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Creative students invent a language and society in honors course

BOONE—Creating a language and related society as part of a junior level honors seminar at Appalachian State University taught students about grammar, language structures, global communities and, in the process, more about each other.

View larger imageManagement and entrepreneurship major Niko Gibson created this artistic rendering of the tree community “rulwatf” for an honors seminar on inventing languages at Appalachian State University. (Image courtesy of Niko Gibson)View larger imageRyan Hellenbrand reads the history of the tree community rulwatf and its elders, which he wrote in a language created by students in an honors seminar. Students in the inventing languages class learned about grammar, language structures and global communities. (Photo by Jane Nicholson)View larger imageCommunication and public relations major Olivia Easly, left, and psychology major Brian Froeb wrote and performed a “song of the elders” in the invented language of surarnatat. (Photo by Jane Nicholson)View larger imageJake Chesney, a history major and honors student, reads stories from Aesop’s Fables that he translated into a junior honors class’ invented language called surarnatat. The end-of-the semester presentation followed a festival format that included poetry, song, stories and a history of the class’ invented language and community. (Photo by Jane Nicholson)View larger imageJessica Rinker wrote and illustrated a children’s book based on the invented language surarnatat, which means “the traveling people talk.” She said the honors seminar on inventing languages allowed her to combine her interests in English, children’s literature and art. (Photos by Jane Nicholson)

The course, “Inventing Language(s),” was one of seven seminars offered this fall to juniors in The Honors College.

The course’s focus on constructed languages explored what language is and what it takes to create a new language. “One goal of the class was to help students understand enough about the structure of language that they could not only talk about it but create a new language,” according to Associate Professor Donna Lillian, a linguist in the Department of English.

“It was a creative enterprise but also a way of getting students to interact with linguistics who otherwise probably wouldn’t have enrolled in a linguistics class.”

Constructed languages have been used to facilitate global communication and service as a literary devise. They are used by scholars and hobbyists who study linguistics and languages.

One well-known constructed language is Esperanto, developed in 1887 to serve as a common international language.

Authors also use them. J.R.R. Tolkien constructed several languages for the fictional Middle Earth in his novels “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings.” Actor James Doohan devised the Klingon sound and basic words heard in “Star Trek: The Motion Picture.” An American linguist was later commissioned to develop a full-fledged language for use in sequels to the movie.

Lillian’s class invented the language surarnatat, which means “the traveling people talk.”

Junior global studies and sustainable development major Ryan Hellenbrand from Boone said the class was a natural extension of his study abroad at the University of Bamberg spring semester where he studied German and language history.

“I have always been really interested in stories and language as a main mode of communication,” he said. “Being able to choose words and give them a definition was an interesting way to play with words that I haven’t been able to use before.”

The class was comprised of 17 students, each with a different major. That academic diversity contributed to the success of the course, Lillian said. “We had students from political science, history, psychology and criminal justice for example who all brought different perspectives to the class. I think that’s why we could do some of the things we did.”

The students not only created a language, they also developed a history of the society that spoke the language and its culture, location, legends and music and created a tree community called “rulwatf.”

The students’ personal ideals were reflected in their work. For instance, one student wanted a culture and language in which it would be impossible to say anything negative. Through negotiation, the students developed a language in which positive comments were easier to express than negative comments, Lillian explained.

Students’ interest in sustainability also was part of their invented community, which was designed to be self-sufficient in terms of energy and food production.

Elementary education major Jessica Rinker’s love of languages drew her to the class. The junior from Moorseville studied French in high school, knows some Spanish and learned some Italian while traveling abroad. “This one from the beginning caught my eye. When I saw a class where we would get to invent a language, I was really interested,” she said.

She agreed that the diverse range of majors in the class added to her experience. “From everyone’s different (academic) major viewpoints, we were able to collect enough information and words we would need and different viewpoints on how we could create our imaginary society.”

She also said creating a language gave her a better grasp of grammar that will in turn aid her when she one day teaches English to her own students.

For her class project, Rinker translated the Johnny Appleseed story into surarnatat and illustrated it for a children’s book. Hellenbrand wrote the history of the fictional community. Others wrote and performed songs in the invented language, created an artistic rendering of a town, and translated Aesop’s fables into their new language.

The students hope to create a university club based on the class and continue meeting and expanding the language and developing their “community.”

Professor Alexandra Sterling-Hellenbrand, director of the university’s global studies program, said, “Talk about global learning. For students to realize firsthand that culture and history and music and art and architecture and people are connected through language, and that to make a language means to make a people, is a very profound and transformative endeavor.”