Thursday, April 28, 2011

On "How He Felt" by Amelia Gray (280 words) ***

In this very short piece, a man struggles with how to get across his feelings to the world. Gray's story hints at the quintessential problem of artists--be it painters, musicians, or writers--everywhere. Only a few artists ever see their work take on the sort of emotional power in others they would hope for, and yet beyond that, because each person experiences things uniquely, it's not necessarily the same feeling. But we can delude ourselves into thinking it is--and maybe that's enough. Read the story here at Wigleaf.

Monday, April 25, 2011

On "Singing the Bone" by Alison Christy (4414 words) ****

Something is oddly chilling about this piece. I believe it's the focus on cadavers and on dissection, and yet the focus works so well here--and could work well in so many kinds of stories. Here, bodies get dissected--dead ones, but also living--as well as lives and relationships. Take two women, two spinster sisters, and throw into the middle of them a man, available, interested. Who gets him? Why? What's best? Or is love best left alone? Read the story here at Summerset Review.

Friday, April 22, 2011

On "Cleaning Up" by Rachel Furey (7227 words) ***

One wonders why our protagonist doesn't find another room while her roommate beds with a boyfriend. One wonders why the roommate would deign to touch someone else's used condom but doesn't want to touch other trash. One wonders why the protagonist likes a professor so desperately that she can't see his complete apathy toward her. Or her roommate's dismissal.

The protagonist is a scholarship student, as is her roommate. These are the smart kids. But sometimes smarts are just grades on paper or scores on tests and have little to do with real life, with living, with *doing* what's smart--which sort of reminds me of some people I went to school with, which sort of reminds me of, well, me. (At least my roommates were kind enough not to bring the women to our apartment when they thought I was around--well, most of my roommates.) Read the story here at Freight Stories.

On "Nim Chimpsky" by Elizabeth Hess *****

More a biography of a research animal than a text on linguistics, Hess's book is an incredibly moving account of one of the chimpanzees used in the ongoing experiments in which primates are taught a human language. The findings may be fascinating, but the cost to the chimp seem formidable.

Nim was the subject of an experiment conducted by Herbert Terrace at NYU. Unlike previous chimp experiments, Terrace's project aimed to have Nim raised like a human being, while at the same time learning a new language. For this purpose, Nim was brought--at eleven days old--to New York from his earlier home in Oklahoma. His mother, we learn in the book, was used to having babies snatched from her after a week or so (in order to farm them out to waiting circuses, scientists, and "pet" enthusiasts), and she guarded Nim jealously for the short time that she was allowed to keep him. Alas, she was put to sleep, and her chimp taken so that the experiment could begin.

Terrace chose an upper-class family in Manhattan to serve as Nim's. The family was a kind of Brady Bunch, the merging of two former families. The dad, W. E. R. LaForge was from a family with inherited wealth. He'd been formerly married to a woman who, in the book's account, essentially doted on him, while he worked away in his highly conformist role. But he had a mid-aged breakdown when the 1970s rolled around, and off he went, adopting a kind of hippie lifestyle, and to that end, he joined up with another woman who also left her husband and whose own lifestyle was more in keeping with the new person that the LaForge had become. The problem: she was also highly interested in Terrace's experiment (being a former student of his), and she agreed to take in the chimp. LaForge had no real way to disagree if he wanted to keep his new wife, and not only that, he ended up paying most of the bills.

We watch over the course of that first year or so, the LaForge family break apart under the stress of keeping the chimp. And in this is the great irony. Nim breaks up many a family and a relationship along the way. He throws tantrums. He bites. He is, in many ways awful, but people love him, because he is "almost human."

Terrace needs hard numbers, so he begins insisting on training Nim in a more typical classroom manner, much to the disagreement of Ms. LaForge. The project stalls; she leaves. New "parents" take over, and then again, after another set of months, another new set of parents take over. Taking care of a chimp is stressful, and each time, the scientist doing the language experiment (who needs hard data to get grants) seems up against the family taking care of the chimp (who just want to get along).

In the end, after Nim takes a chunk out of the face of one his teacher's, Terrace decides to end the experiment. And Nim is returned to the Oklahoma facilities from which he came but at which he has never actually lived.

It is a far cry from his past surroundings. In Oklahoma, Nim lives in a cage among chimps, whereas he's grown up living in a house, among humans. The transition is stressful, though he manages to come through it all right.

