Multilinguish: Into The Conlang Universe

In this episode of Multilinguish, we explore constructed languages designed for pop culture — and for real life.
January 14, 2020
Multilinguish: Into The Conlang Universe

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There are somewhere around 7,000 living human languages in the world. From English to Spanish to Swahili to Indonesian, each has evolved over generations from its ancestors and changed by the natural course of linguistic development over the centuries. But did you know there’s a whole world of languages that are just… made up? Enter the world of conlangs — those artificial languages constructed completely from scratch. But why would anyone go through the trouble of making up a language when so many already exist? Who’s speaking them, and just how practical are they for real-world use?

In this episode of the podcast, we talk about conlanging from two angles — in the world of pop culture and as a tool for global unity. You’ll hear from someone who makes a living creating conlangs for the entertainment industry and from someone who loves learning made-up languages just like these. Content producer David Doochin is joined in the episode by his colleagues Steph Koyfman, Thomas Moore Devlin and Elin Asklöv for a roundtable discussion about the role of conlangs in history and in today’s world, including Esperanto, the most famous example of a conlang created for actual people to speak in real life. 

Multilinguish: Into The Conlang Universe

First, we discuss conlangs crafted for pop culture. We talk to David J. Peterson, creator of Dothraki and High Valyrian for HBO’s Game of Thrones, and we also interview Ben Wood, a YouTuber who delights in learning conlangs like the ones Peterson creates. David, Steph, Elin and Thomas talk about the work that goes into making conlangs for entertainment and how they permeate communities of fans and language enthusiasts.

In the second part of the episode, the producers talk about Esperanto, the 19th-century-born conlang meant to unite the world. We discuss just how lofty of a goal linguistic global unity is and how and why Esperanto continues to exist, and even thrive, in communities of like-minded learners today.

Show Notes

This episode was produced by David Doochin and edited by Ruben Vilas. Jen Jordan is our executive producer. Our logo was designed by Ally Zhao. Special thanks to Thomas Alexander of The Esperanto Variety Show, David J. Peterson and Ben Wood of the Ben DuMonde YouTube channel for their contributions to this episode.

6 Questions With Dothraki Creator David J. Peterson | Babbel Magazine
‘Game Of Thrones’ Puts Spotlight On Conlangs | Babbel Magazine
Game Of Tongues — The Invented Languages In ‘Game Of Thrones’ | Babbel Magazine
How To Create A Language: The Conlanger’s Compendium | Babbel Magazine
What Is Esperanto, And Who Speaks It? | Babbel Magazine
The 17th-Century Language That Divided Everything In The Universe Into 40 Categories | Atlas Obscura
4 Languages That Were Invented Just For Video Games | Babbel Magazine
The Language Creation Society

Transcript

David Doochin: From the language app Babbel, this is Multilinguish. I’m producer David Doochin. When you think of languages, you probably think of something like Spanish, Dutch, English, Chinese or Swahili, one of the world’s roughly 7,000 languages that exist today, many of which have been around for centuries and followed a natural linguistic development, splitting off from other languages and evolving over generations. But did you know a language is something that you can just well, make up? Chances are you’ve come across one too. Does this sound familiar to you?

Ben Wood: [speaking Dothraki].

David Doochin: If you recognize this language, it might be because you’re a diehard fan of the HBO series Game of Thrones. This language is one of the major ones created for the show. It’s one language from one fictional universe, but there are plenty more out there — a whole world of languages that exist in your favorite TV shows, books and movies, but not in the real world.

David Doochin: Today we explore the world of constructed languages, or conlangs. Who’s making them and using them, and why go through the trouble of making one at all? And what real world purposes do they serve, if any? In this episode of Multilinguish, we’ll explore conlanging from two angles.

David Doochin: First, we’ll look at conlangs in pop culture and the people who are creating them and practicing them. Second, we’ll talk about using constructed languages as a tool for global unity, focusing on one conlang in particular, Esperanto, and we’ll discuss how practical it is to actually use a conlang like this in real life.

David Doochin: Before we get started, make sure to rate and review Multilinguish wherever you listen. And don’t forget to subscribe so you get new episodes as soon as they’re released.

David Doochin: All right, so first, let’s jump into actually talking about what a conlang is. To do that, I have the members of Babbel’s content team here with me: Elin Asklöv, Steph Koyfman and Thomas Devlin. Hey everyone.

Elin Asklöv:           Hi.

Steph Koyfman: Hi.

Thomas Devlin: Hello.

David Doochin: Okay, so let’s just kind of start by talking about what we think of when we think of a constructed language. Is there anything that comes to mind? Any examples that you would recognize maybe from your favorite TV shows or movies?

Elin Asklöv: Well, I’m not someone who really follows Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones or anything like that, but I know of Dothraki, I know of Valyrian. That’s it.

David Doochin: Those are two really popular ones, especially over the past couple of years. Yeah.

Elin Asklöv: Yeah.

Thomas Devlin: Lord of the Rings, bring that up definitely. I don’t remember all of them. I know J.R.R Tolkien made like a ton, Elvish being at least one along with others. And I also read about this one constructed language called Lojban; I don’t actually know how it’s pronounced, but it’s supposed to be this language that distills language into logical components. So it’s like you can’t say ambiguous things. And so when you say a sentence, I can only be interpreted one way, but that’s not a fun one. That’s kind of just like we’re trying to do something new with language.

