Linguist Interview: Devon Jones

In The Memorandum, an organization adopts a new, invented language for interoffice use, ostensibly to improve efficiency and clarity of communications; however, the results are anything but. As those attempting to learn, use, or even have the new language translated become mired in the bureaucratic process, communication breaks down, and the office is thrust into chaos. To help us craft the sounds of Ptydepe, Flat Earth employed the talents of company member and linguist Devon Jones, whose research and tutelage help to add an air of authenticity to the otherwise bizarre world of the play. We had an opportunity to sit down with Devon to discuss his work on The Memorandum, as well as to pick his brain about linguistics, invented languages, and the nature of communication.

Can you give us a brief idea of "What is linguistics?" in case some folks aren't familiar with the field?

I can most succinctly describe linguistics as the study of how language works from the moment it develops in the individual to the moment they die or otherwise lose the ability, and also from the more amorphous time that a new language emerges from its parent till the time that it dies out, measuring the effects of its interactions with other languages in the process. To compare the field to other sciences (and linguistics is absolutely a science), studying linguistics might be to studying one language what studying theoretical physics is to running a single physics experiment.

Modern linguistics has an enormous proliferation of sub-fields dedicated to language use at every level, whether that be how we process language in our brains, which incorporates other sciences like neurology & cognitive psych, or documenting unrecorded languages for posterity and analysis, which puts you more in anthropology territory. Therefore the average linguist might work on a project requiring a totally different skill set from another linguist, and if you choose to study linguistics in college you may find widely different programs between universities, depending on what they want to prioritize.

Are constructed languages like Ptydepe a common occurrence -- something that happens in real life? What other made-up languages are out there?

I couldn't possibly list all the existing "made-up languages" because indeed, what those in the trade call conlangs (constructed languages) are so frequently invented that it staggers the mind. They get invented for various reasons, but the common ones include:

  1. people want a common language to communicate in that's easy to learn
  2. people invent a language to correspond with a fictional culture, enhancing that culture's realism
  3. people create a secret language for only themselves to understand.

For type a), the most popular example is called Esperanto, which never really caught on as a global auxiliary language but was invented for that purpose and does maintain a dedicated group of proponents. For type b), the example par excellence would be what J. R. R. Tolkien created in his fantasy setting, with multiple functional Elvish languages along with some others, and many people have copied this technique since then with Klingon for Star Trek or Dothraki for HBO's Game of Thrones. For type c), I can't provide obvious examples if only because usually if you're trying to keep a secret language secret, you don't go publicizing how it works.

Now, of course, are any of these languages actually "like" Ptydepe in their sheer absurdity— I would say no, but also yes. No, in that all we have of Ptydepe is what exists in Havel's play, so it is barely functional, never mind that its rules are astronomically difficult for a real human speaker to follow. Most conlangs get constructed with the goal of resembling natural, therefore slightly flawed, human languages, a trait I can get back to later— even though sometimes you might invent a conlang that you mean for people to pick up quickly. At the same time, people have made conlangs that are supposed to be completely unambiguous in their meanings, using principles of predicate logic, of which a prominent example is the Loglan/Lojban project whose original purpose is interesting to me but whose proponents strike me as depressingly fanatical.

How did you come up with what Ptydepe should sound like? What other languages inspired the pronunciation choices you made?

Devon Jones. Photo Credit: Coriana Hunt Swartz.Usually, a conlang lays out pronunciation in advance, so my role in devising how actors should sound was different than, say, what the language consultant for The Lord of the Rings movies had to do with Liv Tyler et al. Since I was inventing pronunciation sometimes divorced from any recorded meaning, I tried to think of what would be easiest for actors to say while still imparting the flavor of something not too much like English. As opposed to the makers of Klingon, which uses some intentionally very hard sounds for English speakers to make, I opted for sounds that English speakers could mostly make, with a few sounds from other commonly spoken languages that actors might have studied before, like German and French.

