One conlang to rule them all

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In Non Sequitur for 10/26/2011, Danae reveals to Lucy her latest plan for world domination peace:

Kate points out that this is not a new idea:

Danae presses forward regardless:

And she decides to make a virtue of necessity by positioning Danaelect as a luxury product:

This is less accurate as a parody of Esperanto (or Klingon) than it is as an analysis of the linguistically-improbable English-based conlang that forbids starting sentences with conjunctions, or splitting verb phrases, or stranding prepositions.


  1. Spell Me Jeff said,

    November 2, 2011 @ 6:59 am

    10,000 English teachers just collectively asked, "So my life's work . . . it's all been for . . . nothing?"

  2. Bob Lieblich said,

    November 2, 2011 @ 7:00 am

    Maybe we could revive Indo-European …

  3. Trimegistus said,

    November 2, 2011 @ 7:19 am

    The idea that war results from a lack of communication is an old and puzzling one. Unfortunately, wars seem to result when people understand each other all too well. The Hundred Years' War was waged by one set of French-speaking aristocrats against another. The Thirty Years' War was waged by assorted German-speaking factions (who also all spoke French). The First World War was waged by people who understood each others' languages very well (the Kaiser wrote letters to the Tsar in English).

    Has there ever actually been a war which really was caused by communication failure?

  4. Quintesse said,

    November 2, 2011 @ 7:23 am

    What I wonder is where the "van Amerongen" comes from which is a family name of Dutch origin (and doesn't seem like something you'd come up with spontaneously while trying to write down some made-up language).

  5. Christophe said,

    November 2, 2011 @ 7:28 am

    @Bob Lieblich:

    It's already been done: :)

    [(myl) Oh wow, as Steve Jobs put it.]

  6. NW said,

    November 2, 2011 @ 7:33 am

    On the other hand, none of the Esperanto-speaking nations have ever gone to war with one another. (The Great Ido/Esperanto War was different of course.)

  7. Brian said,

    November 2, 2011 @ 7:36 am

    @Quintesse: Jerry Van Amerongen is a newspaper cartoonist, so it's surely an intra-fraternity nudge.

    The phrase whose etymology I'm curious about is "homma humina." Although I haven't heard his voice since 1987, memories came screaming back of onetime DC shock jock Doug "The Greaseman" Tracht, who used to say "humina humina humina" when he needed to indicate to vulgar teenage boys that he was talking about something naughty and sexual.

  8. Mr Fnortner said,

    November 2, 2011 @ 7:59 am

    @Quintesse, writers often sneak nods to people they want to acknowledge into their texts. Perhaps "van Amerongen" is a family friend, a literary agent, a despised tennis opponent, or the bartender.

  9. Mr Fnortner said,

    November 2, 2011 @ 8:01 am

    Ahh, Wikipedia says van Amerongen is a cartoonist. (Nice catch, BTW.)

  10. J F Foster said,

    November 2, 2011 @ 8:14 am

    NW, there are no Esperanto-speaking nations.

  11. Eric TF Bat said,

    November 2, 2011 @ 8:15 am

    @Trimegistus: "Meanwhile the Babel fish, by effectively removing all barriers to communication between races and cultures, has caused more and bloodier wars than anything else in the history of creation."


  12. Avinor said,

    November 2, 2011 @ 8:38 am

    With the Ös and Üs, I assumed it was a parody of Volapük.

  13. Ellen K. said,

    November 2, 2011 @ 8:39 am

    Trimegistus, there's a difference between communication failure and not speaking the same language. Communication failure can happen between people speaking (or writing) the same language. And it seems unlikely to me that, of all the wars in human history, none were caused by communication failure of some sort. And that's it's contributed to even more.

    Yes, wars happen between peoples who speak the same language. That doesn't mean that, between peoples who have different native languages, communication issues from having different languages never contributes to war. Nor does it mean that other forms of communication failure don't contribute to war.

  14. Brett said,

    November 2, 2011 @ 8:42 am

    @J F Foster: I'm pretty sure that was the joke. NW's statement is true, vacuously.

  15. Jonathan Badger said,

    November 2, 2011 @ 8:47 am

    @J.F. Foster

    Actually, for relatively loose definitions of "Esperanto-speaking" and "nation", there has been at least one,

    The "Insulo de Rozoj", was a platform in the Adriatic Sea on which the Esperanto-speaking Italian Giorgio Rosa declared a nation in the 1960s (comparable to the better known Principality of Sealand near England). The Italian government viewed it as a tax fraud and actually took control of it by force.