Meanwhile, Terrace, who seemed bound to convince people that Nim can talk, actually comes out with a paper saying that his experiment failed and that chimps cannot usefully use language. This rather surprises many surrounding Nim. On Nim's return to Oklahoma, it's apparent that he knows how to sign, and he does it in a manner that is more fluid than most primates that have been trained, and furthermore he does it on his own initiative, in order to begin conversations. Then again, what does he really mean? As one person noted, after being bitten, Nim kept signing "bite." She had no idea whether he was trying to say sorry or whether he was threatening to bite again. We're not talking significant strings of words here.

Still, in a turnaround of sympathy, one ends up feeling a bit for Terrace. And in this is one of the book's interesting observations. To Hillix and Rumbaugh, Roger Fouts (the owner of Washoe, who also worked for a time in Oklahoma) is an absolute hero; William Lemmon, the owner of the IPS, the primate research facility, is an absolutely evil man. To Hess, those distinctions aren't so clear. Fouts at times comes across as more interested in his research than the chimps; Lemmon, a problematic figure to be sure, comes across as a person who at least has some concern for his animals--and a hard sense of just how much they aren't human and so much be treated as such at times to avoid injury. And Terrace, the cold scientist, is one of those who comes to Nim's rescue, when Lemmon, in financial straits, has to start selling off his primates to medical researchers.

Nim is shipped off to a place that is testing hepatitis vaccines. Terrace, along with a man named Bob Ingersoll and a few others, raise a ruckus, and get Nim shipped back to Oklahoma and eventually adopted by an animal refuge. The problem is that the refuge isn't used to handling chimps, and so Nim's first year there is rather a depressing time for him, cooped in a cage by himself. But finally, wisdom prevails, and someone finally gets the refuge's managers to understand that chimps are social animals and need to be among others--and so more chimps are adopted to give Nim a family.

Throughout it all, Nim continues signing, though less so with age, since fewer humans will sign back. He even teaches some of the other chimps to sign. It is a strange world that Nim inhabits. And I'm not sure, since he's cooped up in a cage, that it's a pleasant one. By teaching such animals language, we are, I suppose, opening the gateway to questions about experiments on animals in general. Just how much is the experiment worth, especially when it makes an animal unable to live in the wild but also unable to live among us?

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

On "The Shared Patio" by Miranda July (3076 words) ****

No one I know writes quite like Miranda July. That is a good thing--for Miranda July and for her readers. I mean, would she be quite the fun writer she is if 582 other people wrote exactly like her? Not likely. Fun writers are fun because they are unique, which means that even if there are 582 other writers exactly like her, we don't know about them, and so we love Miranda July.

In "The Shared Patio," we get the tale of a lonely woman who dreams of an affair with her thoroughly average narrator. Possibly this woman has HIV. Certainly, she works for a company that prints a brochure on HIV, and she tries to have positive thoughts about everything in her world, even though she's a complete social misfit. But she shares a patio. We all share patios. Even if we don't belong on them. We share them. Everything is good. Because of patios, which we share. We, the patio users. See what I mean. Read the story here at Zoetrope.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

On "My First Serial Killer" by Julie Innis (1484 words) ***

Humor is often the result of taking a low culture item and placing it among high culture or vice versa. Or taking something deadly serious and putting it into a much less serious context--or more often the opposite. Innis's story works such techniques very well, placing the serial killer story into the realm of relationship gone disappointingly mundane. By the end, one wonders which person is more crazy and smiles the whole way. Read the story here at Pindeldyboz.

On "Animal Bodies, Human Minds," by W. A. Hillix and Duane Rumbaugh ****

This book serves as a fascinating introduction to animal language acquisition. It discusses various attempts by human beings to teach animals human languages, focusing most on primates but also including chapters on dolphins and parrots. No doubt, the focus is on primates because that's where most of the research has taken place.

Whereas Stephen Pinker was dismissive of the ability of animals to learn language, Hillix and Rumbaugh are believers. Pinker comes up in this book at least once, in the second to last chapter, where the authors try to answer the objections of the various scholars who disagree with them. I found Pinker's statements to be somewhat misleading, if I am to believe these authors, for Pinker had noted that all researchers had given up on the idea of animals learning languages--including some of those included in this book--save for Rumbaugh himself. In fact, this book, written after Pinker's own, features some of those same linguists, who are still working with animals and still making various claims about those animals' linguistic abilities.

