An essay or thesis on conlanging: where to start

It happens more and more often that I am asked by random students around the world (with a considerable number from Italy, for obvious reasons) for help in an essay or thesis on conlanging. This term is a fancy way to say ‘Interlinguistics’. I do not want to play the role of their supervisors, so I decided to write this short article as a starting point for doing their research. I will mention only books, not peer-reviewed papers. All books are approachable for a BA-level student, and above.

The first thing is to become familiar with the interlinguistic literature. It is incredible how many students think that the field is almost virgin territory. It is not. Technically speaking, Interlinguistics is older than Linguistics — Ferdinand de Saussure cites Esperanto three times in his Cours, because the ongoing debate on International Auxiliary Languages (IALs) was already there from the second half of the 19th century.

Immodestly, the starting point is my textbook, which can be downloaded for free. It is basically the transcription of my lecture notes. It was highly praised and fiercely criticised as well. It has a presentation of Hollywood languages, the last wave of Interlinguistics, starting from Klingon until Dothraki, topics students like. There is a section apart on Tolkien’s languages, which are evergreen and popular among students. Perhaps more interestingly, I put a bridge between Interlinguistics and Language Policy and Planning (LPP). That is the most difficult part of the textbook.

In Part 2, Applications, the chapters dealing with IALs from Volapük until the Interlinguistic Wars synthesize the classic literature in Interlinguistics of the first half of the past century, when they compared the internal features of auxiliary languages in theory. This ceased to have relevance basically in the aftermath of WWII. Please note that Ido and all the following ‘rivals’ of Esperanto (a term I borrow from Garvía, see below) failed to build a consistent community of practice for lack of ideological strength, not for syntactic, morphological or even phonological traits.

After my textbook, you may find the following books useful:

Esperanto and Its Rivals, The Struggle for an International Language, by Roberto Garvía. He is particularly good at explaining how the Volapukist movement involuntarily helped the Esperantist movement in its infancy.

Scientific Babel, How Science Was Done Before and After Global English, by Michael D. Gordin. Not all of the book is relevant for Interlinguistics, but, without any doubt, the description of the ‘wizards of Ido’ is better than a novel… It shows how much scientists are influential but less than they believe, in constructing a social movement, necessary for keeping an IAL alive.

Esperanto and Languages of Internationalism in Revolutionary Russia, by Brigid O’Keeffe. She is particularly good at describing the cultural milieu where Zamenhof came from. After all, it was Zamenhof who put the ground of the language and the movement. The first chapters are enough for that.

The Esperanto phenomenon is by far the most interesting part of Interlinguistics. Simply put, it is the most used IAL, ever, consistently and widely. Two books I recommend, if the focus is on Esperanto:

Esperanto Revolutionaries and Geeks Language Politics, Digital Media and the Making of an International Community by Guilherme Fians. It is an intense ethnographic account of the Esperanto community (note the paradox: Esperantists are not an ethnic group, but an ethic group, nonetheless, ethnography works well for the purpose).

Bridge of Words: Esperanto and the Dream of a Universal Language, by Esther Schor. This book is academic but not only. It stresses the Jewish traits of Zamenhof, and it is wonderfully well written. It shows how Esperanto is not politically neutral, never. Language choices are always political, and Esperanto is no exception.

I know that some of these books are dreadfully expensive. I hope you are in a good University with a decent library: simply use the resources your University provides!

It is good practice if, after having finished it, with grades and all, you somehow share the results of your work for free on the web.

Success with your essay or thesis!