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I've been exploring language for the past few weeks, and I came up with what I believe is an interesting idea. Let's say that a fictitious religious sect decides to, for some reason, make a language. This means that this language can have all sorts of weird features that would never crop up in human languages because it was made by a bunch of monks.

Question: why would the monks do this? Preferably, the explanation is simple, naturalistic, and thorough.

This might sound like a sacred language, but the main difference is that has been made up by one person, not a demographic. If anyone knows of a real-life analogue to this, however, please tell me.


Clarifications

The language is used as a sort of secret communication between monks.

The language was created by a small group (5-10 people.)


Update: I honestly didn't think this question would have so many answers. Thank you all so very much. It means the world.

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    $\begingroup$ Ancient religious languages are often passed down in hyms so it can survive, They would create their own language for their own identity to preserved. $\endgroup$
    – user69935
    May 12 '20 at 20:08
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    $\begingroup$ "The language is used as a sort of secret communication between monks." - Haven't you answered your own question? Perhaps the issue is why do they need secret communication. $\endgroup$ May 12 '20 at 20:16
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    $\begingroup$ The closest example that comes to my mind is the "Elven community" inspired by J.R.R. Tolkien's works. $\endgroup$
    – Alexander
    May 12 '20 at 20:18
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    $\begingroup$ Real life example: Lingua Ignota. $\endgroup$
    – elemtilas
    May 12 '20 at 20:34
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    $\begingroup$ Another real-life example: Damin. $\endgroup$
    – bradrn
    May 13 '20 at 4:20

14 Answers 14

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That may have already happened in real life.

(Emphasis on the "may", because this is not a 100% mainstream accepted theory, but it's good enough for fictional inspiration.)

There are many languages that have special registers for specific social or ceremonial circumstances, in which large sections of vocabulary, grammar, or even phonology may be replaced relative to the common register--e.g., the "Ja" registers (or "mother-in-law" registers) of several aboriginal Australian languages. These are typically used for taboo avoidance, but in traditional Dyirbal society there are specific arguably-religious ceremonies which demand the exclusive use of Ja by at least some parties, and it has been seriously suggested that the ceremonial register may in fact be an intentional conlang.

Why would they, or your monks, do something like this? Simple: to draw a another boundary between the sacred and the profane. Religions, especially the sort that produce monks, are permeated cross-culturally by a common distinction between the worldly or profane and the spiritual or sacred, and religious practice often involves a symbolic crossing from the profane world into the sacred world, either by literally crossing into a sacred space (like a church, temple, or monastery) or by the adoption of specialized religious clothing, physical rituals (e.g., ritualized washing)... or ritualized speech patterns.

If your monks are at all familiar with the idea of constructed languages, or can come up with it themselves (as historically at least one actual nun has done--St. Hildegard of Bingen, whose Lingua Ignota unfortunately did not catch on in the larger monastic community but was in fact explicitly designed as a sacred language for religious devotion), it would not be at all implausible for them to decide to adopt a new language along with all other aspects of their new religious life as just one more component to set them, their sect, and their worship apart from the rest of the world, and give them a unique sense of community.

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    $\begingroup$ Mysticists and philosophers also tried multiple times throughout middle ages to ‘reconstruct’ the original language in which God spoke the original Word that was in the beginning according to the Bible, a.k.a Adamic language. E.g. the John Dee and Edward Kelly's Enochian, but there were other attempts as well, and the search for ‘perfect language’, even though that didn't actually lead to creation of any specific complete language, inspired many other works of mathematics and philosophy. $\endgroup$
    – Jan Hudec
    May 13 '20 at 5:44
  • $\begingroup$ Just seen your comment @JanHudec , matching my comment on another answer and written much earlier. Sorry about that: didn't mean to steal! $\endgroup$ May 13 '20 at 13:13
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    $\begingroup$ The Mormons created their own conscript (the Deseret Alphabet) for just this purpose as well. They still used English though. $\endgroup$
    – No Name
    May 13 '20 at 18:50
  • $\begingroup$ While not exactly the same, Old Church Slavonic is also worth mentioning. $\endgroup$ May 14 '20 at 4:49
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    $\begingroup$ @NoName No, they didn't. The Deseret alphabet was created as a pedagogical tool, to make it easier for the large number of immigrants to Utah to learn English by providing a more straightforward, phonetic orthography. It had no directly religious function. $\endgroup$ May 14 '20 at 8:24
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Here are a few possible reasons:

