO: Is there a “gold standard” for constructed language that served as an inspiration to you?

Frommer: In terms of “alien” languages, that would have to be Klingon, the language developed by linguist Marc Okrand for the Star Trek series. It’s a very impressive piece of work—a rough-sounding language with a complex and difficult phonology and grammar that now has a devoted base of followers. There are Klingon clubs all over the world where people meet to speak the language, and there’s even a translation of Hamlet into Klingon! If Na’vi ever came close to that kind of following, I’d be delighted.

This hints that Klingon, which was also developed by a linguist, would similarly be free from eurocentric bias.

  • I only went into detail with what I (think I) know, so this answer is strongly Na’vi centred. – Jan Feb 11 '18 at 19:03
  • Would you happen to know whether Na’vi has any of the features listed here? The problem with your answer as of now is that it shows that Na’vi has non-european features, but not that it lacks distinctly European ones. Examples don’t prove a theorem and all. – Adarain Feb 11 '18 at 19:25
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    In addition to Adarain's question, do you happen to be able to provide a judgement of the rough degree to which Na'vi differs from English in the somewhat less obvious categories of semantics and discourse pragmatics? IME natlangs often have this tendency of lulling one into a false sense of familiarity, then suddenly throwing something like "we have thought of you in out gall-bladders" or the same verb meaning two different things depending on some subtleties in the distribution of a particle or some radically different way of dealing with focussing, something conlangs often don't capture. – Gufferdk Feb 11 '18 at 19:40
2

I had a look through the conlangs in Wikipedia and listed which ones I could see morphologically marked TAME categories. There are sure to be some mistakes in here.

Tense: Atlantean, Dothraki, Esperanto, Glosa, Idiom Neutral, Interlingua, Kalaba-X, Kēlen, Kotava, Láadan, Langue nouvelle, Lingwa de planeta, Loglan, Mondial, Na'vi, Neo, Novial, Quenya, Sambahsa, Sindarin, Solresol, Sona, Syldavian, Universalglot, Uropi, Valyrian, Verdurian, Volapük, Wenedyk

Aspect: Kēlen, Esperanto (participles only), Ithkuil, Klingon, Na'vi, Quenya, Wenedyk?

Modality: Atlantean, Esperanto, Ithkuil, Kēlen?, Langue nouvelle, Solresol, Sona, Syldavian, Uropi, Valyrian, Wenedyk?

Evidentiality: Láadan

What's the verdict? Not only does this show that the conlang community has a strong Eurocentric bias, I think it shows it has a massive Anglocentric bias! Because it is English which is so strongly tense prominent. Most other current European languages also mark aspect or modality, but English doesn't even have a full aspect inflectional system, just the continuous -ing. Some European languages arguably don't even have tense, such as Koine Greek (for the last decade this has been a huge debate among Biblical scholars.) And evidentiality, which is present all around the world, including some European languages (some Slavic) was only present from what I could see in a single conlang! If Anglocentric bias were not a factor I would expect to see conlangs with a much broader distribution of inflected TAME categories, but as it is, 80+% have tense, maybe alongside aspect or modality.

In addition, many languages had muddled/fusional verb paradigms. You've probably seen them before: they include tense, aspect, the perfect, mood, utterance type (question or command), all in one table, each affix marking some combination of these semantic categories, but the combinations aren't very visible when they're listed one-dimensionally. Where are the agglutinative conlangs? Don't forget that European languages includes Turkish and several Uralic languages! (I found one conlang which is agglutinative in its verbal morphology: Einodo.)

Furthermore, often even when I judged a language to have aspect or modality it was because they had something called a "conditional" or a "subjunctive", rather than a core division between the prototypical categories: realis/irrealis, or perfective/imperfective. Now maybe some of those languages do actually have what should be analysed as the simple core categories, but they have been given alternate names by those describing them in Wikipedia. This reflects the Eurocentric and Anglocentric bias which is a big problem in descriptive linguistics. A helpful and short book about the importance of being aware of your biases in relation to TAM categories is The Prominence of Tense, Aspect and Mood by D.N.S. Bhat.

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    The idea that English doesn't have a "full aspect inflectional system" and that its only marker of aspect is the continuous/progressive has no basis in fact. English does have much less aspectual marking than other European languages, true, but that does not mean that English lacks aspectual markers other than "-ing". English's perfect "tenses" for instance, are patently aspectual, and unlike many SAE languages, English has not replaced the past tense with this perfect aspect. – Sparksbet Feb 12 '18 at 3:09
  • Also, your comment that "most other current European languages also mark aspect or modality" implies that English lacks markers of modality, which is also false. English has a wealth of modals, and really can only be said to lack modality if you limit that to inflectional mood/modality -- which should be specified in the comment if you mean that, with examples of how other European languages exceed English in such marking (English's ongoing loss of the subjunctive is the only real relevant thing I can think of here). – Sparksbet Feb 12 '18 at 3:12
  • @Sparksbet Yes, I'm talking about inflectional TAME markers here. I thought that was clear enough from the first sentence :) – curiousdannii Feb 12 '18 at 3:22
  • Even so, I think your statements about English lacking aspect and modality are misleading at best -- it very obviously does have both these things and your answer isn't specific enough to exclude those things. Also, given that the imperative is a mood, I think there should certainly be more languages listed as having "modality". Also, Esperanto, at least, certainly should be among the languages marking "modality", as it has both a morphological volitive and a morphological conditional/subjunctive (and it also morphologically marks aspect in participles). – Sparksbet Feb 12 '18 at 3:26
  • @Sparksbet I think it's misleading to relate the imperative to modality, it's really a way of communicate illocutionary intent. In some languages it will be mixed with deontic necessity, but not in all. In any case, my point is really about the prominence of categories, and that Anglocentric bias has resulted in 80+% of conlangs having tense. I missed Esperanto having the subjunctive and imperfective participles, so I'll add that. – curiousdannii Feb 12 '18 at 3:47

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