Language in Utopias

“Our challenge is to create a new language, even a new sense of what it is to be human. It is to transcend not only national limitations, but even our species isolation, to enter into the larger community of living species. This brings about a completely new sense of reality and value.” – Thomas Berry

In last week’s post, we looked at how languages may adapt – or struggle to adapt – when ideas do not have the words to accompany them. This reminded us of how often we fail to look beyond our own languages, existing or forgotten, to find words that better describe our human condition. 

But of course, languages are not static. They evolve, often differently, and borrow from each other. The German language, for example, is known for its compound words that give meaning to abstract ideas or feelings, or give nuance to concepts by combining words together. Some of the most well known words have been adopted into other languages, for instance:

  • Zeitgeist: spirit or mood of a particular time in history;
  • Wanderlust: longing to travel or wander;
  • Schadenfreude: joy in other people’s misfortune;
  • Weltschmerz: (apt for Covid times) the sensation of melancholy and world-weariness.

The English language, on the other hand, adds thousands of new words to the English Oxford dictionary every year. Seven hundred new words were added in June 2021, including:

  • Amirite, as in ‘Am I right?’: used to invite agreement or to assert that one’s previous statement is correct;
  • Biasedness: the fact or quality of being biased;
  • Chit: a state of absolute awareness or pure consciousness;
  • Counterprotest: a protest made in response to another;
  • Deadname: the former name of a person (esp. a transgender person) who has chosen a new name.

When our existing languages restrict us, for various reasons, we invent them from scratch, as is often found in works of fiction, especially science-fiction. Utopian or dystopian writers will often invent new words, like George Orwell’s controlocracy in 1984, or entire languages, like with Thomas More’s Utopia, which was accompanied by its very own invented alphabet, and poetry. The point is often to help our thinking move beyond what we understand today. But beyond fiction, there is also a social element to invented languages. In fact, throughout history, there have been hundreds of invented languages, serving different purposes.

Linguist and science-fiction author Suzette Haden Elgin invented the feminist language Láadan in 1981. It was a way to enable women to express their thoughts and experiences of a patriarchal world, in a language not made by men. She was part of a grassroots linguistic movement in the 1980s that analysed sexism within what language contains, and what it doesn’t. The term ‘sexual harassment,’ for example, came out of this movement. Only once a term was created could women actually begin to fight against it. Other examples include words relating to bodily experiences that are specific to women, such as menstruation or menopause. 

Another invented language is Esperanto, which was first conceived by Polish Physician Ludwik Lejzer Zmenhof in the late 1800s. His intention was to create a more tolerant world, with the hope that having a neutral language would bring people together by transcending nationalism. The idea was not to replace other languages but for people to be able to quickly learn Esperanto as an additional language. Since there would be no native speakers, nobody would be at an advantage (although it is of course mostly formed from Latin and European languages). He later relinquished control over the language, wanting it to evolve over time, while remaining simple for people to learn. While the subsequent two world wars almost extinguished it entirely, people do continue to learn it and there are an estimated 1,000 or so native speakers, including billionaire philanthropist George Soros. 

Faced with ecological collapse, there are growing calls for a new shared language to reckon with the times we are living in. Enter The Ecotopian Lexicon, compiled by Matthew Schneider-Mayerson and Brent Ryan Bellamy, a “kind of science fiction story in the form of a lexicon,” writes Kim Stanley Robinson in the introduction. It is a collection of words, some invented, some borrowed from other languages, with the aim of better describing this watershed moment in the history of our planet. The hope is to “create a collective culture that is more articulate and wiser than we are today,” Robinson writes, by curating an ideal ecological language that would create a true culture of sustainability. 

Let’s end on a few examples:

  • Sehnsucht: from German: the feeling you have when you realise a familiar or conventional way of solving a problem or performing a task is now obsolete;
  • Ghurba: from Arabic, remembering the song of birds that are no longer there due to climate change that made it inhospitable;
  • Qi: from Chinese, sustained harmony and balance as the flow of qi at the anthropic level continues to align with the flow of qi at the ecological level (qi is often simply translated as energy in Western language);
  • Apocalypso: although the situation may look really bad, don’t give up because while some things are coming to an end, others are being born.

Words, Veronica Yates and illustration, Miriam Sugranyes

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