Esthetics of Language Design
Prestige Among Languages
Seven Principles of Acadon
of Language Design:
The Case of Acadon
Each language that is written in the Latin-French alphabet has a different
"look" on the page. This look is imparted by the actual letters
chosen by the language, including any modified or marked letters, the
frequency of each letter, and the common combinations of letters in strings.
For example, English has many TH and GHT combinations, Spanish does not.
The sequence VWV or YY does not appear in either language. Within the
various literate populations of the world there have always been traditions
of what "looks" right in terms of writing systems -- and what
The impression given by text is very subjective. But it is nonetheless
very real. Some of these impressions may be personal, but most are widely
shared within the individual's linguistic culture. Often they may be spread
across dozens of linguistic cultures. These distributions have been created
through history, and they form part of the "world wide language situation"
as it prevails today. Widespread impressions of "what a proper language
should look like" are as real as is widespread vocabulary, and they
are just as important in language design.
Alphabets are involved too. Wars and revolutions have sometimes involved
issues of writing system. Kemal Ataturk, for example, made romanization
of Turkish a major plank in his platform. The struggles in the former
Yugoslavia during the 1990's often reflected the tensions between two
alphabet systems for what was essentially the same language: Croatian
in Roman letters and Serbian in the Cyrillic alphabet. Shopkeepers displaying
signs in one alphabet often found their shop windows broken -- even their
produce looted -- when the other side took control.
Much of the great resistance to spelling reforms in the English language
has been that proposed texts in the new system give those familiar with
traditional English the impression they were written by "foreigners"
or "illiterates." A sentence such as
"Kuhnadiyuhn kulchir ehmfuhsayzuhz dhuh importuhns uv
pruhzerving dhuh kwaluhti uv layf uv dhuh induhvijwuhl"
would never be perceived as a proper replacement for
"Canadian culture emphasizes the importance of
preserving the quality of life of the individual."
The average Canadian would probably not hesitate to describe the sample
rewrite as "ugly." Although the difference is totally subjective,
language planners cannot overlook such prejudices. They are strong and
run deep. They are part of the worldwide language picture.
Many efforts to design international languages have stumbled badly on
these grounds. At least one project for an international language has
utilized the letter X as an additional vowel, on the ground that the letter
was otherwise little used and thus readily available. Nothing is inherently
illogical about this approach, except that it ignores deep prejudices
and ancient traditions on what letters properly follow others. A sample
text follows with the vowels replaced by W, UU, X, Y, and Z:
Thxs suuntzncw ys przvxdyd zs w suumplz fwr cympzrxsyn
zf thx sybjzctxvy lzxk yf z twxt yn uu puugw znd tw
yllzstrxty hzw chxnguus wn lxttuur zsxgys mzy crxwtz
qxytz dyffwruunt xmprwsszxns uun thz rxydzr bxsyd zn
pxst wxpzrxuuncz xnd lzng-stwndzng uuxpzctwtwzns.
What it says, of course, is that :
This sentence is provided as a sample for comparison
of the subjective look of a text on a page and to
illustrate how changes in letter usages may create
quite different impressions on the reader based on
past experience and long-standing expectations.
Marks on letters, or variant letters, create subtle impressions as well.
Three sample texts follow with letters replaced by alternative forms.
1. This śentenĉe
çompärişon of _he süb_e__ive
_ook of ä _ext on ä päge ãnd _o _llu__räte _ow _hänge_ in let_er üsãge
mäy _reäte qüi_e diff_ren_ imp_esion_ on _he reäder ba_ed on päs_
exp_rien_e änd _ong-_tän_ing expectä_ion_.
2. Thìs sentençe ís prov_ded æs a sæmple fór compærìson f the subj_ctìve
l_ok f a t_xt òn a p_ge ænd t_ íll_stræte how ch_nges _n létter
us_ges m_y creæte qu_te dìfferent ímpressïons n the r_ader b_sed
n pàst exp_rïençe ænd lng-stændìng éxpectætïons.
