Why are constructed languages successful?

Successful may be a strong word for a language phenomena that often has less than a dozen half fluent speakers.  But still, it’s an interesting question.

By looking at the frequency of keyword search, frequency of tagging on del.icio.us and the frequency of keywords in Googles newspaper articles, I’ve learned a few interestingthings.

An Interesting, Reasonably Easy Product

A constructed language will fail if it doesn’t have something to attract the professional linguists and hard core hobbyists.  ‘nuf said.  Just want to make sure no one thinks I’m saying toki pona is succeeding solely because of superior marketing. (That would be Esperanto… just kidding!)

(as for easiness and the success of Klingon and Lojban, see below)

Internet Supernodes and Bellweathers

Ms. Kisa is a talented internet networker and had a significant community of friends on livejournal before toki pona was invented.  It is no accident that in Russia, where livejournal is the social networking tool of choice, toki pona may even be better known and adopted than in North America.

From network theory, we know that many networks have supernodes, i.e. the person that knows everyone.   The classic example is Kevin Bacon, although there are more important supernode than Kevin Bacon in movie casts networks.

A personal demonstration of this was when I was talking to an acquaintance at the local UU Church about this crazy language I was studying.  And the other guy says, “Yeah, I know Sonja from the board game geeks website.”

The take away is that if you want your language or your favorite language, invest time into making lots of friends and acquaintances.  Sonja links in the livejournal, boardgamegeek, meetup, wikipedia, esperanto and other social networking forums were key to it’s success.

Traditional Media Drives Constructed Language Adoption.

Google says the first traditional media article for toki pona was about 2006.  Ms. Kisa’s language got a ton of attention in 2007, when interest peaked.     2007 was also peak time for del.icio.us bookmaking and most important of all: articles in the Google news archive.

My personal theory was that Wikipedia trying to delete the article for lack of published material was the spark for the publicity push and the subsequent wave of popularity.  So in a way, Wikipedia motivated people to make something significant and ironically, ultimately when they voted an article as needing deletion for irrelevance was turning the wheels to make it relevant.

Another significant component of toki pona’s success is it’s international recognition.  I attribute part of that to Ms. Kisa investing the time to keep the article up on Wikipedia.  Once an article it will eventually get translated in to many language, toki pona is up to 41 languages.  I found this in wikipedia, I suspect this means toki pona, I don’t really know:


Can you think of a better way to get your language definition translated into 41 languages?

Lessons from Lojban.

While researching the comparative popularity of constructed languages, excluding Esperanto and Klingon* (see below), Lojban is the most popular constructed language.  It has two books and an annual face to face conference.  This is something the toki pona community lacks.  Lojban as a language also has a bureaucracy behind it, not unlike the KLI.

Interestingly, traditional media has been important for Lojban, too with strong correlations with between delicious book marking and the # of articles per month/year in the google news archive.

Difficult Constructed Languages

A difficult constructed language needs to bring something interesting to the table and more importantly be interesting to talk about.   Also, by article, bookmark and search word counting, we might find out that a language is successful in the sense of attracting attention, but we’d know nothing about how successful it was in creating a community of people trying to use the language, instead of just talking about it.

Klingon, et al

Tracking the popularity of franchise derived languages, e.g. Qenya, Tlingan, Na’vi are going to be hindered by people searching for information about Elves and Klingons, and Na’vi and don’t necessarily care about the language.  So I’m going to have to note that this is an area in fake languages that fake linguists will have to do more research to make any conclusions.  Please sent all grant checks for me to work on this to my work address.

Thank you.

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3 thoughts on “Why are constructed languages successful?

  1. mi kin li kama sona e toki pona tan ni: mi sona e jan Sonja.
    (I too learned Toki Pona because I knew of Sonja.)

  2. Yes, this is an interesting question. I think that Esperanto’s relative success as a self-perpetuating speech community is due to the use which can be made of it. It has a substantial and growing literature, it has its own pop and rock music, and it can be used for skiing holidays and for private travel.

    Importantly, It serves as a bridge between people who have no other language in common.

  3. Strangely enough this blog article was solely responsible for my discovery of toki pona. You see, I was learning lojban and had a google alert set up (and the alert obviously brought me here). toki pona being the only language in the article I hadn’t heard of, made me check it out on wikipedia. I was hooked from then on and have, for the time being, put lojban on hold with no intention (so far) of returning to it.
    The current success of toki pona might me because of Sonja’s networking kung fu, but my interest is solely because of my adoration of it.
    I think this language could be huge if a better publicity model was applied.