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A constructed language (or, commonly, conlang) is a language that is created rather than evolved naturally. These languages can be split into 4 categories:
- "Auxiliary languages" which are meant to serve as lingua francas, that is, a language that is used as a third-party communications language when two parties cannot or will not speak each other's language;
- "Philosophical languages" which are meant to either try and convey the world as it is, or to advance a philosophical or ethical point;
- "Artistic languages" which are made only for aesthetic and literary purposes, such as to flesh out the backstory of a fictional world, and;
- "Research languages" which are meant to demonstrate or test a hypothesis.
In the current world, English most often serves the function as an auxiliary language, with French, Spanish, German, Hindustani (Hindi/Urdu), Arabic, Malay, and Russian often serving as well, even between populations that do not normally speak these languages or any related ones.
- 1 History
- 2 Auxiliary languages
- 3 Philosophical and Research languages
- 4 Artistic impulses
- 5 Nationalist or cult
- 6 See also
- 7 External links
- 8 Notes
- 9 References
A variety of languages have served as international vehicles for communication or trade (or more illicit ventures, such as the many forms of Thieves' cant). Some of these are simply natural languages that have been pared down or simplified, such as the various forms of pidgin English. Some of these languages have turned into natural languages in their own right; from pidgin English the Tok Pisin language was born. Another famous international trade language is the Mediterranean Lingua Franca, spoken through the western Mediterranean from the 11th to the 19th centuries.
These natural auxiliary languages are frequently based on widely spoken language groups; Romance languages formed the basis of the Mediterranean Lingua Franca. Similarly, the widespread Swahili of East Africa is a somewhat simplified version of the Bantu languages with many borrowed Arabic words. In southwestern Africa, simplified or creolized versions of Lingala and Kikongo serve similar purposes.
But most proposals for auxiliary languages involve newly constructed languages offered by their promoters specifically for international use. In Diderot's Encyclopédie, one contributor to the article on "Language" suggested that a simplified version of French should be posited as an international language. Another interesting early proposal was Solresol, developed by François Sudre in 1827. This language limited its syllables to the solfege tones of the musical scale. This enabled the language to be sung or represented as pure music in addition to spoken syllables.
Goals and advocates
The creators of specifically auxiliary languages often have specific goals in mind that frequently border on utopianism. International institutions such as the United Nations or the European Union spend a great deal of time and money on translators. If every participant in their deliberations spoke a single language, it is argued, their deliberations might be more efficient. The idea that an international language would stimulate international trade is often put forth. Convenience for travelers and tourists is also another aim that proponents of auxiliary languages hope to advance.
Other proponents have somewhat more lofty goals:
- Voltaire called the fact that he needed an interpreter when he traveled from one mountain valley in Switzerland to another a "scourge", and dreamt of unifying all under a common language.
- The founder of the Bahá'í Faith, Baha'ullah, hoped for "one language that may be spread universally among the people... in order that this universal language may eliminate misunderstandings from among mankind."
- In Human, All Too Human, Friedrich Nietzsche prophesied a future language that would unite the entire human race.
- French critic Octave Mirbeau called a universal language a "great step forward" for civilization.
- Herbert Spencer wrote in his autobiography that "it seemes to me quite possible, probable even, that an artificial language to be universally used will be agreed upon."
- Maxim Gorky said that "Mankind would realize far faster the community of its interests if it spoke a single language."
Even the more successful projects often carry a whiff of utopianism or crankery about them. For instance, the standard dictionary of Esperanto, the Plena Ilustrita Vortaro de Esperanto (Complete Illustrated Dictionary of Esperanto), is published by the Sennacieca Asocio Tutmonda (roughly, "Worldwide Anationalist Association"), a left-wing cultural organization of Esperantists whose stated goal is to promote an ideology of anationalism, the goal of the abolition of separate nation-states.
There is also abiding tension in the Esperanto movement between users who accept the old and original goals of promoting the unity of humankind with a single language and similar political goals, versus those who simply find the language interesting. Those who subscribe to the aspirational goals of universal Esperanto use and universal solidarity are known in the Esperanto community as finvenkistoj, those who seek a 'final conquest' of the world of language by Esperanto. These finvenkistoj often subscribe to the interna ideo ("inner idea") of Esperanto, which involves removing barriers between people in order to promote universal brotherhood.