I then rigidly set the pronunciation so that counter to most natural languages, there is absolutely no instance in which words should be pronounced differently from what their writing indicates. Every letter is pronounced, always, and it is always said the same. Those are the rules, at least. What has resulted sounds a lot to me like a bizarre mashup of Russian, Arabic, and who knows what else, but I did not intend this; I think it is a natural result of me supplying common readings of most letters Havel used. And since he was a Czech speaker, closely related to Russian, that's how the cookie crumbled. I tried not to pick a specific language for this to closely resemble because that might have some uncomfortable political dimensions to it.

What about word meanings? Were there words that were particularly easy to assign or figure out meanings for, and/or were there some words that were particularly difficult?

About half the existing "corpus" of Ptydepe is defined in the play; therefore, no work to be done there. The rest was left up to me, somewhat, though we were all clear from the beginning that it should also be subject to directorial vision and the actors' interpretations of their characters. What I wound up doing for undefined Ptydepe phrases was examining their context in dialogues, noting repeated words, and extrapolating rough topics of conversation from there.

Since Ptydepe words are composed of many "sub-words," the language deliberately eschews similarity between words, and everything is very context specific, this was stupefyingly easy compared to if the grammar of the language used patterns or real root words I could detect and try to break down. Then I would have wanted stuff to actually make sense. In this case, nothing makes any sense, so we could all apply any sense we wanted. The pronunciation was where I had more of an active hand in shaping things.

Some of the characters in the play worry that Ptydepe will be "corrupted" and become more like a "natural language" if it's used by people who haven't been properly pre-screened. Can real languages change that quickly, and are there any real-life examples of constructed languages that became more "natural" when they were used by large groups of people?

I couldn't say "yes" more emphatically. Linguists commonly agree that what makes a fully functional language— as opposed to a rudimentary system of signs that even barely sentient life forms can use— is that rather than having a finite set of symbols that you can only produce in pre-defined contexts, you instead have a finite set of symbols that have an infinite number of combinations. That is why we can say a semantically empty sentence like, to borrow from a classic that linguist Noam Chomsky invented:

"Colorless green ideas sleep furiously."

There is almost no sense to be made from the sentence, but our brains can still parse subject, verb, and so on, because it is constructed correctly according to our shared grammar. I agree with Chomsky more politically than linguistically on some things, but he made a powerful point with this in the 1950s, arguing that all languages work off of a "deep structure" embedded somehow in the human brain; this allows us to use grammatical rules to form sentences with infinite creativity.

Okay, so you're like, right, that's cool, but why am I raising this? Well, I raise it because this creativity, while allowing us to say anything we want, also proves the downfall of anyone trying to make a language that's artificial in the way of removing our natural tendency toward the creative. If you have creativity in what you say, you automatically introduce ambiguity, which is what Ptydepe means to eliminate. Take what the actors themselves do with Ptydepe onstage; they inflect various words with particular vocal tones that suggest anything from sarcasm to lasciviousness. If they didn't do that, they would sound like emotionless robots, which would be funny for the play's theme, but their characters plainly still want to act like humans, so they vocally inflect like humans. Still, though you might initially find this benign for Ptydepe's purposes, vocal inflection is as much a part of language as grammar or vocabulary, so it is completely possible for a character in this play speaking Ptydepe to say a word for a very specific context, but change their tone so that it sounds like they really mean a different context. They're breaking the rules of the language, intellectually; still, the human impulse is clearly toward creativity.

In fact, a lot of new words, expressions, and memes in our own natural languages spawn from people breaking rules for the fun of it; if you doubt me, just think about what lolcats have done to us all. So you can try to make an entirely unambiguous language, but even the most ardent Ptydepe speaker would be hard pressed not to find ways of inventing their own words, double entendres, etc., even just for the fun of it. Once that process begins, it's all downhill from there. Or uphill, in my mind...