Contructed Language Governance Structures

I’m working up some drafts for language governance documents.   Constructed languages face some typical challenges, which probably could be helped by setting down some social conventions for people to follow.  Obviously, we’re in the world of recommendations and guidelines, not legally binding or enforceable by government decree type of rules.  This is kind of like, let’s walk down the right side of the hall to have fewer collisions sort of guidelines.

Constructed languages get abandoned. Language designers are mortal.  The oldest constructed languages are so old that if anyone cared, it’s like public property.  When the language designer is alive, it’s hard to say who owns it now and who to look to for leadership.  Wouldn’t it be nice if there was a governing body, or the recommended outline for creating one, that would let users stand in place of the language designer?

Constructed languages get neglected. Language designers presumably have real lives as well.  They language could be in semi-limbo for years, until the fans move on.  The fans might actually do better at promoting and using the language than the designer, making the language look neglected in comparison to the effort of the fans.  It would be helpful if language designers were mentally prepared and had a structure for increasing the involvement of the community.

Language designers don’t necessarily have the same goals as users. Language designers might want their language to be used only by themselves, say in a novel, while the users might want to be develop it as a machine parsable language, or a cryptographic device, for use in recreational linguistics, or who knows what.  Surprisingly, this often distresses the language designers and the community.

Language designers might be nuts. By nuts I mean, language designers might not want to co-operate or behave in a respectable fashion.  Language inventors are not elected, they get their role by accident of writing a language good enough to attract fans.  They might have any number of qualities that make them poorly qualified for community management–or they might be masters of it.  Just as some princes are excellent kings, some unelected language designers are lousy rulers.    An orderly process of re-lexing or what- have-you and going separate ways may be the solution.

Language users want to innovate. They want to create new words, new grammatical constructs and sometimes fork the whole language.  Sometimes this will split the community and sometimes it will just be background noise, sometimes it’s a very good thing and enriches the language and community.  It often isn’t clear what constitutes saying something unexpected and fundamentally changing the language.    To the extent that there is an respected authority, it would add to the peace of the community if rulings on questions of vocabulary and grammar could be made.  Better yet, if the governing documents are clear enough, the language users should be able to tell the difference between just talking, community innovation, and forking the language–i.e. essentially creating a mutually unintelligible dialect.

Language users want to be able to write grammar books, dictionaries, and works of fiction and non-fiction, too. Because money could be involved, this means learning about public domain, licensing,  copyright law, Creative Common, open source licenses.  Works in a constructed language are derivative works, but usually worthless ones, so are almost never fought over in court.  Some potential exceptions on the horizon are movie languages (klingon, na’vi), pedagogical subset languages (slovio, globish). These may actually have a business model. The better a language’s governance, the easier it is for this sort of thing to be enabled.

Language governance is risky and can be a waste of time if the focus is on the wrong things. Language standardization committees have succeeded in various natural languages (Basque comes to mind).  And they have failed– French neologism to replace English loan words come to mind.  And they’ve gotten off track. The anti-communist tangent that the Esperanto society (EANA) in the US went off on is a good example.

Language users react variously to language governance. Sometimes it changes the language, sometimes it just generates fights and the language drifts on unaware.  Good governance would be coupled with good club membership, such as tracking members and keeping up communications.

Language governance is likely to be a blighted democracy.  A blighted democracy is like a home owner association. Yeah, you get to vote but no one has time and the governance gets handed off to those one or two people who have time.  Democracy is supposed to be a decision making method where information from the many gets concentrated into a single decision.  When only the tiny percent that have the time to care participate, the governed have to rely more and more on the governing documents–like bills of rights and such, that set down far in advance of disputes reasonably fair outcomes.  An analogy would be the standard contracts used in real-estate, which are reasonably fair to both parties although not customized as much as they would be if only people had the time and attention to write their own.

One thought on “Contructed Language Governance Structures

  1. To put it in a nutshell: Languages have to be public domain or they will fade quickly. See the difference between Volapük and Esperanto. Volapük’s inventor would not step back when people proposed slight changes or new vocabulary but saw his invention as his own property. Zamenhof did not like to interfere too much regarding language questions. Today, some uses of grammar and vocabulary are regarded as “Zamenhofisms”, that is, “it was used by Zamenhof but is not considered good style today necessarily”.