But what are the objections? Animals who have language skills may be exhibiting only behaviors that look like language but that aren't truly language. They might be picking up on subtle gestures when a human is talking and then taking those as commands. They might be learning words but failing to really understand those words other than as a means to receive some kind of reward. They might be able to use words but can't use syntax (the authors seem to go back and forth on whether primates have syntactic abilities), and if syntax seems possible, it might only be that the animal is learning strings of words rather than words alone. And on and on the problems go. After all, we're talking to some other animal. We can't get into this animal's head to know what is actually going on, just as we can't get into someone else's head to know what's going on in it.

So to what extent are even these things that some critics claim are actually going on not in themselves language? What is language? Is it not simply communication? And so, if we manage to communicate to another creature to pick up a Frisbee, are we not using language that the creature recognizes? Does a bee dance constitute language, since it communicates with other bees?

Or does language have to be something that we can use in unique ways (placing, for example, the word honey into a context not heard before and having the other creature understand, like--"touch the honey with your toe")? Does it have to qualify as more than just requests? What language is is the subject of the second chapter of the book, and it is something that the authors fail to satisfactorily answer, and that is because there is no satisfactory answer.

After that, we're introduced to the various animals and their trainers. We learn of chimpanzees and bonobos and orangutans and apes that have all been trained to use language. Some animals master close to two hundreds words, we're told; some have possibly used at one time or another up to one thousand words. Tests are recounted, including some that are supposed to guard against things like the Clever Hans effect (where a gesture acts as a command to a linguistic cue). Some are meant to test just what the creature is understanding: Can the creature separate like items from unlike items? Can the creature make a new sentence?

The authors also explore how the various creatures learn to talk. Some are taught sign language, some use plastic symbols, some use "lexigrams" (computer based images). Some are talked to with verbal language; some are only talked to in the nonverbal language chosen. But why not just use a verbal language? Some have tried, but apparently primates don't like to use their voice or may not be capable of uttering real words with the voice. One primate, for example, eventually did learn to say verbally Mama, Papa, and Cup, but never anything more. Another possibility is that voice in a monkey is too tied to emotion to be used for language (there are essentially six vocal uses among certain primates).

Techniques used vary. They include tutoring with operant-response procedures (I require you to say "I want a cookie" and reward you accordingly when you do--but this technique, as one might guess, tends to have limited value for getting a creature to use language spontaneously). They also include a more interesting (and recent) technique, wherein language is demonstrated to an animal. Two subjects talk with one another, requesting items and receiving them, in the presence of the primate, who is given the option of joining in the conversation but not directly. In this way, the primate sees how language works.

The interesting thing about this system is that it sort of mirrors the way in which one of the most successful cases of a primate learning language--the case of Kanzi. Kanzi's mother was taught to use lexigrams, but she barely got to fifty words and seemed to have little interest. But Kanzi, the child, who was present at each of these sessions picked up on these things, and when finally separated from the mom as an adult, rapidly progressed to more complex linguistic skills. Some of the creatures among this group have even begun using language with their own children, and one scientist thinks that the creatures are creating a kind of creole of English and monkey speak.

I was, coming into the text, most interested in dolphins, seals, and parrots, since I was least familiar with these language experiments. I found myself, however, less interested in these chapters than I thought I would be when I got to them. The fact that these creatures are so far away from humans anatomically means that language training with them is in some ways less interesting--one is forced to used odd systems in the case of dolphins, since there's really no means to "talk" otherwise. And the parrot, while perhaps having mastered some words in the human tongue, seems focused, at least in the discussions on the text, on requests (gimme a grape . . .), which in turn doesn't lend to much thinking on the readers part about the nature of the mind of the creature.

The discourse with primates, however, can be interesting to learn about. Unfortunately, discussions are fairly rudimentary, as one might expect. Still, there seem to be indications that conversations sometimes go beyond expressing needs and desires. And more than that, though, the techniques used with primates have been adopted for use with language-handicapped children, such that some of these children have then been able to begin speaking, although not necessarily with their mouths. Just how much animals know, to what extent they think like humans--these are fascinating questions to explore, and because we are locked into the bodies in which we have, they are questions that are not easily answered. Helix and Rumbaugh and the researchers they discuss take a stab at it.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

On "Flex" by Maria O'Connell (5804 words) ***

Four ex-roommates from college decide to spend a weekend together in their old house. This seems like it might be the plot of Saint Elmo's Fire or some film like it--I don't remember. Nevertheless, I'm a sucker for the story. Maybe it's that O'Connell, while presenting a story that seems like something out of Hollywood, does such a good job with the dialogue and the characters. These are people we know. These are conversations we listen to. This is a story we remember. Read it here at Wazee Journal.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

On "Floater" by Brett Rosenblatt (2746 words) ****

Let's talk about a cruise, a cruise you don't want to be on, a cruise recommended to you by your analyst, a cruise as recovery from a marriage gone bad. That's what Rosenblatt's "Floater" is about. What makes it so fun, though, is the voice.