  1. It is a "mystery" religion. Most people either cannot handle or are not worthy of the "true answers." Thus, you must be a certain level of rank to learn the language. This can be further amplified by having the books written in code so that only those above that first rank get the true secrets. Or the code is there to test people for the next level (if they can understand the hidden secrets, they are worthy of the next level).
  2. Learning the language shows your dedication. There might not be restrictions on teaching or learning the language. However, learning it shows an amount of commitment and intelligence that might be sought from the leaders. In this case, codes and hidden meanings may be involved to test for further advancement.
  3. The religion is opposed by the ruling class. If that is the case, they have to operate as an underground cell. The better the code, the less chance the authorities have of knowing that you are a member of an unauthorized religion.
  4. They want to take on the trappings of any of the other reasons. They are new or are some scam and want to seem to be more than they are. A lot of cults (and scam artists) dangle "hidden truths" in front of prospective victims. Even if the religion is real, it might go this route to kick start itself in a "fake it until you make it" ploy.
  5. The local language is not good at describing reality. Maybe you need a new language to properly describe the science and/or magic of the world. If the new language does a good job of that then the language and the religion would spread due to its usefulness.
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  • $\begingroup$ A gnostic or reveleatory practice could also work if it later comes into the hands of systematisers. For example, look at how Enochian, initially revealed by scrying, became treated when in the hands of C19th esotericism, which was strongly systematising. It could be a similar thing but to a much greater degree. $\endgroup$ May 13 '20 at 13:12
  • $\begingroup$ I think your #5 is just backwards. The local language is good at describing reality, but as a consequence is not good at describing the tenets of religion. You can see a shadow of this in discussions of most large religions, where various real-world terms are "interpreted" as having different meanings when used in the religions' scriptures. $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    May 14 '20 at 5:26
  • $\begingroup$ I disagree with #5. Language evolves to meet the needs of its speakers. You can talk about quantum physics in Navajo or techniques for debugging C programs in Wolof. You might get a lot of loanwords, calques, and similar structures, but language will adapt. That's just how humans work. The most you could end up with is an archaic religious dialect, which arguably has happened more often than you can count (English does this when speakers drop back to 17th century forms when praying (thou art, etc.)). $\endgroup$ May 15 '20 at 16:59
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Failed attempt at lingua franca

There is a real world religion called Spiritism. It's a big thing mostly in Brazil and France as far as I remember, somewhat well known in some latin countries too.

With the intention to reach out to as many people as possible, spiritist leaders around the world invested heavily in the spread of a constructed language, Esperanto. Esperanto was designed to incorporate elements of the most popular languages, so that anyone will find it familiar and easy to learn.

In practice, though, in most places of South America (and maybe the whole world, but I can't make that broader assertion) being an Esperanto speaker equals being a hardcore spiritist. It ends up being a language that only those who actually work in spiritist centers understand, and they can only use it to communicate among themselves.

The funny thing is, for spiritists who do master Esperanto, it becomes a lingua franca. People from different countries and backgrounds who do not speak each other's native languages usually communicate in English. But spiritists from different countries may instead communicate in Esperanto, either due to not knowing English or as an option.


Back to your own world: monks may have devised a language so that it could also serve as a lingua franca for the religion, or even for the whole world. Some time later (Decades? Centuries?) the fact that only the clergy ever bothers (or manages) to learn it means they have a de facto secret language.

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Real life analogue: sometimes religious texts are kept in an old language (not necessarily the original language) with local and/or modern translations frowned upon. For a specific case: Bibles being (mostly) in Latin for a long time before the printing press made mass distribution of other translations relatively easy.

In part this is due to a purity argument: the text records the purity of the spoken word of the deities/prophets/other in question.

Sometimes it is for control: the powers that be in the organised religion effectively control the word of God (or the word of the Gods in a pantheistic religion) and its interpretation.

The example of the Bible differs a bit from your case because it happened essentially by accident as language use evolved externally to the texts but they were preserved, and the language used was originally a real general purpose language used by the masses, but if it can happen by accident then it can happen on purpose if a group of people feel the need. It may not initially start out intended to be a secret language: it could be a set of deliberately created obscure jargon made up because the users of it find it useful for discussing/communicating things about the religion and other things they may be discussing.

