A Brief History of the Bleggish Language
Professor of Bleggish Philology, University of Voovat
(translated from New New-Zealandish by Mikael Thompson)
A long-standing interest of linguistics is the development of new languages over time. In many cases new languages develop through largely insensible changes in the current state of a language that gradually accumulate over the generations; more striking are creoles, languages which spring virtually full-born like Athena from the mouths of babes of different linguistic backgrounds thrown together by circumstance. However, most unusual is the case of Bleggish, a language spoken in Bleg, the region of ancient Colorado, Wyoming, and Nebraska, which began with a federal grant to researchers in first language acquisition at the University of Voovat (the University of Colorado at Boulder in late republican American, Voovats Skwatbwat in Bleggish). By the beginning of the last millennium, the broad details had been worked out of the order in which children acquire the elements of their native languages; the research program in question was established to track language acquisition from the ages of 1 to 15 at a level of detail that even seventeen centuries later has never been matched elsewhere. Apart from the scope of data collection, however, the project methodology was nothing out of the ordinary; 18,000 children were interviewed twice monthly to measure their active and passive vocabularies, and each child was tested once a month with nonce words to determine the extent to which new grammatical functions and distinctions had been acquired. For example, a child would be shown two stuffed animals pushing a car with a rake; after being told, “Look at the wug and the beeg loosh the gwipe!” the child would be asked to make the wug loosh the beeg, then the next month the child’s ability to interpret or to produce the verb loosh in the past tense would be tested.
After one generation had passed, however, researchers discovered that they had to devise new nonce words, for the nonce words used previously had become standard vocabulary among cohorts aged 14 and below. By this time, moreover, the research program had expanded greatly thanks to the massive quantities of accurate data produced—at this time the monthly proceedings of the research institute averaged 2,470 pages and half of the children of Voovat eagerly looked forward to their weekly trip to the neighborhood research cottage for talk, play, and chocolate; indeed, it was about that time that the nonce word voovat for “chocolate” was introduced and soon spread throughout the community, to become half a century later after the Second and Third Collapses the official name of the town among the wistful descendants of its emigrants. To address this problem, three first-year graduate students were put to work tabulating the nonce words created thus far and devising new ones to replace the current ones, which led to a productive side project in experimental phonotactics and laid the groundwork for the first Bleggish dictionary on etymological principles four centuries later, the famous Fleeberglob Hibnuljosk.
A century more passed of which few records remain, a time of great travails when many lesser projects failed, when such institutions now known to us only as meaningless names and titles like the Encyclopedia Britannica, the Congressional Record, the Rose Bowl, Cat Fanciers Anonymous, and the Church of Latter-Day Saints were lost to the dustbin of history—at the end of which period a visionary named Norman Filbert came to the leadership of the project and made the institutional arrangements necessary to ensure its perpetual support; even today his last words stand above the gates of the University of Voovat: “These kids are the future of our nation? Ah, what the hell.” (Another saying of his, “What the hell else is there to do in this god-forsaken place but babysit? Raise goats?”, was long considered apocryphal but is now accepted by Bleggish scholars as genuine, though it clearly must be interpreted in an ironic sense.) With the help of the state’s last senators, Falstaff Snopes and Schuyler Estes, known to every Bleggish schoolchild as the Great Horse Traders (for by this time horses were the most valuable means of transportation throughout the hemisphere, and none traded them so well as Snopes and Estes), Filbert secured all undeveloped state and federal properties within the region of latter-day Bleg as fee-paying tributaries under university administration. This coup came just in the nick of time: A month later the federal base camp in the Manitoba March was captured by the Newfie Free Forces and the last President-General in Perpetuum was let loose on the Nunavut tundra with a parka and a barrel of Canadian whiskey to die painlessly, and even today it is said his ghost can be seen stumbling around happily amid the stones and moss, keening tunelessly whenever the aurora borealis is especially bright.
With the Fifth and Final Collapse, Bleg became a free and independent nation, though it was only a century or so later that the name Bleg became established. (According to the Fleeberglob Hibnuljosk, bleg is a nonce word of the seventh generation meaning “place where glinths verigle,” glinths being horses with coloration similar to that of a stuffed animal now lost, and verigle the verb for running away from children while looking for fodder. Unfortunately, as the methodology for this battery of tests was lost in a fire along with the prototypical glinth, the point of the name has been long forgotten and the sequence of semantic shifts by which it came to be the name of the nation unrecoverable.) The earlier name is no longer known, though references in such medieval chronicles as Nguyen of Hahvid’s and Tanimoto of Stanvid’s to “the savage children of Uklioptill” might preserve echoes of the contemporary name. This was a dark and dangerous time and even Filbert was driven to despair, as in his famous pronouncement on the futility of his era, “We have returned to a futile age, but there is no institution more futile in its mindset than the modern university.” Futile he might have judged it, but the system of futilism that he established in Bleg was enormously successful, for it has lasted to the present day and is rightly seen by all observers as the final culmination of the university system from Plato to Paris and from Padua to Princeton. Indeed, the motto of the last-named university, “Princeton in the nation’s service, and the nation in Princeton’s servitude,” more justly fits the University of Voovat, for none of its graduates belied the first half of that proud motto by peddling the faulty financial policies responsible for the First through Fourth Collapses.