Years ago, on first reading Catcher in the Rye, it was the voice that astounded me there. The voice had attitude. Attitude makes for great writing. But it can also make for bad writing, if it's overdone. Finding the balance is harder to achieve than one might initially think. Rosenblatt does that here. And what makes the surly, don't-want-to-be-here voice so much more interesting is that it's happening on vacation. If there's any time to lay off the cynicism, an expensive trip on a ship is it. Not our narrator, though. He really isn't happy to be alive. And somehow we're glad to hear that. Read it here at the Barcelona Review.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

On "The Tree Poachers" by James Zerndt (3925 words) ***

Stealing a tree is not the first thing that comes to mind when I think of an action story, and I suppose this isn't so much an action story as one that involves an old man and a younger one and what life teaches you--or doesn't. Will the two succeed? And who gets the credit if they do? Read the story here at Fiction Weekly.

On "Hunger of Memory" by Richard Rodriguez ****

I've known about this book for years. I haven't heard much about it since I moved to the South, but back when I was an undergraduate in California, this text was mentioned frequently in various lectures. And Rodriguez's book Days of Obligation (or something like that) came out during those college years as well and was something of a popular seller. Whether it's that I live in the comparatively Hispanic-poor South (although Hispanics are now fast gaining ground in terms of percentage of population in the area) or that I've been out of school and thus out of the earshot of folks referencing Rodriguez, I haven't heard much about him or his writing since leaving California.

Rodriguez's book is on my language reading list chiefly because it is, in part, a book about learning language--learning a second language, as a child (it is the second of two autobiographies about language education on the list). Language is the subject of the first couple of chapters of the text, and it's interesting what Rodriguez has to say about it, given that he is one of those kids who assimilates by learning the language of his host country, while his parents don't quite. Sure, his parents speak English, but it is accented and stilted; Rodriguez and his siblings, by contrast, learn to speak the English that native-born Americans speak. But it was not always that way. Rodriguez, before going to school, chiefly spoke Spanish--because that is what his parents and the family spoke in the home. This meant trouble, however, in school, where Rodriguez struggled to communicate in English. To ensure that their kids did better in school, his parents began to speak English in the home.

For Rodriguez, this was a pivotal moment. Before, Spanish was his language--and his life. Spanish, for him, is the language of family, of private concerns. English, by contrast, is a language for the public. So moving to English meant moving into the public sphere, moving into the world. And it also meant splitting, in a way, from his family. This is the hunger--a desire for the nostalgic past, the private past, the private language, he once had (he is no longer, he claims, a good Spanish speaker).

But contrary to what one might expect, he embraces this hunger. It is natural. It is what comes with becoming an American, with moving into the public sphere, with becoming educated. It is the price one pays for opportunity and for assimilation.

Other chapters focus on Rodriguez's Catholic upbringing (the chapter I enjoyed most, I think), as he moved from Catholic schools to non-Catholic universities; on Rodriguez's skin color (his desires as a young person to be more white); and his relationship with affirmative action and the academy.

Regarding skin color, I thought a bit in relation to my own very white skin. Rodriguez hated to undress, when younger, lest he get too dark a tan; I have never liked to undress because of a lack of a tan (and no desire to spend hours trying to obtain one). For Rodriguez, dark meant poor--like Mexican day laborers; what does light mean to me? Unadventurous?

On affirmative action, Rodriguez's comments remind me a bit of an episode of What's Happening? when the waitress Shirley gets a job in an office--as the token black. She quits when she finds this out. Rodriguez admits that he's done well by the system but that he is uncomfortable with it. For him, the problem is that he does not consider himself disadvantaged. It is the poor who are disadvantaged, no matter the color of the skin; to promote people who are already comfortably off based on skin tone seems to him unfair--not just to whites (who often bemoan affirmative action, but mostly for reason pertaining only to their own selfish ends) but most importantly to those who most need it, the people at the bottom of the ladder economically. He has a good point, though given that, then really our focus as a society would have to be not on jobs or higher learning but on the very start of learning, the early years, on ensuring less-advantaged children have a chance.

