How the successful adaption of lexicon from fictional media genres has led to a Eucatastrophe of linguistic evolution in world languages.
*This is the first installment of a series focusing on language we use that has etymological origins from fictional cultures and genres
In 2003, scientists made an incredible discovery in Southeast Asia. Small fossils of an extinct miniature branch of humanity previously unknown to the world were discovered on the Indonesian island of Flores and the specimen was given the name “homo floresiensis”. However, because of their size, this new human species became known as the “hobbits”, a word that has its origins in Tolkien’s Middle Earth.
In 2017, fourteen years after the discovery of the “hobbits”, astronomers announced that they found the first interstellar asteroid traveling through the Solar System, officially titled 1I/2017 U1 (‘Oumuamua). The word “‘Oumuamua” derives from the Hawaiian word for “traveler from afar”, and the members of these types of celestial objects were categorized into a term called “sola lapis”, which is Latin for “lonely rock”. But interestingly, the scientists who discovered the asteroid also chose to use the term “mob nagh” to help illustrate the uniqueness of this object. But what was even more unique was that they derived the term from the fictional language of Klingon from the TV series Star Trek to help describe it a little more thoroughly.
So, what do these two seemingly unrelated scientific discoveries have in common? Surprisingly, the etymological origins for the descriptive names associated with the discoveries, “hobbit” and “mob nagh”, have no connection to our world, or even our reality for that matter! The term “hobbit” was coined in 1937 by JRR Tolkien for a small humanoid being in Lord of the Rings, and became an actual term added to the English dictionary in 1986. It was an original word, but like much of his invented vocabulary, it was influenced by older European languages.
In 2005, the definition expanded to include the discovery of the archaic human discovered in Indonesia.
The term “mob nagh” was created directly from Marc Okrand’s 1985 book “The Klingon Dictionary”, and has the same meaning as “sola lapis”, or a “lonely rock”. The astronomers who discovered the object used a term from the fictional Klingon language of the Star Trek universe to help define it more comparatively to other heavenly bodies using a language that is surprisingly helpful in describing the environments of outer space. Given that the Klingon Empire is an alien civilization in the Star Trek universe, its invented lexicon was from scratch, but still continues to evolve today with new shows and movies in the Star Trek genre, as well with Klingon language enthusiasts.
This raises a fascinating question: how much of the lexicon that we use in everyday language has its origins from fictional genres and cultures as their base linguistic source rather than other natural languages that we use in the real world? The English language is no stranger to having foreign vocabulary influence its structural form and general linguistic evolution. In fact, the English language started out in the Germanic language family, but was radically transformed by an influx of foreign languages which helped to develop it into what is spoken today by a very large portion of the world. Viking invasions in the Middle Ages helped introduce Scandinavian terms into Old English (Anglo-Saxon), and the Norman conquests into Britain a few centuries later introduced French and Latin into English. As British civilization developed, it began adopting terms from further geographic locations, such as scientific terms from Arabic and brand new words from the indigenous languages of colonized lands of the world. In addition, early fictional works from writers such as Chaucer and Shakespeare greatly influenced the development of the modern version of English we speak today.
But within the past century, the explosion of the Information Age has created new terminology and lingo that originate not only from literature, but also movies, comic books, radio, television, video games, recently social media platforms, and the entire Internet in general. But while languages that are spoken today, such as French or Chinese, as well some historical language like Latin or Ancient Greek have helped English evolve into its current standard form, are there any artificial or fictional languages which have had similar linguistic influence with English in the same way? In addition, are there any other natural languages that have had the exact same developmental influence from fictional and artificial languages on their own native tongues, respectively?
Surprisingly, the answer to those questions is a resounding “yes”! There are several languages in the world (including English) that have actually adapted some of their lexicon and neologisms from artificial and fictional sources, we actually use much of this terminology in everyday life and often don’t even realize it! Let’s investigate several examples of this!
EARLY CONSTRUCTED LANGUAGES AND LINGUISTIC RELATIVITY
In the 1950s, linguist Edward Sapir and his one of students developed the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, which proposes that the way people think and view the world around them, both socially and physically, are strongly influenced by the specifics of their own language. According to this hypothesis, it is sometimes very difficult to translate some words between languages because a person’s native language is what constructs the way they think.
To test this theory, which has a “strong” and “weak” version, the two linguists developed a language called Loglan from a mixture of various real world languages from Europe, Asia, and Africa. This language eventually evolved into another artificial language called Lojban. Lojban has become an international language with communities in several areas different areas worldwide being united by this common tongue.
But an even more famous example of an international constructed language becoming an actual spoken tongue is, of course, Esperanto. Esperanto, an artificial language developed in the late 19th-century by the Polish-Jewish ophthalmologist L.L. Zamenhof, has become the most successful artificial language in history. It is used as an international standard language of Earth and has created a global community that dwarfs the amount of Lojban speakers. Those who learn this language are called Esperantists, and it is the language itself that unites this community found in literally every part of the globe. It is the most successful artificial language in history, and is the only one to have achieved status as a real world language. There have even been a few children raised to speak it as their native tongue.
Its popularity in the late 19th-century and early 20th-centuries culminated in the creation of several cultural advancements. Many books, movies, art and worldwide intercultural organizations (such as Pasporta Servo) have emerged over the years from this artificial language that was originally constructed to be the singular lingua franca of Earth. Actually, in the early 20th-century, an Esperanto-speaking country was almost founded in area that is now a part of Belgium. This country, which would have been called Amekijo (“place of friendship”), would have been an Esperanto speaking micronation sandwiched in between The Netherlands and Belgium. It would have been founded in a small stateless area that was formerly called the Neutral Moressnet, with its capital to be the city of Kelmis, which now a part of Belgium. In 1906, the first Esperanto lessons began in Shanghai, China. A year later in 1907, a group of Chinese anarchists even called for Esperanto to come into use as a general language in the country, though their proposal was largely dismissed.
In the 21st-century, Esperanto has developed some unique real world traits. There are several geographic features named after either the language itself or its creator, L.L. Zamenhof, including Esperanto Island in part of the South Shetland Islands near Antarctica, as well as the asteroids 1421 (Esperanto) and 1462 (Zamenhof) in outer space. These areas are officially classified as Zamenhof-Esperanto Objects (ZEOs). ZEOs are any area, landmark, or sign, that is representative of the language or things related to its history. The ZEOs themselves might actually be what has had the widest impact that Esperanto has had on the world.
Other examples of successful real world conlang’s include the musical language Solresol, which is used as a part of written music and is where we get the phrase “Do, Re, Mi, Fa, Sol, La, Si” from. This musical pattern was made even more famous by the movie “The Sound of Music” from the early 1960s. Solresol itself was based on a similar musical language made by Guido de Arezzo, and Italian music theorist from the Middle Ages. Other examples include Volapük, an early competitor of Esperanto, and Interligua, an Italic-based international auxiliary language.
But within the past century, it was the explosion of the Information Age that has led to the creation of the widest usages of terminology and lingo originating not artificially constructed international auxiliary languages, but fictional languages created for movies, comic books, radio, television, video games, that have had the most cultural and linguistic impact for the average person. More recently, the use of the Internet and social media platforms in our daily lifestyle has contributed to language evolution in a similar way. But what are some of these genres and fictional cultures that people have embraced into our colloquial reality, and which of these examples has had more impact than others?
Let’s find out!