During the years after World War II, Esperanto sought to propagate itself via new international organizations like the United Nations. This meant attempting to cultivate political leaders and win them to the cause of an auxiliary language. Largely as a result, the Esperanto movement sometimes criticizes stranguloj, "strange, odd, or peculiar people"; they'd be called 'cranks' in English. These are people who want to associate advocacy of Esperanto with other minority causes such as vegetarianism, nudism, religious zealotry, or similar causes. They may also try to advertise the language with eccentricities of dress. They are often suspected of attaching themselves to the Esperanto movement to use it to promote these other enthusiasms. The perception seems to be that studying Esperanto is eccentric enough, and the movement does not benefit from further manifestations of conspicuous oddness.
The first proposal for a international language that became anything like a mass movement was Volapük, first promulgated in 1879 by Johann Martin Schleyer, a Roman Catholic priest in Germany. Schleyer's language prefigured most of the subsequent proposals in a number of ways. Volapük had a lexicon derived haphazardly from the major European languages of the time, including English and French. It had a strongly agglutinative character that borders on the polysynthetic, with morphemes bearing fixed meanings that could be used at will.
Volapük was quite complicated. While the lexicon was derived mostly from existing languages, it tended to reduce all its borrowed words phonologially and turn them into monosyllables. Believe it or not, the name Volapük is derived from two English words: the element vol represents English 'world'; the -a- morpheme marks the genitive case, while pük, represents the English word 'speech': thus Volapük means "speech of the world". The alteration of the English words show how far Volapük went in transforming the source material beyond recognition, which seems to occasion quite a bit of shouting:
“”O Fat obas, kel binol in süls,
Paisaludomöz nem ola!
Kömomöd monargän ola!
Jenomöz vil olik,
äs in sül, i su tal![note 1]
Volapük was difficult in other ways. The noun had only four cases, but the agglutinative nature of the verb, with six tenses, conditional, imperative, interrogative, and habitual moods or aspects, and active, passive, and reflexive forms, all meant that Volapük verbs could be elaborated into more than five hundred thousand separate forms:
- älöfol 'you have loved', löfolok 'you love yourself', palöfolöd 'go and be loved', puilöfotoföv 'if she will have always been loved', ulöfofs-öz, 'I charge you ladies to have loved by a certain time'.
Agglutination also allowed the application of tense to nouns: adelo today, odelo tomorrow, udelo the day after tomorrow, ädelo yesterday, edelo the day before yesterday, idelo three days ago.
These complexities meant that learning Volapük was something of a strain on the memory. Volapük's heyday lasted less than ten years; in 1887 the first book in Esperanto was published, and Esperanto rapidly overtook the difficult and complex Volapük as the chief candidate for an international auxiliary language. In 1931, Arie de Jong undertook a radical simplification of the original Volapük grammar, but his simplification was too little, too late and failed to save the movement.
Volapük's support base collapsed rapidly upon the proposal of a new international language, Esperanto. Esperanto was the creation of L. L. Zamenhof, a Polish and Jewish ophthalmologist in the then Russian Empire, who published the Unua Libro ("First Book") in 1887 under the pseudonym Doktoro Esperanto ("Hopeful Doctor"). Originally and unoriginally styled simply Lingvo Internacia, the language took the name Esperanto from Zamenhof's pen name.
These small snippets -- unua libro, Doktoro Esperanto, lingvo internacia -- are enough to illustrate Esperanto's large advantage over Volapük to the Europeans who were the major consumers of auxiliary languages. The Esperanto lexicon is drawn from a variety of Romance, Germanic, and some Slavic languages and does substantially less alteration to the chosen words, and as such is much more easily acquired initially by Europeans:
“”Patro nia, kiu estas en la ĉielo,
sankta estu Via nomo,
venu reĝeco Via,
estu volo Via,
kiel en la ĉielo, tiel ankaŭ sur la tero.
It is possible to compose Esperanto texts that can be sight-read with only a little difficulty by well-read speakers of English or a Romance language:
“”Per preteksto de religio, afrikanoj estis sklavigitaj por labori en kampoj de tabako kaj kotono.
