Photo by NYU Abu Dhabi

The Art of Artificial Languages: A Conversation with Professor Nizar Habash

Learning a language often seems like a daunting prospect, but what about inventing a language? Nizar Habash, Associate Professor of Computer Science at ...

Mar 5, 2016

Photo by NYU Abu Dhabi
Learning a language often seems like a daunting prospect, but what about inventing a language? Nizar Habash, Associate Professor of Computer Science at NYU Abu Dhabi, is the artist behind Delason, an artificial language. He is also the artist behind Palisra, his version of what a one-state solution – the resolution of the Israel-Palestine conflict by unifying Israel and Palestine into one country – could look like.
Habash’s interest in linguistics began early.
“I started when I was a teenager, probably [at the] age of 13 or 14. I’m Palestinian by origin, but I was born outside of Palestine,” said Habash. “I traveled [through] lots of different countries around the world, and at the time I was living with my family in Tunisia.”
It was the magazine Majid, a children’s magazine based in Abu Dhabi, that triggered Habash’s interest in language construction. One particular edition of Majid featured a U.S. American artist who was fascinated with Islamic architecture but had never been to a Muslim country. He decided to make stamps featuring mosques, despite having never seen one before. This resonated with Habash.
"As Palestinians, we were fighting for our land, and here was actually somebody who could make up one."
“I was fascinated by the idea,” he said. “As Palestinians, we were fighting for our land, and here was actually somebody who could make up one.”
During his time in Tunisia, Habash was exposed to a variety of languages and dialects, including Italian, French and Tunisian Arabic. He grew up speaking English and Palestinian Levantine Arabic, and having attended an Iraqi school, he was also exposed to a variety of dialects spoken across the Arab world. This was when Habash decided to make his first major attempt at inventing a language, which would eventually become Delason.
“I thought it would be kind of fun to make up [a] language [as I] had not heard of anyone who had done this. I thought I was doing something completely great until someone pointed Esperanto to me and I was heartbroken,” said Habash, laughing. “At the age of 16, I designed a separate font for the writing system. It was actually in my college applications when I applied. I look back at that in horror. And then you know that was kind of the beginning.”
As an 18-year-old undergraduate at Old Dominion University in the U.S., Habash’s interest in language and world construction was still alive. His mentor noticed that he talked a lot about language and the politics of language.
“I said [to my mentor], ‘I wanted to do something in computers and art, and I don’t really see something in between language and computers’ … My mentor told me that there’s something called computational linguistics, and I just became so obsessed with it,” said Habash. “This is what I’ve been doing for the last 25 years based on that single conversation.”
After changing majors a few times, Habash eventually ended up majoring in linguistics and computer engineering. During the course of his undergraduate career, Habash kept working on Delason, further sophisticating the language. [big_image]
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The Dean of Honors College at Old Dominion recognized Habash’s work and wanted Habash’s graduating class to get a certificate in Delason. For the certificates, he designed a symbol that means knowledge in Delason. Several of Habash’s friends wanted their marriage certificate to be in Delason as well. One particular Delason marriage certificate came about because of religious complications.
“[I have a] good friend who is Jewish American, who married a Chinese American woman who did not convert. Because of this, she could not get a traditional Jewish ketubah, a wedding certificate,” said Habash. “So I became this substitute. A Palestinian creating a fake language for a good Jewish friend who marries someone who wasn’t Jewish — it was very interesting. We all just embraced how it’s symbolic of the craziness of the world and the variety.”
Habash’s second artificial language, Semitish, which is part of the Palisra project, is almost finished. Complex artificial languages take about eight to ten years for him to construct. Semitish, however, is a more political project than Delason and was inspired by Habash’s involvement in groups that advocated for justice for Palestine at his college. He imagines Semitish to be a type of language that can be adopted by a country that comes into existence after adopting the one-state solution, which for him embodies an attractive idealism.
For Palisra, Habash initially started by designing art pieces that depicted a common identity, one that brought together what are perceived to be Palestinian and Israeli symbols.
“There were art pieces that started as flag, money notes, prayer shawls made out of keffiyeh cloth and yarmulke made out of keffiyeh clothes … It started off with that question, ‘What would it mean if we had a common identity?’” said Habash. “It is such a scary idea, because everybody feels that they’re losing, but I felt at some level that maybe that’s one way to do it. Again I’m not convinced it’s realistic to go that way but from an artistic point of view, I felt it should be explored emotionally, just to see how comfortable we are.”
“If you take the Palestinian keffiyeh and overlay on it the Jewish prayer shawl, two very strong national symbols of identity, there is actually some additional symmetry that pops out that you wouldn’t see otherwise,” continued Habash.
All this work is done in Habash’s free time. For him, it is both a way to engage in complex linguistic puzzles and to express his political opinions through art. Of course, this means that there will be many who disagree. Sometimes, it is those who are the closest to him.
“Being from a nationalistic family, it’s a little bit touchy. I remember my mom calling and asking me to explain to her what I am doing. I have an aunt … who I love dearly, who basically told me that I made her blood boil. She was not happy, and I tried to appease her. We’re still good. But some of the pieces that bother people are more abstract than the language.”
Muhammad Usman is features editor. Email him at
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