Recent reading: In the Land of Invented Languages

Which is a nonfiction book by Arika Okrent.

What an interesting name, isn’t it? I mean the author’s name. Arika Okrent. Doesn’t that seem like a great name for a linguist?

Actually, Okrent has a double PhD, in linguistics and psychology, and it sure shows in this book. I got it for Christmas, and it turned out to be fascinating, a great book to start off the new year. It’s exactly what the title says it is: a book about invented languages – well, no, actually, it’s a book about the kinds of people who invent languages, and about what they’re trying to achieve when they invent a language, and about what features make natural languages succeed when (nearly) all artificial languages are complete failures. It’s also really well written and just fun to read.

Do you have any idea how many people have sat down throughout history and invented their own language? Hundreds and hundreds, it turns out – maybe thousands. “The nine hundred languages, over nine hundred years, we do have evidence for,” Okrent says, “suggest that the urge to invent languages is as old and persistent as language itself.” Wow. Who knew?

Apparently the most common motivations for inventing a language are:

a) To improve on existing languages – to design a language that is logical and consistent and unambiguous and which reveals the Truth of things – and then to convert everybody to your wonderful language.
b) To encourage universal understanding among peoples and thus create world peace.
c) To play with language as a game and hobby.

I bet it won’t surprise you to learn that the only artificial languages that have ever succeeded at all – that people have ever voluntarily learned and spoken and translated Hamlet into – belong to the third type.

Language inventers who go in with the intention to design a new language that everybody will swoon over and learn and give up their own languages for, a new language that will clarify the true nature of everything in the universe and prevent misunderstandings and promote world peace – yeah, those people are pretty much all nuts. It’s like the language inventor gets consumed by some odd combination of delusions of grandeur and obsessiveness. This does not lead to good things for the poor language inventors, who often become quite bitter when things don’t work out as they imagined.

None of that applies, however, to languages designed for fun – obviously Tolkien falls into this group – or to be fun things to participate in. There are two successful artificial languages, it turns out – I mean, languages normal people can actually learn and hold a conversation in. You know what those are? Yeah, Esperanto (Okrent spends plenty of time on Esperanto, the greatest success story in the world of invented languages), but what do you think the other one is? Right, you got it – Klingon. That strikes me as kind of wonderful. Though I sure don’t plan to learn Klingon, which is apparently really difficult. I mean, I had a hard enough time with French in high school, so count me out for Klingon. But after reading Okrent’s book, I can see why some people get absorbed in the language as a hobby.

The guy who designed Klingon, Marc Okrand, is a linguist who got roped in for the job by Paramont. He worked out a full grammar, and it’s a wonderful job: believable, alien, difficult, flexible. Klingon is an agglutinating language that tags all kinds of prefixes and suffixes onto base words – it has twenty-six noun suffixes, twenty-nine pronominal prefixes, thirty-six verb suffixes, on and on. It has features similar to things in Italian, Turkish, Korean, Native American languages – all kinds of stuff that seems really strange if English is your native language. Okrent says the language came out “completely believable as a language, but somehow very, very odd.”

Here’s a Klingon proverb, just as an example: Dubotchugh yIpummoH – If it’s in your way, knock it down. Or literally, Du (it-you) bot (block) chugh (if) yI (imperative) pum (fall) moH (cause).

Isn’t that interesting? No, come on, isn’t it?

Compare that to this, possibly my favorite in the get-real world of invented languages:

hi jun pa bol, “ciq ven! – gozi ben gozi fu bau han ceq, kai han turo kai toilsa xaq hu sta skai. hikai gozi fu tenho feimkian por sam ke gozi be fintir ko kujai hu sta to dunia.”

Which means: “and letter-pronoun-j past speak, “invite come! I-you future build one city, and one tower and letter-pronoun-t separator-particle top which is-located-in-sky. And you-I future have-become fame-name-for-prevent that I-you passive spread-throw to all-place which is-located-in the world.”

Got that? No? Well, it started off as “Let us build a city with a tower whose top may reach unto Heaven, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.”

That one is from a language called Ceqli, invented in the nineties, and apparently all that I-you pronoun-t stuff is the best it can do with the story of Babel. Wow, I’m sure that one will convert everyone away from their native languages. I do find it hard to imagine that language inventers actually think their languages are going to sweep the world, but evidently they often do think so.

And there are plenty of languages that are harder to pronounce, or harder to understand, or both. Okrent spends quite a bit of time on something called Philosophical Language, invented by John Wilkins in the sixteen hundreds, in which the words weren’t supposed to stand for things, they were actually supposed to define things. Like, everything in the universe. You couldn’t use a word without knowing exactly what you meant. Okrent says she “I settled in for a long weekend with [Wilkin’s Philosophical Language] . . . I emerged blinking and staggering, unsure of whether any word in any language meant anything at all.”

But you know what she realized, after working with Wilkin’s huge tome on his language and its concepts? Not that a conceptual language of this kind is totally impossible, she already knew that. No, she realized that Wilkins might not have invented a usuable language, but he had invented a thesaurus. How about that?

One more quick note: an otherwise completely unusable pictorial language called Blissymbolics (invented by a guy named Charles Bliss) actually is used today to communicate with children with cerebral palsy and teach them written English so they can communicate with anybody, when before they really couldn’t communicate with anybody. Bliss himself was definitely nutty and actually tried to prevent the rehab center from using his language (since they were “doing it all wrong”), but still, how many of us can say we’ve done something as important as open a doorway for communication with otherwise mute children?

Anyway, a great book.

This is a really neat book, an excellent choice to start off the new year.

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