Constructed Languages & Their Roots in Polish History
With the popularity of TV shows like Game of Thrones, the resurgence of the sci-fi genre in pop culture, and the new Star Wars, fantasy worlds have become immersive experiences, decorated with stunning costumes, vehicles and landscapes. These works succeed in opening new worlds through languages we’ve never heard before.
These languages (including Dothraki and Valyrian from Game of Thrones, Elvish from The Lord of The Rings, and Klingon in Star Trek) are complex systems developed by people who have intensively studied the grammar and structure of human languages.
Since ancient times humans have tried to create new languages for different purposes, far from the recreational intention of modern constructed languages, or conlangs. Instead, languages were created for mystical reasons, such as Lingua Ignota, or artistic purposes, such as those created through theatre and art. However, it is not until the eighteenth century that creation of languages achieved the scientific-humanistic purpose of synthesizing speech, which successfully led to the invention of the binary system by Gottfried Leibniz. Thinkers claimed that invention of new languages would allow for communal human knowledge, and it is at this point that conlangs began to be useful for mankind.
The most popular example is the case of Esperanto, created by the Polish ophthalmologist Ludwik Łazarz Zamenhof. Esperanto has managed to become the most spoken conlang in the world, with nearly 2 million speakers. It was born in nineteenth-century Warsaw, through the publication of Zamenhof’s book, Unua Libro. Zamenhof’s intention was that it would be a completely neutral language in respect to its origin, but it had Latin-Germanic roots, with grammar and phonology based in Indo-European languages. Despite not being the first of its kind (Volapük had previously been created for auxiliary purposes by a German priest), Esperanto quickly became the iconic conlang throughout Europe, and it even reached America and Asia. The first speakers were those who already spoke Volapük, who were mainly intellectuals who had read Zamenhof's work. These scholars organized several conferences with many artists, including the Russian writer Leo Tolstoy, who was a staunch defender of Esperanto.
When Esperanto began to be used in publications and magazines, it was censored by the Russian Empire because it started to become a language spoken by people from all social classes and ideologies, especially the intellectuals of the petite bourgeoisie. Once the Russian Revolution occurred and the proletariat became a predominant force in European society, Esperanto became the ‘Latin of the workers’. In 1921, the global workers’ organization Sennacieca Asocio Tutmonda condemned the exclusive use of Esperanto by the bourgeoisie, and considered the language to be a revolutionary instrument for workers. As a result, Esperanto was used to publish countless political bulletins, becoming iconic among the members of socialist parties in Spain, France, and Russia. With the beginning of World War II and the rise of totalitarian states, many regimes began to view Esperanto with suspicion and thought that it had the potential to be used for espionage. Nazi Germany went even further: In a “paranoid delusion”, Adolf Hitler wrote in his book Mein Kampf that Esperanto could be an international Jewish conspiracy to dominate the world, mainly because its inventor L.L. Zamenhof was Polish-Jewish. Hitler used this to justify the persecution of Esperanto speakers during the Holocaust.
The history of constructed languages is not completely dark. During the twentieth century, conlangs started to not only be auxiliary in purpose, but also artistic. The first to popularize them was the British writer J.R.R. Tolkien in his trilogy The Lord of The Rings and his other fantasy novels. Tolkien not only created the language of Elvish, but he also provided it with historical and contextual development to give a realistic feel to his fictional world. Elvish has geographical dialects, grammatical laws, external influences, and everything that a real language has. Dothraki and Valyrian are similar cases in the popular TV serial Game of Thrones, inspired by the series A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin. There are other cases in films, like Star Trek, Star Wars, and Avatar.
Another of these artistic conlangs is Wenedyk, invented by the Dutch translator Jan van Steenbergen. The Wenedyk language is used in the fictional Republic of the Two Crowns, inspired by the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The Republic of the Two Crowns is a fictional work that aims to present an alternative timeline to contemporary history. It demonstrates how Polish would look if it had been a Romance language and not Slavic. Wenedyk is based entirely on Vulgar Latin and Polish, and differs from other Latin-based conlangs like Esperanto because it has no grammatical articles. This language uses the modern Polish alphabet and has more than 4,000 words, which have been reviewed and studied by the Polish linguist Gregorz Jagodzinski. In 2006 van Steenbergen also created Slovianski, an international auxiliary language that aims to be a pan-Slavic language for common use.
Although none of these languages are official in modern countries, Esperanto is the most influential conlang in our history, with 2 million speakers and at least 10,000 native speakers. It has international recognition from organizations such as Wikipedia, which has more than 190,000 published articles in Esperanto, and Google, which provides the possibility for Esperanto translation.
Written by Alvaro M. Saavedra Jeno, May 2015