Invented languages and new worlds

What if the World spoke Elvish?: Invented languages and culture

Nearly all languages carry some kind of cultural connection. In order to study language, a person currently would need to not only understand the linguistic elements (i.e. written and spoken symbols and grammar) but also the extra-linguistic elements (i.e. societies, cultures, and sub-cultures) as well (Lo Bianco, 2004). Invented languages, however, can exist both within a specific extra-linguistic or cultural context or attempt to remove those contexts according to an article by Joseph Lo Bianco titled "Invented languages and new worlds."

In order to fully explain the cultural aspects of language or the lack there of in the case of some invented languages, one must first understand the different types of invented languages. Lo Bianco defined two types of invented languages: a priori or a posteriori. A priori invented languages are languages that "start from scratch with new symbols, signs or elements devised to represent essential concepts" (Lo Bianco, 2004, p. 8). Essentially this type of language is one that does not have a basis in any current language in existence. It is completely void of any kind of cultural context. In essence, it is a language without culture. In contrast an a posteriori language uses existing languages as the basis of its formation. The idea behind this is that it is "a more pragmatic acceptance that a constructed language should not expect all present language users to abandon their existing speech patterns or writing practices" (Lo Bianco, 2004, p. 8). These languages attempt to eliminate certain cultural elements while still recognizing that those using these new languages need to make a connection between this invented language and their own native tongue.

The question then becomes whether or not language can succeed without a cultural context. The movement to create a priori languages first began in 1647 with Francis Lodwick in England. He theorized that by attaching what were considered common symbols to words that a language could be easily understood by those who did not speak the original language. The idea to create a language would eventually evolve throughout the centuries into the most recent creation, Lojban. This language was not meant to be only written but spoken as well. It is considered a logical language that aims to eventually bridge not only the communication gaps between people groups but between people and computers (Lo Bianco, 2004). This language, like other similar language projects, use "logic and rigor with cultural neutrality, phonetic spelling, and building millions of words from a fixed number of root word (1300), ..[and] claims to 'remove restrictions on creative and clear thought and communication'"(2004, p. 10).

In direct contrast with Lojban is the invented language, Ladan. Ladan acknowledges that language and culture must interact, so instead of removing this aspect of language, it attempts to represent a neglected perspective of language. In this case the neglected perspective is that of the feminine. This seems to be in line with the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis that language influences the way one would express himself/herself (cited in Hybels & Weaver, 2007). Since most current languages are dominated by the masculine perspective, women are unable to sufficiently express their own unique perspectives. In Ladan, gender is not normally defined; however, when gender is defined, it is the masculine forms of the words that are specified through a suffix, -id: "the word for parent is thul but with the addition of -id it becomes thulid ('male parent')" (Lo Bianco, 2004, p. 11). This is in contrast with the way the majority of language approach gender with identifying suffixes being attached to the feminine.

Attempts to correct deficiencies in modern linguistics are not solely aimed at correcting gender issues with language. There have also been attempts to remove certain cultural aspects to create a culturally-neutral language. There are two very distinct theories operating within this context. The first acknowledges that in order for a new language to succeed it must have some kind of basis in existing languages. This seems to lead to a modification of current languages. One such modification movement is Interlingua or Latino sine Flexione. This language is a modification of Latin that removes the inflections and syntactic rules, making it more like English that does heavily inflect its verbs and nouns (Lo Bianco, 2004).

Not all invented languages are created to correct a deficiency in current or as a modification of natural languages. Some invented languages are created to operate within a specific imaginary space. Examples of these invented languages are often found in some kind of artistic cultural expression. The article uses three examples of this: Klingon, Elvish, and parseltongue. Each of these languages functions within a specific cultural context. The Klingon language even has its own institute which attempts to "protect the purity of the language and develop its expressive range" (Lo Bianco, 2004, p. 11). In the case of Elvish, J.R.R. Tolkien in his Middle Earth works (The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and The Silmarillion) created the cultural context after first creating the language which is actually in reverse of the normal language formation in which function precedes form. This language, much like modern existing languages, has gone through an evolutionary process from archaic forms to its "modern" form. It has two distinct dialects (Quenya and Sindarin) as well as two writing forms (Tengwar and Certar or Cirth). Less elaborate but of equal importance was parseltongue within the world of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series. Use of this language is a key component in The Chamber of Secrets in order to gain access to a closed off space (Lo Bianco, 2004). Particularly with Elvish and parseltongue an understanding of these languages leads to access to the culture at large much like language functions in the real world.

While the most invented languages discussed so far have used cultural context whether it be in its creation or purpose, Esperanto is an invented language that sought to remove all cultural and social contexts from language. The Prague Manifesto which advocates for wider use of Esperanto does so based on the following claims of democracy, global education, effective education, multilingualism, language rights, language diversity, and human emancipation. Basically, proponents of Esperanto believe that a single universal language would allow more individuals to access the means of power and interaction in the human community while also allowing individuals to remain connected to their own language identity. There are those who believe that Esperanto has failed particularly because it has no cultural identity to which speakers can connect (Lo Bianco, 2004).

The question that remains after reviewing this article is whether or not language, either real or invented, can exist outside of a cultural context. Lo Bianco concludes that it cannot which is why invented languages that attempt to do so inevitably fail. He concludes that language is immediately given a cultural context once it used by humanity. "After all, the critical feature of language is not ultimately its structure but its use" (Lo Bianco, 2004, p. 18). Therefore, a language void of a cultural context cannot exist and is impractical. The interconnection of language and cultural is inherent in all communication.

The connection between language and cultural is a complex one. Invented languages cannot be separated from some kind of cultural context. Language and culture must exist together in order for the language to have any kind of meaning to its speakers. It is only by understanding this connection that a successful universal language could be developed; however, according to Lo Bianco's findings failure to ground a language in culture seems to guarantee its failure.


  • Hybels, S., & Weaver, R.L. (2007). Communicating Effectively (8th ed.). Boston: McGraw-Hill Publishing.
  • Lo Bianco, J. (2004) Invented languages and new worlds. English Today 20(4), 8-18. Retrieved April 6, 2009, from

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