  16. languagehat said,

    November 2, 2011 @ 9:05 am

    Don't forget Neutral Moresnet (aka Amikejo), declared officially Esperanto-speaking in 1908!

  17. Theodore said,

    November 2, 2011 @ 9:31 am

    @Brian: "Homma Hummina" makes me think of Ralph Kramden.

  18. Jussi Piitulainen said,

    November 2, 2011 @ 11:20 am

    "homma humina" caught my eye, too. Both are ordinary Finnish words. You know how one's native tongue catches one's eye. But much of Danaelect would be very improbable in Finnish.

    ("homma" in Finnish is an informal word for "job" as in "good job" "hyvä homma" and other such expressions, and "humina" is the low noise like that made in the trees by the wind.)

  19. Jonathan Gress-Wright said,

    November 2, 2011 @ 11:43 am

    Where did you get that this was a parody of prescriptively correct English? Because of the way Danae tried to make it out to be socially restricted in the last strip? Or because Kate corrected Danae's "who" to "whom"? By the way, Kate uses a split infinitive in the first panel of the last strip.

    [(myl) I don't think that parodying prescriptively correct English was any part of the cartoonist's intention. But the idea of an invented language as a luxury product can, ceteris paribus, be applied to the particular case of prescriptive rules that are entirely invented, which is why I chose sentence-initial conjunctions, split verbs, and stranded prepositions as the peeves to feature.]

  20. Mary Kuhner said,

    November 2, 2011 @ 12:29 pm

    My very favorite miscommunication story:

    In phylogenetics, a branch of biology involving discovering relationships among species, the relationships are called "trees" and parts of the trees are, naturally, "branches." "Long branch attraction" is an algorithmic issue in which unusual species tend to cluster together even if they are not in fact related.

    I once sat down at a conference next to a friendly botanist, and asked him what he was working on. He told me that he was measuring differences in mutation rates along the branches of trees. I nodded–that made perfect sense. He said that he was having considerable trouble with long branches, and that made perfect sense too.

    Then he said, "Only a very sloppy houseowner ever lets the branches get that long. Usually they're pruned off" and the illusion that I had been understanding him collapsed completely.

    You mean, when you said "trees", you meant "trees"–big leafy green things?


  21. Jerry Friedman said,

    November 2, 2011 @ 1:28 pm

    I'd be interested to know whether any wars have come about or even been encouraged by communication failures.

    @Avinor: Maybe Volapük is involved, but umlauts are just funny. (To many English speakers.)

  22. GeorgeW said,

    November 2, 2011 @ 2:54 pm

    A quick glance indicates that Danaelect, with the exception of /gp-/, complies with English phonotactics.

  23. Ran Ari-Gur said,

    November 2, 2011 @ 3:27 pm

    @GeorgeW: How can you know? I'm betting that double letters indicate gemination (as in many languages, such as Finnish and Italian), postvocalic <n> indicates vowel nasalization (as in French), and the contrast between <t k p> and <d g b> is not voicing but rather aspiration (as in Pinyin) . . . and it goes without saying that the system for indicating ejective consonants, breathy voice, and tone (all of which correlate strongly in Danaelect) is quite elegant, but well outside the scope of this comment. :-)

  24. Philip said,

    November 2, 2011 @ 3:36 pm

    Check out "The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez." It wasn't exactly a war, more like a whole bunch of Texas Rangers going after a Mexican accused of horse stealing, but it was precipitated by Cortez making a distinction between "yegua" (mare) and "caballo" (horse). The Rangers didn't get it, and that was the beginning of the end for Gregorio Cortez.

    The movie, by the way, comes from a famous corrido of the same name.

  25. GeorgeW said,

    November 2, 2011 @ 3:41 pm

    Ran Ari-Gur: You are right, I couldn't know. The orthography (largely similar to English) could represent something very different.

  26. J. W. Brewer said,

    November 2, 2011 @ 4:24 pm

    There's the well-known "Metal umlaut" phenomenon, where gratuitous diacritical marks connote coolness or toughness to Anglophones, but also other contexts where they apparently have desirable yet non-hard-rockin' overtones. Perhaps a classic example is the trademark lawsuit from around 3 decades ago where the makers of Häagen-Dazs unsuccessfully sued the makers of Frusen Glädjé. The court was not persuaded that only one company should be allowed to use a Scandinavian-looking brand name with funny diacritical marks that would apparently not be viewed as well-formed by any actual native-speaker (native reader?) of any actual Scandinavian language.

