What sets language apart from other human inventions? Most obviously – none of us thinks of it as an invention. What we generally perceive to be the inscrutable, mystical essence of language is that no one can really say how or why it came to be. Language wasn’t invented; it evolved. That’s the accepted understanding that Akrika Okrent confronts, and in some cases overturns, in her 2009 nonfiction book In the Land of Invented Languages: Esperanto Rock Stars, Klingon Poets, Loglan Lovers, and the Mad Dreamers Who Tried to Build A Perfect Language.
Any language lover will be hard-pressed to put it down; for one, because Okrent assembles such a diverse cast of invented languages. Esperanto, the famous distillation of Indo-European languages, is of course explored, but so are Enlightenment-era attempts to create a language that would reflect fundamental philosophical truth, symbol-based languages whose letters more closely re
semble emoticons than alphabets, and Hebrew, that unique case of a sacred tongue resurrected and reshaped to fit its modern milieu. Okrent narrates her own forays into dusty dictionaries to attempt to understand these languages from the inside out, providing delightful excerpts (with translation) along the way.
These demonstrate the ambiguities and contradictions inherent in “natural” language, and confirm the impossibility of universal logic in any language, invented or otherwise. Perhaps most illuminating are Okrent’s considerations throughout of the provenance and socio-historical context of the various language experiments; she is interested in not just the diversity of such endeav
ors but why some were mocked, and others respected (e.g. Winston Churchill’s championing of Basic English), how Hebrew became a living language while Esperanto is rarely qualified as such, despite its impressive global prevalence. (Underlying her meditations on the many languages attempting to forge a universal tongue is the looming reign of English, in its many dialects and pidgins.) Okrent introduces the book with a foray into the world of Klingon speakers, and it sets up the main question of the book: “When a discussion of Klingon appeared on Slashdot.org – the website billed as “News for Nerds,” the topic inspired comments like, “I’m sorry but it’s people like this that give science fiction a bad name.”
What is it about an artificial language that provokes such uncertainty, fear, disdain? I know I balk at the thought of entrusting Google Translate with even the simplest Russian sentences (both out of smugness that it will never grasp all the nuances of that tortuous grammar, and a little bit of awe at its innovation of recognizing patterns in recorded texts). Language is an aspect of human ability that evades mechanical reproduction, and champions of literature want to see that protected, myself wholeheartedly included. But Okrent’s book approaches the work of these ingenious – if sometimes overambitious or shortsighted – creators by celebrating that their various languages get at many fundamental questions of what it means to describe, to signify, and to communicate. Indeed, each language comes off as its own work of art, which, if often flawed, is always inspired.
Excerpt from http://inthelandofinventedlanguages.com/index.php?page=excerpts&id=1. For more on the book, including a comprehensive list of invented languages, with timeline, history, and sample texts, see http://inthelandofinventedlanguages.com.
You’re right that “each language comes off as its own work of art, which, if often flawed, is always inspired.” Esperanto is a great, although still underestimated, creation. Next year is Esperanto’s 125th anniversary, so I’m sure there will be more public discussion about these issues of naturalness and artificiality.
Comments are closed.