Steph Koyfman: I want to see what a love letter written in Lojban would look like.

Thomas Devlin: There’s no love in Lojban. It’s like Newspeak. Oh, that’s another one actually.

Steph Koyfman: Well, I mean, love isn’t logical.

David Doochin: This is way deeper than I intended to go, on this episode of Multilinguish.

Thomas Devlin: We’re going to say this on Valentine’s Day, but also Newspeak, this is Newspeak, right?

David Doochin: Definitely. I think that’s one I didn’t even think of — but created for a fictional universe, has a very specific purpose. I mean that’s from literature from fifty something years, maybe even more than that because 1984 was written I think in the ‘40s. So it’s cool to think that people are crafting constructed languages, I mean, throughout history.

David Doochin: Do you think of the ones today from like your favorite TV shows, Game of Thrones, Lord of the Rings originally, I mean was a huge, huge work of literature. But I think… I mean you mentioned Elvish, Thomas, from Star Wars there’s Huttese, the language of the Hutts, which I don’t know if there’s a full… if you could go online and actually learn Huttese, but it exists, it’s an idea that there is a language out there that’s spoken by a very specific subset of characters. And I’m sure there are people out there who have tried to learn them.

Thomas Devlin: Have we said Klingon? I feel like that one is.

Elin Asklöv: I was just going to say that.

Steph Koyfman: Oh yeah.

David Doochin: So Klingon from Star Trek, another great example.

Steph Koyfman: What about Parseltongue.

David Doochin: Parseltongue, I’m not sure —

Steph Koyfman: Other Harry Potter languages?

David Doochin: I don’t know if Parseltongue is considered a —

Elin Asklöv: Yeah, because it’s just kind of like a [inaudible 00:00:04:33]. Yeah.

Thomas Devlin: Well, a lot of the time what I’ve heard about is like especially with Klingon, it would be like, it’s kind of made up for a show and they don’t really try to make it a full thing. But then people will go back and expand and create just being fans because they’re like, “I want to speak Klingon.” So let’s look at what evidence we’ve been given and then build on it.

Steph Koyfman: I wonder if you could mash fanfic and conlang together to make one word that is comprised of four pieces.

Thomas Devlin: Con… fic… lin… fan.

David Doochin: We’ll task that to you, Steph. You’re going to be the first conlang-fanfic creator.

Steph Koyfman: Okay.

David Doochin: But I think we should have a discussion about what a conlang actually is, because at its root we say it’s a constructed language. What does that really mean to be a language? Why don’t we talk about what a language is to begin with a natural human language and what the defining characteristics of those are and see how different or how similar an actual constructed language would be.

David Doochin: Because when I think of a language I think of — it has a vocabulary, there are words that people have to learn or to know to convey ideas. It has a sound system. Sometimes it has an alphabet if it’s written, but it can also be signed, too. What else do we think of?

Elin Asklöv: I mean one pretty common definition I think of a language is that it has to have native speakers. So like it has to actually have people who learn it from birth for it to be a language. So I guess that doesn’t really apply to constructed languages except for a few, I guess.

David Doochin: I think that there are a select few that actually have a community of speakers and that is the ultimate goal of any language. If it’s going to survive and thrive, it needs to be spoken by people. Maybe they’re not native speakers, but maybe they’re just kind of like hobbyists or people who’ve learned it on the side as long as they’re keeping it alive. But I think a real human language of course has to have native speakers.

Elin Asklöv: So are there babies out there speaking Dothraki right now?

David Doochin: That’s a great question.

Elin Asklöv: I don’t know.

Thomas Devlin: I feel like the contrarian thing would be like, aren’t all languages constructed because humans had to construct them? So I guess kind of finding the line between that, because I guess it’s just more when you think constructed language, you think like they did, the person who started speaking it did not start speaking it natively and they built it somehow out of not just trying to communicate with other people.

David Doochin: Yeah, I think that’s the key distinction, it’s like building it from scratch and not the language isn’t just naturally evolving from some other source. It’s not branching off in some language family to become its own thing and it’s most likely not being learned natively. But I think that later in the episode we’ll get to talk about a specific example of a language that was created from scratch that is being learned natively.

David Doochin: So we’ll get there, but I think that’s one of the main distinguishing factors between natural languages and constructed languages. But it’s important to note that fully fledged constructed languages will have vocabularies. They’ll have phonologies or other sound systems. They’ll have rules that govern how these different parts can come together, which is called grammar.

David Doochin: So anyone technically can create a language. That’s an important point to remember, as long as it has these defining elements of a language. It doesn’t have to be a natural human language.

Steph Koyfman: I also think one of the big differences is that a natural language is sort of like a participative, like, community process, right? Because it’s sort of something that kind of cohesively evolves with the input of many people, whereas a conlang is usually the product of one person’s imagination. One person is sort of creating the entire system and all of the rules.

David Doochin: Yeah, and I think if you think about people who create conlangs for fictional universes, it’s typically one person — and we’re about to hear from one person, David J. Peterson, who was the mastermind and the architect behind High Valyrian and Dothraki from Game of Thrones.