    [(myl) Indeed.]

  27. Jason said,

    November 2, 2011 @ 4:32 pm

    Has there ever actually been a war which really was caused by communication failure?

    Nations misread other nations intentions, capabilities and likely reactions to hostile action all the time!

    According to this Rand corp study, Saddam Hussein in 2003 was convinced the US was not really serious about a ground invasion of Iraq, and that it simply wanted to make a token demonstration of force in order to extract a diplomatic settlement from him. He seemed to believe that the US was just a kind of jilted ex that secretly still loved him, and would some day return to shower money and material support to him, like his glory days in the eighties. He kept on believing this right up to the bitter end. Mind you, Saddam believed this because he had delusional narcisstic personality disorder, but still….

    One might argue that the Vietnam war "started" because the US completely misread the intentions of the Communist Vietnamese (not only was Communist Vietnam not intending to be a puppet of China, they of course actually went to war with each other in 79!) and the popularity of Ho Chi Minh (actually, they didn't so much misread his popularity as disregard it. Eisenhower openly acknowledged that Ho Chi Minh would win any free and fair election as mandated in the 1954 Geneva accord, which is precisely why no such election could ever be allowed to take place.)

    But as this is language log and not power politics log, I guess I'm skirting close to the wind by bringing up examples like this.

  28. Jeff Percival said,

    November 2, 2011 @ 6:56 pm

    @Jason: not to nitpick, but this *is* language log. Sailing close to the wind?…

  29. Jason said,

    November 2, 2011 @ 8:11 pm

    Ok, pissing into the wind. Don't know what I was thinking, sorry. But yeah, cultural miscommunication = big factor in wars: starting them, keeping them going, preventing them from ending. Why do you think the US military has "Human Terrain Teams" now?

  30. Todd said,

    November 3, 2011 @ 7:21 am

    Not quite the same, but there have been conflicts waged /over/ language itself. The situation of Czechoslovakia comes to mind, not necessarily only in the German-Czech conflict, which is nonetheless quite interesting, but in the determination of the southern boundaries of Slovakia, which resulted in an actual, albeit brief, live-fire war with Hungary in 1919.

  31. linda seebach said,

    November 3, 2011 @ 7:48 am

    Funny this should come up now . . . I was just doing the NYT crossword (in syndication, so it was the Sept. 22 puzzle) and the clue for ESPERANTO was "It has just 16 rules of grammar." Well, that's what it *claims* — but Euclid thought there were only five postulates for geometry. Mathematicians now know more about geometry now than he did, and the actual number is around 20. Some of them were so obvious he didn't think they needed to be mentioned. (Lines don't have holes in them, for instance.)

    Linguists know more about grammar now then the inventor of Esperanto did, and though I don't know what the actual number of grammar rules is, I'm sure it is far larger than 16. Has anyone looked?

    The odd thing is, that no one in the comments to that day's blog post mentioned it, and the commenters on that blog are normally an extremely well-informed bunch of cheerful nitpickers.

  32. vanya said,

    November 3, 2011 @ 9:16 am

    Heck, even when people can understand each other perfectly well they may go to war. Then retroactively try to make their own speech more different in an attempt to encourage hostility and tension. Serbia and Croatia are a good example of this. Urdu and Hindi have also followed a similar path. Those examples would seem to refute conclusively the idea that one common language would ever lead to world peace.

  33. Rod Johnson said,

    November 3, 2011 @ 9:27 am

    Not to continue digressing too much, but… Linda, I'm very interested in the "20 postulates of geometry" thing. As you might imagine, Google is hopeless on this. Do you have a reference, or even a name, that might help me find out more?

  34. J. W. Brewer said,

    November 3, 2011 @ 10:45 am

    Not the beginning of a war, but it is claimed that "The story of how an ill-chosen translation of the Japanese word mokusatsu led to the United States decision to drop the world's first atomic bomb on Hiroshima is well known to many linguists." Read if the story isn't well-known to you. I'm certain this never would have happened if the Japanese prime minister had been speaking Esperanto . . .