3. tH_S sEnteÑce i_ prøVidEd åS A sÅmplE fØr cömPåriSøn oF tHe suBjEctivE
lOok oF å teXt oÑ å pÅge åÑd tO iL_usTråte hOw cHånges iÑ letTer usÅges
mÅy cReåtE QüiTe diFfereÑt impreSsiøñs øN thE reÅder basEd øñ paSt exPerIeñce
anD _onG-ståndiñG _xpeCtåTioñS.
Many users of the Latin-French alphabet would probably agree that the
first text looks very difficult and foreign; the second is a bit less
jarring; and the last looks downright silly.
Although there might be nothing wrong with the logic of any systematically
applied symbolism, it is easy to annoy potential users by choice in design.
Beginning learners of Esperanto often start to become disenchanted as
they come across sequences such as the last words of the forward to a
1995 English-Esperanto dictionary:
"vortoj kaj esprimoj propraj al
siaj diversaj Anglalingvaj landoj."
This phrase refers to "words and expressions appropriate to the various
English-speaking countries." (Benson, Peter, Comprehensive English-Esperanto
Dictionary, (El Cerrito, Calif.: Esperanto League for North America, 1995),
page 16.) The sounds might not have been as jarring to the look, however,
if the final diphthongs, etc., were written by the rules of Acadon. It
would then read:
"vortoe cae esprimoe proprae al
siae diversae Anglalinguae landoe."
Whether this would be better is, of course, subjective. But it would fall
more into accord with the factors noted here.
To take a specific example, Acadon writes the [k] sound with a C, as was
the case in ancient Latin. The question then rises: Wouldn't it make more
sense to write the [k] sound with a K; and perhaps use C for the [ts]
combination? Most prior IAL projects have said "yes" to this
(with the exception of Peano's Interlingue) -- or introduced irregularities
into the spelling system to accommodate for C in some cases K in others.
Acadon says no.
It is true that most languages that have been romanized since the nineteenth
century have almost automatically used the German (perhaps one could say,
Greek) K for the [k] sound rather than the Latin C. This reflects in large
part the great influence of German scholars on nineteenth century linguistics.
The very fact that the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) uses [k],
is an expression of this influence. (So is IPA use of [j] for the sound
in German "ja.") In general, these usages were common in those
parts of Central and Eastern Europe that had accepted the Roman alphabet
-- such as, Hungary, Finland and Poland.
In the late nineteenth century, proposed international languages uncritically
followed the German usage. Most African and Asian languages that have
been romanized have followed the German pattern. A major exception is
Vietnamese (which uses both C and K). Vietnamese was, however, romanized
before the rise of the German linguistic school. Other exceptions include
languages like Zapotec which were romanized under heavy Hispanic influence.
Today, four major regional languages in African and Asia: Afrikaans, Indonesian,
Turkish, and Swahili, use the K pattern. All had experienced heavy German
(or Dutch) cultural/political influence. Recall that the Swahili area
centers on the former colony of "German East Africa," and that
Indonesia was the "Dutch East Indies." It is true, however,
that many smaller, often one-nation, languages (including: Fijian, Hausa,
KiKuyu, Malagasy, Yoruba, Somali, Tagalog,) have followed along. The prestige
of the IPA has carried great weight with designers of languages for many
decades, including the nineteenth century missionaries who reduced many
African and Asian languages and dialects to written form.
The overt success of the Germanic K now seems so accepted that the point
could be made for using K for [k] in any designed language. Nevertheless,
reality is more complex. When people around the world study a second language
for wider regional or international communication, which do they study?
Of course, many study languages like Arabic, Chinese, Hindi, Russian,
or Japanese which do not use the Latin-French alphabet at all.