Another real life analogue: sub-languages created to "hide in plain sight" at times when a group is subject to significant oppression. While not for religious purposes, Polari is a good example of this. While that developed organically amongst a larger population than you are asking about, it could easily happen deliberately amongst a smaller close-knit group of religious leaders who find themselves at odds with the political leaders at the time or another religion with which they "compete". The secret language may persist for many reasons even if the oppressive force that made its creation necessary becomes less significant.

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It's a mean to shield followers from outside influence.

Disconnecting followers from outside influence is a standard move from the playbook of any religious or pseudo-religious cult. The purpose is to prevent any outside ideas or information from causing the follower to question their faith and the authority of their religous leaders. Enforcing that disconnection with an artificial language barrier can be an effective technique.

How could that look in practice?

  • People who convert to the religion are taught the holy language. They are prohibited from expressing themselves in any other language, intentionally exposing themselves to other languages and encouraged to "forget" any other language(s) they know. (You can't really intentionally forget a language, but it doesn't hurt to tell them to try anyway as a mental exercise in faith).

  • People who are born into the religion are only taught the holy language.

  • Teaching the holy language to anyone outside of the faith is forbidden.

The intention is to make it impossible for followers of the religion to communicate with outsiders. This makes it very hard for outsiders to poison their minds with heretical thoughts or even lead them away from the true faith.

Unfortunately this also makes it difficult to convert people to your religion. So you might make an exception for trained (read: indoctrinated) missionaries.

When constructing the language for your religion, you might also use the opportunity to apply some 1984-newspeak-style neurolinguistic programming techniques. You might intentionally neglect to add any vocabulary which allow people to express heretical thought. And if you must have a word for heretical concepts for practical reason, you could make them homonyms with concepts which have a very negative connotation. Like using the same word for "apostate" and "monster".

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Real life analogue: the use of Latin in the Catholic church well into the 20th century.
While, Latin is by no means a secret language, yet very few could follow the words spoken by the priest in a Catholic mass up until the 60s. While many knew that "Pater noster" means "Our father", which refers to god, much of the Latin spoken during mass didn't make any sense to the audience.

Why did the church continue to use Latin long after it ceased to be the lingua franca? It was their lingua franca. Over time, men of the church apparently cared little that French was the lingua franca in diplomatic circles, or English became the lingua franca of the western hemisphere post WW2.

Second Vatican Council
Wikipedia on sacred languages


Another real-life example: Esperanto.
While the motivation for the creation of this language is diametrically different to your stated goal, it nevertheless fits the description: created by a small group of people.


So your goal would be an Anti-Esperanto. No commonly used features of other languages; and the expressed goal of not becoming wide-spread.


As to why would they do this? Control & proper indoctrination.

If the Cult of the Anti-Esperantists created their Anti-Esperanto, this would force any potential new cleric to study with the Anti-Esperantists, since there is no other venue to learn the language. This gives the Anti-Esperantist establishment a good deal of control of who will join their ranks.

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  • $\begingroup$ It may be simpler: the cult wants to be a "real" religion that carries also a language with itself (examples other than the Catolic church include also Eastern-ortodox christianity that carries along some form of old ("church-") slavonic language and suni Islam (arabic)) $\endgroup$
    – fraxinus
    May 15 '20 at 12:53
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Real-life analogue: Many existing groups/professions already have their own languages (at least partially). If you talk to an IT guy about work, you are going to hear some jargon that you may not understand. Same for talking to doctors,engineers,philosophers and many other groups.

While their use of jargon/slang is not necessarily to exclude outsiders from the conversation, it can have that effect. Jargon is used because it simplifies the conversations because the underlying definitions are known to the group.

From that base it would only be a small extrapolation to have a group (including perhaps monks), who contrive a language so filled with jargon/slang/whatever that only members of the group would understand.

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    $\begingroup$ If you talk to an IT guy about work, you are going to hear some jargon that you may not understand. VGhhdCdzIHRydWUsIHdlIElUIHByb3Mgb2Z0ZW4gc3BlYWsgaW4gd2F5cyB0aGF0IHNlZW0gYWxpZW4gdG8gdGhlIHVud2FyeSBsYXlzcGVyc29uLg== $\endgroup$ May 13 '20 at 18:09
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    $\begingroup$ @renan, oh you are saying Gung'f gehr, jr VG cebf bsgra fcrnx va jnlf gung frrz nyvra gb gur hajnel ynlfcrefba. $\endgroup$
    – Stefan
    May 13 '20 at 20:26
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    $\begingroup$ To any initiates that are confused: meditate on gchq.github.io/CyberChef until enlightened. $\endgroup$
    – droid
    May 13 '20 at 22:34
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    $\begingroup$ In reality those are not considered languages, but registers. The difference is that it mostly involves only specialist lexicon, it is very specific for a given subject, and speakers switch easily from the register to the regular language (there are no people speaking only "medical jargon"). $\endgroup$
    – SJuan76
    May 13 '20 at 23:22
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Private communication