A number of institutional studies throughout the past century have made it clear that Filbert’s administrative reforms were far-reaching in their effects on Bleggish society, but not so within the professoriate, though the details of the latter are unclear. For example, while the title of “associate professor” was replaced by vavassour, “assistant professor” by vassal, “full professor” by liege-lord, and “tenure” by anointing (all archaic terms replaced in the 17th generation by gloobismib, duggislarf, venalpunk, and oogeewoogee, respectively), it is doubtful that the new titles entailed any functional (as opposed to ritual) changes. Administrative offices were made hereditary and primogeniture established, and recruitment and advancement of new researchers predicated on the ability to memorize and replicate the work of their predecessors, preferably in an attractive longhand. For the most part, then, Filbert’s reforms simply codified the academic practice of the preceding millennium.
On the other hand, the social and economic changes wrought by Filbert’s reforms were enormous. Filbert started from the observation that all that a university produces is words, and in that sphere the University of Voovat was second to none—it produced more words and more words about those words than all other sources combined, and moreover the words it produced flourished in the community; even at that early age the speech of Voovat was incomprehensible to people who lived even fifty miles away. On its own terms, then, the university was an unqualified success. What was necessary was to ensure that the enterprise could continue unimpeded, and for this the investiture of undeveloped properties was essential. Wooded properties were parceled out to foresters and their families, who held the land in return for set yearly payments of paper and of ink made from ashes; other properties were divided up into environmentally-friendly small farms used to grow organic produce for the university kitchens or to trade for the chocolate used to treat the children after their daily verbal examinations by the resident neighborhood research assistant, with prices set in broad accordance with fair trade policies and determined by examining the patterns formed by a monthly ritual toss of a handful of soybeans.
The social effects of Filbert’s reforms were equally striking. The familiarity of all the children of Voovat, and eventually of all of Bleg, with the university’s program of research made for a ready acceptance of the demands of science throughout Bleggish society. Children took an intense interest in the results of the ongoing research from the earliest years and listened carefully to the research results in a spirit of friendly competition: The children who learned to form the passive at the earliest ages took great pride in their inherent mental superiority, for example, as did those who first learned to use the articles to indicate epistemic perspective in addition to specificity, while lesser honor redounded on those who first mastered pronominal cases or verbal aspect. And thus were planted the seeds of the system of natural aristocracy selected and ratified by science that gives stability and order to Bleggish society. Eventually, of course, families took their names from the first nonce words learned by their earliest ancestors, for which purpose the Fleeberglob Hibnuljosk has become the first dictionary in world history ever to serve as a genealogical sourcebook.
Contemporary sources record the super-human devotion of the men of Filbert’s generation, who have served as models of scholarly endeavor even in the direct straits. For example, in his memoirs the famous chronicler Gupta recorded, “On the day Filbert reformed the marketing system for neighborhood research, Tully Montague asked him, ‘What can one say about a system that has lost its mind but continues to go forward through pure inertia, passing on an uncharted road to nowhere rolling on its stomach?’ Filbert replied, ‘Interesting research proposal. Good luck with that!’ After being escorted on a brief trip to the pharmacological labs, Montague then started work as the goatherd at the petting zoo and a subject in experimental high-impact transitivity studies, and while he went quite insane within two years he continued to work faithfully until his death at the ripe old age of 102, for which he was awarded the posthumous title of researcher emeritus by the Faculty Council for successfully completing the proposed study.” Examples of such selfless devotion to the university and to the cause of science abounded in the first few years of Filbert’s administration, but the very success of their endeavors, widely publicized at every turn, seems to have had the negative effect of a brilliant example that lesser minds did not dare to emulate.
