At first glance it seems contradictory, or perhaps even hypocritical, that despite often reasonable objections about formal or academic language, conlangers, in general, write something firmly in the same tradition[1: docs], seeming to have forgotten the ostensible reason for documenting their language in the first place. Every contrived formalism, every novel latinate term invented for each (usually not very) new grammatical case, every esoteric term that could be replaced by a simpler one, surely serves no purpose other than to obscure the knowledge within, to make it more difficult for anyone who is not already at least as knowledgeable as the author to actually decipher it.

Even the IPA, which, to the surprise of some, appears fairly infrequently in Real Linguistic Texts[2: IPA], surely serves only to go against this goal, or so goes the argument, but you can easily respond that it is the most concise way to express what needs to be expressed, and at the end of the day it is not all that hard to learn. The IPA serves as an example of something which is more precise and more specific, something more formal, i.e. relating to the structure of a system, capturing the nature of that which is described more accurately and more easily. This principle can be generalised to the kind of descriptions we are making, thereby excusing them from the downsides of language which renders the text incomprehensible to the layman.

The 'real' restrictions of academic writing tend to come from institutions, whether that's a university or a scientific journal. Conlangers are not bound by such things, so the judgement of the author is directly reflected in every letter written. This document you are reading has not been scrutinised by proofreaders nor does it follow a specific set of rules required for publication, yet in a vague sense I'm sure you'll agree that it 'feels formal'. I could express myself in simple terms and still not break continuity with the style I am establishing for the rest of the work. I could say basically anything I want, and it would not seem out of place. So why, after all this, is the problem not resolved, what of the more contrived formalisms and obscure jargon, the flat-out archaicisms, the unnecessary use of convoluted or outdated grammar? When do we find what the author is actually trying to get across?

The next piece of the puzzle is the realisation that these contrived formalisms, these archaicisms or jargon, do not necessarily obscure what I want to convey, what I want you, our esteemed reader, to get out of it, at least to the extent that I want you to get something out of it, something more than just data or raw information. Though I will admit that this 'academic' language is found in circumstances where no concessions are made to those not already in the know, what's important is that this attitude is not inherent to the things which come off as academic, that sound academic. You only need to mimic the most superficial aspects of this kind of writing in order to be convincing enough for a reader to become invested in this alternate reality, which leaves you with the freedom to do anything else within that constraint.

The difference between the following grammar of Kaliaki, and a grammar of a natural language, written by someone who can call themselves a linguist with a straight face, mirrors the difference between the languages they describe. One of them is not real. This is a work of fiction, and that fiction extends beyond the language, to all aspects of this work, the grammar itself is fiction, not just in that it describes something fictional, its very existence is fiction, it's the story of the documentation of the language, the story of it being written by a fictional linguist, and in the same way a fictional character of any description will fulfil stereotypes but not perfectly reflect their parallels in the real world, neither will this linguist or this grammar.

It's something like the idea of suspension of disbelief, the idea that the events occurring in a story could really happen, or are at least internally consistent. Kaliaki (hopefully) resembles a natural language, and in the same way that fictional worlds tend to resemble the real world in one way or another, this grammar also resembles real grammars. Many things remain the same, like the formal style, because that's how real grammars are written, or rather, my idea of how they're written, which is naturally imperfect and incomplete, but is at least enough to accomplish my goals. If I encounter a choice, between one phrase and another, which differ in no way other than to continue this suspension of disbelief, to support the notion that yes, there exists an imaginary world where this grammar was written, the choice is obvious.

To elaborate on these ideas, we can return to the idea of writing to convey information. The most important thing, apart from the information actually being present in the text, is clarity. In other words, a good text is one that meaning can be easily extracted from. As well as this obvious sense of clarity, that everything written 'makes sense', that the relationship between the words on the page and the ideas conveyed is direct and intentional, we cannot forget the clarity of mind which comes from something being consistent with our expectations, with our previous idea of what something is. If this document was a real grammar it would not 'make sense' (say, historically) if it was written in informal English, just as it would not make sense (more literally) if I made it deliberately hard to understand for the sake of mimicking something flawed, with all the consequences that entails.

And there we establish a balance between these two kinds of clarity, stylistic and symbolic. The nuance is in seperating useless formalisms from useful ones, which contribute enough to that stylistic clarity to justify sacrificing a little symbolic clarity, at least to the extent that 'formal' in this case does not mean 'precise', as of course, sacrificing precision is rarely worth any associated increase in comprehensibility[3]. Once you take this into consideration it's surprising how much you can inject this stylistic clarity and apparent formality into your writing while omitting that which is actually superfluous or otherwise harmful.

  1. For those who aren’t familiar with the concept, I am referring to a ‘grammar’, a kind of document which describes a language, generally in almost comprehensive detail.[back]
  2. That is to say, the amount of IPA in any given linguistic text is usually fairly low.[back]
  3. Of course, this does not prevent you from giving both a precise, formal description and a vague, more intuitive one — this is a good way to reconcile the needs of people with varying backgrounds or experience in a subject matter.[back]