  35. michael farris said,

    November 3, 2011 @ 12:01 pm

    "the clue for ESPERANTO was "It has just 16 rules of grammar." Well, that's what it *claims*"

    Well I know a lot of people who speak Esperanto (some of them linguists) and none of them take that seriously. It was more a publicity thing to get people interested in starting to learn. There are also descriptive grammars of Esperanto that run into the hundreds of pages.

  36. teucer said,

    November 3, 2011 @ 11:47 pm

    Every Esperantist I've heard mention the sixteen rules says they are sixteen guidelines to help you as a heuristic, and that if you speak most Indo-European languages those sixteen are enough to get started with, as opposed to actually being a complete grammar of the language or intended as one.

  37. linda seebach said,

    November 4, 2011 @ 11:46 am

    @ Rod Johnson:
    Google "Hilbert's axioms" — the Wikipedia article is quite thorough and well sourced (David Hilbert).

  38. Rod Johnson said,

    November 4, 2011 @ 4:33 pm


  39. LDavidH said,

    November 5, 2011 @ 11:35 am

    @J. W. Brewer : a very late comment: "Frusen Glädje" (no accent on the e) is pure Swedish, meaning Frozen Joy; Häagen-Dazs on the other hand bears no resemblance whatsoever with any Swedish (or Scandinavian) word. So even if the random use of å,ä,ö,ü could be trademarked, that surely couldn't prohibit the use of genuine words with those letters. (But maybe this was obvious to everybody already?)

  40. LDavidH said,

    November 5, 2011 @ 12:33 pm

    Oh, and about the 16 rules of Esperanto (which I should be able to remember, I learned it as a teenager): how many actual rules does English have? Can't be more than that, surely? Difference is, Esperanto doesn't have exceptions. So the English rule "plurals of nouns are formed with -s" have to be qualified with page upon page of exceptions. Same for "The past tense of verbs is formed by adding -ed", "In the present tense, the 3rd person singular adds an -s and other the persons don't change", etc. So there's no real contradiction between 16 simple rules and many pages of examples and applications in various complex circumstances. The big difference is still that there are no exceptions to the rules in Esperanto. (Or at least, there weren't any when I was a teenager.)

  41. ENKI-][ said,

    November 5, 2011 @ 4:55 pm

    I might argue that the 'luxury product' thing is a poke at Lojban*. She said 'smartest and coolest', not 'wealthiest and most strongly tied to an imaginary history'.

    *It should be noted that while Lojban, because of its emphasis on precision and its strong relation to mathematics, is considered fairly exclusive, it is not nearly as obstructively rigorous as some of the really strange conlangs out there (like Ithkuil and Ilakash). Lojban has the benefit of more closely resembling a human language than that of a race off clown-obsessed cyborg klingons. Lojban is also pretty closely related to the idea that war comes from communication difficulties (combined with the idea that pure reason is purely moral), if not in original intent then at least in many arguments for it by crazy internet people. Ithkuil, on the other hand, appears to be designed with the goal of entertaining bored russian linguists.

  42. Rod Johnson said,

    November 5, 2011 @ 5:12 pm

    It's not easy to count rules, since different theories differ on really fundamental issues, such as to how much responsibility to assign to "subcategorization" properties of particular lexical items, and how much to assign to "universal grammar" vs. language-particular rules (I'm not endorsing any of these ideas, don't yell at me).

    But I think any language that actually has native speakers, a rich literary tradition and a large speech community is going to have intricacies that no constructed language, no matter how well-made it is, is going to be able to approach. For example, the whole family of "island constraints" that was developed in the late 60s to explain phenomena like the ungrammaticality of sentences like *Who does Kim know a girl who is jealous of? or *Which book did she review War and Peace without reading? represent fine-grained questions that just didn't occur to people with a traditional grammar background like Zamenhof. And there's a whole literature around those issues and others. To take a fairly theory-neutral example, though, Otto Jespersen's Essentials of English Grammar not only has more than 16 rules, it has more than 16 chapters.

    Maybe people who look at language from 50,000 feet take basic typological statements about English (SVO order, prepositions before objects, passives work like thus-and-such, etc.) to be more or less equivalent to its "grammar." I once has an assignment in grad school to write a "grammar" in one page of the language I had just spent a first-semester field methods course on, and I managed it (but my margins were pretty small). But when you get down and dirty and start looking at the details, there seem to be no end of phenomena that bear describing.

