Some Art-Languages

“Nobody believes me when I say that my long book is an attempt to create a world in which a form of language agreeable to my personal aesthetic might seem real,” J.R.R. Tolkien wrote in a letter. “But it is true.” See Helge Kåre Fauskanger’s site on Tolkien’s art-languages.

Maybe I do believe him… In his lecture “A Secret Vice,” Tolkien suggested, “I might fling out the view that for perfect construction of an art-language it is found necessary to construct at least in outline a mythology concomitant… The converse indeed is true, your language construction will breed a mythology.”

In a footnote to “English and Welsh,” Tolkien says of The Lord of the Rings that “the names of persons and places in this story were mainly composed on patterns deliberately modeled on those of Welsh (closely similar but not identical). This element in the tale has given perhaps more pleasure to more readers than anything else in it.” That last sentence was probably not true even in 1955 — and today, people who have read The Lord of the Rings doubtless outnumber those with any knowledge of Welsh, a language into which The Lord of the Rings has apparently still not been translated.

James Keilty was another writer for whom a big part of the attraction of creating a world lay in creating its language. Introducing a utopian science fiction anthology called The New Improved Sun, Thomas M. Disch singled out Keilty’s utopia as one he would consider moving to.

“The People of Prashad” places Prashad somewhere between Russia, China, Afghanistan, and India. The people live in communal homes that somewhat remind me of Tamim Ansary’s childhood. The sexuality and educational arrangements of the people of Prashad are what one might expect from a utopia hatched in San Francisco in the early 1970s. Keilty also provides architectural diagrams and a fairly Middle-Eastern-looking alphabet.

Poignantly, the anthology supplies an address in North Beach where, at the time the book was published, you could have applied to Keilty to learn Prashadsim. Alas, while some of Keilty’s plays in Prashadim were produced in San Francisco, I doubt you will find that language spoken here today. Some more info, from Samuel R. Delany’s About Writing

“James Keilty was a San Francisco city planner on the edge of a circle of fifties, sixties and seventies writers that included Robert Duncan and Richard Brautigan, many of whom were of an experimental bent. A frighteningly literate gay aesthete, he died of lung cancer in the early nineties. More obsessive than most, however, Keilty went so far as to invent his own language, complete with its own grammar and vocabulary, as well as an imaginary country and a culture to go with it. He wrote stories and folk plays in his invented language, Prashad. He began a lengthy novel in the language.”

Does it seem surprising or unsurprising, that so many new art-languages were invented in an age when so many old natural languages are dying out? Are the two facts connected?

For the movie “Avatar,” director James Cameron hired linguist Paul Frommer, an expert on Farsi grammar among other things, to create the Na’vi tongue. Was this the first time a movie director subcontracted the development of an art-language to a professor? Julian Sancton interviews Frommer for Vanity Fair here, and here is some more info about Na’vi from Frommer, and a link to Sebastian Wolff’s Learn Navi site. The Internet, while being no help at all to real endangered languages, may help preserve new art-languages from disappearing like Keilty’s…

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