Tabada: Tongues

Mayette Q. Tabada

THIS is a true story: a traveler picked up two postcards, about 100 years old. The seller at the flea market in Mallorca advertised the postcards’ messages as being written in Esperanto.

The traveler contacted JM, a friend, who consulted the Language Log, a website frequented by language geeks. Began by Mark Liberman and Geoffrey Pullum of the University of Pennsylvania, the Language Log has built an online community of lovers of language, puzzles and irreverence.

Many readers speculated whether the postcard sender was writing in one of the organic languages existing around 1912-1913, when the postcards were mailed from Mallorca.

According to Ethnologue, a “research center for language intelligence,” there are 7,111 “living languages” spoken around the globe in 2019. Yet, about 40 percent of these languages are “endangered,” with less than a thousand persons still speaking in these tongues. In the online “communal cipher-solving” of the Mallorca mystery postcards, what I found riveting was the seriousness with which many readers of Language Log pondered the postcard writer’s possible use of conlang, jargon for “constructed languages.”

One does not have to be a linguist or a polyglot to invent language. Two persons can create a code so that no one else can read the endearments written in an open postcard.

Few though can surpass J. R. R. Tolkien, the “godfather of modern conlangs,” according to a essay posted by Nicole Chardenet of Yappn, an “enhanced machine translation company.”

Tolkien created “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy as the narrative backdrop for the Middle Earth languages he created for 63 of his 81 years in this world. An example is the conlang of Elvish, which emerged from Primitive Quendain and branched off to Common Eldarin, Quendain, Goldogrin, Telerin, Ilkorin, Doriathrin and Avarin.

Tolkien argued that this absence of myths to explain its origin made the conlang Esperanto “far deader than ancient unused languages.” Esperanto was created in the 1880s by L. L. Zamenhof, an ophthalmologist who desired a language to unify his community where Russians, Poles, Germans, and Jews “spoke their own language and looked on all the others as enemies.”

Zamenhof wrote a book of Esperanto grammar, translated works in Esperanto and created original works of Esperanto in prose and poetry. Today, Esperanto is spoken by two million persons around the globe, the most widely spoken modern conlang uniting a stateless, diasporic community.

Languages are fragile, dying when no one speaks the tongue and thriving among those who love words, dream in it. Natural or constructed, language exists for the same end: To communicate.