Written by John Edwards

Based on an article in the July 2013 issue of Language Teaching.

In the popular mind, constructing a language has always been seen as an odd activity, one that seems to fly in the face of ‘natural’ language dynamics. After all, languages evolve; they do not emerge from some sacred forehead, much less from a mortal brain. And yet interest in a divine – and therefore immediately fully-formed – language was once important (and, even today, remains significant in some rather curious religious quarters). Attention to this, and to later and more mundane projects aimed at improving upon natural languages in some way, is a neglected but important aspect of linguistic history – and, indeed, of modern scientific development.

The first stage here involved attempts (highly speculative, of course) to recapture the original lingua humana, as spoken in the Garden of Eden. Adam, we are told, named all the birds and beasts of the earth in this original language, a variety that – unlike all languages since – encapsulated a perfect correspondence between spoken words and the things they represented. As Milton wrote in Paradise Lost, Adam named the animals ‘as they pass’d, and understood their nature.’ Could this first language have been Hebrew – or perhaps Aramaic, or Arabic? If so, then speakers of those languages (or even of their post-Adamic descendants) might surely claim some higher moral ground than others.

By the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, however, these early speculations were set aside as essentially pointless. But the notion of a language more perfect than existing natural varieties still appealed, and, in a second part of our story, we find scholars trying to create entire languages ab ovo, motivated by the desire for a more logical and regular variety that would better reflect and channel scientific classification. It eventually became clear, however, that attempts to make a language that owed nothing to existing varieties were as fruitless as efforts to discover the language of Eden. So, in a third and still-existing stage, ‘artificial’ languages have been assembled from pre-existing rules and components; the most well-known example is Esperanto. This work has been underpinned by hopes for a more practical medium, but there have also been expectations that a language that was both regular and widely shared would contribute to international harmony and understanding.

You can read the entire article here without charge until 30th September 2013.

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