The Failure of Artificial Language

Throughout the years, many emboldened intellectuals have created their own languages, believing that they had invented easy-to-learn, practical communication systems that would replace the existing languages of the world. As can clearly be seen today, these artificial languages have not been able to conquer natural languages, and the only place they can be consistently found is in the linguistics sections of major libraries.

In order to understand why these languages have failed, we first need to understand the difference between a natural language and an artificial language. As the name suggests, a natural language is one that came about, for lack of a better word, naturally. There was no conscious decision to invent a language, and nobody sat down to plan out a grammar ahead of time. The connections between the human brain and the larynx activated, leading to the creation of sounds, from which groups of people derived meanings. Over time, these meanings became more and more widespread, and syntax structures were agreed upon, resulting in what we now call language. On the other hand, artificial languages are invented by a single person or a group of people with the specific intent of designing a complete method of communication, including a grammar, an alphabet, and words that can be logically conjugated and used to form meaningful sentences.

So, if these artificial languages are detailed and complete, why have they not caught on? Their creators argue that they can be learned in twenty minutes and that they behave more logically than the languages we use today. Initially, this sounds pretty promising: simpler communication would lead to misunderstandings, and we could do away with the many exceptions that exist due to the imperfect creation of natural language. There are, however, a few notable issues with these languages.

To begin, many of these languages simply aren’t complete, as there simply aren’t enough defined words to express a sufficient number of ideas. Putting such languages aside, learning an entirely new communication system is difficult, no matter how language creators may try to hoodwink their audiences. It takes a lot of effort to become fluent in a language, and the existing dominance of natural languages makes them the languages that are learned initially, during the phase of child language acquisition, which is known to be far more effective. This connects to the last problem, which is that natural language is simply too widespread and not problematic enough for a real change to be necessary. Sure there are many glaring issues – meanings with multiple words or ideas that we just can’t find a way to express – but most of the time, we get by, and natural language feels intuitive because of its natural development.

Whether or not artificial languages could significantly improve our lives today is an interesting question, and it has not yet been conclusively answered. What has been decided, as the historical trend thus far shows, is that it will take a lot of work and a genuine need for change in order for an artificial language to become dominant across the globe.

Note: the discussion in the post was inspired by In The Land of Invented Languages by Arika Okrent, an American linguist. It is an extremely interesting read, and the author does a fantastic job telling the story of artificial languages in a funny, captivating way. If you’re looking for a book to read, I highly recommend it.

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