However, among students of languages using the Latin-French alphabet,
the vast number are in fact involved in learning one of six languages:
English, French, German, Italian, Spanish, or Portuguese. Five of these
six (all but German itself) begin words like "capital" or "catholic"
with the letter C. Only German uses a K. Far more language students, classes,
textbooks, and teachers are working with languages that favor the C over
the K in such cases. In using C in such cases, Acadon is simply accepting
the pattern set by the majority of the most widely-studied and prestigious
languages that employ the Latin-French alphabet.
The issue of prestige among languages is closely related to esthetic evaluations.(#13)*
Habit and other expectations from past experience tend to lead many persons
to find beauty in the familiar and revulsion in the unfamiliar. "Culture
shock" is an extreme example of this. So the language designer should
wish to introduce as little such shock as possible.
Seven historically important languages have in fact been very major bearers
of high culture to large regions and are therefore among the most prestigious
of existing languages. These are:
1) Classical Greek,
2) Classical (Literary) Chinese,
4) Ancient (Biblical) Hebrew,
5) Latin (Classical, Vulgate, and the ISV),
6) Arabic (of the Koran), and
English lacks the deep reverence that many of the above languages have
inspired, but it certainly has high prestige of a practical sort today
-- far more than when the twentieth century began. It could be added to
make a list of eight. Within the fields of music and art, Italian has
long rated being called "preeminently prestigious." German has
had that status in linguistics and certain of the sciences.
The currently recognized "preeminently prestigious cultural languages"
set the patterns by which other languages are judged. A newly designed
language will look more esthetic or "proper" on the page if
it follows the norms of the more prestigious languages. Acadon attempts
to do that with its spelling system.
However, only two languages on the list of seven are written in the modern
"Roman alphabet:" Latin and French. If the list of widely "prestigious
languages" be expanded to eight, then English is the third that uses
that alphabet. Additionally, modern science uses many words in its nomenclature
or "international science vocabulary" (ISV) that are from Ancient
Greek but in a "romanized" form> Thus, there is a prestigious
sub-set of Greek terms that are cast in the Latin-French alphabet. As
a result, the most widespread and prestigious forms that might be taken
as models for "esthetic standards" for spellings and letter
combinations in the Latin-French alphabet include:
1) Romanized Greek (ISV),
2) Latin (and the ISV),
3) Modern French,
4) Contemporary English
Acadon applies the consequent design principle: "If the graphemic
design of Acadon is to be esthetic and look as appropriate as possible,
its written form will have to approximate as closely as it can the norms
set by Latin and French, and to some extent by English and romanized Greek.
Among current spelling systems using the Latin-French alphabet, some give
the impression on the page of being more "classical" while others
seem more recently "improvised" on the basis of nineteenth century
phonetic usages. Heavy use of "Germanic letters" such as K and
W, are among the quickest indicators of the more recent "phonetic"
Generally speaking, however, spelling systems using patterns closer to
the "classical system" convey an impression of longer tradition
and greater prestige. As remarked above, with the exception of German
itself, all of currently most widely-studied languages that use the Latin-French
alphabet follow the classic mode more closely than that of the IPA. This
is to say that the French, Spanish, English, Portuguese, and Italian languages
all prefer a C over the K in such words as appear in the phrase "Canadian
To pursue its esthetic goals, Acadon spelling does not attempt to follow
the norms set by nineteenth century linguists as exemplified by the IPA.
If anything, it reflects patterns to be found in the most widely used
and studied languages that use the Latin-French alphabet. This is a realistic
Esthetics of Sound:
The above has addressed the issue of the "look" of written languages,
but the sounds of languages are also a major esthetic consideration. Spoken
language is, after all primary to written language.
Many have discussed languages in terms of music, and it has been typical
to praise languages in terms of their use in music. In this, Italian has
usually been among the most highly praised. Its many open syllables (ending
in vowels) make singing clearer and rhyme somewhat easier to find. Yet
Spanish has fewer vowels than Italian; and Swahili has more open syllables.
Russian has many complex consonant combinations, but is often considered
to sound quite pleasant to outsiders. Cantonese, on the other hand, with
many falling tones, may sound rather angry to Westerners. English, on
first being heard by a Danish boy, sounded "like dogs barking."