David Doochin: But like you said, he’s the only one who’s contributing to this kind of grand base of knowledge that forms the Dothraki language. He was the sole person who is tasked with or commissioned to do this project. But language naturally, like you said — it’s very collaborative, and it grows, and it evolves and it changes with the people who speak it.

David Doochin: Well, I just want to give a quick rundown of sort of the history of constructed languages because it’s way older than you might think. We think of literature from the contemporary era or TV shows and movies like I keep mentioning as sort of like the playground for these constructed languages. But I found an example from even the 12th century — I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of Hildegard von Bingen.

David Doochin: She’s, like, a famed mystic and a Catholic saint, and Elin, you might know more than I do about her, but she kind of became the icon for conlangers over the centuries because she was one of the first to come up with a language that was used for hymn lyrics. And it had a sort of masked or disguised script as well as some words that kind of helped to muddy or blur the meanings of some of the lyrics. She called it lingua ignota.

David Doochin: So she’s kind of held in high regard is one of the original conlangers, and that was hundreds and hundreds of years ago. And then there’s another example that I wrote about for Atlas Obscura a couple of years ago of what’s called a philosophical language, which was created by a philosopher named John Wilkins back in, I think, the 17th century.

David Doochin: And he tried to come up with a system that would sort every concept, idea, thing in the universe into 40 different categories, and each category was assigned a syllable like ti, bo, da, something like that. So you would be able to signify what category, whether it’s like “beast” or “creature of the earth.” That might be a category or something more general like “concept” or “state of being,” like—

Steph Koyfman: Almost reminds me of the itching or like the tarot or like every single thing in the universe can be sort of ascribed to one of 80 or 78 symbols or something.

David Doochin: Definitely. And it’s a big project. It sounds really laborious to kind of split up every single concept of everything in the universe into these categories. And then you find you have subcategories as well, and each of those categories has a different sound ascribed to it. So it’s like the color green, I think was ti-de because ti signified “color” and then de was like the division of color that meant “green” after ti.

David Doochin: So if you said ti-de, then you were conveying “green,” but of course you have to understand what all that means to be able to use this language. Anyways, the point is that people have been trying to create conlangs for a long time, and we see a lot of them today because there’s just so much media that we’re saturated with all the time, but I think this is a process that’s been going on for so long.

David Doochin: People trying to kind of make language from scratch to make it something that they can use as a supplement to the language they already have for whatever purpose. But getting back to Dothraki and High Valyrian from Game of Thrones, which are some of the most recognized conlangs today.

David Doochin: Steph, you interviewed David J. Peterson, who we just mentioned, who was hired to create these languages for the show. And I’m going to play a clip from the interview with him where he talks about the process of creating conlangs.

David J. Peterson: It’s like putting together the puzzle and also building the puzzle pieces that make the puzzle and so it’s very difficult. It’s very taxing and it’s type of thing. Or as you can imagine if you were just trying to create all puzzle pieces by hand, you might find that they don’t fit the way that you thought they were going to.

David Peterson: Maybe the images are right, but that one of the little tabs is too big… too. I mean that’s the type of thing that happens with language creation. Maybe you have a plan, you sit down, you start doing it. Maybe it works, maybe it doesn’t and maybe some bit that has worked very well, ends up obscuring another bit, making it not work as well.

David Peterson: And so it’s just, it’s a call for endless tinkering to make sure that the system you have works right. And then of course, even once you’ve got the system running pretty well, I mean creating an entire vocabulary, it’s something that can literally last your entire lifetime. No project is ever finished.

David Peterson: And so I mean, unlike with a lot of other art forms, I mean there’s never anything you produce that can’t stand to be improved further. It’s endless and that’s part of the drive.

David Doochin: Okay. So what are the major reflections that you have listening to that? One thing that stuck with me was like the endless tinkering, the concept of, you’re never really done. Because when I think of a language, it’s so big and so expansive that you could be working on it forever and ever and there’s no right answer. Languages are so arbitrary and what word represents what concept or what sound can be paired with another sound to make a word. Does that also stick out to you? Just like how much work it would be to create a conlang in the first place?

Elin Asklöv: Yeah, totally. And also I thought of like you also need to have a — for it to be a living language for real, you need to have a system of bringing in new words. For it to be a living language you have to also be able to say “microwave” in Dothraki and that system needs to be in place.

Elin Asklöv: And also apart from all the basic grammar that you need for it to be classified as living. There has to be words that go out of use as well as we say in natural, more organically developed languages.

Thomas Devlin: Yeah. I can just wonder when you decide something is developed enough because I mean with Dothraki, it’s one thing because he’s being given lines, that they specifically need this. But if you want more people to use it, how do you know when to release it? Because I feel like for me I’d be like, alright this is great, this is perfect, putting it out in the world. And then someone would be like, how do you say “microwave”? And I’d be like, dammit. So I don’t know. It’s fascinating.

Steph Koyfman: Yeah. I mean, one of the things that stood out to me from my conversation with him is that you really do have to think about the fact that this language has to stand alone on its own and sort of be a cohesive comprehensive system, even if you’re only creating a language for a movie and there’s going to be like 10 sentences and they’re talking about this one specific thing. Peterson really cares about having the language sort of stand on its own two feet I guess beyond the requirements of the given project.

