an oligosynthetic experiment

In 1935 Kenneth Searight’s book describing Sona appeared. (Sona: An Auxiliary Neutral Language, published in England by K. Paul, Trench, Trubner & Company as part of the Psyche Miniature book series.)

Sona is an invented language with a vocabulary of only 375 root-words and particles. By forming compounds of these ‘radicals’ a person can supposedly express any commonplace idea they would want to express. Highly specific terms, like the names of uncommon foods, diseases, plant and animal species and so forth, can be borrowed from ‘international’ words or scientific Latin.

When you want to create a Sona word that means blue, you can combine the radical that means sky with the radical that means color. The root-word for wood plus the root-word meaning to open creates a compound that reportedly means a door. And so forth.

This type of made-up language, which tries to do as much as possible with a small vocabulary, is classified as ‘oligosynthetic.’ Different people have different feelings about the practicality of these language designs.

As far as I know, Captain Searight never made much of an effort to promote Sona as an auxiliary language. It is possible that he viewed it as a personal experiment and only cloaked it in an auxiliary language disguise so that he could get the book published and thus immortalize his design.

(Generally speaking, engelangs had no way to obtain publicity in pre-internet times. Authors who created languages solely to test their quirky design theories could never admit that they were doing so, even to themselves. They were horribly trapped in the auxlang closet.)

According to one researcher, Searight continued to whittle away at the inventory of morphemes in his language after the book was published. He reportedly got it down to roughly 300 items.

status of Sona as a language

As an auxiliary language in which people around the globe might communicate, Sona is not very successful. The book was published roughly 80 years ago. There has never been a magazine or even a mimeographed newsletter written in Sona. There has never been a regular series of radio broadcasts or podcasts conducted in Sona. To the best of our knowledge (as of 2013) no one has ever had a conversation in Sona.

An online forum for discussing and using Sona was established on Yahoo Groups in 2004. Nearly all of the activity there is in English. Actual usage of Sona for communication in the forum has been exceedingly rare.

Granted, it is also possible to enjoy Sona privately without publishing anything on the internet. Everyone is free to use his/her own personalized variant of Sona as a diary language, a medium of poetry or whatever use comes to mind. (Due to its obscurity Sona would be the perfect language for keeping a diary safe from prying eyes.) There is no way for us to know how much private usage of Sona is occurring.

Sona as a word-coining game

Sona can be viewed as more of a success if you think of it as a word-coining game. You can play alone, play with a few local friends, or play with the handful of people who are active on the forum.

For example, one day on the forum someone was looking for a Sona equivalent to the English word hangover. Paul Bartlett suggested hinzosuzen «after fire water sickness» and this was widely appreciated. It’s cleverly constructed using existing radicals and reasonably concise.

keep calm and carry on

A few people continue attempting to use Sona as a language in spite of the difficulties. Some Sonaji feel strongly attracted to the aesthetics of the language (even though they have never heard it spoken by anyone other than themselves in many cases). Also, there is a certain joy that comes from knowing about something that is utterly unknown to the ordinary man in the street. And for those who love troubleshooting or solving puzzles, Sona offers endless opportunities: finding ways to overcome the limited vocabulary, interpreting the challenging documentation that Searight provided, and trying to master intricacies of the language.


©2013 Richard K. Harrison

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