Within Western Europe, spoken German has often been described as guttural
and harsh, but this may be as much the result of prejudices in the wake
of two world wars than anything real. Is there any standard of beauty
in all this?
The principal argument against having syllables or words end in multiple
consonants is probably ease of pronunciation rather than esthetics per
se. Yet many designed languages have had words with a wide variety of
consonantal endings and even with multi-consonant endings. Esperanto allowed
final vowels to be dropped in poetry and song. In distinction, French,
when sung, often has additional final vowels supplied. These factors relate
to meter as well as to the sounds per se.
Another issue has been whether certain sounds of language are inherently
more beautiful, and others ugly. Affection for the familiar plays a major
role here. Several French contributors to the IAL movement have implied
that the H [h] sound (which French lacks) and other "guttural sounds"
were inherently ugly. Yet such a statement might well seem offensive to
a Arab if applied to the language of the Koran -- which has many such
sounds. Cynics might also note that the "Parisian R" is in fact
a guttural sound, often transcribed by GH in the languages of Asia and
Polls taken of speakers of English often seem to find words with L's high
among the "more beautiful words" in the language, e.g., "lullaby."
Is this likely to be the case with a Japanese, whose language has no L?
Acadon relies in great part on those principles designed to make it clear
and understandable to also make it sound well. It has only five vowel
sounds (less than Italian's seven); it sets limits on the number and placement
of consonants in syllables; it uses its law of avoidance to separate potentially
confusable words, and it applies a stress pattern that leaves most words
accented on the final syllable -- and all longer words with a secondary
(lighter) accent on the first syllable.
Final Observations: Integrity of the Whole:
Language planning is not comparable to engineering. Engineering is done
under objective situations where the determining factors are measurable.
In such circumstances, the human factor is less relevant; measurable facts
are paramount. This is not the case in language planning.
Use of language is a more subjective human activity and deeply tied to
subtle perceptions and expectations that have been set by the larger cultural
and historical milieu, and which are often left unarticulated. Helge Heimer
makes this point in his book on Mondial:
"We here enter upon another aspect of the international language
problem, to which hitherto all too little attention has been paid. To
create an artificial language is not only a technical problem, but also
an artistic one. A language is not to be compared to an algebraic collection
of formulas. The primary and fundamental task of a language is to render
by speech all the thoughts and feelings that stir in the human soul."
Heimer then goes on to say:
"To fulfil this task satisfactorily, every language that claims to
be a language of culture must possess a certain artistic shape and character,
which is most evidently manifested in the rhythm of the language. Like
every civilized language, the artificial language, too, should possess
such an artistic shape and character, but that will be impossible if it
does not essentially adhere to a certain language group."
Unfortunately, this final conclusion does not follow from the logic of
the prior remarks. In fact, one of the dangers of designing a language
to mirror languages of a rather specific group, is that the result will
turn out to resemble a parody of that group. If it is simpler (as a language
designed to serve as an IAL is likely to be) then may well seem to be
a semi-literate or pidginized form of that language. This may create a
comical effect, surely not an elegant one.
Of course, by creating a language that closely follows the constraints
of an existing language group, one may more easily assure that it will
have a perceivable "artistic shape and character." But since
it is an artificial language that we are speaking of, there is no reason
that its "shape and character" may not be largely formed by
artifice as well. This creates a larger task, of course, but one that
can also serve other communicative purposes.
Copyright (C) Leo J. Moser 1997, 1999
Whether it should be the case or not, there exist
very great differences of internationally perceived
"prestige" among the languages of the world. Languages
that have been long written, used by large literate populations,
exploited by far flung empires, taught by those spreading
successful cultures and/or creeds, naturally tend to enjoy far
more international "prestige" than would, for example,
a language that is spoken by a few thousand tribesmen and which
was only recently reduced to written form. Classical Literary
Chinese, Sanskrit, and the Arabic of the Koran are all examples
of languages that helped define cultures.