David Doochin: So I think that with someone like David J. Peterson, no one’s necessarily asking him to create a full language that stands on two feet, but if you know that people are going to be interested in learning it and forming a little language community to speak in that language, of course you’re going to want to give them as much as you can to work with. But like he said, I’m sure it just takes endless tinkering and you have to build out all these vocabularies. You have to make it really, really full so it can live on its own. And it seems like a lot of work. It really does.

Steph Koyfman: Yeah. And I think one of the things is that a lot of these franchises have a really dedicated fan base and everything has been about just sort of like increasing authenticity and an increasing high quality special effects. And I mean I think there was one movie that sort of set the precedent for having a legitimate conlang and then everyone else just kind of wanted to copy that. And so basically what he said is that, like, we’re at a point now where, like, every major project that could benefit from having a conlang is basically doing that and employing people who do this kind of stuff.

Thomas Devlin: Also just to bring up, I remember I’ve read the first two of the Game of Thrones books and there is Dothraki in there, but only a few words. And so David J. Peterson had the sparest of parts that he did have to build into the larger language, but it wasn’t a full language until the show came out, which I found kind of interesting. Because in the book you can kind of just say, “‘Blah, blah,’ Daenerys said in High Valyrian,” but when you’re in a TV show, it kind of takes you out of it if everyone’s just speaking the same language, like when you’re watching a show about Russia and everyone’s speaking in an English accent for some reason.

Steph Koyfman: Yeah.

David Doochin: So I want to talk about the community of speakers who are actually learning these languages for fun and as a hobby, because they’re out there and they exist. And I actually talked to one; he’s a YouTuber named Ben DuMonde, his name is Ben Wood, his username on YouTube is Ben DuMonde, “Ben of the World.” And he’s a really big language learner. He’s super big into learning conlangs as long or as well as natural languages. But he’s also experimented with making a conlangs of his own.

David Doochin: So I’m going to play some clips from the interview that I had with him where he talks about why he started learning conlangs in the first place, what they mean to him and what they’ve helped him learn about natural languages too. So the first thing that we kind of talked about was why he would want to get into learning a conlang in the first place and why other people would as well.

Ben Wood: Some people create a language and they don’t expect anyone to learn it. This is just like a personal exercise to just kind of express yourself artistically. In other cases like Dothraki, it’s brought about by popular media and just from that fact alone there’s already this community who follows this TV show and then you can say, “Oh, well, in this TV show they speak Dothraki, and it’d be kind of fun if this group of people who enjoy the show could also speak it and kind of use it as a fun little language.”

Ben Wood: But then there are some constructive languages that are meant to be spoken by a lot of people, so auxiliary languages like Esperanto. The goal of that language was to be a global second language for people.

David Doochin: So we’ll get to Esperanto later. But I really liked his point about the fact that some people just like to learn conlangs because they want to be a part of something — like they belong to a fan base already of, in the case of Game of Thrones. But another way for them to explore that community and connect with it is to learn the language that is a defining characteristic of the show itself. Did anything stand out to you about that clip?

Thomas Devlin: I just think it’s so hard to learn a language that lots of people speak. The idea of learning for a fan community is just so wild to me because like I think of learning Spanish and I’m like, eh, it’s so hard. But there are people who are becoming fluent with these languages that only may be a few hundred other people speak and it’s for fun. It’s a different mindset that fascinates me.

David Doochin: Yeah. One thing that he and I talked about was, and we mentioned at the beginning of the episode, was that you need a community of speakers to be able to practice it. If the language is going to live and thrive and even survive, you need just to have people that you can practice it with.

David Doochin: For your own sake too if you want to be able to get better and become fluent in the language, whatever fluency means to you, you can’t just do it by yourself. You can’t just look at YouTube tutorials and read books. You have to be able to get together with other people in practice just like you would with any natural language. So it seems like more of a challenge to learn a conlang for sure.

Steph Koyfman: I’m sure there are some people who would actually find it appealing that there are so few speakers of it. Guess they’re like, “I’m so edgy; I speak this super cool made up language.”

David Doochin: Then the other people would look on and say, “Well, I think that’s so impractical of you. I’m judging you… It seems like a waste of time for you to have done that because there’s no one else to speak it with and I don’t necessarily respect you for knowing it.”

Steph Koyfman: Well, you have people to speak it with. It’s just probably in your own little WhatsApp group.

Thomas Devlin: And we’ll say the fact that nerd culture has come to the forefront must be great for people who speak Klingon, for example, because in the ‘90s this was the worst. Now I feel like you’ve got people who are like, that’s pretty cool. Even if they’re not part of it though, it still is not practical, but not everything in life has to be.

Elin Asklöv: No, I mean you could also argue why would you learn Icelandic for instance, which has like, I don’t know, 400,000 native speakers, but people do that too. So, yeah.

David Doochin: I think it’s all about the mental challenge and connecting with the people that you want to connect with if they have a skill or they know something that you don’t and you really want to be able to join that community, I guess it’s a way to really jump in headfirst, and it’s kind of like an ingroup-outgroup identifier, too, if you know, with natural languages as well. If you know a language really well, that instantly gives you a new way to connect with people and communicate with them in ways you couldn’t before.

Elin Asklöv: I also think it’s a great opportunity for creativity, right? Because Dothraki, High Valyrian, Klingon and all of them they are, as we said, maybe not fully developed in a way that like, I mean they have the basics, but as we said, maybe you don’t know how to say “microwave.” So, like, you can be part of that community by adding on bit by bit probably. I don’t know how it works in those communities, but I’m guessing there must be some sort of space for innovation even now.