But this apparent transparency gives no hint that Esperanto can also be composed in ways that are as opaque as Volapük. The Esperanto word ĉiesulino, for instance, means "(female) prostitute", literally a person (-ul-) who is female (-in-) and who belongs to everyone (ĉies-). These arbitrary prefixes and suffixes can be nouned and verbed at will (something which is uncommon in English, but not unheard of in other Indo-European languages, particularly slang varieties), and fluent Esperantists do this frequently: ... en angulo / sidas ia ina ulo ("in a corner, there sits some kind of female (ina) person (ulo)".)
The rapid replacement of Volapük by Esperanto illustrates one constant dynamic of the international auxiliary language community. Everybody interested in your project has several ideas that in their opinion would make it even better.
Several design features of Esperanto were controversial from the beginning, The consonant phonology was often difficult. The spelling used a number of nonstandard characters not used by any other language. The obligate accusative case was deemed an over-complication. These points of dissent gave rise to many counter-proposals, the best remembered of which is Ido, from the Esperanto suffix -ido, "descended from, child of", and which seems in retrospect a dialect of Esperanto:[note 2]
“”Patro nia, qua esas en la cielo,
tua nomo santigesez;
tua regno advenez;
tua volo facesez
quale en la cielo, tale anke sur la tero.
The debates between Esperantists and Idists set the tone for a debate concerning what form a perfect auxiliary language would take. Esperantists argue, with some justification, that actually using the auxiliary language is a more important goal than perfecting it; natural languages are full of irregularities and hard patches, yet some of them have served as international lingua francas in the past.
The dynamic between arbitrary coinages in the lexicon and inflections, versus words that are easily recognized by educated Westerners, is one breaking point.
On the one hand, there exist proposals such as Interlingua, itself a descendent of Giuseppe Peano's Latino sine flexione. This is a generalized, conservative looking artificial Romance language, hewn from Classical Latin stripped of its case and most verb endings. It is aimed at an academic and technical audience, and aims at being easily understood without special training:
“”Patre nostre, qui es in le celos,
que tu nomine sia sanctificate;
que tu regno veni;
que tu voluntate sia facite
como in le celo, etiam super le terra.
As with Latin itself, there is some uncertainty about pronunciation issues such as stressed syllables and the realization of palatal consonants.
Attack of the Euroclones
There have literally been hundreds of proposed international languages made in the generally Romance or pan-European language mode pioneered by Esperanto. Given their common inspiration, they tend to resemble their sources fairly closely such as Otto Jespersen's 1928 offering, Novial:
“”Nusen Patre, kel es in siele,
mey vun nome bli sanktifika,
mey vun regno veni;
mey on fa vun volio
kom in siele anke sur tere...
Idiom Neutral, a 1902 proposal:
“”Nostr patr kel es in sieli!
Ke votr nom es sanktifiked;
ke votr regnia veni;
ke votr volu es fasied,
kuale in siel, tale et su ter.
or Edgar de Wahl's Occidental:
“”Patre nor, qui es in li cieles,
mey tui nómine esser sanctificat,
mey tui regnia venir,
mey tui vole esser fat,
qualmen in li cieles talmen anc sur li terre.
These all tend to be cut from the same cloth, as these examples make clear. They illustrate the fissiparous tendency of the makers of auxiliary languages. Each creator imagines that their predecessors were on to something, but that further tweaks were needed in order to finally get to global acceptance, and each author knew what those tweaks were and how to bring them about.
Other naturalistic creations
Given the relative monotony of the Esperanto- and Romance-inspired European languages, it is with some relief that one happens upon naturalistic European languages with a different inspiration, such as Folkspraak, apparently a Germanic version of Interlingua:
“”Ons Fater, whem leven in der Himmel,
Mai din Name werden helig,
Mai din Konigdom kommen,
Mai din will werden,
in der Erd und in der Himmel.
or Interslavic, with a similar basis in comparative Slavic languages. The basic plan is a highly regularized Old Church Slavonic:
“”Otče naš, ktory jesi v nebesah,
nehaj svęti sę imę Tvoje.
Nehaj prijde krålevstvo Tvoje,
nehaj bųde volja Tvoja,
kako v nebě tako i na zemji.
Like Interlingua, these zonal auxiliary languages aim at maximum intelligibility to readers of languages of a specific family.
