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Recently read: In the Land of Invented Languages

[Originally published at the now defunct group blog explananda.com]

Posted on November 29, 2009
Tags: book_reviews

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!


Author: Steve Laniel
Date: 2009-11-29

Are there any connections with the metric system, and more generally with the Age of Enlightenment or the French Revolution? I’m thinking of the metric system’s doing away with arbitrary units like the length of the king’s toe or whatnot, replacing it with a system pristine in its rationality.

In particular, I’m curious if there were any pre-French Revolution rational languages.

Author: Chris
Date: 2009-11-29

I don’t recall any connection with metric itself. However, she spends a lot of time looking at the work of John Wilkins (1614-1672), an interesting guy, who did propose a more rational system of measurement that Wikipedia tells me was a precursor of metric. His language is an awesome mix of ambition and oddness. It’s the one that tries to name things according to what they are, which requires him to first specify what everything is.

By pre-French Revolution, do you mean pre-Enlightenment? Either way, Wilkins qualifies as before when scholars usually date all that stuff.

Author: upyernoz
Date: 2009-11-29

the books sounds great, i’ll have to track it down.

does it discuss the phenomenon of modern hebrew? arguably, it’s also an artificial language, and if so, probably the most successful artificial language ever attempted. they took ancient hebrew, which was a dead liturgical language, and filled it out so it could be used in everyday life by grafting on concepts and vocabulary from other semitic languages like arabic. then they got a whole lot of immigrants who came to palestine from all over europe (and mostly didn’t speak hebrew) to learn it and make it the first language of their children. it’s always amazed me that they ever pulled it off.

Author: Chris
Date: 2009-11-29

Yes, actually, there’s a brief discussion in the book of modern Hebrew, and the way in which it was revived in the 20th Century. The discussion is really brief, unfortunately—just enough to make me want to know more.

Author: ben wolfson
Date: 2009-11-30

what about the Begriffsschrift?

Author: Brian Barker
Date: 2009-11-30

Interest in Esperanto has peaked !

Just Google the word “Esperanto” and see how many hits you get.

Otherwise check http://www.lernu.net

Author: Chris
Date: 2009-11-30

I honestly can’t remember now whether she specifically mentions it. But Loglan, an attempt to produce a highly precise and logical language, touches on related issues (if I understand what you’re asking about).

Author: Bernardo Verda
Date: 2009-11-30

Arika Okrent devoted a fair amount to Ben Yehuda’s project to revive or re-invent a modern Hebrew, largely incorporated in the parts of the book dealing with Esperanto. Zamenhof and Yehuda’s worked on their projects at around around the same time, and even more remarkably actually succeeded in becoming actual “living” languages in practical use today.

She also had at least a chapter’s worth about Loglan and Lojban.

She actually researched the topic – and it needs to be noted that a truly astounding proportion of linguists and language professionals seem quite happy to pass off their casual impressions, assumptions and prejudices as well-founded, authoritative knowledge of this topic.

All in all, I found the book to be a relatively light, but still a quite worthwhile and entertaining, read.

Author: ben
Date: 2009-12-02

I believe you do understand what I’m talking about! Surely it would be interesting to look at the rise of logic first as a replacement for messy natural languages (Frege, Russell, etc) and then as a model for natural languages (all who come later, as far as I care to tell) through the lens of the history of constructed languages and the purposes for which they’re cosntructed.

Author: Chris
Date: 2009-12-02

Like I said, her discussion of Loglan (and Lojban) touches on some of that. It’s pretty funny to read her description of how hard it is to actually speak.