Linguistic microcosms

Principal investigator: Laura A. Janda

Project title: Linguistic Microcosms

Summary of the project:

Universal Linguistic Microcosms? Artificial Languages in Czech Literature

By creating an artificial language, Michal Ajvaz (2011) constructs not just an alternative view on reality, but an alternative reality with transformative power. This panel addresses Ajvaz’ linguistic creation, known as Yggur, comparing it to natural human languages and other fictional languages. We combine the analytic strengths of both linguistic and literary scholarship in this panel.

Masako Fidler and Václav Cvrček lead off with an examination of Havel’s (1966) two artificial languages that play on the trade-off between distinctiveness and ambiguity in language. Each language takes one characteristic to an extreme, and both fail to achieve the primary goal of a language, namely effective human communication. Fidler draws on her research into the linguistic structure of socialist political texts to show how Havel’s artificial languages mirror the constructed reality of the same time period in Czechoslovakia.

Laura Janda approaches Yggur in the manner of a field linguist, fleshing out the grammar and lexicon, and comparing the distributional behaviors of words and morphemes in Yggur to those in natural languages. Despite the tiny size of the Yggur language sample (632 words of dialog), it bears all the hallmarks of a full-fledged human language, including complex derivational morphology and syntax. Yggur is, in miniature, a complete linguistic reality.

Andrei Rogatchevski investigates Yggur as a manifestation of the world’s invisible yet omnipresent structure, the primary substance called The One by the Greek philosopher Plotinus. It is by accidentally misspelling “Plotinus” in a Google search that Ajvaz’ protagonist Paul discovers Yggur and its coded messages that dramatically change his life.

Michal Ajvaz serves as discussant, providing historical perspective for his linguistic creation through an examination of the role of artificial languages in Czech literature.

A capstone piece is provided by David Danaher, a cultural linguist and an expert on Václav Havel.

Ajvaz, Michal. 2011. Lucemburská zahrada. Brno: Druhé město.

Havel, Václav. 1966. Vyrozumění. In Václav Havel, Protokoly. Prague: Mladá fronta.

Project duration: 2018 – present


  • Michal Ajvaz (Centre for Theoretical Study, Prague)
  • Andrei Rogatchevski (UiT)
  • Masako Fidler (Brown University)
  • Václav Cvrček (Charles University, Prague)
  • David Danaher (University of Wisconsin)

Key publications:

Cluster of articles forthcoming in Slavic and East European Journal

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