Simplified versions of natural languages have also been suggested. One such proposal is Basic English, invented by C. K. Ogden in 1930. It is a minimal subset of standard English pared down to an 850 word core vocabulary, though additional words were allowed in for purposes like technical fields or religion. For English speakers it is easily understood but seems odd:
“”Our Father in heaven,
may your name be kept holy.
Let your kingdom come.
Let your pleasure be done,
as in heaven, so on earth.
For English speakers, Basic English feels like a straightjacket. It accepts as transparent dozens of English idioms and verbs with vast breadth of meaning (keep holy), whose meanings may not be immediately obvious to non-native speakers. Basic English lives on in projects such as the Voice of America's broadcasts in 'Simple English', and as such has come closest to an auxiliary language at getting the support of a government. Basic English also preserves all of the random irregularities of English spelling, and the many English irregular verbs, which have often been urged as an objection to the use of English as an auxiliary language.
Interlingua, like Esperanto before it, obviously privileges Europeans and especially speakers of Romance languages; it offers no additional ease of acquisition to anyone speaking an Asian language, and little more to Slavs and Germans. Other proponents of auxiliary languages take great steps in the opposite direction.
One such proposal is Toki Pona proposed in 2001 by Sonja Lang, which aims at a very simple, Japanese or Malay style syllabic structure, and a grammar informed by pidgin and creole studies. It uses nine consonants (/p, t, k, s, m, n, l, j, w/) and five vowels (/a, e, i, o, u/). Syllables are limited to the structure CV, V, and CVn; the syllables /ji, wo/, /wu/, and /ti/ are excluded. The lexicon is quite limited; the earliest version had only 120 roots. Number words are oddly restricted to 'one' (wan), 'two' (tu), and 'many' (mute); this was deliberately done to make it hard to express numbers much greater than twenty. It features a minimalist lexicon drawn from a large variety of sources, including many non-European tongues, but which are often hard to see given their remodeling to fit its simplified phonology:
“”mama pi mi mute o,
sina lon sewi kon.
nimi sina li sewi.
ma sina o kama.
jan o pali e wile sina lon sewi kon en lon ma.
Blissymbols, or Semantography, is not a spoken language; rather, it a set of more than 2500 symbolic characters intended to represent ideas that would be interpreted by readers in their own language. It was promulgated in 1948 by Charles K. Bliss. The system resembles the way that Chinese characters are spoken differently by the several Chinese languages, Japanese, and the other languages that have used them. The following characters:
mean "I want to go to the movies" in Blissymbols. The first character represents a personal pronoun, first person indicated by the numeral 1. 'Want' combines characters that individually mean 'heart' and 'fire'; the character is verbed by the ^ above it. 'To go' is the walking legs, again verbed by the caret. 'Movies' combine images for 'house' and 'film'. The Lord's Prayer in Blissymbols would require a more complicated explanation:
Ro was created in 1904 by a Christian preacher in West Virginia. It continues an ancient tradition of philosophical languages, usally based on some kind of classification scheme such as you find in Roget's Thesaurus. Thus, in Ro, mura is 'rodent', murga is 'guinea pig', murja 'porcupine', murla "beaver", and murma 'mouse'. There has been some speculation that the Voynich Manuscript is written in a language of this sort. Most historical examples build by suffixing like Ro; so what you would find in a coherent text on a subject will include many words beginning with the same syllables. Languages constructed on this principle can date themselves easily, since the species and technologies they classify are those that exist at their creation:
“”Abze radap av el in suda
ace rokab eco sugem.
ace radja ec kep
ace va eco uz
in suda asi in buba.
The problems of auxiliary languages
From the foregoing, a number of problems in the nature of the enterprise become apparent. The proposals are all full of hope about how a neutral international language would ease communication and achieve world peace. There is no significant agreement, though, on what features such a neutral language would have. Some seek stronger neutrality by making entirely arbitrary lexicons. Others abandon neutrality in favor of a culturally marked general European lexicon, often with the observation that genuine cultural neutrality is impossible.
The people who take first notice and interest in these proposals are generally language hobbyists themselves. This means that each new proposal will be greeted by a passel of critics who think they have a better way. The movements that have survived will acquire a dose of fundamentalism to keep this fractious tendency in check. Esperantists will argue that it's more important to use Esperanto than to seek to make a more perfect version of Esperanto. This dogmatic tendency has kept the Esperanto movement coherent despite the flaws that many perceive in the language. It has also made the quarrels of the auxiliary language community anathema among language construction hobbyists.
