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In the Land of Invented Languages: Esperanto Rock Stars, Klingon Poets, Loglan Lovers, and the Mad Dreamers Who Tried to Build a Perfect Languageby Arika Okrent
Synopses & Reviews
Just about everyone has heard of Esperanto, which was nothing less than one mans attempt to bring about world peace by means of linguistic solidarity. And every Star Trek fan knows about Klingon, which was nothing more than a television shows attempt to create a tough-sounding language befitting a warrior race with ridged foreheads. But few people have heard of Babm, Blissymbolics, and the nearly nine hundred other invented languages that represent the hard work, high hopes, and full-blown delusions of so many misguided souls over the centuries.
In In The Land of Invented Languages, author Arika Okrent tells the fascinating and highly entertaining history of mans enduring quest to build a better language. Peopled with charming eccentrics and exasperating megalomaniacs, the land of invented languages is a place where you can recite the Lords Prayer in John Wilkinss Philosophical Language, say your wedding vows in Loglan, and read Alice's Adventures in Wonderland in Lojban.
A truly original new addition to the booming category of language books, In The Land of Invented Languages will be a must-have on the shelves of all word freaks, grammar geeks, and plain old language lovers.
"Efforts to make language simpler, clearer, less divisive and more truthful have backfired spectacularly, to judge by this delightful tour of linguistic hubris. Linguist Okrent explores some of the themes and shortcomings of 900 years worth of artificial languages. She surveys 'philosophical languages' that order all knowledge into self-evident systems that turn out to be bizarrely idiosyncratic; 'symbol languages' of supposedly crystalline pictographs that are actually bafflingly opaque; 'basic' languages that throw out all the fancy words and complicated idioms; rigorously logical languages so rule-bound that it's impossible to utter a correct sentence; 'international languages,' like Esperanto, that unite different cultures into a single idealistic counterculture; and whimsical 'constructed languages' that assert the unique culture and worldview of women, Klingons or chipmunks. Okrent gamely translates to and from these languages, with unspeakably hilarious results, and riffs on the colorful eccentricities of their megalomaniacal creators. Fortunately, her own prose is a model of clarity and grace; through it, she conveys fascinating insights into why natural language, with its corruptions, ambiguities and arbitrary conventions, trips so fluently off our tongues. (May 19) Whether it's history, autobiography or the current state of drugs or minor leagues, publishers have the bases covered" Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
One surefire way to become aware of the absurdity of the English language is to have a kid. My 5- year-old son's sensible linguistic assumptions are constantly butting up against the deep weirdness of our mother tongue. He tells me "I runned to the store." He should be right. He says "no more asparaguses." That should be correct. And what's the opposite of "upside down?" "Upside up," of course. As... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) opposed to "right side up," which is peculiar and confusing. As Arika Okrent writes in her new book, "In the Land of Invented Languages," "from an engineering perspective, language is kind of a disaster." English in particular is choked with irregular words and anachronistic phrases that long ago stopped making intuitive sense. If it were a car, it would be a jalopy patched together from a bunch of spare parts. Such is the curse of the natural language. It's not as if French or Swahili is much more logical. So it's easy to understand why thousands of people over hundreds of years have tried to create a better language from scratch. Okrent's book is a fascinating look at some of these attempts, from the well-known (Esperanto) to the obscure (Toki Pona, which "uses only positive words ... to promote positive thinking.") As she notes, the efforts have been mostly failures. If they are spoken at all, these languages are spoken by fringe groups, few of whom get much more respect than those Trekkie Klingon speakers. But it's still worth learning about them, because they shed light both on the perils of idealism and on the evolution of natural language. Okrent — a Ph.D. in linguistics from the University of Chicago — starts her tale with the 17th-century crusade by British intellectuals to come up with a universal math-based language. One method? Simply assign every word a number, as did the Ipswich man who decided 742 should mean "embroider" and r2654 is "loosenesse in the belly." A more sophisticated attempt came from scientist John Wilkins, whose language tried to categorize the world in a logical way. The problem? It devolved into hundreds of arbitrary categories such as "purgations, vaporous ... from gut upwards" (e.g., belching) and "purgations, vaporous ... from the guts downwards" (e.g., farting). Two centuries later, ophthalmologist Ludwik Zamenhof created Esperanto, the most famous artificial language. He hoped it would eliminate misunderstandings and foster peace. As they say in Esperanto, "La tot' homoze en familije konungiare so deba" (May the whole of humanity be united as one). The irony is that Esperanto advocates themselves split into warring factions. Esperanto has had some unlikely fans over the years, from Leo Tolstoy to the young George Soros, but the whole of humanity never adopted it. Estimates of Esperanto speakers range from 100,000 to 2 million. Okrent befriends several of them at an Esperanto conference, where she rocks out to some Esperanto pop music — such as the classic "Tute Ne Gravas" ("No Big Deal") — and watches Esperanto flag ceremonies. It's an amusing account — Okrent is that rare linguist with a gift for lively language. The book also covers modern constructed languages, including a feminist one called Laadan, which has finely tuned words for emotions, as well as six words for six ways women can experience menstruation, such as joyfully, painfully or late. There's also Loglan, created in the 1960s by a science-fiction author named James Cooke Brown, who believed that English fostered sloppy thinking. So could a more logical language make people think more clearly? Loglan speakers — and there are still a few — say yes. But it's not user-friendly. It's more like spoken computer code. The sentence "All Dogs are blue," for example, becomes "All-x-that x dog if-then x blue." Or as they say in Logland, "radaku da kangu u da blanu." Okrent ends the book at a Klingon convention, where she enjoys translations of Beatles songs, learns Klingon insults, such as "your mother has a smooth forehead," and feels sorry for the waitress who "patiently guessed at what my costumed tablemates were pointing to when they insisted on giving their orders in Klingon." My only gripe is that Okrent lets natural language off the hook too easily. She says her studies gave her a deeper appreciation for the messiness of language: "Ambiguity, or fuzziness of meaning, is not a flaw of natural language but a feature that gives it flexibility and that, for whatever reason, suits our minds and the way we think." True enough, but the way we think is pretty messy and illogical. Maybe a total language overhaul a la Esperanto is doomed to fail. But can't we at least try to tinker with it? Can't we make it a bit clearer? Can't we all start saying "upside up?" A.J. Jacobs is the author of "The Year of Living Biblically" and the upcoming "Guinea Pig Diaries: My Life as an Experiment." Reviewed by A.J. Jacobs, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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Okrent tells the fascinating and highly entertaining history of man's enduring quest to build a better language.
About the Author
Arika Okrent received a joint Ph.D. in the Department of Linguistics and the Department of Psychologys Cognition and Cognitive Neuroscience Program at the University of Chicago. She has also earned her first-level certification in Klingon. She lives in Philadelphia.
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