Wednesday, 2 February 2011
... so long as we can say "Ya waratha ab ram ya bare ab wara." Even if nobody understands you. And for a French intellectual, it's more than your job's worth to be understood. From The Times:
Like learning foreign tongues? Then why not try your hand at Dritok, Nunihongo, Kélen or Megdevi? Or maybe you’d prefer to translate the Bible into Lojban or to stand on stage to pronounce theatre’s most celebrated line: “taH pagh taHbe”.
You won’t recognise any of the above, however eminent a linguist you are, as they are all invented languages. Some are spoken only by one person — their inventor. Others may be practised by a small circle of adepts, such as the Star Trek fans who translated Hamlet into Klingon, the tongue used by Captain Kirk’s enemies (see above — in case you were wondering).
The people behind these strange tongues call themselves conlangers — as in someone who constructs a language — and their world, though still obscure, is nevertheless having something of a moment. It would be easy to dismiss conlanging as the ultimate nerdy pursuit, the intellectual equivalent of building ships with matchsticks. But conlangers would prefer us to look upon what they do as cutting-edge art.
Frédéric Werst is a French lycée teacher who lives on his own on the Left Bank in Paris and is the author of the greatest work ever written in Wardwesân. Indeed, he is the author of the only work ever written in Wardwesân.
His book is an anthology of poems, essays, tales and prayers left by a fictional people (the Wards) who lived in a fictional kingdom (Aghâr) and spoke a fictional language and it is also a rarity: a conlang book that has been published by mainstream publishers.
I meet Werst — a fictional name, of course, and he is reluctant to reveal his true identity — on a cold, grey day in Paris. With newspapers full of gloomy headlines about the future of France, you can understand why Werst wanted to escape to Aghâr.
But why did he bother creating a language that bears no relation to existing languages and that none of his readers can comprehend?
“It makes it more real and multiplies the strangeness,” he says. “This way you get the illusion that this is another civilisation.”
There are other advantages to language creation, Werst says. He doesn’t like the letter c, for example, so it doesn’t exist in Wardwesân. He prefers the w and z, which both abound. Y, e and n made a sound pleasing to his ears, so he put them together and decided that yen would mean tree.
His grammar also bears witness to his personal tastes, especially to his love of freedom. There are several ways of turning a singular noun into a plural. You can add a prefix — karz (child) becomes alkarz (children); a suffix — rame (sister) becomes rameth; or an accent — bex (pilot) becomes béx (pilots). The system is altogether much more imaginative than the overused s of English — a language that along with French, Italian and German has been bled dry by centuries of exploitation by writers of talents large and small, or so Werst says. “It’s certainly possible to write something original in these great literary languages, but in practice few people do these days,” he says. “I have the intuition that they are worn out.”
Hence the need for renewal through new languages such as Wardwesân.
Werst looks every inch the Parisian intellectual, dragging on cigarettes and sipping tea, dressed in a dark coat and grey-blue scarf wrapped tight around his neck. While some US conlangers use their languages for day-to-day use, Werst has a typically lofty French vision of his work. It is a literary tongue, he says, and you would never catch him singing it in the shower. Indeed, apart from the odd note to a friend, he uses it only for his books.
Many conlangers get bored or distracted and let the project drop after a few months. After all, language creation without the aid of a software programme — Werst is appalled at the suggestion that he might have used one — is a phenomenally difficult task. It requires determination, concentration and rigour on an unnerving scale. He describes the project as “torture”.
Yet he pressed on, taking four years to produce Wardwesân and 20 years if you take into account previous unpublished versions. Not only did he complete the work — which was nathar (a triumph) in itself — but he had it published by Seuil, one of Europe’s top publishers.
Even though there is a French translation running alongside the Wardwesân text, don’t expect to see many people reading it on the beach this summer. But Werst hopes it will sell well enough to convince Seuil to publish a second volume. Astrid de Larminat, Le Figaro’s literary critic, was impressed for one. “This is an absolutely extraordinary book without equivalent in the history of literature,” she says. I could not contest Le Figaro’s view of the work as unique — I’ve certainly never read anything like it, but I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it as leisure reading. Not unless you happen to be fascinated by death, a subject of major concern to the Wards.
Talk to the hand. Come back, Volapük - all is forgiven.
Posted on 02/02/2011 11:00 AM by Mary Jackson