This class provides an introduction to a subject that was recently on the fringe but has since moved with remarkable speed into the mainstream: constructed languages, sometimes known as “conlangs.” After entertaining the suggestion that, at some level, all languages are constructed, we will concentrate on three extraordinarily different, undisputed examples of conlangs: Esperanto (invented by Ludwik Zamenhof in the 1880s in an attempt to promote world peace), the Elvish tongues (invented and refined by J.R.R. Tolkien over a sixty-year period in the twentieth century), and Klingon (invented by Marc Okrand in the 1980s for a race of warriors in Star Trek). No prior knowledge is necessary or expected, but if you know anything about any conlang—maybe you have learned a word of two of Dothraki (from Game of Thrones) or have seen the 2017 film Arrival?—or if you have ever tried yourself to make up a language, so much the better.
A native of New York, Joshua Katz is Cotsen Professor in the Humanities, professor of Classics, and member (and former director) of the Program in Linguistics at Princeton University, where he has been on the faculty since 1998. A linguist by training, a classicist by profession, and a comparative philologist at heart, he is broadly interested and published in the languages, literature, and cultures of the ancient, medieval, modern, and occasionally even postmodern worlds. In addition to many honors for scholarship, he has received Princeton’s two main teaching prizes and is profiled in the 2012 book The Best 300 Professors. The high point of his pedagogical life was having Ian Frazier write about his last class for The Academy, “Before Latin: Proto-Indo-European and Its Daughters” (2015), in The New Yorker.