Fictional Linguistics vs Linguistics of Constructed Languages

I’ve been watching disagreements on the web on various conlang issues. I think there is a big misunderstanding (and maybe unavoidable one) between people discussing linguistics in a fictional world, versus discussing the linguistics of a constructed language.

In a fictional world, talented linguists can learn a language by staring intently at a new text for a few minutes. Fictional languages morph from proto-variants into early, mid and late variants. In the fictional world, brains work radically different and are more controlled by the structure of the language than vica-versa. In the fictional world, there is ongoing strong parallel between the language spoken there and modern English– they sound and work the same.

In the real world, many things that are called languages in fiction aren’t languages. They are sound effects, codes, tiny groups of words and patters injected into existing languages. These constructed languages do not have diachronic relationships between them. Were someone to write proto-Esperanto or neo-Esperanto, it would not have no diachronic relationship to Esperanto. They would all be constructed languages.

In the fictional world, a language is defined by some entertaining snippet of a dictionary or grammar. In the real world, these aren’t quite languages, or if they are, they are like remnant or hypothetical languages. In the real world, if don’t have a substantial set of documents (or at least the same thing embodied in some conlang fan’s brain) that can generate more or less any utterance you can think, then you don’t really have a language.

Conlang hobbyists are a hypersensitive bunch, at least those who time to time comment on my blog, so I’ll note here that a language fragment is *not* bad– Star Wars is a better movie for the existence of Wookie as it is right now. But you can’t do real linguistics on a language fragment.

In the fictional world it is fine to say that Wookie constitutes a sprachbund with similar languages on it’s planet, or that they are just dialects or they are different languages. In the real world, these are various conlangs, usually conlang fragments created by various script writers, comic book writers, or conlang hobbyists. The phrase “They are dialects of the same language” doesn’t really mean anything in the real world– it isn’t testable, at least not without investing the time and effort to finish the languages, teach them to adults or children and see if they are mutually inter-comprehensible. (And any other tests that real linguists use to divide up the worlds communication systems into languages and dialects)

In the real world conlangs do have an ancestry– the ancestry lies in the languages spoken by the creators and in other similar conlangs that are in fashion at that time.

Moral of the story– make it clear when you are invoking fictional linguistics as studied by fictional people in a fictional world and when you are talking about conlangs as created by real people and studied by real amateur linguists.

Otherwise we are arguing about which Wookie is stronger.

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