Visual Language: Can An Artist Create Their Own Language – Nkosinathi Gladwin Dlamini

Return to Theme Table of Content
Return to VJIC Table of Content 

Author: Nkosinathi Gladwin Dlamini, South African native is a  linguistics lecturer at University of Vienna.   His interests and research is in music, philosophy and writing.

On the basis of Understanding – Artists creating new languages

I don’t believe that artists create new languages,
I believe they use existing language in unexpected ways.

Etut situt tuttut metut itut gtut klitut. Betut tutsi futut betut. Metut wetutu jetut. Tutgetut hetut sotut tut tut tuts. Thetut betut hitut metut. Tut, undtut sietut. Tut! Brutut dertut tut.

This is a poem written in Dlaminia. I created Dlaminia to allow me to express myself freely as a writer. In the creation of Dlaminia, I have followed the basic process of creating a simple language: I have chosen a basic sound for the language, a simple lexicon, non-complex grammar rules, and a simple writing system that that uses the English alphabet. I am proud of my new created language, though I would have to admit that only I could understand what I have written above – that might change over time dependant on how much effort I put into post-rationalising what I have written.

The origin of language, and pursuit of understanding

There are many theories and ideas pertaining to where language originated, many linguists challenge these theories of explaining where we as humans started using fixed sounds and phrases to speak to one another. Interestingly though, there seems to be one common golden thread in these theories. Language originated as a means to communicate. No matter how and when language originated, most can agree that it serves as one of the primary vessels for social and communicative functions. When we learn language, we first learn how to use basic expressions to satisfy basic needs and when we reach fluency within a language, we are able to express abstract ideas and bbbbexplain ourselves with adept precision within complex situations.

Communication is a basic goal of language. Communication within itself is a complex process, which relies on clarity and shared understanding. The communication process, figure 1 above, relies on the sender and receiver having a shared language that they both understand. Even with a shared language, the sender still needs to encode the message, the message then travels through noise within the environment, and then the receiver decodes this message and extrapolates meaning and understanding. Once all these steps are completed, one can still find that some parts of the message have been “lost in translation” or misheard. Now imagine this process if I had to speak with a person in Dlaminia, no matter how well I encode my communication with them, there is little to no chance of them being able to decode my communication. That is the burden of creating a new language; very few people would be able to understand it. Leaving the new language being useless within the current paradigm.

The universality of music and art.

I am of the belief that music and art are arguably some of the most universally understood and transcendent forms of expression that humans possess. There are split opinions when it comes to defining music and art as languages in of themselves. In the context of answering the question that prompted this essay, I will view them both as languages with a myriad of dialects.

One of my earliest childhood memories are off my Gogo (grandmother in isiZulu) singing a popular lullaby called “Thula Thula “(hush hush my child). My grandmother often recounted how I would instantly calm down when she sang for me, and when I got older I would often hum the song to myself whenever I was anxious. I am very fortunate to have grown up in a very musical family, with singing being a constant mainstay of my formative years. When I started primary school I started to formally learn music, and I was introduced the 12 Note system of Western music, fast forward to present day. In my spare time, I am a blues/soul guitarist and vocalist for a band here in Vienna. We represent three nationalities and speak nine languages between the three of us, I do however account for seven of those languages. What unites us is what I view as our tenth language, music.

Within the 12-note system, there is a plethora of relationships between notes, chords, scales, and phrases. These all come into play when trying to create, and communicate through music. When I was young, I learnt how to sing during my time in various choirs, I taught myself guitar during my teenage years and learnt how to express myself using licks and tremolo bends and percussive acoustic guitar playing. Having been either learning or creating music for the past 19 years, I believe I now think and communicate in music, very much in the same way as I do with the other languages I speak. Yet, even though I am fluent within this 12 note system, other music systems exist outside of the Western paradigm, such as Yemenite chanting which find its own relationship between tonal relationships. Much unlike the standard harmony approach of western music theory. With the existence of other music styles outside of the music language I speak, one could assume that creating a whole new language could in some instance resemble the interesting use of fifths and ninths in Yemenite chanting. For the purpose of this essay, the focus will remain within the 12 note western system.

When I sit down and write a song or come up with a melody I have to think in terms of the lexicon of the 12-note system. Emotively if I play a chord progression Am F C G versus G D Em C, there is a noticeable difference within these progressions. I could argue that the average person can notice the difference and decode these progressions differently from one to the other. For the most part, the aim for the language of music is harmony. If I then had to set out to create a new language of music, it would be an extraordinarily hard feat to attain harmony, therefore an attempt to create a new music language that is completely different to the western 12 note system would most likely not yield the desired result, and probably it could become an unitential reproduction of another music style that already exists. For example, if later on I find out that Dlaminia resembles a rare dialect of an Austroasian language.

As a means of illustrating the universality of music, I have taken the same poem I have written in Dlaminia and I have now combined it with the two chord progressions that you have now heard. I hope that you can notice how even though the words might not make sense, the language of music still is able to communicate emotion and intention using the 12-note system.

Sing the Dlaminia poem in both progressions, to illustrate the emotive and harmonic differences.

Conclusion- Can an artist create a new language.

To conclude this amazing journey of dissecting the relationship between art and music, I would like to highlight a few points. As someone who enjoys art and music I somewhat understand what might be the intention behind the comment: “An artist is creating there own unique language “.

As I have highlighted above, simply put it does not take much effort to create a new language. Many for quite a long time might not understand it, but I do believe that this is not impossible to achieve a somewhat substantial following, maybe one day Dlaminia might become a language spoken by at least ten people. The only sticking point I have is what does one gain from creating a new language in the first place.

When it comes to art and music, I do believe that many artists start from the mostly the same point. Learning the language of art and music, but then as they mature within the language, artists do start to express themselves uniquely. An artist for example could write lyrics in an entirely made up language and use their knowledge of the 12 note system to create a body of work that captures the imagination and hearts of listeners. Uniqueness in of itself is a weird term; I feel it is really up to individual opinion as to what one wants to describe as unique.

I believe successful artists use their innate understanding of their specific artistic language to share emotive and beautiful pieces with their audience. The audience most of the time have a basic understanding of the language the artist is using. The reason the audience continues to engage with the artist art is not born out of desire to learn an unknown language to them. I would argue, the audience is intrigued by the artist’s expression as they themselves, as the audience, for the most part are unable to express themselves as fluently as the artist does using the shared language they understand.

So, no I don’t believe that artists create new languages, I believe they use existing language in unexpected ways.

Tut tut begut thetut.

©  Nkosinathi Gladwin Dlamini

Return to Theme Table of Content
Return to VJIC Table of Content