Intended for healthcare professionals

Opinion

When I use a word . . . Artificial languages and medicine

BMJ 2024; 385 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.q916 (Published 19 April 2024) Cite this as: BMJ 2024;385:q916
  1. Jeffrey K Aronson
  1. Centre for Evidence Based Medicine, Nuffield Department of Primary Care Health Sciences, University of Oxford, Oxford, UK
  2. Follow Jeffrey on X (formerly Twitter): @JKAronson

No one knows how human language began, although there are many theories. However, we do know something about the linguistic roots of languages. English, for example, is one of a group of languages in the IndoEuropean group, all of which are thought to have arisen from a single language, proto-IndoEuropean. Semitic languages came from proto-Semitic, Slavonic languages from proto-Slavonic, and so on. Artificial languages, such as Esperanto, have mostly been based on existing natural languages, with some exceptions, such as Klingon. One artificial language, Interlingua, largely based on Latin, was for a time used to publish summaries of papers published in medical journals. It hasn’t lasted, however. After all, we already have an international scientific language. It’s called English.

Proto-languages

The definition of a [natural] language in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED)1 is “The system of spoken or written communication used by a particular country, people, community, etc., typically consisting of words used within a regular grammatical and syntactic structure.”

Nobody knows when people first started using language to communicate, nor even which people they were. There seem to be as many theories as there are theorists. Was it Homo sapiens? Or Homo heidelbergensis? Or perhaps Homo neanderthalensis? Pick your species.

More is known about how languages, or at least their vocabularies, developed from their earliest forms, so-called proto-languages, which have been derived by working backwards. For example, knowing the words for “language” in other languages, we can work out what the common ancestor of them probably looked like in the proto-language from which all those languages descended. Here are the words for “tongue”/“language” in 17 different European languages:

Group 1:

Catalan: llengua/llenguatge

French: langue/langue

Galician: lingua/lingua

Icelandic: tungu/tungumal

Irish: teanga/teanga

Italian: lingua/lingua

Portuguese: língua/linguagem

Romanian: limbă/limba

Group 2:

Danish: tunge/sprog

German: Zunge/Sprache

Luxemburgisch: Zong/Sprooch

Norwegian: tunge/Språk

Swedish: tunga/språk

Group 3:

Dutch: tong

Frisian: tonge

Scots Gaelic: teangaidh

Spanish: lengua

In all of them the word for “tongue” comes from the same proto-IndoEuropean root, DIN̥GHŪ, which meant a tongue. The archaic Latin word was dingua, which became lingua, perhaps under the influence of the verb lingere, to lick, which comes from a different root, LEIGH. So some of the tongue words come from lingua and some come from the original root, with consonantal shift, /d/ to /t/.

However, there are three different groups when we look at the words for “language.” In the first group the words come from the same root as the word for “tongue.” But in the second group the word for “language” comes from a different root altogether, SPREG, to speak. Hence the German word Sprache and the Danish word sprog. In the third group the word for “language” comes from a range of other roots.

Of course, proto-IndoEuropean isn’t the only proto-language. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) lists 28, from proto-Algonquian to proto-Slavonic, and commonalities can be detected in those too. For example, the word for a tongue in Hebrew is pronounced lashon and the word in Arabic is pronounced lisan. I say “pronounced” because I have transliterated them from the original scripts. In Maltese the word is ilsien.

And here are Slavonic words for “tongue,” mostly transliterated:

● Bosnian: jezik

● Bulgairan: ezik

● Croatian: jezik

● Macedonian: jazikot

● Polish: język

● Serbian: jezik

● Slovenian: jezik

● Russian: yazyk

It has even been proposed that there was a universal proto-language from which all languages eventually derived, proto-World.

Artificial languages

In contrast to natural languages, we know where artificial languages have come from. There are over 1000 of them and they have been created by single individuals, for a variety of reasons.

The earliest was invented by a 12th century German nun, Hildegard of Bingen. She called it Lingua Ignota; “ignota” means unknown, unfamiliar, or strange. We don’t know why she invented it.

In the 17th century, advances in science and philosophy led scholars to start thinking about how they could spread word of their discoveries internationally and to invent new languages by which to do so.2 In 1653, Thomas Urquhart, best known for having translated Rabelais, published Logopandecteision, An Introduction to the Universal Language, and in 1668 John Wilkins, one of the founders of the Royal Society, expounded his ideas in An Essay Towards a Real Character and Philosophical Language. Even Isaac Newton got in on the act, with his Universal Language of 1661.

The most famous artificial language, Esperanto, was invented by a young Polish-born Jew, Ludwik Zamenhof, who, after working on it for many years, published Lingvo Interacia in 1887. His intention was that a universal language would bring world peace.

Today artificial languages are largely invented to serve the entertainment industry, typically in science fiction.3 George Orwell’s Newspeak is a well known example.

