Arika Okrent. In the Land of Invented Languages: Esperanto Rock Stars, Klingon Poets, Loglan Lovers, and the Mad Dreamers Who Tried to Build a Perfect Language
Why does language have to be so damn messy? Why do we have irregular verbs and inconsistently pluralized nouns and difficult to memorize and often arbitrary rules about the usage of prepositions and all the rest of it? The quirks of a language annoy and repel outsiders and almost as often stump native speakers too. And might this disorder in natural languages have consequences beyond the headaches involved in learning them? We have very muddled minds, do we not? Perhaps the muddle is linguistic in origin, and a clearer, more rational language would have us thinking clearer and more rational thoughts. And anyway, wouldn’t inventing an entirely new language simply be fun?
And so in a world already teeming with natural languages, many of which are suffering from neglect, we get people—a surprising number of people—who sweep all these languages aside in favour of new languages entirely of their own making. Arika Okrent’s In the Land of Invented Languages is a highly entertaining, insightful and well-researched look at several hundred years of attempts to construct artificial languages.
Okrent begins with early modern attempts to develop languages in which the names for things would indicate clearly what they actually were. (An artificial language with this ambition would use a term for a dog which would indicate precisely what a dog is, whereas our word “dog” denotes a dog simply by convention.) It’s an utterly nutty idea, and not just because you need to know how to break the entire universe down into categories before you can create, let alone speak, the language. It gives some sense of Okrent’s approach (and her goofy sense of humour) that the word she chooses to investigate is “shit,” and that she actually pulls off quite a nice discussion of some of the philosophical difficulties raised by her investigation.
As the dream of a language that would reflect the very structure of reality faded, many people retained a longing for the simplicity that an artificial language might offer. The most famous, and successful, of the attempts to produce a clear, rational artificial language is Esperanto, which is still spoken by many people today (though it seems to have peaked a while back). (Indeed, I know a guy who is fluent in Esperanto.) But there were, and are, an enormous number of rivals, many of which Okrent examines. And then there are modern languages developed to test theories of language (especially the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis). There is a language developed to embody a feminist perspective. And finally, there are languages invented as part of fictional worlds (Tolkien’s languages, which came before his books, Klingon, and more). Okrent does a great job of showing how these languages, and their strengths and their weaknesses, actually shed interesting light on natural languages. Recommended!
Howls of outrage (10)