home     authors     titles     dates     links     about

in the land of invented languages

5 april 2010

I was both delighted and instructed by Arika Okrent's In the Land of Invented Languages. It looked like a winner to start with: how could anyone resist a book subtitled "Esperanto rock stars, Klingon poets, Loglan lovers, and the mad dreamers who tried to build a perfect language"? But there's a fine balance to be struck in the making of such a book. Load it with technical details, and you lose general readers like me; load it with wacky interviews, and you lose academic readers like, well, me. But Okrent knows just how to handle her quirky topic, which, despite its esoterica, supplies insights into both the ideal and real aspects of language and rhetoric.

In the Land of Invented Languages is a "voice-driven" book. Okrent makes herself the heroine of her own story. That story, which frames the book's historical research, is the tale of how she learned Klingon. Or at least enough Klingon to pass the first level of the official Klingon exams. Apparently these are pencil-and-paper exams, which doesn't seem right. Initiation into any aspect of the Klingon Empire ought to involve severe beating with blunt instruments, not bubbling in circles with #2 pencil. But our heroine emerges successfully from this first test, on the last page of the book.

But Okrent is a linguist, not a journalist. She expects to ace her Klingon exam, so the story is not one of feverish cramming but of honor at stake. And since she is a linguist, her travels in the historical and contemporary worlds of made-up languages are told with great sympathy and understanding.

Who hasn't dreamed of being able to communicate more clearly, after all? Or even to understand better what one's saying to one's self? The dream of the "auxlang" contingent of language-inventers is to find the perfect "auxiliary language" for some social purpose: clarity of expression, world peace, gender equity. Into this category fall the invented languages of analytic philosophers, like John Wilkins's 17th-century Philosophical Language, Charles Bliss's pictographic Blissymbolics, and James Cooke Brown's Loglan, but also the various international-brotherhood experiments, of which Ludwig Zamenhof's Esperanto is the best-known, and Suzette Elgin's Láadan, which aims to make the emotional texture of discourse explicit in feminist ways.

Auxlangs all have a purpose, tremendously diverse though those purposes may be. Esperanto is the most successful because its purpose is not to have people speak in a certain way, but to have them speak together at all. By reversing Babel, Zamenhof hoped to make world conflict impossible. Okrent's joyous picture of Esperantism in practice suggests that Zamenhof succeeded – at least among the handful of world citizens who have bothered to learn Esperanto. To witness: it would be a labor of Hercules to translate In the Land of Invented Languages itself into any of the other languages Okrent discusses: it seems hard enough to render The Lord's Prayer or even a request for more coffee into some of them. But Okrent's book could easily be translated into Esperanto, a full-featured, living language, and I'd be surprised if some Esperantist didn't try.

By contrast, auxlangs like Brown's Loglan are intentionally all but unspeakable. Loglan attempts to make every utterance precise and unequivocal. In that respect, it's the antithesis of a natural language. You could lie in Loglan, but you couldn't be ambiguous about the content of that lie; and as speakers of natural languages know, most human misdirection lies in ambiguity rather than deceit.

Brown was the inventor of a board game I loved as a child, Careers. Careers had a sense of humor and an ingenious system. In fact it's interesting that its creator developed such an austere invented language. Careers is basically Monopoly or Life, but with an element of individual expression involved; it's a game that realizes that people have contrasting goals, instead of reducing everything to the cash nexus. But Loglan prohibits the element of cross-purposes that characterizes Careers. Instead, it reminds me of a "game" that I found maddeningly precise, practically unplayable as a child, Wff 'n Proof. Instead of actual conversation, Loglan seems to put its utterances through a sort of logical compiler, more interested in whether they are "well-formed" than whether they convey people's needs and desires.

The other category in Okrent's linguistic researches is "conlang," the large body of constructed languages that exist not to serve a social or intellectual purpose, but simply to show that they can be devised. Such languages are sometimes invented for the purpose of fiction (often SF or fantasy). Others exist as the hobbies of professional or amateur linguists, whether as intellectual exercises or, as JRR Tolkien put it, "secret vices."

Tolkien's Elvish languages are the most respectable of the conlangs, but the most widely-spoken is Klingon. If you feel sorry for people who wear Starfleet uniforms, Okrent advises, think on this: Klingon speakers are the ones that Starfleet fanboys feel sorry for.

Yet despite the social mortifications of her induction into Klingon culture, Okrent manages to convey the pleasure of appreciating the Klingon language for its own sake. Klingon's inventor, Marc Okrand, has inventiveness galore and an allusive sense of humor. And he also has a gift for balance that resembles Okrent's. "My basic strategy," says Okrand, "was to switch sources whenever it started becoming too much like any one language in particular" (270-271). That eclecticism has been part of the success of Klingon – that, and its connection to the most kick-ass contingent of the Federation, of course. Klingon, says Okrent, "is completely believable as a language, but somewhow very, very odd. And very, very difficult for the average English speaker to learn" (271).

Nothing valuable comes without effort, and in the case of Klingon the converse appears to be true: something that requires effort, by that very token, becomes valuable. Among the world's hundreds of wholly invented languages, only two are spoken fluently in social situations: Esperanto, which has evolved to the point of having native speakers – and Klingon, which can at least enable a conversation about dilithium crystals and cloaking devices at a Star Trek convention. Reason not the need, as Shakespeare once said (though it presumably sounded better in the original Klingon).

Okrent, Arika. In the Land of Invented Languages: Esperanto rock stars, Klingon poets, Loglan lovers, and the mad dreamers who tried to build a perfect language. New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2009.