Friday, November 9, 2012

Chasing ea-luna: Reconstructing a Dead Conlang

ea-luna (lower case by custom) should have had a Sweet 16 party this year. That is 16 years of existence, not 16 years of development. It suffered from several years of neglect with occasional abusive attempts at reform. It's no wonder the poor thing didn't get a party. I'm a terrible conlang caretaker.

In the last few years, it has had a small revival. This has been a hard road, made all the more difficult by the forgetfulness and poor time management of its creator, as well as major losses in handwritten material, including the entire list of compound words, which make up the bulk of the full range of ea-luna words. There was no choice but to reconstruct from available materials:  The Yellow Notebook*, various other handwritten samples and notes, and material posted online. I even got a little bit of assistance from Amanda Babcock Furrow, who sent me some pre-archive ea-luna posts from CONLANG. (Thank you!)

Gathering the materials turned out to be the easy part. The Six-Million-Dollar Conlang** rebuilding process was the hard part. It involved figuring out my own shorthand notes, picking out and examining those precious compound words, reverse engineering passages written in ea-luna (both in terms of what they were supposed to mean and how they were put together), sorting things into some kind of chronological order to make some sense of the development over time, and then putting those things back together into something that might work. It's Frankenlang to some degree, but I think it maintains a lot of the spirit and charm of ea-luna-as-it-was.

For me, the point of conlanging is to get to something usable and then to use it. When someone starts to tell me about their conlang, I want only the briefest description of what's under the hood. What I really want is to get in and be taken for a ride in it-- I want to see and hear how it runs. I want to know if that engine purrs or growls when you get up to conversational speed. With that in mind, getting ea-luna back on the road was my top priority. I patch up the holes as I find them, and I've been driving it around the block when I can find the time.

The things I write in the 2012 version of ea-luna are not quite the same as the old days. I don't think I have made many changes to the basic structure; the language, as linguistically flawed as it is, is utterly impervious to improvement. I have an overly sentimental attachment to anything I think I could "fix". The compound words I create now to fill in the lost material blanks are only slightly more metaphorical than the examples I have from the earlier era. I think that the end use of the resurrected version feels a little different because I have changed. As I look over these old materials, I can see where I applied a lot of brute force. These days, I am slower, more deliberate, and more thoughtful in both the process of working with the pieces of the language and in putting them together into texts. I spend a lot more time thinking about what something really means and what that would mean in the context of the imaginary culture before I tackle a translation of it. I have a better grasp of subtlety and a broader appreciation for the natural poetry of  (any) language in use. This round of reconstruction has given me a chance to tune it up and buff out the tool marks. The language in use is better than it used to be.

ea-luna remains a joy to me. It's still my favorite toy, even if I leave it on the shelf sometimes. And now we've arrived at the part of this post where I tell you what I've learned from the reconstruction project. Here it is:

  • If you have only a single copy-- handwritten, printed, or digital-- of a vital piece of your conlang, you should probably make another copy and put it somewhere else. You'll miss it when it is gone if you don't.
  • Your notes won't make sense to you in five years if you aren't pretty specific. Vague notes and notes that read "see the other page" are just going to be annoying when you don't have any idea what they mean.
  • Sometimes it is good to go back and look (hard) at old stuff. It really does look different when you see it with fresh eyes.

*The Yellow Notebook is the original home of ea-luna. It contains some notes on grammar and culture, as well as every possible one- and two syllable word (used and unused). It's one of my most prized possessions.