After this period, the pattern for future investigation was established. Every year the Review Committee gathered to check the spread of recent vocables among the population, which had been registered and investigated in the field by lexicographers without portfolio for exact shades of meaning. Any earlier words found to have passed out of use were then retired, while all potential word shapes not recorded in any register or in the comprehensive dictionaries of the language as it stood at the beginning of the project constituted the “fund of potential vocables” (niffy gwambuds vat), from which the selection of new research vocables was made every five years. After fifty years, all registers of new and retired vocables were compiled into the latest volume of the Glindraferig Soogrimofses Feejen Gragfliv Vlidershnah (Demicentennial Dictionaries of Old and New Words), a series whose quaint name, rather like that of the Ancrene Wisse, reflects its origin in the 18th generation, for all of the words in the title are archaic now; every 250 years the preceding five volumes of the Glindraferig Soogrimofses Feejen Gragfliv Vlidershnah were condensed and collated into the latest edition of the Fleeberglob Hibnuljosk.
However, the depletion of the fund of potential vocables after the 29th generation spurred the next great advance in Voovat experimental philology, “non-contiguous reintroduction.” Certainly, the unending process of lexical infusion had led to many words washing out of the language without a trace in the current language; these could be returned to the fund of potential vocables without restriction. However, a non-negligible proportion of the retired words survived in personal and place names or in fixed expressions, and many more in different registers. Because of this, blithely reintroducing the forms of such words was problematic for experimental semanticists, wisely worrying about the consequences downstream for their future counterparts. Fortunately, by this time semanticists had developed a detailed theory of semantic features that mapped word meanings onto vectors in a 296,473-dimensional space—certainly not fully adequate to the problems of natural language, but a good start. Retired word forms with vestiges in the contemporary language were reintroduced with meanings falling a certain distance from the positions of the vestiges; this allowed for careful refinement of the modeled structure of semantic space by checking the rates and distances of recombination of the reintroduced words with their vestiges.
For example, the word florhisk had been introduced in the 12th generation for a type of plate with a diameter of around 37 cm, green with a squared pattern in blue along the edge, produced by primitive natives of the Ohayuh valley before Bleg invaded the region and slaughtered much of the population. The word thus passed out of use by the 16th generation except in certain phrases having to do with large slabs of meat. The word shape florhisk was reintroduced in the 36th generation to mean “having the texture of a thick goat’s beard.” Two generations later, the vestigial phrases containing florhisk had become specialized to refer only to large horse steaks. The documented stages of development precisely matched the predictions of an up-and-coming semanticist two generations before, who was awarded posthumous tenure as a result. However, since his name had been long forgotten, he was informally referred to as Florhisk, and as a result the term “scholar Florhisk” (greeble Florhisk) came to be used to refer to any light that went out from being hidden too long under a bushel, the unintended semantic consequences of which may well stand as his aptest and most enduring monument. (For details, I refer the interested reader to the entries for florhisk in the later volumes of the Glindraferig Soogrimofses Feejen Gragfliv Vlidershnah.)
The continued advances in theoretical semantics and experimental philology led to the development of the mathematical theory of the forced lexicon, currently the standard Voovatian theory of human language. Traditional philology had shown the first glimmerings in non-mathematical form of the laws of lexical change in an unforced system—I use a physical analogy since it is more familiar to non-Voovatian scholars, though we prefer to think in terms of chemical reactors. Voovatian semanticists were able after the 27th generation to put this on a sound mathematical basis on the assumption of very low rates of infusion of mutually non-interacting vocables; with the development of non-contiguous reintroduction, the methods for relaxing this assumption were slowly and painfully devised and revised over several generations. It did not help that after the Fifth Collapse technology reverted to a painfully low level, which greatly hindered the development of a mathematical theory of language involving a semantic space of well over seven million dimensions, for at the best of times this involved predictions relying on calculations completed two generations later by cohorts of thousands of arithmeticians. In our age of bead rods and log sticks, it is almost unimaginable the lengths to which the great minds of the day went to advance the collective knowledge of mankind. I still marvel, for example, at the great cleverness of Voovat statisticians in ages past, who used vast assemblages of hanging colored yarn with knots tied at intervals to run tests of significance. These odd devices, called keepoos (keep a 6th generation nonce word for ‘average’ and oo an 8th generation nonce word for ‘hang’), encoded statistical tables to the required accuracy, and were used in conjunction with a system based on cat’s cradle in which yarn around the fingers was used to calculate and store between- and across-group variances.
In the long view, to sum up, the development of the Bleggish language is one of continual vocabulary change and replacement. Grammatically it is almost indistinguishable from any of the standard modern Anglian languages, apart from a notable tendency to use intransitive verbs transitively at the drop of a hat, but apart from basic closed-class words and morphemes it is lexically as distinct as phonotactic constraints will allow. In this it merely reflects the native genius of the Bleggish people, captured in the national motto Vech moomurril, urgad blivver-skaffit: vech = soured/turned/old, moomurril = fermented berry juice, urgad = new, blivver = marmot, skaffit = container for liquids made from an intact animal skin.