Friday, July 25, 2008
Friday, June 27, 2008
Inventing own language, Don Boozer opened up another world
Don Boozer sits at a table on the second floor of the Cleveland Public Library, recalling how he liked to track the Anglo-Saxon roots of words when he was in junior high.
He grins, then shakes his blond head and says almost sheepishly, "I was a weird kid."
Boozer, 43, is the library's coordinator for a statewide online reference service called KnowItNow.org. That's his vocation. His passion is conlang, the study and development of constructed languages.
In the corridor just outside the literature department, he has filled eight display cases with material celebrating conlang. "Esperanto and Klingon and Quenya . . . Oh My!" is on view through August, acquainting viewers with the history of languages invented by a person or small group.
Some constructed languages are created as art, as with the Elvish that is integral to J.R.R. Tolkien's fantasy novels "The Hobbit" and "The Lord of the Rings."
Some arise from an interest in establishing an international tongue, as with the 19th-century development of Esperanto - which now counts billionaire financier and activist George Soros among its speakers.
And some conlangs arise as a testing ground for problems of logic or philosophy. Laadan, for instance, was created in 1982 by science-fiction writer Suzette Haden Elgin as an experiment in feminism.
The library exhibit relays facts about Klingon, the alien language woven into the "Star Trek" stories. One case is dedicated to Tolkien, "the Shakespeare of conlang." The international conlang flag hangs from a beam.
This plethora of information represents just a bit of Boozer's knowledge of the history and practice. Those raw, weird-kid tendencies cured into something like art. The genial librarian and father of two now possesses a type of microgenius with which he can transport himself and impress other people.
Some of them, anyway. Ask Boozer how much time he spends on language study, and he answers, "Not as much as I would like and more than my wife thinks I should. She doesn't get it."
To what end does a man fluent only in English study languages used by so few people? For that matter, why would he bother creating one of his own?
Boozer could tell you, but he might be inclined to explain it in Elasin, one of three conlangs of his own creation.
In a way, it started in New Bethlehem, Pa., where as a young boy Boozer laid eyes on a lesser-known Dr. Seuss title, "On Beyond Zebra." The book introduces newly invented letters of the alphabet that correspond with typically Seussian creatures.
He was captivated by the back of the book, where the letters were reprinted as if in a glossary. "I remember vividly sitting down with a piece of tracing paper and tracing those letters," he says.
Later came flirtations with an Old English dictionary, and then the first influential encounter with Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings." Boozer liked the stories of elves, dwarves and Hobbits, but he absolutely devoured the notes about the languages. To this day, he admits to being frustrated by the lack of information on Tolkien's Dwarvish tongues.
In any case, those fictional encounters established the watershed. "Tolkien really jump-started the idea that you could make your own language," Boozer says.
In high school, he began imagining his own alphabet and phonetics, and, as he says, "figuring out where all the stops and fricatives were." (These are technical terms for components of speech.) He wrote linguistic notes in the margins of his notebooks.
Later, as a fine arts student at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, he incorporated his language and a corresponding world into an illustrated book for a class project.
Thus was born Kryslan, a world he invented and dabbled with for a while until he got on with establishing a career and a family. Occupied with those concerns, Boozer didn't think much about the language play again until a few years ago, when he pulled his old notebooks out of a closet and remembered how cool it all seemed.He also has started a Kryslan wiki - an online site that allows users and visitors to help develop content. (You can check it out at http://kryslan.pbwiki.com.)
So far, the world of Kryslan has three distinct (though incomplete) languages, the strangest of which Boozer calls Dritok.
Dritok developed from an idea about certain mystic creatures of Krysland. His thought process went something like this, he says: Let's say they don't have vocal cords. What would they sound like? Well, they'd probably sound like chipmunks.
Dritok emerged as a language with odd sounds and hand gestures but no vowels. Point out the fact that there are vowels in the very name of the language, and Boozer explains that "Dritok" is "the way neighboring cultures would say it."
When he then says "Dritok" in Dritok, the sounds - a quick trill followed by vocal knocking - go by so fast, it takes a minute to understand that something has been said.
From outside the conlang world, it can be difficult to discern the point to it all. Poets might wish for a published collection. Distance runners frame their goals in terms of finishing longer races or bettering their times.
In a vague way, Boozer sees the expansion of the online world of Kryslan as a worthy goal, but truthfully, there is no finish line for the conlanger. Like other sorts of art, inventing a language - and, in Boozer's case, the culture to support it - is an ever-evolving enterprise shared and appreciated most by those who also toil in the trenches.
"The pleasure comes in the creative act of bringing a language to a point where it can be presented as a language and not just a collection of notes," Boozer says.
Or, as he might say in Dritok:
h:qs:.p". D5Q5=Q1=D3Q3 Q1=ql.px:n.k". D5Q5=tr'.z"w. Q1=D2&=zn.tx:.hr:. B5=tr'.z"w. Q5-Q5=o.s'. o.hs.p't. D5Q5=s'.s'.t".k'.
- Karen Sandstrom