Conlangs, Identity and Motivation

Someone asked me what the heck “identity” is and I couldn’t describe it very well. Your identity are all the things that you do that you do because of who you think you are. I’m a middle class American, so I vote, I follow the rules, I wear cloths (nope, I’m not a nudist), I speak English, etc. Some of these things I would keep doing even if I left the US. It’s like the story of the unemployed guy who still gets up in the morning, puts on his business suit and goes to the coffee shop and somehow keeps busy until 5PM before he heads home. In the US, I’ve always felt that the key thing that makes Americans Americans is that they speak English. Other than that, we don’t have much in common with each other (not religion, not dress, not food, not most holidays and many other things) So there is a link between languages and Identity. On the other hand, especially in the US, there are a lot of immigrant communities that self identify as hyphenated Americans, e.g. Dutch-American or Norwegian-American, but those communities haven’t spoken their language since forever, for them language wasn’t a part of that identity. When the language is part of the identity, it makes for a stable language community.

Sociology and Deviance
Quick review of set theory: An unexpected large percent is different from ALL. Most observations about society are that *some* of the universal set of people does X and the rest don’t follow the pattern. This isn’t physics here. If you like conlangs, you are not automatically a deviant. Relax already.

The conlang community is chock-a-block full of deviants, in the sociological sense. Please go read the article before you fire bomb my apartment, it’s a valid scientific concept. Not only is conlanging an unusual hobby, but a good percent of the participants are deviants on other dimensions as well. I have never come across so many LBGT– never so many radicals so far to the further ends of the political spectrum that I couldn’t classify them, ditto people who are way off on a the far ends of an ethnic or national identity spectrum, and never have I run into so many hardcore fans of a given slice of pop culture and so on.

Why?
I think it’s because people who find themselves to be deviants with respect to their host culture can either accept their host cultures opinions about deviants (normally very, very negative) or reject them. And when you reject your host culture’s sense of identity, you reject the clothing, the values, and sometimes… the language. Hence the conlangs.

The only name I’ll name here for an example is the author of the language Sona. He’s dead. Your job is to go look up what was unusual about the chap. Tolkien knew he had an usual hobby, hence the phrase “the private vice”, but otherwise, he was just a guy who wanted to be a Trekkie, but fandoms hadn’t been invented yet. I think a young Tolkien would have put on the body paint and LARP’ed in the park if he could have.

Some of the deviants in the conlang community are positive deviants (i.e. they are off the scale smart). Not surprisingly many people in the conlang community are only deviant in the respect that they are talented at learning many languages and know many more languages than their community. This indeed can be deviance for some culture– in the US, you are an American because you don’t speak your home language. This is part of why so many children of immigrants eventually refuse to speak the language of the parents, even to their parents!

Sometime conlangers, especially the younger ones in High School aren’t so much deviants as people who haven’t decided what their identity is. My interest in foreign languages started in High School and coincided with a lot of xenophilia. I would get enamored with a foreign culture and read a lot about until the culture shock set in or until I realized that the were so xenophobic that it wasn’t a club you could join (i.e. Japan).

And we can’t go on without mentioning the fandoms– people unhappy with their boring lives who have become Trekkies or Avatar-fans or Star Wars-geeks.

Applications to Community Building
0) As usual, if you aren’t interested in community building, follow your joy, write your conlang any way you please.
1) Think hard about basing your conlangs culture on deviants. It will either make your language (i.e. other feminists will flock to it) or break it (all the hetero-normals will avoid your LBGT language).
2) Think about how your language can become a part of your fans identity. Do you really want fans or do you want to challenge peoples thoughts about pedophilia? (This is the case with the French novel Wardesan, which is dual language conlang-french, but describes a conculture with elements obviously inspired by ancient Greek pedophilia– this book will never be translated into English because its not going to sell itself to publishers in the US) Whatever culture gets mixed into your conlang, you want it to be compatible with your target fans, be it fans in Venezuela or fans made up on international internet users.
3) Appeal to pre-existing groups of people with an identity. I still think that if a cooking conlang were made, it would attract an unusually large number of chefs.
4) If you really want culture in your conlang, consider putting it mostly in the corpus. By this I mean, anyone can write a story about libertarian-necrophiliac-stamp-collectors. But if your pronoun system requires you to find out if your interlocutor is sexually into dead humans or dead animals before you can choose the right way to say “you”, then your conculture is pretty deeply embedded into the language– it will discourage uptake by fans, at least all the non-libertarian-necrophiliac-stamp-collectors.
5) Fandom based conlangs can take advantage of the power of fandom, but it’s a devil’s compact in the sense that you get a conlang community, but it will collapse when the original franchise falls out of fashion.

It’s a numbers game
The world is big, so I suppose one could base a conlang community that appeals just to radical right, LBGT chefs. But given how small the conlang community is, the intersection of conlang fans and radical right, LBGT salad chefs, plus the people in LBGT-salad-chef group might be too small to create a community that could even keep a mailing list going, let alone lead to a meetup or convention.

There is nothing more motivating than identity
Over and over again in my own second language studies, I can feel the motivation drain out when the culture shock starts to hit. Story after story after story about xenophobia and racism in Japan really killed my interest in the language. On the other hand, Hebrew was brought back from the dead because you couldn’t be Israeli if you didn’t speak Hebrew. (and not to get into politics here lest I attract comments from the above mentioned radical conlangers, but this may be part of the cause of the ongoing intergroup strife inside of Israel) It looks like the same thing might happen in Massachusetts, because for many modern east coast American Indians, they’ve lost so much distinctiveness from the surrounding community that were they to regain their language, this would become the most powerful element of their identity. So it goes both ways. Your language will make your sense of identity stronger and your sense of identity will get you and your fans through the 500 to 3000 hours of study necessary to gain basic fluency.

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