Grammar makes me happy. Some people curl up on the sofa with a trashy novel or Sudoku, I curl up on the sofa with a grammar book. Let’s get a couple of things straight, though; firstly, I am no evangelist — I understand the future subjunctive isn’t everyone’s idea of fun. Secondly, I have no aspirations to join the grammar police. My love is a tolerant one — I revel in inventiveness, and an innocently misplaced apostrophe doesn’t make my blood boil, unlike many of my countrymen. Unorthodox grammar can be wildly creative; in gentler times, Shakespeare was free to invent words — ‘laughable’ was first used in The Merchant of Venice, ‘fashionable’ in Troilus and Cressida — and spell them however he pleased. Without grammar, the sounds we make are meaningless. Conversely, if you understand, by definition, the grammar is good. It’s not so much comparable to choosing the right knife and fork, as being the fabric of the entire dinner party, tables, chairs, napkins, and swoonsome chocolate mousse included.
“We need to reach that happy stage of our development when differences and diversity are not seen as sources of division and distrust, but of strength and inspiration.”
** – Josefa Iloilo**
As a child, my favourite animal was the platypus, and when my mother asked where I would like to go on holiday I said “Lesotho!” (we ended up going to Cornwall). I therefore presume I have an inbuilt leaning towards the weird and wonderful — and while every language is fascinating, I really love the exotic ones. I can drum up enthusiasm for German, but give me Amharic, Warlpiri, Ainu or Mapudüngun, and I’ll vibrate with pleasure.
These lesser known landscapes of the human mind challenge everything we think of as universal and reward us with torrents of diversity. Take a basic distinction like ‘one thing’ vs. ‘more than one thing’ — dog vs dogs (second language English speakers with hideous memories of ‘One foot, two feet! One goose, two geese! One shoop, two sheep!’ [joke] can rest easy — it’s meaning rather than form we’re concerned with here). Surely that’s universal, right? Wrong! Millions the world over make no grammatical distinction at all — Japanese 犬 inu is pooch singular or an entire yapping horde. Others add extra categories; in antiquity many languages had special forms for two of something; Old English had three words for the ‘you’; þū (pronounced ‘thu’) for one person, ġit for talking to two people, and ġē for three or more. Modern Arabic and Slovenian still have special forms for pairs. Some Pacific languages add categories for three things, and linguists still argue whether Marshallese has a form for four things. Welsh takes a novel approach; things that are usually found alone take plural endings and vice versa — sêr are ‘stars’, seren is ‘a star’, coed means ‘forest’, while coeden is ‘a tree’. Other languages are just wild; Nivkh, spoken on the Amgun and Amur rivers in Siberia, has completely different numbers according to what you’re counting; men for two people, merax for two thin, flat objects like leaves, mirš for counting things in pairs like gloves or skis, mer for batches of things, like dried fish, mor for animals and mim for boats. It’s tempting to think these apparent oddities as unusual deviations from some sensible norm, but in fact, almost all grammatical distinctions display dazzling diversity. Wild abundance, it seems (with languages, haircuts and evolution) is simply the way of the world.
Past, present and future might seem like fundamental concepts, yet many languages, including Old English, draw a simpler line between past and non-past; others between present and non-present. Malay verbs disregard time altogether amid concern for accidental or purposeful categories, or actions done freely or under duress. At the other end of the spectrum, the Australian Pama Nyungan languages have tenses for remote past, recent past, things that happened last night, things that happened today, now, the near future, and the remote future. Giving and taking in Japanese, Javanese and Korean is squeezed through a matrix of relative statuses of those involved, while Navaho speakers use different verbs according to the properties of the objects exchanged – flat things, mushy things, small and round things, slender and stiff things, and seven other discrete categories. I could go on, but fear not, I won’t.
“The chief enemy of creativity is ‘good’ sense.”
** – Pablo Picasso**
For some, passive appreciation wears thin — love cake? Why not make your own? There are people out there who love grammar so much, they invent their own language. Language creation isn’t a new thing — though in the early days, they were likely to be attributed to divine inspiration. In the 12th century, Hildegard of Bingen, abbess of Rupertsberg wrote scholarly texts and even songs in a language she had presumably invented, called Lingua Ignota — Latin for ‘unknown tongue’. Enochian in the 16th century was also claimed to have divine origins — transmitted by angels, no less, from a time before the Tower of Babel. In all likelihood, it was invented either by English court astrologer John Dee or his close associate Edward Kelley. Many religious traditions, up into the present day, have included spontaneous language invention — glossolalia, or speaking in tongues — as a spiritual practice.
But language invention isn’t always tied to mysticism. Nowadays, Conlangs (constructed languages) only enjoy the limelight when a new Tolkien movie comes out (JRR dreamt up Middle Earth as a habitat for his Elvish languages, not vice versa) or Hollywood commissions something like Na’avi for Avatar. There are desperately few money-making opportunities inventing languages planetwide per year, it’s not exactly high on the list of things to do to boost your cool factor, so most must do it for pleasure. It’s a select sport — the Conlang group on Facebook had about 2000 members last time I looked, while the Avatar fan page boasted over 35 million. Conlangers’ motives are highly variable — some invent languages for international communication, like Esperanto, still the conlangers’ cause célèbre 125 years after its invention. Others imagine alternate historical scenarios, like the failure of the 1066 Norman invasion of Britain, or Ferdinand and Isabella losing their nerve and leaving Boabdil in the Alhambra. Some invent grammars for mythical races in fabulous places, others for alien civilisations on far-flung worlds. Some splice and filter, some conduct grammatical eugenics, some invent a new language every weekend, others develop monumental opuses spanning decades.
A trawl through that Facebook group reveals some very clever, and very personal, efforts. Veronica’s conlang Minahi was originally invented as a code for a secret diary. It grew with her into adulthood and now she has even taught it to her children. Casey created Tulaupo by blending Cherokee and Spanish. It’s an ‘artlang’ (artistic language) designed to help her understand linguistics. Owen’s latest language is called Başa Sarcay. He created it for an intricately imagined world — an example of ‘conworlding’. Vinícius created Smhábbi — ‘my language’ — while very young to satisfy a passion for languages in the absence of language learning materials. Lorinda created Shshi, a language spoken by intelligent termites in her science fiction novels. There are examples from the world of music too. In the 1980s, Lisa Gerrard from Dead Can Dance sang in her own, fluid invented language, and the lyrics to Urban Trad’s Sanomi, the 2003 Belgian entry to the Eurovision song contest, were written in a constructed language. Even Sigur Rós vocalist, Jónsi, mixes Icelandic and English with his very own language, Hopelandish.
“I think … if it is true that there are as many minds as there are heads, then there are as many kinds of love as there are hearts.”
** – Leo Tolstoy** , Anna Karenina
We love things that remind us it’s a wonderful world out there, or in the midst of all the chaos, that take us somewhere familiar. Ice-cream transports us back to childhood, fast cars provide pure speed that clears our minds. I love grammar because however obvious things may seem, it reminds me that just over the horizon, there are places where nothing can be taken for granted.
This article was first published in Perdiz #2.