Having a private constructed language only they understand allows the monks to have private conversations in the presence of outsiders. There are lots of situations where this can be useful. Not so much while in a secluded monestary. But contrary to the popular stereotypes, medieval monestaries were everything but secluded. They were usually important actors in the local economy, culture and politics. So there are plenty of situations where monks interacted with outsiders. And some of these outsiders might not be entirely trustworthy.

So having that language might be useful during a business negotiation to debate an offer from the other side with your brothers, sending a letter with a situation report from the royal court back to the monestary or discussing something not entirely unheretical you are doing while hosting a group of inquisitors as guests in your monestary.

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1)Religions in the past were not widely accepted as today and often faced prosecution or even public mobbing. In such a case a religion may adopt to means similar to warfare whereby a coded language is created in order to keep secrecy and uphold security measures. If continued for a long time by a particular sect this can evolve and become a language of its own. It should be noted though that an entirely new language cannot be formed by people who already speak a certain language. This is mainly attributed to the need for translations and psychological factors. Therefore the language will be based on known languages but can gradually evolve to separate itself.

2)The second scenarios is based on George Orwell’s novel ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’. He writes of a government that manipulates the english language to limit human thinking. This is done by removing certain words and expressions that may cause a rebellion against the government. Religion’s are highly conservative and have only recently come to terms with the free world, nevertheless restrictions of clothings,tattoos and similar lifestyles are received negatively. Language too is somehow regulated in religious institutions with words related to sexual activity, atheism...etc are in a way banned in public. In OP’s situation, it can be said the monks try to create a language to control such factors and prevent the human mind from thinking any thoughts that revolt or oppose religious thoughts. This although would be an extreme case of regulation by the monks but people go to extreme lengths for their faith and beliefs. The monks may not necessarily to govern a set of people but may try to limit their own thoughts in attempt to purify themselves. Some may argue that the above is impossible but artificial languages have been created before and been used by a set of people. One example is the language of the minions which is claimed to be created by Chris Renaud and Pierre Coffin. It is a limited language with an aim of being humorous but I doubt any monks would create a language for humor.

3) Another possible reason is the need for the monks to differentiate themselves from similar religions or other similar factors(Who knows when monks start facing competition from a restaurant dressing their staff similar to the monks-JK). This would still be an extreme measure but it would serve the purpose of separating their identity from the so called competition.

4) The monks can be on a higher level of authority in the religion and might want to signify the importance and level of dedication required to achieve the level of authority. In christianity it can be compared to that of the pope(The pope does not speak a different language). The sam situation can work in a reverse situaion wher trainees in the monk religion are taught a different language to show dedication to the religion.

All the above situations would be almost impossible and unnecessary making the likeliness of such a language existing impossible. If anything like this happens it would give a new insight in th field of linguistics.

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  • $\begingroup$ Excellent answer (and first post on the site). Please take the tour and when you have a spare few moments, read-up in the help center about our ways, welcome to worldbuilding - enjoy the site. (Also, feel free to edit your profile to give yourself a less generic name and avatar, if you wish). $\endgroup$ May 13 '20 at 22:01
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Languages aren't usually made up. and if one were, it would be difficult for anyone to know fluently since fluency usually requires learning it as a child and/or immersion. Usually, new languages evolve from other languages when a group of people lives separate enough from another group that speaks the same language for long enough that the language changes (this happens faster for languages that do not have a written component).

The question though is why would they make up a language? Keep in mind that a language is more than a vocabulary, there is grammar as well, syntax, sentence structure, congugations, etc. All of that would be a lot to come up with, learn, remember and teach. What seems more likely is that it would have started with a secret code or short-hand based on one or more existing languages. (Think Yiddish which is a combination of German and Hebrew). Perhaps the religious sect was being persecuted by the mainstream society and had to come up with a code to communicate. Perhaps the persecution lasted long enough that children learned the secret code as their primary language. (again, think Yiddish) Perhaps the persecution is over now but the language that evolved from the secret code persisted. Perhaps those of the religious order have been isolated for so long that what was once the same language everyone else speaks, has evolved into a full-blown different language. If this language has a new writing system, perhaps it started as a form of short-hand they learned for record keeping and evolved from there. Perhaps children are dedicated to the monastary at a very young age and grow up speaking this new language instead of that of their parents or perhaps the whol family is part of the religious order and therefore speaks the language.

