Diego Marani, Europanto, Blinkenlights, and Hacker Neologisms

In reviewing Diego Marani‘s Las Adventures Des Inspector Cabillot, Matthew Reynolds notes his invention of  Europanto, a ‘mock international auxiliary language‘:

Marani’s ability to see humour in his longing for a universal language has flowered in his creation of Europanto, a jovial pan-European language which began in his office [presumably, either the  the Directorate-General for Interpretation of the European Commission, where Marani is currently employed or his previous office at the EU’s Multilingualism Policy Unit] and spread to columns in Swiss and other newspapers, some of which have been collected in Las Adventures Des Inspector Cabillot. This book does not need to be translated: Europanto is ‘der jazz des linguas. Keine study necessite, just improviste, und du shal siempre fluent esse in diese most amusingamente lingua.’ Take a framework of English word order, varied with the occasional German inversion, and chuck in whatever vocabulary occurs to you French, German, Spanish, Italian, and occasionally Latin. Don’t worry too much about inflections. Europanto is more capacious than Miles Kingston’s Franglais, and less exacting than Esperanto.

As I read this passage in Reynold’s review, I was reminded of a sample of an older ‘international auxiliary language’, one rich with hacker’s neologisms, and one which produced many, many chuckles in me when I first encountered it in the machine room of the Computerized Conferencing and Communications Center in Newark, NJ, where I worked as a graduate research assistant from 1988 to 1990. I am referring, of course, to the famous ‘Blinkenlights‘:

If that ‘Gothic’ font is a little too hard to read, here is an easier version:


Das computermachine ist nicht fuer gefingerpoken und mitten grabben.  Ist easy schnappen der springen werk,  blowenfusen und poppencorken mit spitzensparken.  Ist nicht fuer gewerken bei das dumpkopfen.  Das rubbernecken sichtseeren keepen das cotten-pickenen hans in das pockets muss; relaxen und watchen das blinkenlichten.

What is it that makes such languages so pleasurable (and funny)?

Well, in the case of Europanto, as Reynolds points out, there is a sense of freedom, of release from syntactical structures and constraints, a chance to relish one’s knowledge–even if rudimentary–of more than language:

There’s a coltish pleasure in encountering worlds like ‘nightcauchemare,’ alsyoubitte’ and ‘smilingante’, and phrases like ‘under der heat des settingante sun’. You do feel momentarily released from the ‘grammaticale rigor’ that immures us, and ready to celebrate ‘der liberatione des lingua van alles rules’

In the case of the ‘Achtung’ sign (which went ‘viral’ in its own way after it first made its appearance), there is something else at play. Besides its straightforward nod to old WWII humor and war comics featuring caricatures of the German military, it’s an inside joke with all the distinct pleasures of that genre; it let the computer-literate enjoy a little dig at those that were on the ‘outside’ and that often, perversely, seemed to mock our literacy as a sign of general social incompetence (was it really such a bad thing to be a computer nerd?). But best of all, even as it made up a new ‘non-language’, those in the know knew that it pointed to a world where the distinct language of the hacker, the geek, the nerd, was spoken.

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