In one sense, the Esperantists are right. Picking and using a second language for communication across language barriers is more important than constantly striving to perfect a better one. Of the several artificial languages proposed for auxiliary use, Esperanto easily has the largest installed user base. It is possible to go to conventions and visit places where people are actually speaking Esperanto to one another. You aren't going to get that with Novial or even Interlingua. The various objections to Esperanto's grammar and phonology apply with equal force to many natural languages.
Of course, this overlooks the 900 pound gorilla in the room. The world's second language is already English. English has achieved this status despite many reasonable objections, including a difficult phonology, notoriously difficult spelling, and many irregular verbs. More than half of the world's websites are in English; it dwarfs the runner-up, Russian, by around 45 percentage points (Esperanto currently is the most frequently encountered artificial language. It ranks between Luxembourgish and Twi.) Even those who object to the dominance of English as the product of European and American cultural and political power use it because it's there.
The forced regularities and deliberate simplifications of the artificial auxiliary languages serve one purpose alone: they make the languages easier to acquire for adults. They reduce the burden of remembering grammatical features. But whatever language is chosen, adults should not be the targets. These adults are past the prime years for language learning. And children in those prime years adapt to the irregularities and grammatical complications of natural languages without much trouble. If you speak Russian, you speak a language that's as complicated as Latin; if you speak Cree, your language is even more complex than Ancient Greek. The trick is to learn them before adolescence.
Most of the design features that the auxlangers argue about wouldn't matter anyways. If any such language escaped the world of typed text and found a home in human tongues, it would become susceptible to the sorts of random drift and phonetic changes that all natural languages are subject to. This real-time usage would smooth away planned features. Sound sets may be simplified, or may be complicated. Fresh colloquial irregularities will arise. Local dialects will arise. A successful planned auxiliary language would soon become hard to distinguish from natural languages.
Adoption, of course, would potentially be an even greater tragedy than the bulldozing of Native American languages by English, Spanish, and Portuguese in the New World. If any such proposal achieved the critical mass needed to achieve its stated goals of world-wide currency, all of the world's natural languages would be threatened. Writers, advertisers, and filmmakers would compare the audience for works created in the new language, versus the audience reached by existing languages. It would be in their economic interest to cater exclusively to the world-language audience.
Philosophical and Research languages
Another language with generally arbitrary roots is Lojban, which in turn was adapted from an earlier proposal called Loglan. These languages are imagined to be governed by "logic" and "reason", with a strong input from mathematics and symbolic logic. This means that they specify grammatical relations with fine distinction and avoid metaphorical extensions. What this means in practice is that users of the language spend a great deal of time criticizing other users' usage. It is also, to put it mildly, ugly as hell and harder to pronounce than Esperanto:
“”le xisyctu jdaselsku be la jegvon.
doi cevrirni .iu noi zvati le do cevzda do'u
fu'e .aicai .e'ecai
lo do cmene ru'i censa
.i le do nobli turni be la ter. ku se cfari.
Another language that straddles the boundaries of artistic hobby language and auxiliary language is Láadan, a "feminist" language created by novelist Suzette Haden Elgin for her Native Tongue science fiction series. The language assumes strong forms of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, assuming that Western natural languages encode and privilege the views of men as opposed to those of women. Láadan contains a number of words that are used to make unambiguous statements that include how one feels about what one is saying, and how you came to know it, either through direct observation or by hearsay. These sort of attitudinal and knowledge-source markers occasionally appear in natural languages; they figure in a number of Native American and Austronesian languages, among others:
“”Bi’ili,Thul lenetha Na olimeha.
Wil he’eda zha Natha.
Wil nosha’ad sha Natha lenedi.
Wil sho’o yoth Natha,
Doniha zhe olimeha...
Yet another language which attempts to remove ambiguity in syntax is Ithkuil, which succeeds only in its ability to be even more complex than Lojban. You're Learning Russian or Latin, and you think 7 cases are hard? Try 92. (!) Studying Georgian and struggling with the complicated phonology? In its original form Ithkuil had 65 consonants and 17 vowels, with the revised version having 45 consonants and 13 vowels.
