Can a Language Be Owned?

I’ve said that the problems of IALs [International Auxiliary Languages], even IALs that are put together in ways that make them relatively easy to learn and use, have often been social rather than linguistic, and I’ve mentioned some of those problems above. IALs have tended to reflect the cultures of those who construct or choose them — as the evidence for the strong link between language and culture would predict — and therefore to bring along with them all the political problems associated with those cultures. Because IALs are a hobby limited to people with unusual interests, as compared to people interested in postage stamps or baseball or gardening, they’ve frequently been constructed with little regard for how difficult they might be to learn and use. (In science fiction conlangs, for example, the emphasis tends to be more on how fancy the language is than on its usefulness for the ordinary person.) But the most counterproductive problem in terms of making a language successful in the real world is the problem of turf wars, which have been the downfall of IAL after IAL, and which need to be discussed separately because of their potential effects.

The turf war question is simply this: Can a language be owned? Nobody—no individual or group or corporation or government—owns English or Chinese or Farsi; the very idea is ridiculous. But what if someone sits down and creates a language (or a modified version of an existing language) in the same way that a person would write a novel or compose a symphony? Then what? Does that language belong to that individual?

The lengths that would-be Esperanto reformers went to in their attempts to get Zamenhof to endorse their proposals boggle even the broadest mind. Without question, the coups and countercoups and Machiavellian intrigues of (and against) Esperantists, and their endless public wrangles over who controlled the language, caused the downfall of the movement as a whole. It all became so absurd that no rational adult wanted anything to do with it.

An organization for promotion of English internationally — the British Council — bought and still holds the rights to Basic English, which is the major example of a modified existing language proposed as an IAL. A company called the Science News Service bought the rights to Interlingua, a language constructed by the International Auxiliary Language Association under the direction of linguists André Martinet and Alexander Gode. James Cooke Brown constructed Loglan and claims copyright ownership and control for it; he has been in court rather recently in a fight over whether a reform group now using the name Loglan can be legally prevented from using that name. (Loglan is described as a language specifically created as a mechanism for testing the linguistic relativity hypothesis.)

And then of course there’s the matter of the Klingon language. According to Donald Harlow, Klingon’s first few words were created by Scotty, chief engineer of the starship Enterprise. But when the Klingons caught the public imagination, and Star Trek episodes in which they appeared turned out to he wildly popular, Paramount sat up and took notice—and hired linguist Marc Okrand to create an entire Klingon language. The resulting Klingon Dictionary and its audio version and sequel have been smash best-sellers; the dictionary alone has sold hundreds of thousands of copies. There is a Klingon Language Institute housed at a university, with its own academic journal; there are two competing projects for translating the Bible into Klingon .

I’m exceedingly grateful to KIingon for the inroads it’s made into the typical American loathing for foreign language learning. People who are multilingual because they know one natural language plus Klingon are more likely to be willing to learn yet another language, and I’m all for that. But I have major reservations about Klingon as an IAL, and I suspect that Mark Okrand would agree with me. For many and curious reasons, Klingon would be an inappropriate choice for Worldspeak. The idea of an allegedly extraterrestrial language being taught as the Terran IAL is bizarre enough all by itself. The idea of trying to run a world with a language specifically designed to express the perceptions of a warrior race is equally strange, despite its convenient fit with the Warrior metaphor that organizes so much of American life; a language designed for the Diplomat metaphor would be better suited to the task. In addition, Klingon has features that were linguistics in-jokes, and its writing system is difficult and inconvenient. Klingon is definitely a fixer-upper as an IAL. But anyone who decided to propose and publish an “improved” version of Klingon would be in far more serious trouble than IAL reformers have ever found themselves in up to now. They would be in court facing not just Marc Okrand but the corporate might of Star Trek and Paramount .

Láadan (like Klingon or Elvish) wasn’t intended as an IAL, but nothing in principle would prevent it from serving as one. I didn’t want any turf wars; I went out of my way to make it very clear that I didn’t consider myself its owner or its chief of staff or anything of the kind. It was part of a scientific experiment that I took absolutely seriously, into which “marketing” would have introduced an impossibly wild variable, and so I made no effort to market it. I constructed it, and then I turned it loose and observed what happened, without interfering. But that’s not the usual practice. People who “create” a language tend to take the position that they own it and have complete control over it.

It may be that as a philosophical matter this question is not only trivial but silly. So you whipped up a little hobby language during your summer vacation, and now you want to claim that it’s yours alone and nobody else is allowed to play with it. So what? Who cares? So a giant media conglomerate won’t let you play with its language, in the same way that McDonalds Corporation will sue you if you try to call your coffeeshop Cafe McDonalds. So what? Who cares if the squabbles of obscure language hobbyists result in a legal precedent that establishes as law the principle that a language can be owned in exactly the same way that a copyright or trademark or patent can be owned?

We would be wise to care. We would be wise to pay cautious attention to these developments, because ownership of WorldSpeak would be a gold mine. There would be textbooks and audio programs and videos and standardized tests and computer programs and libraries of original and translated literature. There would be magazines and newspapers and scholarly journals, both print and electronic. There would be WorldSpeak versions of every significant document in international government and trade and diplomacy. The money to be made in signs alone, to go up on streets and buildings and bridges all over the world, would be huge, as would the profit from the WorldSpeak instructions that would have to go into the boxes for every widget sold around the world. Every language item now used in international meetings and conferences would have to be republished or reproduced using WorldSpeak. Think of the money to be made from the licensing rights to put Worldspeak slogans and catch phrases on toys and lunchhoxes and bumper stickers and coffee mugs!

Anyone sharp enough to purchase the rights to an IAL that succeeded as WorldSpeak would be wealthy in a way that would make Bill Gates’ fortune seem modest. And I would be very surprised if there are no investors right this minute busy buying up the rights to all the Internet domain names that might plausibly turn out to include the ultimate IAL, such as,, and Just in case. I’d buy those domain names myself, right this minute, if I could afford it.

From The Language Imperative

Perseus Books
Spring 2000
ISBN 0-7382-0254-1