Thomas Devlin: Yeah, I am curious about that now. I don’t know if it’s just like “microwave” is a loan word from English.

Elin Asklöv: Maybe that is the case.

David Doochin: So I’m going to play another clip from the same interview with Ben Wood, and he kind of talked about how conlanging, either creating or learning conlangs, has helped him understand human natural languages better, which I think is really interesting. So, see what you think.

Ben Wood: It can be kind of difficult to create a constructed language that feels authentic and that feels different from a language that you already know. Because most people don’t think of the deep structural mechanics that make up English and Spanish or Mandarin. So, developing a conlang, you learn about these deeper structures and you learn to appreciate the complexity of natural languages more I think. It can be similar if you’re just learning the constructed language as well.

Ben Wood: You learn these new concepts. So maybe your language doesn’t have an accusative case. So if you’re learning Esperanto, you have to learn about the accusative, how it functions and everything. And you know, that could help you in the future if you’re learning maybe German or Russian.

Ben Wood: Oh. Yeah. It can be kind of daunting if you don’t have a lot of time to learn these new concepts. But it’s really interesting, and I think it opens up your mind to the diversity of language and how all these languages function.

David Doochin: I think he raised some really good points, especially about learning a conlang being a mental exercise. Not necessarily fun all the time, but one that helps to stimulate your mind and help you understand your own language better. And then even to learn new natural languages, too. What do you think?

Elin Asklöv: Yeah. I think what’s interesting… What I know about Dothraki and High Valyrian is that they aren’t that simple grammar-wise. I think they have lots of cases and genders, and that’s also interesting, but when you create a language that is in many cases then more complex or in a completely different way than your native language — I guess Peterson’s native language is English and that he would bring in so many grammatical concepts that are very foreign to him.

Elin Asklöv: That’s very interesting. But it does create, I mean it adds something to the language that it has something strange or mystical about it from an English speaker’s perspective. So I definitely think that learning, but also creating a constructed language much must be so interesting for a grammar nerd.

Steph Koyfman: Yeah, no, I think one of the rookie mistakes I made when I was talking to Peterson was I asked him, I was like, “What do you do? What’s your process? Do you just borrow some of the grammar from Japanese and throw in some syntax from German?”

Steph Koyfman: And he’s like, “No, no, no. That is a rookie mistake. You do not just do a Frankenstein mishmash of the world’s existing natural languages. It has to be an organic process.” And actually kind of speaking to your point, he was kind of saying, yeah, you don’t have to know multiple languages to create a conlang. But it certainly helps because the more languages you know, the less likely you are to sort of unconsciously recreate some of the things you take for granted just because, in English you would place “the,” the word “the,” every language has it.

Steph Koyfman: But every language also kind of has a different way of using it, like a sentence order. Those are all kinds of things that you never really questioned until you start learning more languages. So it broadens your scope of what’s possible.

Elin Asklöv: Yeah.

David Doochin: I think that the clip that we just played from Ben and the conversation we’re having touch a lot on the accessibility of conlanging. The question of, is it something that anyone can do? Do you need to know a lot of other natural human languages to be able to do it? Do you need a formal training in linguistics? Like you said, you need to be able to take the syntax from one language and the vocabulary or the morphology from another.

David Doochin: What does it take to make a conlang and can anyone do it? So I talked to Ben about that as well. I think he had something really insightful to say, too. So I’ll play that.

Ben Wood: I absolutely think that everyone has the capability to learn or even create their own language. There are lots of resources out there. I know David Peterson, the guy who invented Dothraki, has a book out called The Art of Language Invention. And that’s a really good introduction to, kind of the whole process.

Ben Wood: And there’s also the Language Construction Kit, which has been online for, oh gosh, maybe a decade now. And so there’s, like, tons of research. There’s this huge online community. So even on social media spaces like Reddit or Facebook, they’re constructed language communities that new people can ask linguistic questions.

Ben Wood: So if they’re not really sure how the locative case works, they can ask these communities and get a comprehensive answer that they can use to help develop their own languages.

David Doochin: Yeah, I think it’s cool that he’s trying to encourage other people to get involved and get started learning or creating conlangs in whatever ways they can. He seems like he’s trying to say that the barrier to entry isn’t actually all that high because there are other people out there who are doing the same things, and they come from all different skill levels as well.

Thomas Devlin: I think the conlang community reminds me a lot of like DIY communities and such, because it’s these people who are interested in this topic and they kind of take it apart and they’ll start with English, and then they’ll realize English is not the extent of all language.

Thomas Devlin: I think linguistics as a field had this problem for a little bit where there were so many studies and they were all done in English and they made these ballpark proclamations about, “This is what language does.” And then someone who speaks Japanese would come in and be like, “Not in this one.”

Thomas Devlin: And just, there’s so much that language can do, and when you only are in one language, you’re kind of confined. But thanks to the internet now you can find out how Hungarian cases work very easily.

David Doochin: I think conlanging has definitely become more of a collaborative effort because there’s just so much access to people who come from different linguistic backgrounds or study language in a different context or maybe don’t even study language but are fluent speakers of something that you’ve never even heard of but can offer some cool new insight into how languages work, how they’re different, how they’re similar and how you might be able to be able to incorporate that into your own language creation journey.