“”Ömmële têhwei elthâ'àlôs
în-n imnadh kô adal
Îl-lm ¯euč’ane tehwei driocaipšé kû
Ôbartöák în-n ¯aipšalu
An opposing faction of language constructors, who call themselves "artlangers", prefers languages like Klingon, Quenya, Na'vi, and Brithenig, where nobody has a political dog in the fight, but people just appreciate them as works of art on their own. These languages are created by their inventors for artistic and literary reasons, and make no pretense of being easy to acquire or useful as a medium of intercommunication.
Nationalist or cult
Some new nations have re-created languages, notably modern Hebrew in Israel, and to some extent Irish in Ireland, but an entirely new language can also be created as a kind of code or secret language to assert the separate entity of an in-group, the precise opposite of an auxiliary language intended for international communication.
Eskayan is used by a small community on Bohol in the Philippines, where it is taught as an auxiliary language, apparently used to assert communal identity. Its precise origin is unclear, but it seems to have been created from the local Boholano dialect of the Cebuano language by substituting an entirely different and novel vocabulary in place of Boholano words, and it also includes a syllabic alphabet of over 1000 characters. Although an older origin is claimed by its speakers, with a possibly-mythical creator called Pinay, the language appears to have been created in the early 20th century by Mariano Datahan (born Mariano Sumatra), who was active on Bohol in the war against the American invasion of the Philippines.
- Farewell to auxiliary languages and Optimal auxiliary language design by conlanger Rick Harrison; these two essays discuss the extensive issues involved with creation and acceptance of any auxlang.
- Edward Sapir, Wanted: A World Language - From The American Mercury, Feb. 1931.
- J. R. R. Tolkien, A Philologist on Esperanto. The British Esperantist, 1932.
- This is the beginning of the Lord's Prayer in the original Volapük. Samples that follow will be the Lord's Prayer unless otherwise indicated. This text has been chosen because it is one that has often been translated by the creators or proponents of these languages.
- "Idistoj" is Esperanto for "Idists", speakers/supporters of Ido.
- Mario Pei, One Language for the World (Biblo & Tannen, New York; 1968), pp. 48-52.
- Gaston Waringhien, ed., Plena Ilustrita Vortaro de Esperanto (Sennacieca Asocio Tutmonda, 1970, rev. 2005; ISBN 2-9502432-8-2)
- Peter F. Glover, The Esperanto Movement (De Gruyter, 1982; ISBN 9027933995), pp. 135-137.
- La interna ideo de Esperanto... estas: sur neŭtrala lingva fundamento forigi la murojn inter la gentoj kaj alkutimigadi la homojn, ke ĉiu el ili vidu en sia proksimulo nur homon kaj fraton. ("The inner idea of Esperanto... is: upon the foundation of a neutral language, to cast down the walls among peoples, and to accustom humans to see in their neighbor only a person and a brother.") L. L. Zamenhof, Speech to the 8th Esperanto Congress, Krakow, 1912.
- "Under a pretext of religion, Africans were enslaved to work in tobacco and cotton fields." Historio de Usono, Esperanto Wikipedia
- See the Wikipedia article on Esperanto profanity.
- William Auld, Ebrio.
- Interslavic samples
- The Lord's Prayer (Matthew 6:9-15), The Bible in Basic English.
- Damian Yerrick, Toki Pona reviwed
- Suma, Esperanto Wikipedia (in Esperanto).
- Rick Harrison, The languages Suma and Inga
- Edwin Powell Foster, Dictionary of Ro (1919).
- Rick Harrison, farewell to auxiliary languages, 24 Feb 1997.
- Usage of content languages for websites, w3techs].
- Cognitive Benefits of Learning Language, American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages.
- Robin Lee Powell, Lojban: You're Doing It Wrong.
- A Translation of The Lords' Prayer
- Suzette Haden Elgin, A First Dictionary and Grammar of Láadan, Second Edition(Madison: Society for the Furtherance and Study of Fantasy and Science Fiction, 1988).
- The Lord's Prayer in Ithkuil
- Nuirn and Vandalic are respectively Germanic and Romance artistic languages made by your present author.
- See the Wikipedia article on Eskayan language.
- Your word against mine: How a rebel language and script of the Philippines was created, suppressed, recovered and contested, Piers Kelly, The Australian Journal of Anthropology (2012) 23, 357–378 doi:10.1111/taja.12005