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Alison Colman

When I was young, my grandfather would tell me stories about a nonsensical language he created with the enthusiastic participation of a few of his college buddies. The purpose for creating this language was not to devise a means to communicate with a small, select group of people; in actuality, they created this language in order to play pranks on any unsuspecting person who had the misfortune of sharing an elevator with them. Apparently he and his friends entertained themselves by getting into a nearly full elevator, talking loudly to each other using their makeshift language (“Landsdomeron sinkledork d’flobbin hobbin.” “Beschtinken woolsey itchsplick?” “Zamophlon! Dishtina gwork bibbled’schnibble!”) and later guffawing over their elevatormates’ reactions.

Putting aside my grandfather’s slightly snarky tale, there is a certain pleasure and sense of accomplishment in developing one’s own language, whether it be to describe feelings, sensations or ideas that cannot be described using an established language, or to create a means of communication between a select few meant to remain undecipherable to outsiders. It is, of course, impossible to know how many artificial/constructed languages exist (examples that are more well-known and have a certain number of adherents include Esperanto, Klingon, Elvish and Quenya), as creating one’s own personal language is often a private and solitary endeavor. Enter OnlyOneNativeSpeaker (OONS), an online collaboration facilitated by that invites conlangers (a term coined by constructed language enthusiasts), shy, secretive, and otherwise, to share and disseminate their linguistic creations.

Visually, OnlyOneNativeSpeaker is simple and straightforward while the contents alternate between playful, dense, poetic and esoteric. The home page, with a white background, teal serif text and large red headers, is roughly divided vertically in half. The left half contains a chatty yet informative description of OnlyOneNativeSpeaker’s purpose, along with an exhortation for participation, while the right half contains several lists of links grouped under the headings of “Infrastructure,” “Languages,” and “Categories.” “Languages” is divided into several subcategories: “Local,” “Submitted,” and “Of interest.” “Infrastructure” contains links to the OONS wiki, the OONS page, and an OONS yahoogroups mailinglist, along with an email link to for language submissions. “Local” contains links that take the viewer to pieces presumably written by the creator(s) of OONS, including an overview of the psychogeographic Landscape-Expression (or L-Expression) language, an L-Expression editor, and essays on parsing the language of crowds, computer language as literature, and capturing the ephemeral taxonomy of constructed languages. Below this is a relatively short list of submitted languages, including mez’ (aka Mary-Anne Breeze) mezangelle, a wiki entry on organic poetry, and sasxsek (unfortunately, clicking on a handful of some of the other submitted links resulted in a 404 not found error page). Along the right edge of the page is a substantial list of fantastic language categories, ranging from unspeakable, turriphiliac, glowinthedark and angelic languages to ultrasonic, hydsfbsjg, epram and cloud languages, to name just a few.

In regards to using the web for collaboration, OONS does not necessarily break new ground, but I don’t believe this is the point of the work. On one level, the work is educational, particularly for those who know little to nothing about linguistics, who are not versed in any other language beside their mother tongue, and whose impressions of language invention have been informed by portrayals of those who engage in it as insane, pathological or irrational (such as the female schizophrenic protagonist of the novel I Never Promised You a Rose Garden, Nimrod from Dante’s Inferno, or the frenzied glossolalia of congregationalists in the throes of religious ecstasy). For instance, one might surmise that creating an artificial language consists solely of assigning invented words to already existing words within an established natural language, and therefore may assume a conlang web site would, say, resemble an English to Spanish dictionary. However, a visit to the sasxsek site, for example, demonstrates on a small scale the complexity of language creation and classification, complete with a lexicon and grammatical structure.

On another level OONS also frames language creation as a form of creative expression, comparative to model-making or role playing. Language Expression (e.g., L-Expression), for instance, while derivative of logical languages and at first glance appears to be not much more than computer code, utilizes the rules of mathematical logic along with the visual structure and visual elements of code to build a scaffold for describing both the tangible and the intangible experiences associated with wandering through a landscape. The artist uses the metaphor of “linguistic exoskeleton” to describe L-Expression, a language which “encapsulates self-defined segments of perception: angle, mood, shape, history, movement, sense of perception and what have you…” One obviously does not create descriptions with L-Expression for the purpose of plugging the code into a compiler and running the results – it seems the function of this language is to suggest the feasibility of applying the strictures of machine logic toward to the ends of capturing the ineffable and evanescent.

Another interesting aspect of OONS, in my view, is its mere presence on the web. As mentioned earlier, constructing one’s own language can be an intensely private undertaking, and it is rare to find a conlanger who, unlike auxlangers (e.g., creators of auxiliary languages), harbors a desire for a wide body of listeners or users. With the development of net lists such as CONLANG, for instance, conlangers are now able to share with a wider audience what was once generally kept to one’s self – Tolkien has referred to the “shame” associated with the practice of inventing languages, and some conlangers have even compared conlanging to being gay and closeted and admitting to others their conlanging practices to coming out. With OONS, there is not even the slightest hint of such shame or secrecy, no provoking the sense that one has stumbled upon a diary, say, and why would there be? The web has evolved to permit human beings sophisticated and extremely public methods of self-documentation, along with worldwide dissemination; as a result, certain parameters regarding privacy have been shunted aside by the use of technological artifacts such as webcams and blogs. Based on such notions involving privacy and secrecy, I would not hesitate to describe OONS as a vehicle that allows people to invest their private words (and the private worlds that accompany them) with public meaning.