David Doochin: And you said something about the DIY community and kind of picking apart languages to just look at them and fit them together like a puzzle. And that reminds me of what David J. Peterson said, like the endless tinkering. It’s kind of just like… yeah, communities have enthusiasts of like — I’m imagining people who really like cars, just like taking them apart and getting to know their parts.

David Doochin: You can try to build a car by yourself based on what you think you know about cars, the ones that you’ve owned in your lifetime, but having other people to kind of… having the tools to be able to take a car apart and look at the pieces and, like, play around with them, maybe build something even different from those parts, too. I mean it’s helpful to have other people who know it, know different sides of the story and can offer insights and knowledge that you don’t have.

David Doochin: So we’ve talked about languages that were created for fictional universes, but what about the ones that were designed for use in real life? We’ll talk about those after the break.

David Doochin: Multilinguish is brought to you by Babbel, the language app. Okay. It’s time for a language learning lightning round. You snap your fingers and you can be fluent in any language. Which language would it be and why? Thomas?

Thomas Devlin: I think I would go with Norwegianm because first of all it’s a language I’ve never studied before. Because I could choose Spanish, but, like, I have a basis there, so why would I waste that time if I would’ve gotten this genie wish later on. And I just think Norway is a very beautiful country, and I would love to go around to the small villages and not have to affront them with my English.

David Doochin: Dylan, what about you?

Dylan Lyons: I would pick Brazilian Portuguese, because for one thing, Portuguese is a super cool sounding language that seems to, like, mix a bunch of different languages in one. And also on the shallow end because Brazilian people are extremely attractive and I want to date them all. That’s all.

David Doochin: Reason enough. What about you Jen?

Jen Jordan: I would choose French because I finally want to be able to be in France and order food and drink, and I’m just basic and I’m owning it but I’ve studied it for so long, and I still am not fluent. So I would like to just be able to check that box and snap my fingers and be fluent in French.

David Doochin: Those are all great answers. Thank you for sharing. Babbel’s lessons are lovingly created by over a hundred language experts who are real people and not just a translation machine. We’re offering Multilinguish listeners 50% off a three- month subscription. And new customers can get this offer by visiting babbel.com/podcast. That’s B-A-B-B-E-L.com/podcast.

David Doochin: So let’s transition now into talking about languages that aren’t made for pop culture but are actually made for use in real life. So this is kind of a weird thing, I guess, to think about because when you have 7,000 human languages that exist or have existed in the world, why would you need to create one for people to speak?

David Doochin: But that’s the question that Esperanto is trying to answer. And Ben Wood mentioned Esperanto earlier in the episode and for good reason; it’s probably the most well known and most recognized constructed language by far.

David Doochin: And this is one that is designed to be used by real people in real world context, not just for a movie or for a book. But the history of Esperanto is really, really fascinating, because it’s existed for more than a hundred years and it’s gone through periods of revival and resurgence, also kind of going into hiding a little bit.

David Doochin: But the mission behind it is just so, so fascinating. It’s designed to be an international auxiliary language, one that all people from all walks of life can learn to speak and can come together and use to build human community and to break down barriers, mostly linguistic but nationalistic, geographic that keep people separated.

David Doochin: So let’s talk about what we know about Esperanto. I’ll give us the history and then we can fill in the gaps if there’s anything else that you have to add. But it started in 1887; there was a Polish doctor, a medical doctor named L.L Zamenhof, and he was a polyglot himself. So he spoke, I think, around five languages fluently.

David Doochin: I think his native languages were Polish and Russian and he lived through a period of intense nationalism on the rise throughout the European continent, but even, like, imperialism and colonialism around the world stemming mostly from Europe.

David Doochin: But what he wanted to do was to find a way for humans to focus on what brought them together and less on what drove them apart. So he designed this language, Esperanto, which was supposed to be, like I said, an international auxiliary language, a universal one that anyone could learn that would draw in different elements from languages around the world. So people would be able to learn it as, like, a second, not necessarily as a first language, but as a second one.

David Doochin: So in addition to their first languages, they could come together and communicate with the rest of the world using the second language. It kind of died out a little bit between the World Wars, but it’s seen sort of a resurgence or revival over the past couple of decades.

David Doochin: Today it has about two million speakers to some degree. That’s not fluency at all, but there are people who are definitely fluent in Esperanto and there are even around a thousand or so native speakers who grew up since birth speaking the language and can speak it fluently.

David Doochin: So it’s a really interesting case study, and I don’t know what you all know about it beyond that, but it is, I think ,one of the coolest examples of a social experiment that I can think of and one that has a really, really fascinating history.

David Doochin: And I want to play a clip for you of Esperanto as well. This is from a speaker who’s been speaking it for about 20 years. His name is Thomas Alexander. In Esperanto, he calls himself Tomaso, and he has a YouTube channel called The Esperanto Variety Show, which is about sharing the joys of learning Esperanto and the challenges, getting other people to recognize how cool it can be and why it’s worthwhile.

David Doochin: So like I said, he speaks the language every day at home to his kids. He’s fluent in it. And here’s a clip of him speaking Esperanto. And I want you to try to think of what languages this reminds you of. If there’s anything that you can pick out that stands out to you. And here it is.