J R R Tolkien, himself a scholar of Anglo-Saxon, explored many artificial languages, in greater or lesser depths, for his fictions. In fact, the stories, he said, grew out of the languages. The languages he mentions in his books are Avarin, Black Speech, Common Eldarin, Elvish, Doriathin, Goldogrin, Khuzdul, Kandorin, Quenya, Sindarin, Telerin, and Westron.

Klingon was invented by Marc Okrand for the television series and movies in the Star Trek sequence. Okrand had also previously created a few lines of Vulcan. Klingon was first heard in the 1979 movie, Star Trek: the Movie, but only as meaningless sounds. Proper Klingon first featured two movies later, in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984). The language is excessively guttural and harsh, reflecting the character of the Klingons. It became so popular that Okrand issued a Klingon Dictionary in 1985, describing its vocabulary, grammar, and syntax. There is also a Klingon Language Institute (https://www.kli.org).

An inordinate number of people, it is reported, have also signed up to learn High Valyrian, the language of the priests in Game of Thrones. They will soon be able to ask where to find dragons and to request trial by combat.

Artificial languages and science

In the early 20th century a new idea started to dominate ideas about language, the Sapir–Whorf or Whorfian hypothesis, also called the hypothesis of linguistic relativity.4 This is, as defined in the OED, “A hypothesis, first advanced by Sapir in 1929 and subsequently developed by Whorf, that the structure of a language partly determines a native speaker's categorization of experience.”5 In other words, how you speak determines what you think. In the 1960s the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis fell out of favour, after Noam Chomsky proposed that language is instinctive and innate. However, while it was popular, it stimulated the invention of artificial languages, in the hope that their widespread use would influence the way people thought, particularly by those whose preoccupation was the impossible outcome of world peace.

At that time the 17th century preoccupation with scientific communication had largely been forgotten, and in any case some felt that the invention of a scientific language might endow scientific ideas with a level of secrecy that would lead them to be excluded from ordinary discourse.6

In 1933 the Polish-born Count Alfred Habdank Skarbek Korzybski self-published Science and Sanity, an 800 page diatribe on general semantics, in which he tried to integrate his scientific philosophy with neurology and psychiatry. Martin Gardner memorably described it as “a poorly organized, verbose, philosophically naive, repetitious mish-mash of sound ideas borrowed from abler scientists and philosophers, mixed with neologisms, confused ideas, unconscious metaphysics, and highly dubious speculations about neurology and psychiatric therapy.”7

However, there is one artificial language that emerged as relevant to science—Interlingua. Interlingua is one of a group of so-called international auxiliary languages, invented to enhance international communication. They include Volapuk, Esperanto, Ido, and Novial.

Interlingua is based on Western European languages, particularly those that derive mostly from Latin, but it also includes loanwords from other languages. It was invented under the aegis of the International Auxiliary Language Association, which was established by Alice Vanderbilt Morris and her husband Dave Hennen Morris in 1924, and was supported by such major figures in linguistics as Otto Jespersen and Edward Sapir.

Whole journals have been written in Interlingua. The first was a monthly journal called Spectroscopia Molecular, which was published between May 1952 and 1981, and which dealt, you will have guessed, with molecular spectroscopy. It was followed by Scientia International, a science newsletter.2

The first issue of Spectroscopia Molecular, three pages long, contained a single article on Raman spectroscopy. The only indication of the purpose of the journal was a heading above the article: “SUMMARIOS PRELIMINARI DE PUBLICATIONES (acceptate per le editor, sed nondum publicate).” Even without a knowledge of Latin, which it most closely resembles, this needs no translation.

The journal grew slowly, and by 1957 it sported a front cover, on which it was described as “Un periodico mensual de novas e informationes de interesse e valor al spectroscopistas molecular.” The “istas” suffix implied individuals who practised a discipline. The February 1957 edition, Volume 6, Number 58, listed nine articles, and the verso gave a description of the journal, its aims, and other details. The last eight pages were devoted to advertisements for books, journals, and equipment, all written in English.

For several years, a range of medical journals also published “Summarios in Interlingua” at the ends of articles. They included such journals as the American Journal of the Medical Sciences, Blood, Circulation Research, Clinical Orthopaedics and Related Research, the Journal of Pediatric Surgery, and Pediatrics. JAMA sometimes featured a whole group of them, taken from other journals. Here's an example8:

Methodo Simple pro Reimplaciamento Plastic del Prepucio post Circumcision (Ritual Radical)—H. Feliz

Muench Med Wschr 104: 1406 (Aug.) 1962

Un methodo simple cosmeticamente e functionalmente satisfactori es describite pro le reimplaciamento del prepucio post circumcision radical. Le operation face un ponte de cute scrotal.

“The objective,” wrote one editor “[of publishing Interlingua summaries], is to make the essence of our contributions accessible to readers unfamiliar with the language in which they are presented.”9

A final thought

Although Esperanto and Klingon have large groups of worldwide followers, no artificial language has taken root, not even Interlingua. As far as scientific communication is concerned, we already have an international scientific language. It’s called English.

Footnotes

  • Competing interests: None declared.

  • Provenance and peer review: Not commissioned; not peer reviewed.

References