In the Land of Invented Languages In the Land of Invented Languages by Arika Okrent
Publisher: Spiegel & Grau
Year: 2009
Pages: 352

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.

  1. It was umlaut-heavy, making it resemble Vopalük, though I had no idea at the time what Vopalük was.[]
  2. Actually, Klingon first appeared in a Star Trek movie, but it rose to popularity on the Star Trek: The Next Generation television show[]
  3. OK, no ease in the case of Loglan, but it was never intended to be an easy, human-usable language[]
§4522 · September 30, 2009 · Tags: , , , , ·

6 Comments to “In the Land of Invented Languages”

  1. Bill Chapman says:

    I hope you’ll accept comments from a British reader.

    Your comments about Esperanto are generally fair. However, it is not just a language for idealists and has some remarkable practical benefits. Personally, I’ve made friends around the world through Esperanto that I would never have been able to communicate with otherwise. And then there’s the Pasporta Servo, which provides free lodging and local information to Esperanto-speaking travellers in over 90 countries. In the past few years I have had guided tours of Berlin and Milan and Douala in Cameroon in the planned language. I have discussed philosophy with a Slovene poet, humour on television with a Bulgarian TV producer. I’ve discussed what life was like in East Berlin before the wall came down, how to cook perfect spaghetti, the advantages and disadvantages of monarchy, and so on.

    Take a look at http://www.lernu.net

  2. Conor says:

    Linguists are by and large too afraid of conflating language and culture. Sure, Klingon and Esperanto can be seen as successes amid artificial languages, but does either have more “interested or casual speakers” today than 1337 or lolspeak? I’d like to see data on that!

    Esperanto has thus fair failed not because it is a poorly thought-out language, or too logical, or not logical enough, but because there’s simply no preexisting culture worth learning the language for. (Yes, this valuation is very subjective, in that lolcats can analogously be seen as incontestably precious.)

    Bill, you point out what to me is most beautiful about artificial languages: they don’t stay artificial. Imagery of vines overtaking a stone wall comes to mind. You are relating firsthand experience of an extremely cultural phenomenon pertaining to the “artificial” language Esperanto. Once enough of those kinds of experiences happen, the language finally has an identity, and becomes more “valuable” to learn.

    So, in many ways, those learning Esperanto now and in the past may be hippies, but they may also be doing something noble. I’m not yet ready to make a judgment call on lolspeak, though.

  3. Nick says:

    One factoid I’ve heard anecdotally is that in the early twentieth century, many mathematicians adopted Esperanto as their language of choice for academic publications, no doubt drawn to its promises of unambiguity. There are now mathematicians who have to learn Esperanto to access and translate these papers.

    I think one of the obstacles to sustaining an invented language is that in the process of manifesting itself culturally, a language will necessarily cross paths with other ones and exchange loanwords, idioms, and syntactic influences. Bat’leth is as much an English word as it is a Klingon one, and it would certainly be weird for Klingon to be completely devoid of words borrowed directly from human roots. (One could argue that a lack of linguistic cross-pollination is the consequence of a Universal Translator, but I don’t think it wise to follow Trek-logic that far.)

  4. Conor says:

    Bat’leth is as much an English word as it is a Klingon one

    Well, I don’t know about that… ;) I’d certainly say that it’s “more” a Klingon word than an English word, given that more Klingon speakers are likely to know it than English speakers. Right?

    I thoroughly agree that by virtue of existing and being handled as a language, an artificial language will accrue loan words and, thereby potentially becoming less apolitical, in a sense (as in the example of Esperanto). But to me, this isn’t a problem at all. The primary obstacle at this point is that any artificial language get taken so seriously that “foreign” words will glom onto it and become incorporated in it.

    Yes, the math academia story is fascinating, but it doesn’t really show the language behaving “naturally” (i.e., being receptive/vulnerable to loan words).

    Not to hijack the discussion, but recently I’ve been trying to reconcile layers of abstraction in programming with problems of iterative translation in natural languages. I haven’t come up with much. But it occurs to me that strictly the accretion of loan words could be seen as adding a layer of abstraction to a given language (regardless of whether its natural or “invented”).

    • Ben says:

      I would make the assertion that Bat’leth is as much an X word as an English word, where X is the language of the culture that consumes it. We’re thinking of Klingon as an artificial language created within the confines of an English-speaking culture, and therefore it seems more like a curious construct of English than a language unto itself—and in the case of Klingon, maybe that’s true.

      Esperanto as a common language for math doesn’t at all surprise me: nowadays (or at least in recent history) English has become the lingua franca for commerce and even culture to a certain extent. I don’t think Nick intended it as an example of a language becoming an organic entity as opposed to a construct; I think it was an example of language needing to find a use before it can ever become self-sustaining. Esperanto, paradoxically, was both largely inseparable from its politics and separate from the politics of existing languages, which is what made it such a likely candidate for international communication in math and business.

      But as just about every invented language has seen, a language’s utility or beauty or sensibility are all much ado about nothing, because language is a thoroughgoing populist.

  5. Conor says:

    P.S. Subscribe-to-comments WordPress plugin win!

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