The economic and political importance of a language is somewhat
different than its cultural prestige. The latter is based more
firmly on past history and literature than on the size of present
populations or the importance of current economies. A Spanish
speaker can well argue that his/her language is more important
than French in the world today, but would probably have to admit
that French still carries more prestige for some reason. Speakers
of Gujarati or Bengali could make the point that their languages
have become far more important than Sanskrit, but would probably
have to admit that Sanskrit still carries greater prestige.
There are some seven preeminently prestigious cultural languages
in the world today:
Arabic (specifically, the Arabic of the Koran),
Chinese (specifically, classical literary Chinese),
Greek (specifically, Ancient Greek),
Hebrew (specifically, biblical Hebrew),
English was not on the list with the "top seven" as the
twentieth century began, but could, perhaps, now be added. This
would make eight.
The above list is not presented as a value judgment, but is
intended to express, objectively, how the population of the world
looks at languages at the present. Opinions will, however, change
over time. Without two world wars, German might by now have risen
to prominence roughly equal to English. Except for revolution, a
closed society, and the Second World War, Russian might also.
Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian will all be close future
contenders. (Within the fields of music and art, Italian has long
rated being called "preeminently prestigious." German
has had that status in linguistics and certain of the sciences.)
In Asia and Africa, languages such as Indonesian, Mandarin
Chinese, Modern Arabic, Japanese, and Hindi are likely to be
increasingly prestigious in the twenty-first century.
The currently recognized "preeminently prestigious cultural
languages" set the patterns by which other languages are
judged. For a newly designed language to "look proper"
on the page, it should look as if it followed the norms of the
more prestigious languages. Acadon attempts to do that.
Only two languages on the list of most prestigious seven are
written in the Latin-French alphabet. These are, of course, Latin
and French. If the list of widely "prestigious
languages" be expanded to eight, then English is the third
that uses that alphabet. One more consideration: modern science
uses terms (the ISV) from Ancient Greek in their
"romanized" form -- so to some extent there is a
sub-set of Greek that is cast in the Latin-French alphabet. All
this leads us to a very important design principle:
If the graphemic design of Acadon is to look as
as possible, it will have to approximate as closely as it
can the prestigious norms set by Latin and French (and to
some extent by English and romanized Greek.
1) Romanized Greek, French, English and the ISV all
use the letter Y as a vowel in certain words.
2) Neither Latin nor French regularly uses the symbol K for
the sound [k]. Classical Latin always used C for [k],
French does as well, except when followed by E or I when
-qu- is generally substituted. French uses k in a very few
terms, such as kilogram. English uses k (or -ck-) in words
formed from Anglo-Saxon roots, but uses C for [k] in words
from Latin. Even within English, Latinate words almost
always have more prestige than their Anglo-Saxon
3) Romanized Greek, French, English and the ISV all use the
digraphs TH and PH in certain words.
Acadon follows those patterns.
Among current spelling systems using the Latin-French alphabet,
some give the impression on the page of being more
"classical" while others seem more recently
"improvised" on the basis of nineteenth century
phonetic usages. Heavy use of "Germanic letters" such
as K and W, are among the quickest indicators of the more recent
"phonetic" style. The International Phonetic Alphabet,
not only uses K and W but also uses the German J [j] for the
English Y sound in words like "you" and
In contrast, letters such as Q and X are more reminiscent of the
classical systems. Nineteenth century language designers usually
replaced the sounds that Q and X had traditionally represented
with KW or KV and with KS or KZ. Thus Norwegian for
"quarter" is "kvarter," and
"extract" is "ekstrakt." "Equator"
in Croatian is "ekvator," and oxide is
"oksid." Similarly, the Esperanto phrase for
"quality and quantity" came out "kvalito kaj
kvanto," while "exotic" became "ekzota."
Esperanto also made heavy use of the Germanic J: a
"yacht" became a "jakto" and "York"
became "Jorko;" the accusative case plural ending was
"-ojn" -- a rather unprecedented form.