The above would have taken generations though. If you want something faster, maybe the language didn't evolve. Maybe it was revealed by one of the gods and the minds of the few faithful monks were all at once enlightened to it so that the god can communicate with them without the traitors or unfaithful of his sect understanding. Maybe it is still to avoid persecution from the followers of a different god. Maybe it is so that god can make the other gods jealous. Or maybe it is for some reason he hasn't revealed yet. Another possibility is that they have discovered an ancient text written in a long forgotten language.

TL;DNR I guess my answer to the question "Why would monks make up a language?" is "They probably wouldn't." But there are other, more natural ways to have a group of monks speak a language than the society around them, such as a language evolving from a secret code or revelation of the gods.

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The Scriptures are written in that language, and can only be understood in that language.

This is not fantasy, it is exactly the situation with Arabic and Islam (although if course Arabic is not a made-up language). The true Quran exists only in Arabic, and while it may be "translated" into English, to a devout Muslim that isn't the Quran. It's why so many Muslims learn Arabic.

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Boredom

Monks are often very well educated. In the medieval periodic, monastic contributions to the natural sciences, literature, and art are plentiful. Making up languages can be a similar albeit much less useful pasttime. If these monks have a religion that doesn't really care much about societal goods and doesn't prepare them for having a lot of time to themselves it is totally reasonable that they might, upon finding themselves in circumstances where they have to pass a bunch of time in relative solitude, make up a language for fun. Tolkien, for example, did much of his language development for Middle Earth during the Blitz.

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Religions came with all kinds of weird stuff. When gods reveal themselves - or believers get their beliefs from any methods different than revelation - the most spiritual theological truths come often along some practical recipes. Some of them are sensible and some of them are strange but still useful to test the faith and commitment of the faithful. They usually include things like some moral teachings, some dietary rules or some dressing codes. It would be surprising that for some religion they include some vocabulary, grammar and writing system.

Gods may be weird. Bunches of monks in close connection with gods can be weird, too.

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    $\begingroup$ So, how does "being weird" actually answer the question? $\endgroup$
    – elemtilas
    May 12 '20 at 20:35
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    $\begingroup$ @elemtilas - Because the gods want is an answer - or another phrasing of the same answer. Revelation is a great handwavium for false religions. $\endgroup$
    – Pere
    May 12 '20 at 20:38
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    $\begingroup$ So...why are you telling me? In stead of disrespectful whining that religions are weird, just answer the question! --- because the monks believe their god wishes to be addressed using an invented language! $\endgroup$
    – elemtilas
    May 12 '20 at 20:43
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    $\begingroup$ This religion is false. No need to disrespect anybody's religion because anybody has a false religion. Believers would tell you. $\endgroup$
    – Pere
    May 12 '20 at 22:35
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    $\begingroup$ @Erik - Please read the original question. At the time of this answer the question said "The religion is false, and its gods do not exist in real life." Elemtilas deleted that sentence and then claimed that I wasn't answering the question. $\endgroup$
    – Pere
    May 13 '20 at 8:19
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They may be attempting to employ the "Sapir-Whorf hypothesis", a hypothesis that language shapes how we think. If your language has spatial aspects (such as many sign languages), you will receive regular exercise in spatial placement. If your language distinguishes blue and green as colors, you will be better able to differentiate the two colors on sight. If your language has a tense system that requires you to indicate the known truthfulness of your statement, you will show more critical thought in where a particular piece of information comes from.

Similarly, a religion might use its own language to encourage particular trains of thought, perhaps having a more complex gender system to enforce their belief in more than the binary, or a lack of an "object" gender that might make it easier to relegate animals to the status of tools, or human beings of a different race as being less than human. Lastly, aspects of the language might be used to expand one's thinking, say by making the infinite or the infinitesimal part of the language so that there's more than just a distinction between one and many, or to restrict it, say by establishing a firm differentiation between the animate and the inanimate such that anthropomorphizing an object becomes completely wrong rather than a childish affectation.

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