The Gregory School has a new class offering this year, one where mythology discussions are part of the curriculum, everything ties back to Tolkien somehow, and where the syllabus is written in Dwarven runes. The class is called “Fantasy Literature and Creative Writing,” and it’s a chance for students to exercise creativity and critical thinking on a whole new level.
For the first semester, our fantasy students have been building their own world from the ground up, covering topics like cosmology, geography, and now linguistics. Every student in the class is working on creating their own fantasy language, ranging from the relatively simple (a new runic alphabet in which to write English) to the mind-numbingly complex (an entire speakable language with a unique grammatical structure).
There’s actually a word for this endeavor: “conlanging.” A conlang is a functional invented language, and the people who build conlangs are called glossopoeists. This is a more in-depth process than merely creating nonsense sounds and assigning them to English words. A good glossopoeist thinks about issues like subject-verb order, culturally-specific idioms, grammatical rules and their exceptions, and linguistic evolution over time. It’s no surprise then that the people who build conlangs for television shows like “Star Trek” and “Game of Thrones” usually have advanced degrees in linguistics, the science of language structure.
For our conlangs, the fantasy class enlisted the help of Dr. Robert Henderson, a University of Arizona professor and expert on Mayan languages. For his talk, Robert turned the class into Mayan language detectives. He introduced basic verbs and then showed several variations, leaving the kids to sleuth out how the K’iche’ language adapted to changes in person and tense. We also had fun trying to pronounce new sounds that don’t exist in English. By the end, the students were tossing around phrases like “ergative absolute,” concepts not usually covered in middle-school grammar!
Dr. Henderson also introduced several fascinating linguistic resources, including an interactive map of all the world’s languages organized by grammatical rules. For example, did you know that 565 languages use a subject-object-verb order, while only 4 utilize an object-subject-verb order? Unsurprisingly, up for the challenge, half our students are now designing OSV languages.
We are very grateful to Dr. Robert Henderson for taking time out of his busy schedule (after finishing at TGS, he went right to U of A to teach a college-level Formal Semantics course!). The visit has inspired the Fantasy students to start putting together a list of invented words and even string together their first conlang sentences. And who knows, maybe in a few years, some of these students will continue to pursue linguistics on a higher level!
The Gregory School empowers students to shape the course of their own education. With unique electives, vast explorations offerings, and freedom from standardized testing, TGS students have the freedom to follow their own vision at their own school.Anna Cain