12 February 2007

Zlango! - Mind Your Language

I have mixed feelings about constructed languages. On the one hand, efforts like Esperanto seem utterly pointless to me: given that there several thousand real languages out there, some of which are quite widely spoken, why bother learning one that is made-up? On the other hand, efforts like Lojban are certainly interesting from an intellectual point of view.

My initial reaction to Zlango veered between these two extremes.

Zlango has created a new, inspiring icon based language which transforms web and mobile messaging into an expressive, juicy, colorful icon-based experience.

Zlango is a revolutionary, simple and practical language. It’s made up of over 200 icons divided into intuitive and memorable categories. Words, concepts or feelings can be expressed by the different icons.

Users love Zlango. They find Zlango easy to learn and master, and find that learning the language is unbelievably fast and amusing. They also say that using Zlango always generates a good and playful mood.

At first sight, this sounds pretty trivial. But the results are interesting. They show how very simple means can be adopted to communicate, albeit with an Indo-European bias, both in terms of structure and as far as the signs are concerned.

Of course, many will see this as further evidence of a "dumbing down" of language, brought about technology. But potentially Zlango could evolve in all sorts of interesting ways, particularly if its users are allowed to innovate and determine how new symbols should be added. In other words, Zlango needs to embrace standard Web 2.0 practices if it is to move beyond its relatively lowly beginnings. (Via TechCrunch.)


Matt Arnold said...

Mixed feelings make a lot of sense given that there is such a wide variety of reasons to get involved with artificial languages. Compare the goals of Esperanto, a replacement language, with Lojban, a mindbending hobby.

One doesn't learn Lojban with the intent of expanding the number of people one can speak to, like one would with Esperanto. That's an assumption taken from the mundane world of the average population, who consider learning their own first language a tiresome necessity, to say nothing of a second one! Many of them would wish to dispense with the bare minimum language learning required to communicate the practicalities of life in their immediate environment. By emphasizing inter-cultural communication in its global mission, Esperanto gives its adherents a respectable excuse to tell their family and friends who would rather avoid language learning altogether and can't imagine why anyone would enjoy language.

I give that excuse my blessing, but I personally take seriously the phrase "let your geek flag fly". I fly it with pride and don't need a practical excuse for it. Lojban turns that flag into far more than a metaphor. It's our own secret geek code.

There's no opportunity to use Lojban other than on the internet; for a constructed language with a usably-large vocabulary and signifigant number of speakers, that gives it a unique place on the impracticality spectrum of languages. Lojban is a hobby, and like most hobbies from model ships to stamp collecting (do those confer "advantages"?), it's a way to practice certain enjoyable skills and explore a mystique. Lojban is a fun and fascinating game with which to learn about semantics and expand the mind. The mystique is in learning first-hand that the familiar things we grow up with and take for granted are really not the only way. Those who study Chinese, Hopi Indian, Farsi, Russian or Hindi might tell you that breaking out of their provincialistic mold and trying to look at the world from another side of the planet was an exhilarating experience. Lojban gives you all of these languages' features that are the most expressively flexible, and most unfamiliar, simultaneously. To a curious and exploratory individual, Lojban offers a veritable buffet menu of exotic expression tools. For such purposes, the challenge is a feature, not a bug.

So, which one has more bang for the buck? That depends what bang you're looking for. To get a "tiresome" process over with quick and speak to more people, choose Esperanto. To get a language with the meat of fascination hanging on its bones, more powerfully alien than Klingon could ever hope to be, for a direct injection of neuropetrol, choose Lojban.

-Matt Arnold, aka "Eppcott"
Logical Language Group Director
Penguicon Head of Programming

Glyn Moody said...

Thanks for that fascinating perspective on Lojban.

I love the phrase "a direct injection of neuropetrol": that sums up pretty well the buzz I get from learning languages - though I prefer to stick with the non-artificial kind.