Speaking a new language

By on March 29, 2017

Ephrata junior’s ‘Neo-Esperanto’ project earns reserve champion at county science fair

Ephrata's Edwin Crockett is shown with his award during last week's county science fair. Photo by Chris Knight

Ephrata’s Edwin Crockett is shown with his award during last week’s county science fair. Photo by Chris Knight

When it comes to science fair projects, forget the foaming volcanoes and the Styrofoam planets —Ephrata High School Junior Edwin Crockett has taken creativity to a new level by inventing a new language.

Crockett won big in the senior division of his high school science fair last month and then garnered reserve champion title in the county-wide contest.

Crockett, son of Joseph and Nicole Crockett of Ephrata, took home those honors — and a trophy —by actually compiling a new language, complete with proper syntax, grammar, and phonetics.

Even Einstein would be impressed.

The 16-year-old based his project on “Esperanto,” the language constructed by the Polish physician L.L. Zamenhof in 1887.

Esperanto is a combination of languages, so that many cultures could find something familiar in it, enhancing the ease with which it was learned.

“I thought the concept of it was so neat,” Crockett said. “Specifically with Esperanto, it’s not like you’re learning a language, it’s like you’re becoming part of a community.”

Crockett began his project in late October and finished it in early February, making a dictionary over Christmas break.

He calls his language “Neo-Esperanto.”

Zamenhof’s idea was to bridge the linguistic divides between people by giving them one language they could all learn, Crockett said.

The Polish doctor lived in a time when wars and revolutions were being waged in Europe and Napoleon had just marched all over the continent.

Zamenhof wanted to do something that would foster diplomacy and minimize distrust, Crockett said.

That was an attitude with which Crockett can identify.

“I’ve always been a pacifist, since I was very young,” Crockett said. “That comes from the teachings of my parents; to talk things out, to use that approach instead of aggression.”

Communication is the key to understanding, and possibly defusing tense situations, he explained.

“I think we’re at a pivotal point in history now, in which we either embrace hatred and paranoia or communication and diplomacy,” Crockett said.

Initially, Crockett wasn’t looking forward to doing a science fair project this year.

“I’m not fond of the physical sciences, like biology, so I was at a loss deciding what kind of project to do,” Crockett said.

Something dealing with the social sciences had possibilities, he said, although students aren’t allowed to have people as part of their projects.

“It’s kind of hard to have a social science project without humans,” Crockett said.

But experience stepped in and saved the day.

Crockett participates in online gaming, including MMP games, or “massive multi-player” online games.

Because his teammates are scattered all over the globe, he said, it was occasionally difficult to communicate with them.

“I was able to communicate with the Spanish-speaking (gamers) because of the Spanish I had in school,” Crockett said.

But verbalizing with other cultures could get confusing.

“That’s how I was inspired to pursue my project,” Crockett said, adding that the “mandatory element” of the science fair also had a hand in his decision.

For the project to be a legitimate experiment, he needed to have a measurable outcome.

Crockett needed to assess how well his language could show expression and versatility, and he wanted his language to be concise.

To comply with the requirements of a science fair project, he needed to show a tangible result. So he figured out a way to measure the conciseness of his language, compared to a number of other languages.

To do that, he translated 25 Spanish, German, Mandarin Chinese and Neo-Esperanto sentences and counted all the syllables, with English as the control language.

He needed to see if Neo-Esperanto sentences were shorter than their globe-encircling counterparts.

“I was inspired by Esperanto, but I didn’t particularly draw from it for syntax or grammar,” Crockett said. “I did research on what grammatical elements were most common in European languages.”

He also made pie charts to measure what percentage of the translations were shorter or greater than the English control.

Spanish was longer (more syllables) than the English control and Mandarin Chinese came in second.

“My language was short, winning over Mandarin by one syllable,” Crockett said.

In English, as in other European languages, sentence structure follows a phonetic pattern: subject — verb — object, like the sentence “the boy threw the ball.”

About 42 percent of all the people in the world use that linguistic concept, Crockett said, but about 45 percent (like in Welsh and Hindi) use a subject —object—verb form of speech (boy ball threw).

Crockett decided to go with the second concept, since he felt it would be easier to learn.

Crockett had another inspiration in the life of writer J.R.R. Tolkien, the author of “The Hobbit,” and the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy.

“My dad and I are fans of Tolkien,” Crockett said. “He was a linguist before he became a writer and he invented Elvish.”

That would be the language of Tolkien’s hero elves in his books.

Adam Ewing, Crockett’s honors chemistry teacher, said Edwin had a very clear idea of what he wanted to do for the science fair, and it was a unusual concept.

“Typically, we don’t see that type of project,” Ewing said. “I tried to wrap my head around it, because something had to be measured so he could quantify his results.”

Sometimes students need help with complex projects, but Crockett worked independently, Ewing said.

“He did it all and he did great work; he definitely knows what he’s talking about,” Ewing said. “To develop a basic language, that was totally new and very unique.”

Friends are already asking Crockett about his Neo-Esperanto and want to learn more about it.

“I wanted it to be easy to learn and to understand,” Crockett said. “This summer, I’d like to flesh out the language and create a more standardized version.”

With college in his future, Crockett said he’d like to major in economics, political science, and quite possibly, linguistics.

 

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