Once more unto the breach: my journey into conlanging, part 1

It all started when I was coming into my final year of university. At this point my love of languages was already in full swing after having appeared like a bolt from the blue a few years earlier, and I’d already dabbled in German, Norwegian, and Esperanto. I had also completed my five-month Erasmus programme at the University of Stockholm, so my love of Swedish (which would later form the basis of my career) had been well and truly kindled.

We were getting to the point in our studies where our tutors were starting to ask what form our dissertations were likely to take, and had started giving us options. I had planned to write about Russian literature, specifically something about Anna Karenina, but my attempts to read it (in the original language) had been thwarted by the fact that I only knew enough Russian to order a coffee. And even that would take a lot of rehearsal in the queue before I was ready to get my lips around the necessary syllables. I’ve always been quite over-ambitious when it comes to this sort of thing, and I’d figured that given a sizeable Russian dictionary and a lot of caffeine, I could plough my way through it. I realised that reading a six hundred page Russian novel and writing ten thousand words discussing its finer points was somewhat unfeasible – especially within the time limit.

It was then that my creative writing tutor mentioned that we had the option to respond creatively, and could do seven thousand words of creative writing and then three thousand words of self-analysis, as long as we could bring it back to the specific text we had been particularly inspired by. This got the little hamster spinning the rusty and cobwebbed wheel that is my brain, and I started carrying a notebook around wherever I went in case inspiration should strike; which it didn’t for an uncomfortably long time.

It wasn’t until a month later when a friend of mine came over for a wine and Disney night – a staple of my university career. We had only just finished bottle number one when I started boring her with linguistics; I wish I could say that this is a habit I’ve managed to kick, but sadly, any of my friends will be able to attest to the fact that it isn’t. Skärmavbild 2018-07-30 kl. 21.10.39This is when she told me that she’d always harboured a secret desire to learn one of the elvish languages from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, and half way through our second bottle of wine, we decided to see if we could learn it. We paused our film and found a website, and the rest is a bit of a blur. We woke up the next morning, both fully clothed on my bed surrounded by scribblings in Quenya – of which the only thing I remember how to say is ‘I am a crooked dwarf’, which is neither polite nor true.

This got me thinking, though. If Tolkein could do it, so could I. I could invent my own language, and then I could write about the people who spoke it. I knew it was an ambitious project, given that I only had about eight months in which to do it, but I got to work. The difference, of course, was that J. R. R. Tolkein was a genius and I was nothing but an enthusiastic amateur. I also knew that the language itself wouldn’t actually be part of the dissertation; I wasn’t studying linguistics and they would have no way of grading it, but starting with that seemed the most organic way to go. One of the many mistakes I made was funnelling all of my effort into this linguistic monstrosity and leaving the actual short story writing until the last month – but that’s a story for another time.

I realise I’ve prattled on for a good six hundred words without actually mentioning anything about the language I invented. This was fully intended to be a standalone piece, but if there’s enough interest out there, I think I’ll turn it into a series. So if you did enjoy reading this, drop me a like or a comment – it’s always nice to hear from you all. Are you a conlanger? Have you experimented with learning conlangs? Ĉu vi parolas Esperanton? Let me know! I’ll see you next month, and as always, thanks for reading.

– J.

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