Wednesday, June 28, 2017

How do you create an "alien" language?

In all of my study and teaching of writing, it may have been my proudest moment.

Allow me to set the scene.

The class was Language, Grammar, and Society. The first half of this English class was an exploration of how the English language came to be, including the forces of race, gender, politics, and culture that continue to influence its evolution to this day. After midterm, the class went "into the steam tunnels" of the language, so to speak. Meaning, we did a lot of exercises to examine sentence structure, parts of speech, and all things mechanical.

Both the students and I attacked the subject the way a small child approaches cold peas.

While essential to an understanding of any language usage, grammar is...well, dry. Boring, in my humble opinion. Compounding our ennui was the fact that we were muddling through the class after hearing that our college, our home, was closing after over 100 years. We reached a point where I could no longer teach the subject and my poor students no longer harbored the energy to get through it. Therefore, I told them we were no longer doing grammar.

Of course that left me with a tidy month's worth of classes to fill. What were we going to do?

Since I would bring the class news stories involving language, I told them about a college student in Brazil who had disappeared. When his bedroom door was unlocked, concerned family members found the walls to be covered in a strange, undecipherable language. I joked that when the time came for me to finally vacate my office, I wanted to leave my walls the same way. Really make them wonder what kind of demented mind once inhabited the place.

Then it hit me. What if we created our own language?

A once dead class immediately came back to life. I saw fiery excitement in these students that had been absent for weeks, maybe longer. But, I cautioned them, we could not simply spew out gibberish. The new language would need a concrete set of grammar rules any language...those rules would have to be consistent. There would have to be a rationale for the origin and etymology of each word. To set the spirit, I played a few videos that described how Tolkien invented Elvish and how the Klingon language came about in the Star Trek universe. In fact, you may wish to take a few minutes and watch this video of Marc Okrand, creator of the Klingon language (for which there is an actual official dictionary):

Speaking of Tolkien, he once said that every language has a story and a mythology behind it. His classic epic The Lord of the Rings is actually linguistic in nature. As a someone in the discipline of composition and rhetoric, I'm always asking about exigence, or what made someone write something? How did it affect their rhetorical choices?

What would be the "story" of our language?

Well, my students decided that their language would be the language of a displaced people. They were oppressed and wanted to develop a way of speaking and writing that could not be easily deciphered by their oppressors. Plenty of examples of that in history and I'll leave you to seek them out. You might also want to look into the history of cryptography. Next, we needed an alphabet.

At first, I showed an example of what is purported to be alien writing. It comes from the recollections of witnesses involved in the alleged UFO crash in Roswell in 1947. Here's someone's rendition of that written language said to have been found on a piece of wreckage from the crash:

The students wisely pointed out that we only had a month before the semester ended and everything went to vapor. Creating an entire alphabet from scratch would take at least a month by itself. Better to go with the alphabet we already know. That way we could jump straight to developing a vocabulary.

The cockles of my little academic heart warmed as I watched the students trace Latin, Greek, German, and Celtic roots of words and create their own variations upon them. They examined how words from other languages continue to interdigitate with cultural realities, spawning new and sometimes rankling words. I reminded them, however, that the language could not exist solely with the proper nouns that they were most interested in, but by necessity would require the common "furniture" of pronouns, conjunctions, and so many words that we take for granted. For example, what would be your word for "with"?

"This is hard!" one of them exclaimed.

Good. They got the idea then. It also made them realize that things weren't going to get any easier when we constructed sets of grammar rules. Difficult or not, my guys rose to the occasion and kicked all kinds of ass.

In a linguistic sense of course.

So what does the language look and sound like? Well, you can see an example of it at the top of the post. No, I won't translate any of it for you. The language is personal, a creation of my students. Sure, any PhD linguist would likely decipher it in no time, but you won't get it from me. I will give you one tidbit though. It's my favorite grammar rule of all the ones they created. To make a word plural, you place an accent over the word's harshest sounding consonant.

Love it.

The students then all wrote messages in this new tongue on flip chart paper and taped them to my walls. Just to make things really interesting, we added a few visuals to numerous screeds:

-I taped up a portrait of Al-Kindi. He was a philosopher and a pioneer of cryptography.

-Aliens. Yeah. A couple depictions of them.

-Weird art. One of my students could create really weird art. So much the better.

Then they really surprised me. My jaw dropped when they pulled out sets of t-shirts they made to commemorate the class.

That hand? It's a word. It means the communal "we." We the displaced people. We the community. We with a capital "W". They even got a shirt for me.

I'm not crying. You're crying.

It may have come from the most dismal and deplorable of situations, but this class ended up being a triumph. These students were able to take what he had studied and use the material...and their minds...creatively. In that final month, they created something truly unique in all of the Earth (dare I say, the universe) that they will forever have with them. So much better than a dry grammar book in my pedagogical opinion.

These students. Wow. They will forever have my love and admiration.

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