Though I’d never call myself a proper linguist, I have had (ever since reading Bill Bryson’s Made In America, though the inclination probably predated that) an abiding interest in languages, grammars, and orthography.
I, like many children, invented “languages” when I was young, which was an exercise in substitution tables rather than the creation of a new grammar. Hell, I did it as recently as high school1. The impulse to create new words and “languages” is universal, I think, though it may arise from different reasons.
What Arika Okrent has created is a study of languages that are not merely substitutions of invented words for English words. Granted, some portion of the 900 invented languages she references (or the subset of 500 that she lists in an appendix) may have been little more than that, but her primary narrative focuses on a couple of languages that did achieve some level of success—or at least novelty.
She begins with Klingon, but it’s really a teaser since she won’t return to it until the end. Her opening point is that an invented language like Klingon—the product of a science fiction television series2—somehow manages to have a number of adherents who are actually fluent, and how surprising this is, given the long and florid history of languages, most of them better-conceived than Klingon, that suffered and died in obscurity.
She begins with the first real and complete artificial language, which was that of John Wilkins. His language was, to me, one of the most interesting in the book. The construction of words and grammar was straightforward, with no irregularities. What made the language so interesting was that the construction of vocabulary was decided by a concept’s position in a (large) tree. The bulk of Wilkin’s work was the cataloguing and classification of all ideas in the world. As Okrent shows, so much of this classification is culturally-tied and arbitrary, and so her attempt to translate the word “shit” (linguists love curse words) into Wilkin’s language is long and frustrating.
What Okrent concluded is that Wilkins essentially created the first thesaurus, broaching the problem of how we classify ideas, and how these various classifications influence the word construction and usage. In other words, meaning becomes the underlying issue.
The representative languages that Okrent chooses to cover are Esperanto, Loglan/Lojban, Blissymbolics, and finally Klingon. In the course of covering these languages and their inventors, she also includes sidenotes about a lot of related or contemporary languages that arose at the same time.
Of those, you’ve probably only heard of Klingon and Esperanto; the latter may be the most successful artificial language in history, though of course this is a relative measure: Esperanto has perhaps a thousand native speakers and a much larger community of interested or casual speakers. The history of invented languages tends to be one of smart but somewhat crazy people creating extremely logical languages (with regular, systematic construction and as few tenses/cases as possible); the usual thought that is that since this invented language is so spectacularly logical and easy (sure…), it will be picked up immediately and solve all the world’s problems. In the case of Esperanto, it was begun by a Polish Jew who decided that a common language would stop war and promote peace. While the language is no more or less worthy than other languages, it may very well be its vainglorious message that has contributed to its popularity; it’s also been a source of consternation. While some have promoted its usage in politics and world affairs, they believe it’s been tainted by the starry-eyed, green-stockinged hippies that flock to the language as one of world peace rather than practical political/economic value.
What also may have contributed to Esperanto’s relative success is that unlike Charles Bliss (of Blissymbolics) or James Brown (of Loglan), Zamenhof did not try to overtly control Esperanto, instead giving it to the world and letting its usage determine its future. And this may be the key idea to take away: all these poor deluded inventors of languages are so surprised when the world doesn’t immediately adopt it because of its ease3 and regularity. But people don’t use language because of its easy of syntax or grammatical regularity or phonetic consistency: they used it because they were born into it, or because it’s tied to their culture. They also vehemently resist any sort of top-down regulation of the language they speak; France has an official academy which determines what “French” is, but French speakers pretty much speak whatever they damn well please anyway.
The success of Esperanto and Klingon, I posit, and Okrent seems to agree, is that they are less linguistic experiments for the sake of linguistics and more languages which are byproducts of some other idea, whatever it may be. Because these high-level components tap not into the universal desire for a simpler or easily-understandable language (despite frustration with the vagaries of existing languages) but rather something more maintanable, the languages they represent can survive. In Klingon’s case, I think it has more to do with loyalty to the Star Trek franchise; in Esperanto’s case, I think that while it may still tap into the hippie stylings of its origin, it has also become a more viable auxiliary langauge because it has allowed itself to be changed. Esperanto speakers have developed non-canonical ways of speaking which allow them to express alternate ideas; this ownership and mutability of the language—which goes against the foundational principle of most invented languages, which doesn’t allow for irregularity—is both the death of an artifical language and the attribute which allows it to survive.
Though a linguist, Okrent doesn’t spend much time talking about the mechanical components of linguistics: she has an appreciation of the cultural and historical context which incites and changes these languages, and that knowledge forms the narrative thrust of the book. It’s an excellent first book about a subject that doesn’t get much popular coverage.
- It was umlaut-heavy, making it resemble Vopalük, though I had no idea at the time what Vopalük was.[↩]
- Actually, Klingon first appeared in a Star Trek movie, but it rose to popularity on the Star Trek: The Next Generation television show[↩]
- OK, no ease in the case of Loglan, but it was never intended to be an easy, human-usable language[↩]