Thomas Alexander: [speaking Esperanto].

David Doochin: So what stood out to you? What did you pick up on in that clip of Esperanto?

Steph Koyfman: I heard Spanish and German a little bit.

David Doochin: Okay.

Thomas Devlin: And it felt Russian, but I think that was a lot of the accent kind of gave it a Russian flavor and also Portuguese though.

Steph Koyfman: Yeah a little bit of that. I got that.

David Doochin: So, Esperanto — it’s supposed to draw on a lot of different world languages to make it accessible to a lot of people. But I think some people have kind of bemoaned the fact that it seems to be more European-centric and -oriented. So I also heard a lot of what seemed to be like Latin-derived words that then made their way into Spanish or Portuguese. Like I heard him say diversa, something about completa; I don’t speak Esperanto. So this is all just me like using the Spanish that I know and the limited German.

David Doochin: But like you said Thomas, I also heard a little bit of Russian; something sounded Slavic to me. What I didn’t really get a sense of was a lot of Asian languages and I think there’s been… if anyone were to criticize Esperanto, it’s probably for the fact that it’s more heavily inclined to pull from the Romance language families or the Germanic language families.

David Doochin: So maybe that means that’s not as accessible to everyone, but people who learn Esperanto often say that it takes about a third of the time to learn as it would to take to learn a language like Spanish or French. So the idea is that it’s very, very simplified. The grammar is extremely consistent and regular. I don’t think there are any irregularities. They all follow the same rules. Every word does.

David Doochin: The affixes for the endings, the case markings, all of that is supposed to be really, really easy to pick up so that there’s no major barrier to access for anyone who wants to learn the language.

David Doochin: So what do you think about Esperanto as a whole, as an experiment, as an idea, as a living language, knowing that two million people speak it today to some degree? What are your thoughts on that? Because I think it’s just — there’s so much to unpack here about it.

Thomas Devlin: One of the only facts that I know about it is that George Soros is a native speaker ,and George Soros is like a big liberal donor and that’s weird. That’s random.

Steph Koyfman: I’m sure there are people who love that, in the world.

Thomas Devlin: He’s often a pratfall for conservatives, I guess. Anyway, but that’s not much about the language itself. I find it interesting because I think a lot of people kind of use English as an international auxiliary language today because there’s just so many people in an episode. Before I talked, I believe with Elin, about how English is just kind of the go-to when you want to learn a second language because so many people speak it.

Thomas Devlin: But that does give a lot of privilege to people who are born speaking English because then it’s like they don’t have to learn another thing and that kind of centers on English. So I like the idea of having this neutral ground language that I’ve learned just knows. I just don’t know how it would work if you actually tried to apply it.

Thomas Devlin: Seems like since it’s simplified it probably doesn’t have the same expressiveness as like a French or Chinese or any other language. I don’t know. It’s like a fun thought experiment.

Elin Asklöv: Yeah, no. I mean, I think it can express many things and I suppose that it is eve- evolving also since it has even native speakers. But it is definitely difficult to — because as you said now English sort of fills this role globally, at least to some extent. And if we would want to replace that with Esperanto, it’s very difficult to imagine how that would be done. It would have to be a very top-down sort of process, which is not really how languages work.

Elin Asklöv: But the thought behind it definitely — because it’s better for everyone to learn a completely different language and an easy one than maybe taking on a language that’s already existing and as you say, giving the native speakers of that language very much. Yeah. Yeah.

David Doochin: It seems like if we were to take English, which already serves as kind of, like, the world’s universal language and just mandate that everyone learn that, that’s not inherently fair because it gives English speakers an advantage. But if you take Esperanto, which is supposed to be sort of like a neutral ground, like you said, Thomas, for everyone to learn, I mean, how much work would that take to make everyone in the world, the seven billion people learn a second language? That’s also a different question.

Elin Asklöv: Massive.

David Doochin: Massive. It’s like there’s no easy way to approach this question — and then you can ask, well, is it worth it to have everyone speak the same language to begin with? A lot of people will say, yes, of course it’s great that humankind can come together and be able to communicate on the same terms, but other people who are probably less, maybe more conservative about the sweeping tides of globalism and would think that, oh no, you grew up speaking a certain language to connect with the people in your community and your country and your nation, but beyond that, we shouldn’t try to bring people together because that’s not human nature.

David Doochin: I’m sure people could debate this topic for hours and hours and they have for years, decades, millennia even. It’s just a really fascinating question for me — like, how do you propose the idea of a universal human language once an auxiliary without stepping on a lot of toes or making people put in the extra work when a lot of people are not going to be happy or wouldn’t even see the value in that to begin with.

Steph Koyfman: Well, I think the fact that so many people in the world speak English necessarily resulted in English or came from English speakers stepping on a lot of toes, I mean historically.

Elin Asklöv: There’s also this kind of interesting idea about language tax that countries or communities that speak, say English would pay a tax to cover other language communities’ costs of teaching, English learning, English translating, et cetera. That’s also an interesting idea, I think.

Thomas Devlin: Is this something being proposed?

Elin Asklöv: Now. I mean it’s an old idea. I don’t even know how old it is, but it’s out there. It’s probably not that — I can’t see anyone arguing for it. But it’s interesting, I mean, because it makes you think about the advantage that English actually has.

