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Experimental language

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Title: Experimental language  
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Collection: Anthropology, Cognition, Constructed Languages, Engineered Languages, Languages, Linguistics
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Experimental language

An experimental language is a constructed language designed for linguistics research, often on the relationship between language and thought.

One particular assumption having received much attention in fiction is popularly known as the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis. The claim is that the structure of a language somehow affects the way its speakers perceive their world, either strongly in which case "language determines thought" (linguistic determinism) or weakly in which case "language influences thought" (linguistic relativity). (For a list of languages that are merely mentioned, see the relevant section in List of constructed languages.)

The extreme case of the strong version of the hypothesis would be the idea that words have a power inherent to themselves such that their use determines not just our thoughts, but even that which our thoughts are about, i.e. reality itself. This idea, however, is more properly treated within ontology than linguistics.


  • Languages exploring the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis 1
    • Constructed languages 1.1
    • Fictional languages 1.2
      • Named 1.2.1
      • Unnamed 1.2.2
      • Counterexamples 1.2.3
  • Languages exploring other linguistic aspects 2
  • See also 3
  • Notes 4

Languages exploring the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis

Constructed languages

  • Láadan, by linguist Suzette Haden Elgin in her science fiction novel Native Tongue. In the novel Elgin describes a patriarchal society in which the overriding priority of the oppressed women is the secret development of a "feminist" language, Láadan, to aid them in throwing off their shackles.
  • Loglan, by James Cooke Brown, was designed for linguistic research with the specific goal of making a language so different from natural languages that people learning it would think in a different way if the hypothesis were true.
  • Lojban is the successor of Loglan and has the same goals.
  • Toki Pona, by Sonja Elen Kisa, is inspired by Taoist philosophy, among other things, and designed to shape the thought processes of its users in Zen-like fashion.

Fictional languages


  • Babel-17, by Samuel R. Delany, is centered on a fictional language that denies its speakers independent thought, forcing them to think purely logical thoughts. This language is used as a weapon of war, because it is supposed to convert everyone who learns it to a traitor. In the novel, the language Babel-17 is likened to computer programming languages that do not allow errors or imprecise statements.
  • Marain, in Iain M. Banks's Culture series. The Culture believes (or perhaps has proved, or else actively made true) the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis that language affects society, and Marain was designed to exploit this effect. A related comment is made by the narrator in The Player of Games regarding gender-specific pronouns in English. Marain is also regarded as an aesthetically pleasing language.
  • Nineteen Eighty-Four, does not have any of the words expressing the ideas underlying a revolution with the idea that its speakers cannot revolt. All of the theory of Newspeak is aimed at eliminating such words. For example, bad has been replaced by ungood, and the concept of "freedom" has been eliminated over time. According to the appendix on Newspeak, the result of the adoption of the language would be that "a heretical thought ... should be literally unthinkable, at least so far as thought is dependent on words."
  • Pravic is one of the languages used in The Dispossessed, by Ursula K. Le Guin, that takes place partly on a world with an anarcho-communist society. Pravic contains little means for expressing possessive relationships, among other features.
  • Tamarian, in the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode "Darmok", is unintelligible to Starfleet's universal translators because it is too deeply rooted in local metaphor and consequently its sentences have no meaning to other civilizations.


  • In Anthem, by Ayn Rand, the World Council attempted to enforce collectivist thinking among the populace by removing from the language all words expressing individuality.
  • In Dune, by Frank Herbert, Lady Jessica (who has extensive linguistic training) encounters the Fremen, the native people of Dune. She is shocked by the violence of their language, as she believes their word choices and language structure reflect a culture of enormous violence. Similarly, earlier in the novel, her late husband, Duke Leto, muses on how the nature of Imperial society is betrayed by "the precise delineations for treacherous death" in its language, the use of highly specific terms to describe different methods for delivering poison.
  • In Gulf, by Robert A. Heinlein, the characters are taught an artificial language which allows them to think logically and concisely by removing the "false to fact" linguistic constructs of existing languages.
  • The Languages of Pao, by Jack Vance, centers on an experiment in modeling a civilization by tweaking its language. The mastermind behind this experiment, Lord Palafox, says in chapter 9: "We must alter the mental framework of the Paonese people, which is most easily achieved by altering the language." His son, Finisterle, says in chapter 11 to a class of linguists in training: "every language impresses a certain world-view upon the mind."
  • In Mud/Aurora, by Snow Crash, by Neal Stephenson, explores the (controversial) concept of neuro-linguistic programming and presents the Sumerian language as the firmware programming language for the brain stem which is supposedly functioning as the BIOS for the human brain. According to characters in the book, the goddess Asherah is the personification of a linguistic virus similar to a computer virus. The god Enki created a counter program which he called a nam-shub that caused all of humanity to speak different languages as a protection against Asherah, supposedly giving rise to the biblical story of the Tower of Babel.
  • In Story of Your Life, by Ted Chiang, learning the written language used by alien visitors to the Earth allows the person who learns the language to think in a different way, in which the past and future are illusions of conventional thought. This allows people who understand the language to see their entire life as a single unchangeable action, from past to future.
  • In Stranger in a Strange Land, by Robert A. Heinlein, Valentine Michael Smith is able to do things that most other humans cannot, and is unable to explain any of this in English. However, once others learn Martian, they start to develop the ability to do these things; those concepts could be explained only in Martian.
  • The Unnamable, by H.P. Lovecraft, explores the idea of whether or not someone can conceptualize something which cannot be described by any name.
  • In Jorge Luis Borges, the author discovers references in books to a universe of idealistic individuals whose language lacks the concept of nouns and has other peculiarities that shapes their idealism. As the story progresses the books become more and better known to the world at large, their philosophy starts influencing the real world, and Earth becomes the ideal world described in the books.


  • In The Citadel of the Autarch, by Gene Wolfe, one of the characters (an Ascian) speaks entirely in slogans, but is able to express deep and subtle meanings via context. The narrator, Severian, after hearing the Ascian speak, remarks that "The Ascian seemed to speak only in sentences he had learned by rote, though until he used each for the first time we had never heard them ... Second, I learned how difficult it is to eliminate the urge for expression. The people of Ascia were reduced to speaking only with their masters' voice; but they had made of it a new tongue, and I had no doubt, after hearing the Ascian, that by it he could express whatever thought he wished."[1]

Languages exploring other linguistic aspects

  • Gorbiel, by Jacek Tuszynski, is designed to adhere to a set of principles for quality control.[2]
  • Ithkuil, by John Quijada, was designed for maximum morpho-phonological conciseness.
  • Ilaksh, by John Quijada, is his phonologically simpler successor to Ithkuil.
  • Lin,[3] by R. Srikanth, was designed for maximum orthographic conciseness.
  • Yiklamu,[4] by Mark P. Line, was designed as a "Russian lawn" experiment,[5] starting with just a lexicon, but being grammatically simple and assuming that complexity would evolve as a consequence of use.
  • Zaum is the experimental poetic language characterized by indeterminacy in meaning intended to describe the linguistic experiments of the Russian Futurist poets

See also


  1. ^ Wolfe, Gene (1998). The book of the new sun. New York: SFBC. p. 776. 
  2. ^ "Gorbiel 1.1". Retrieved 26 May 2010. 
  3. ^ "A Grammar of the language Lin". Retrieved 26 May 2010. 
  4. ^ "Classical Yiklamu". Retrieved 26 May 2010. 
  5. ^ defines this as a field whose future paved pathways are determined by where people walk when it's still grass.
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