  43. Rod Johnson said,

    November 5, 2011 @ 5:18 pm

    Here are the 16 rules of Esperanto grammar, by the way. There's no equivalent to English phenomena like pseudo-clefting or extraposition or reflexivization or there-insertion or dative shift, etc. etc.

  44. LDavidH said,

    November 6, 2011 @ 3:38 am

    @Rod Johnson: Well, no – but then, basic rules are different from the application of those rules in different contexts. Or maybe I should say, "grammar" in its entirety is more than the basic "rules" (since "grammar" would include things like "the plural of ox = oxen, of child = children" etc, which are not part of the basic "rules"). If I was trying to explain English grammar in a nutshell, I wouldn't include "pseudo-clefting" either (especially as I don't know what it is! :-) ).

  45. LDavidH said,

    November 6, 2011 @ 3:59 am

    Having looked at the Esperanto rules, I think you could put basic English grammar in even fewer – but then, there are aspects of English that wouldn't go into the rules at all (e.g. the Esperanto rules about stress and orthography wouldn't be "grammar" in English, but the English equivalent fills entire books).

  46. Rod Johnson said,

    November 6, 2011 @ 1:01 pm

    I guess my point is that deciding what is "basic" grammar is a very theory-laden thing. Actually describing what competent native speakers of a language do is way more complex than 16 discrete rules can capture. So there's nothing wrong with saying "Esperanto has 16 rules," but when you add "as compared to English" you're comparing apples and oranges.

  47. LDavidH said,

    November 6, 2011 @ 3:23 pm

    Yes, I see what you mean. But I guess that's true for both English and Esperanto. Anyway, we probably don't actually disagree on anything – we were just looking at things from different angles!

  48. Rod Johnson said,

    November 6, 2011 @ 4:31 pm

    If there is a disagreement, it would be that, Esperanto lacking a large native speaker community that persists for generations (are there any at all), it would be unlikely to have developed the same level of grammatical complexity. But I don't really know how true that is.

  49. RP said,

    November 8, 2011 @ 6:53 am

    "Which book did she review War and Peace without reading?"

    I had to read this twice to understand it, but I actually believe it to be grammatical – and I'm a native speaker (BrE).

  50. LDavidH said,

    November 8, 2011 @ 7:17 am

    @ Rod Johnson: Yes, I think English has developed a greater complexity than many other languages – but mainly (I think) in syntax and vocabulary, which I don't think could ever be reduced to grammatical rules. And I believe there are native Esperanto-speakers (at least I know I read about that when I was studying the language myself, some 30 years ago), but where they are and how many there are, I have no idea.

  51. Rod Johnson said,

    November 8, 2011 @ 8:48 am

    Wait, what are grammatical rules if not syntax? As a linguist, I'm always confused when people treat "grammar" and "syntax' as disjoint things.

    I've heard it claimed that there are native Esperanto speakers ('in China!") but I'm skeptical that parents would or even could raise their kids in a dense enough environment of Esperanto that the kids would develop native speaker competency.

  52. Rod Johnson said,

    November 8, 2011 @ 8:55 am

    …but here (PDF) is a study of that, and several of the issues that have come up here.

  53. LDavidH said,

    November 8, 2011 @ 12:38 pm

    @Rod Johnson: "I'm skeptical that parents would or even could raise their kids in a dense enough environment of Esperanto that the kids would develop native speaker competency" – good point! And thanks for the link to the study, I'll have a good look at it!

  54. LDavidH said,

    November 8, 2011 @ 12:44 pm

    As for syntax vs. grammar, I always thought "grammar" was "definite article is the for all numbers, genders and cases", "3rd person singular takes an -s", "dig is an irregular verb" etc, whereas "syntax" is "The subject generally comes before the verb", but also that in that first sentence of mine, "'always' comes between 'I' and 'thought'". Or the construction of your sentence "…that parents would or even could…". But thinking about it, I realise that the distinction is blurred. Always learning!

  55. Darin Arrick said,

    November 11, 2011 @ 4:24 pm

    "any language that actually has native speakers, a rich literary tradition and a large speech community is going to have intricacies" (Rod Johnson, )

    You mean like Esperanto? It has native speakers, a rich literary tradition, and a large speech community.

  56. Rod Johnson said,

    November 16, 2011 @ 10:05 am


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