David Doochin: Well, what do we think about the community of speakers of Esperanto? It seems like if you’re going to learn any constructed language, Esperanto is by far the most recognized and the most spoken across the world. So it seems like the highest payoff, if you want to find other people who speak it. I mean, there are worldwide annual conferences about Esperanto.

David Doochin: Specifically there are hundreds, and I’m sure thousands, of books that are published either about or in Esperanto itself. So the resources are there, and the community of speakers is there, too. Do you think that that is enough of a reason to learn Esperanto because you have people to practice with and you have ways to learn, or what do you think?

David Doochin: Are you inclined to pick up an Esperanto book or watch, maybe, a YouTube video one night a week for a long time to become acquainted with the language? Would you be willing to travel to a conference and meet other speakers? Do you feel like it’s a worthwhile endeavor for you?

Elin Asklöv: Not for me personally. I think I would rather construct my own language.

Steph Koyfman: Yeah.

Elin Asklöv: But I really appreciate the community that they have, and I think it’s really interesting what they’re doing. But it’s probably not going to be as big as Zamenhof or whatever his name was thought.

David Doochin: But I think that we all seem to agree that it’s probably more worthwhile to learn. If you’re an English speaker living in the U.S., it’s probably more worthwhile to learn Spanish, for example, than it is to learn Esperanto if you had to choose one.

Steph Koyfman: Yeah. But I mean, two million speakers is nothing to sneeze at. I mean, there’s so many languages in the world that have so much fewer, so many fewer speakers than that.

David Doochin: Exactly. Well, I think that wraps it up for this episode. We’ve covered a lot of ground. We talked about languages in pop culture and we talked about languages that are designed to be used by real people in the real world.

David Doochin: And so conlangs cover a huge gamut of practical purposes or just sort of creative expression. They exist for a lot of different reasons as we’ve talked about, but there’s no right way or wrong way to learn one or to make one even. And it seems like for people who are interested in learning more or creating their own, it actually doesn’t seem that hard to do.

David Doochin: So I encourage any listeners who are wanting to know more to read the articles that we have at Babbel Magazine about conlanging. To look at YouTube videos. There’s plenty out there. We have an interview transcript with David J. Peterson as well who talks about some of the process.

David Doochin: So there’s lots of ways to get involved with conlanging and to dip your feet in the water to figure out whether you like it or not. It seems like a really fun endeavor.

Steph Koyfman: Yeah, I think so too.

Elin Asklöv: Yep.

David Doochin: Any final thoughts?

Steph Koyfman: Yeah, if you do read the Peterson interview, you should read the full transcript because there’s a great part in there where his cat pukes in the floor and the transcriber kept it in, so.

David Doochin: That’s reason enough for me. All right. Thanks to Elin to Thomas and to Steph, and thanks to you dear listener. Bye.

Steph Koyfman: Bye.

Elin Asklöv: Bye.

Thomas Devlin: Bye.

Jen Jordan: Multilinguish is produced by the content team at Babbel. We are:

Thomas Devlin: Thomas Moore Devlin.

David Doochin: David Doochin.

Steph Koyfman: Steph Koyfman.

Dylan Lyons: Dylan Lyons.

Jen Jordan: And I’m Jen Jordan.

Jen Jordan: Ruben Vilas makes us sound good. Our logo was designed by Ally Zhao. You can read more about today’s episode topic and more on Babbel Magazine. Just visit B-A-B-B-E-L.com/magazine.

Jen Jordan: Say hi on social media by finding us at BabbelUSA. All one word. Finally, please rate and review this podcast. We really appreciate it.

Thomas Devlin: I can do my rendition of Esperanto to the tune of Desperado. If we need more music in the episode.

David Doochin: Go for it.

Thomas Devlin: (Singing).

Thomas Devlin: I won’t go on.

David Doochin: You’ve got a beautiful voice.

Steph Koyfman: Yeah, you do.

Thomas Devlin: Thank you. That’s why I sing constantly and not because I have anxiety.

Steph Koyfman: I think we just found our blooper.

Thomas Devlin: Don’t sue me, band that sings Desperado. Is it, it’s not the Eagles.

Steph Koyfman: No [inaudible 00:48:33].

David Doochin: I’m sure they’d be listening to this podcast.

Thomas Devlin: You never know.

David Doochin: Yeah.

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David Doochin
David is a content producer for Babbel USA, where he writes for Babbel Magazine and oversees Babbel's presence on Quora. He’s a native of Nashville and graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he studied linguistics and history. Before Babbel he worked at Quizlet and Atlas Obscura. A geek for grammar and an editorial enthusiast, he speaks Spanish (and dabbles in German, Dutch, Afrikaans and Italian). When he’s not curating his Instagram meme collection, you can find him spending too much money on food and exploring new cities around the world.
David is a content producer for Babbel USA, where he writes for Babbel Magazine and oversees Babbel's presence on Quora. He’s a native of Nashville and graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he studied linguistics and history. Before Babbel he worked at Quizlet and Atlas Obscura. A geek for grammar and an editorial enthusiast, he speaks Spanish (and dabbles in German, Dutch, Afrikaans and Italian). When he’s not curating his Instagram meme collection, you can find him spending too much money on food and exploring new cities around the world.

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