Some Reflections on the Psychology
of Language Inventing


Stanley A. Mulaik

That since 1900 over 2000 known and published auxiliary languages have appeared—not to mention those that never had the financial support to bring them to publication—raises the question, “Where do the authors of these systems get their motivation to spend time and money on their languages’ creation and propagation?”

Stuchlík, (l) a psychiatrist in Prague, has suggested that linguistic ‘neoformations’ are evasions of everyday reality by those who make them. The invention of a language, as he sees it, offers the inventor the satisfaction of “playing a game,” so to speak, much as filling out crossword puzzles might offer satisfaction to the train commuter. Or, in addition to this satisfaction, it may tend to serve some grandiose, paranoid delusion in demonstrating the inventor’s superior intelligence to the world or his special importance as the savior of mankind who comes with the language “which will make all men brothers and lay down their arms against one another.” Without doubt this seems to be the general motivation of language inventing, but the question remains, “What particular aspect of language inventing per se draws some people to it and not to some other activities which provide escape from reality?”

Though by no means intended to be even a partially definitive answer to this question, it seems to me that a psychological explanation for this motivation behind language inventing would be found in the origin and nature of the importance attached to language by the language inventor. To discover this, of course, would require empirical studies of the personality of a language inventor, either by a psychiatrist or a clinical psychologist, but except for some cases along this line reported by Stuchlík, I know offhand of nothing else that has been reported. However, sufficient material has been built up in the theories of psychologists and psychoanalysts over the years to provide us some basis for a speculative answer to this question.

Most theories of personality provide some kind of explanation as to the origin and function of symbolic activity and subsequently of language. All appear to be agreed on the idea that originally the infant does not have symbolic behavior as a part of his make-up. For Freud this corresponds to the initial period of no ego in the infant. For Harry Stack Sullivan this corresponds to the period where there is no “before,” “now,” or “after” to experience, wherein experiences are not connected to one another, but are experienced immediately but with very little differentiation or organization.

But as the infant grows older, through interacting with important persons around him—his mother, nurse, or other family members—and through his contact with routine objects in his environment, certain experiences come to have a repetitive consistency for him, and these stand out and come to be recalled. The act of recall of a pleasant experience, which, crudely speaking, brings to mind the symbol or memory of the previous pleasant experience, may in itself give pleasure, and thus serve as a substitute for real gratification of desires through reverie and day dreaming. At this time, however, the organization of symbolic processes is still very primitive and hardly proceeds in directions typical of adult consciousness. This, period in terms of Freud is the period of “primary process thinking” or in terms of Sullivan, the “prototaxic stage”.

It is quite important to emphasize, especially in terms of Sullivan’s theories, that the organization developed in symbolic processes arises to a great extent out of the somewhat hazardous, trial-and-error interactions between the infant and its environment, especially the family or nurse. And since most children are exposed early to language behavior, from an early period the sounds of others and their own sounds will take on importance and be given some sort of symbolic significance, however primitive. Thus sounds and words, as well as other kinds of symbols will tend to be recalled in association with certain experiences, and because of the nature of primitive thinking, may very often be confused with these experiences. Thus Piaget, the French psychologist, noted that very young children do not distinguish the name of a thing from the thing itself.

Now, naturally, the experiences that a child has had are quite unique to him, and if later on he begins to learn how to use language he uses certain words, these words will have in part private meanings for him. Yet too, the words that he uses will also mirror to some extent the “consensual reality” that is shared between himself and others; in other words all involved in the language will have some sort of agreement about communicating to one another as to the make-up of the world to which the language refers.

In many families language learning by the child is an important enterprise, and in some respects it can also be part of a campaign between the child’s own self-centered inclinations and the family’s aims for him. Thus language learning can become of crucial importance to the child, if, because of the family’s fears to recognize and verbalize certain feelings and observations, the child then ends up with a lot of private meanings attached to his words without a shared, consensual vocabulary having been built with others to communicate them. In some respects, and I think this may be true of language inventors when they were children, the language system developed between the child and the parents is then a system arbitrarily imposed on the child, which gives the child little opportunity to express some important feelings or perceptions that he has and get feedback of a satisfying kind from the important others in his life. And in later adult life his lack of an adequate language system to communicate his private meanings will leave him at a handicap in his relations with other people, for he will often misunderstand others or be misunderstood. Merely having a large vocabulary is not enough; knowing how to relate the vocabulary to his own feelings and perceptions and to use it without fear in expressing himself to others is a part of language learning in childhood, as described above. For example, because of the primitive confusion of word and thing, which lasts with us all to some degree even in adulthood in some areas of our personality, language inventing will carry with it the fascination of playing God: for by inventing our own words, or by arranging certain kinds of syntaxical hierarchies, we have the magical experience of getting closer to “reality” and of even participating in creation itself. This I feel may be an especially applicable hypothesis to be applied to the language enterprises of such persons as Leibnitz, who attempted to create a language which would go to the heart of things and enable men to transcend the limitations of ethnic languages and enter the realm of pure thought to divine the secrets of the Universe and to think thoughts never thought before, and thereby gain new knowledge.

Language inventing may also represent an attempt to overcome the arbitrariness of a language system imposed upon the language inventor during his childhood. By inventing his own language he can impart his own meanings to the words he invents, which he cannot express in his “public language”, or more significantly his “mother tongue”. It will then provide him an opportunity to play, on an unconscious level at least, a reversal of roles between child and parent, wherein other persons will be seen as the arbitrary parents who are put in the role of the child, and the language inventor, using his language will give them a taste of their own medicine, by teaching them instead. It then is no wonder to see the acrimonious debates which go on between language inventors who struggle to gain ascendency in the competition for the role to play the teaching parent by proving the authority or superiority of their own language system. As far as they are concerned it is finally their turn to tell someone what words will mean and not mean, or what kinds of words will be used and not used, and no one is going to make them subordinate themselves as they had to in childhood.

Finally the motivation to break down barriers to communication on via a universal or even an international language will tend to attract people who may have felt considerable dissatisfaction as children by being misunderstood, of not being able to express openly their feelings, or of not understanding others. Thus this may be the source of such unreasonable notions that a universal language will heal the world’s ills and advance happiness for all, for they place undue importance upon the barrier of language as a result of their personal experiences of being misunderstood.

In summary, the motives for language inventing seem to arise out of distorted experiences in language learning during childhood. Inventing a language serves a function for people with such experiences of either getting closer to the “true reality of things” (because they confuse symbols and words with the things that really give satisfaction) or it enables them to act out a childhood power struggle with those who taught them language on acquaintances in adulthood, by forcing language on to others. In others it may serve more socialized motives of wishing merely to enhance communication, though they may still place an undue emphasis upon the role of language in life. The extent to which language inventing activities will be symptoms of overt emotional pathology, it seems to me, will be determined by the degree to which one takes these activities seriously and places too much importance on them for personal happiness.

(1) Stuchlík, J. “Essay on the Psychology of the Invention of Artificial Languages", International Language Review, V, No. l5, April-June 1959, p. 3.

SOURCE: Mulaik, Stanley A. “Some Reflections on the Psychology of Language Inventing,” International Language Review, Vol. VIII, January-March 1962, no. 26, pp. [27-29].

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