Everyone has significant events that shape their lives and lots of people have rather strange ones. This morning I was thinking of three weird events that contributed to my becoming a research scholar. They all happened over a four-year period, from ages 14-17. There were: getting bored with 9th grade Latin; getting hepatitis; and going to a fundamentalist Bible college.
First, the Latin. In grade school we all took Spanish. I wasn’t any good at it and I didn’t much like it. I had no particular interest in languages, at all. Then in 9th grade we had to take a language and the choices, as I recall, were Spanish, German, French, and Latin. I was the kind of kid who liked to do things differently from everyone else; most kids were heading to Spanish, but I knew I didn’t do well there. German and French – kind of the same thing, modern languages I wasn’t interested in. I thought, well, Latin’s a bit unusual: maybe I’ll do that.
I rather enjoyed it, but as it got harder, I got bored and frustrated. In large part that was from not working much at it. Once we got past manus manum lavit and vestis virum facit, I was pretty much uninterested and unmotivated.
But this was 1972 and some of you remember what American education was like back then. My school had a late 60s early 70s model of education, and, as a result, there was a program called Quest, where, if you chose, you could design your *own* course (forget about having someone who has any expertise tell you what you might want to learn about or need to know!). It was a kind of self-motivated independent study. It required you to strike out on your own, design a class, get a teacher to agree to direct your work, and then spend a semester doing it. It was supposed to be related to some other academic topic, usually one that you were getting out of in order to do it.
So to get out of doing Latin, I proposed a Quest. It was to invent an international space language. The rationale for the course (you had to have a rationale), was that with space exploration still in its heyday, it would not be long until we colonized the moon and possibly other planets, and it would be an international effort. We would need some kind of international language. Esperanto wasn’t going to work (I knew nothing about Esperanto, but I claimed it wasn’t going to work) and so we needed something designed for the purpose. That’s what I was going to do.
I knew NOTHING about linguistics, philology, or anything else of much relevance, just what I knew from speaking English at a solid 9th grade level, having some very slight sense of a Romance language (Spanish), and knowing a little bit about how an inflected language worked (Latin).
The one thing I had always found frustrating in those few semesters of language I had taken were all the irregularities. Of course when it came to English it was “common sense” that the plural of “ball” would be “balls” BUT the plural of “child” would be “children,” the plural of “mouse” would be “mice,” and the the plural of “trout” would be “trout.” What could be more obvious? Or that the past tense of “work” would be “worked” BUT the past tense of “be” would be “was” and of “swim” “swam” and of “cut” “cut.” But why such irregularities in *other* languages? We should get rid of those!
And so I wanted to design a language with no irregularities.
And since it was international, it should use word roots widely recognized throughout the world. My world, at the time, of course, was the Western World.
And so I proposed my one-semester Quest to be to design the language Relunar Relingua. The Moon Language.
It would be governed by word order, like English (not that disrespect for order you get in some other languages, like Latin!). It would not be inflected. There would be no irregularities. It would have easy to recognize parts of speech. And it would contain words with Indo-European roots.
And so, among the highlights (!)
- Every noun was to begin with “Re.” Why RE? I have no idea. But it certainly made nouns recognizable, even though, I came to realize, sentences were, as a result, somewhat less than esthetically pleasing.
- There were similar markers, perfectly consistent with no exceptions, for every ambiguous part of speech (is this an adjective or an adverb?)
- Every verb had a consistent pattern of past, present, and future (etc.)
I asked my Latin teacher to direct the project, since, well, she was good with languages. She pretty much left me to my own devices, and we consulted periodically for her to give some guidance.
I constructed the grammar. And then I made a dictionary. (This sounds sophisticated, but trust me, it was very much on the 9th grade level, by someone who had no knowledge of linguistics). For the dictionary: I went through European-language dictionaries (French, German, Spanish, and Italian, along with English of course) for all the words in the dictionary, and went with the most common root – that is, the one found in most of the languages.
There was only one thing that my teacher refused to let me do. Looking back, this is kind of funny. She pointed out that every language has irregular verbs – especially for the most common ones (“to be,” “to do,” etc.) She flat out insisted I have irregular verbs. So I had to create them! The reason that’s funny is because – as I intuited at the time and later came to realize more fully (maybe she missed that bit in college?) — the reason these verbs are consistently irregular is precisely because they get used so much. So many people using the same word will lead to slight differences in pronunciation which leads to variant forms. But this was a language no one had spoken yet!
Anyway, Relunar Relingua changed my life. In one sense, it would have been much, much better for me to have gotten good at Latin (I regret that to this day; now, as a 65-year-old I *still* have to work on my Latin and almost every day and wish it were better) (though actually working on it is terrifically satisfying). In another sense, that little project started me thinking about how language actually works. The process of thinking about language came to be incredibly handy when I first started taking a language seriously, in college when I took Greek. I doubt I could have become good at it if I hadn’t already had the wiring to understand a language. The wiring started with this crazy Quest. Without it, I would not have become intrigued by Greek, and would probably not have become a research scholar. Go figure.
In case anyone asks: unfortunately, I don’t remember much more about Relunar Relingua. Also I don’t have the grammar or dictionary any more. Really wish I did. Think the got thrown out years ago when my parents moved house. To bad: it would be a good laugh.
I’ll talk about hepatitis and my fundamentalist college later. But here I’ll just point out that they too are not typically along the path to an academic career.