Generally speaking, however, spelling systems using patterns
closer to the "classical system" convey an impression
of longer tradition and greater prestige. As remarked above, with
the exception of German itself, all of currently most
widely-studied languages that use the Latin-French alphabet
follow the classic mode more closely than that of the
"International Phonetic Alphabet" (IPA). This is to say
that the French, Spanish, English, Portuguese, and Italian
languages all prefer a C over the K in such words as appear in
the phrase "Canadian Francophone culture."
Language planners have not always taken prestigious patterns into
account. The new alphabet for Haitian Creole (Kreyòl Ayisyen),
adopted in 1980, undoubtedly offends many French-speakers in
Haiti by its acceptance of non-Latin, non-French phonetics. This
factor unnecessarily created the subjective impression -- even
among speakers of "Ayisyen" -- that the new written
form of the language was alien, even barbaric. This impression
was particularly strong with those who also knew standard
literary French well. An example of Ayisyen follows:
Kreyòl Ayisyen se yon lang endependan ki ekri jan yo
pale li men dapre regleman gramè pa li. Li chita sou
vokabilè franse sèzyèm rive dizwityèm syèk epi li sèvi
ak regleman gramè lang nan peyi Lwès Afrik yo.
In English: "Haitian Creole is an independent and
phonetically-spelled language based on sixteenth to eighteenth
century French vocabulary, with rules of syntax from West African
This statement might, however, have been written -- just as
phonetically -- in a more "classical" and therefore
more prestigious style:
Creiòl Aiisien se ion lang endependan ci ecri jan io
pale li men dapre regleman gramè pa li. Li chita sou
vocabilè franse sèxièm rive dixuitièm sièc epi li sèvi
ac regleman gramè lang nan peii Luès Afric io.
Such a system might well have been better received. Language
planners have a great deal of difficulty establishing any new
pattern; they should not make their tasks unnecessarily
Among the design principles on which Acadon spelling is based is
the desire to create a language that follows more closely the
"classical" Latin-French conventions. It does not
necessarily follow those patterns spread by the nineteenth
century German linguists and their IPA successors. This means
that in a system like Acadon:
four could be quadro not kwadro
fish could be pesqua not peskwa
photo could be photo not foto
chopstick could be quaedsa not kwaidzo
thesis could be thesisa not tesiso
cultural could be cultural not kultural
book could be citaba not kitaba
hand could be manua not manwa
quantum could be qantuma not kwantuma
copy could be copia not kopja
Sichuan could be Sechuan not Setchwan
Modern scientific Latin and French do however have the occasional
K and W. The two letters are even more common in English,
although not nearly so common as would be the case if English
were written in the IPA. For this reason, the symbols K and W
were not totally excluded from Acadon, but do appear in certain
words. They have, moreover, their well-set phonetic values that
allow no exceptions. K stands for the IPA [kj-] as in
"cute." The letter W is used for the semiconsonant [w]
when it is between vowels. Note also that the letter J in Acadon
is given the value [dzh]; this is similar to that of English and
closer to the French than to the German.
In essence then, Acadon spelling simply does not reflect any
perceived need to follow the norms set by nineteenth century
linguists as exemplified by the IPA. If anything, it reflects
patterns to be found in the most widely used and studied
languages that use the Latin-French alphabet. These patterns are,
of course, the more prestigious ones.
This does not mean that an IAL should avoid establishing its own
patterns, such as Acadon's Q that need not be followed by a U, or
the value [kj] given to the letter K. Whether such choices are
perceived as compatible with a modern IAL, will depend on the
response of users. The second of Acadon's "Seven
Principles" emphasizes that "Acadon is based on what
Acadon can do." The primary factor on which Acadon will be
evaluated will be its performance. Considerations of style,
esthetics, and prestige are important primarily to avoid
unnecessary stress or annoyance within the system. The proof of
the pudding will be the eating.
Copyright (C) Leo J. Moser 1997, 1999, 2005