Language Builder

Kurtis Dallon

BYU Professor Dirk Elzinga

by Ashley B. Busby

“I grew up basically in a Dutch-speaking household in the middle of Taylorsville, Utah,” recalls Dirk Elzinga, a professor in the Department of Linguistics and English Language at BYU. Although his parents spoke Dutch to him, Elzinga didn’t actually learn to speak it until he was a foreign-exchange student.

How did Elzinga grow up in a Dutch-speaking home and yet not learn to speak Dutch? As soon as he was old enough to go to school, he says, he realized that other kids didn’t speak Dutch, so he started speaking exclusively in English and he lost what little Dutch he had.

“That is kind of the same situation that a lot of these families are in,” says Elzinga, speaking of Native Americans living in Utah. “It’s not enough to just speak it at home. There need to be places in the community—and the larger public sphere—where the language can and will be used.”

Utah has a rich Native American presence. Five American Indian tribes live in Utah—Ute, Paiute, Goshute, Navajo, and Shoshone—each with its own culture and language. Several of the languages also have variations within
the tribes.

But the languages in these Native American cultures are starting to die out as it becomes more difficult to teach the languages in the home. “It doesn’t matter if you have 5,000 speakers now, if they are all over the age of 40, the language is going to die out,” says Elzinga.

Elzinga has dedicated his research at BYU to learning about these native languages so that he can help to preserve them. He frequently takes trips to study the languages of these tribes, recording native speakers saying certain words or phrases and making phonetic notations of the sounds they use.

With the passing generations, the number of people speaking these native languages in Utah has dropped dramatically. The Ute language in all its varieties has around 1,000 people who can speak it. The Goshute language has even fewer—around 200 to 300.

“I have been lucky to be able to get in touch with people who are sympathetic to what I am trying to do,” says Elzinga. “They see the value in having their language documented and that is why they do it.”

Maker of Tongues

But Elzinga doesn’t just study and preserve languages; he also creates his own.

When people think of languages, they often think only of naturally occurring languages, such as French or Chinese. However, there are thousands of languages that have been created for specific purposes, from fictional entertainment to enabling world peace. These languages are called constructed languages.

Constructed languages have been a hobby for Elzinga for most of his life. In high school he read The Lord of the Rings and was fascinated by the Elvish languages J.R.R. Tolkien created for the books. After that he began reading about constructed languages and even made up a few of his own.

Constructed languages have become popular in recent years due to their rising usage in books, movies, television shows, and even video games. Elzinga was approached by a film production company that was looking to make a movie based on Book of Mormon characters and events. In order to give the film authenticity, the writers wanted to incorporate scenes spoken in the languages of the Nephites and the Lamanites. Their original idea was to use Hebrew for the Nephites and Mayan for the Lamanites.

But Elzinga had a better idea: rather than guessing which language these peoples might have used, why not design languages for them?

To portray the complexity of the Nephites’ background, Elzinga pulled inspiration from a number of languages. He not only drew from the native languages he studies, he also took words and sounds from Hebrew languages.

“It was important in the film—and I think it’s important in any Book of Mormon film—that we acknowledge the debt that the Nephites felt they had toward Hebrew-Israelite language and culture.”

Creating each Book of Mormon language took Elzinga 40 hours of work just to build the language structure. Since then he has continued to add vocabulary.

Elzinga says that constructing a full language can take a lifetime. “Think of Tolkien. He was creating Elvish his whole life. Some of his last writings were about Elvish.”

But not everyone who creates languages does so to support a fictional story. The most successful constructed language is Esperanto, created in the late 1800s by a Polish physician who spoke multiple languages. He thought it was silly to have to speak so many languages to communicate; he created Esperanto as a language everyone could learn as a second language.

To get an idea of what constructed languages look like, visit the full Spring 2016 issue of our magazine. Here you can translate a message that Professor Dirk Elzinga created in Lāmankatóa, one of the two languages he constructed for the Book of Mormon film. Below the message are stems, prefixes, and suffixes—with their translations or grammatical functions—that may be helpful in your work. Good luck! To check your answer, go to http://bit.ly/translation-challenge.