Rodriguez ends with a chapter on writing, on how writing is a public act in which one reveals secrets. The private, intimate language of home can be put into the public sphere via writing--though in the process, it becomes not private at all but some kind of public rendition of it. I was left to think about his ideas of private family talk, given that they seem so tied up in this Spanish/English divide. My mom grew up speaking German, but like Rodriguez, switched over to English in school; now, she knows no German. This is at it should be, she says--as Rodriguez says, kids must put on the public language. I've tended to think that bilingual education is useful to those who have it, that it is not the danger some make it out to be.

As an English only speaker, I guess I don't quite know what Rodriguez is driving at with these languages used for different purposes. I too have a private language, but it is not based on which national tongue I speak. It is based on who I am talking with (I do not speak the same to everyone). And like Rodriguez, writing is a strange thing, where I put out in public sometimes things I would never say in public or in private, except in the privacy of my own head. Why writing makes certain people feel this way, I don't know.

Monday, April 4, 2011

On "Fried Chicken" by Lee Smith (3879 words) ****

In fewer than four thousand words, Smith takes us into the contradictory life of a murderer's mother. It's contradictory because the mother simultaneously claims a normal life and eschews what normality is offered to her. In her own mind, she is so much more than the mother of a murderer; yet in her mind, all the towns folk think of her as is the mother of a murderer. But when people are friendly to her, is it because they're trying to be extra nice to the mother of a murderer or just being nice the way they always were. The limited perspective here doesn't let us know. But what it does let us know is how lonely this woman is. Her son was everything to her, and now he is in jail. She can't think about what he's done. She can only justify him. And cook chicken, hoping for someone to take her away from what her life has become. Read the story here at Blackbird.

On "The Story of My Life" by Helen Keller ***

Helen Keller has becomes part of the national mythos. I've known vaguely, since I was a kid, that she a blind and deaf child who managed somehow to overcome her circumstances to get an education and to be of aid to other handicapped people. I knew Anne Sullivan was her teacher. And that was probably about it.

The focus on language as instinct got me to think about Keller and to various ideas that linguists are exchanging regarding language acquisition. Here, after all, was someone who had not learned language as a baby and yet still mastered it, who had not had a chance to babble--with hands or with tongue, to hear or to see language, and yet who still managed to learn.

But in the end, she does not discount the theories of Pinker or Chomsky, for Keller, as this early autobiography makes clear, had both sight and sound for the first eighteen months of her life. Hence, the instinctualists could claim that those early months were what allowed her access to our language-based world. Keller claims, for instance, that before she had lost sight and sound, she had learned the word for water. She called it "wa-wa." It is how she remembers that word sounding. And she claims to remember certain sights too (this goes against someone else's insights, wherein the author claimed that with the loss of sight, one's memories of it began to fade too).

"Wa-wa" proves to have crucial importance in the book (as it does in various movie adaptations of Keller's life), for it is water that Keller first learns to interpret in sign language--a language she has to learn by feeling her teacher's hands. Before this, apparently, there is some vague usage of signs for specific things, but by an large, Keller is cut off from language as a child, and her frustration with her situation is evident in the various tantrums she throws. How one could bear to live without either sound or sight is beyond me, especially if there is no means to communicate with the world outside one's self. It seems an utterly solitary life, like being buried alive. How Keller finally makes the intellectual leap to understand that signs have meaning and that each item has a name is beyond me. But she does it. It all seems very reasoned out in her autobiography.

A more difficult word for Keller is "doll," for it takes her teacher a bit more skill to convey to her that "doll" is not a specific doll but anything of this particular category that Keller is holding. "Love" proves to be difficult as well, for it demands the Keller begin to grasp that some words refer to things that are abstract rather than concrete. But each symbol is grasped in time. In total, given the reasoned explanations she gives for each step along the way of her learning, she seems one closer to confirming Geoffrey Sampson's claims regarding language than Pinker's.

And really, that is one of the amazing things about Keller's story, for she makes the leap to language not only in terms of learning to feel signs and to read braille but to read lips (with her fingers) and to speak with her own tongue, all of this through much effort rather than some innate ability. Nothing seems beyond this woman. She recounts her difficulties with math in school. Math? I can't imagine trying to do complex algebra in my head, for that seems the only way one could do it without the help of one's eyes.

Another amazing thing is Keller's attitude, which remains so almost completely positive throughout her educational ordeal. She's just happy to talk and to listen and to read. The last half of this book--after she finishes discussing her move into language and her education--is mostly about the books she likes and about the people she's met.

Finally, there is the way that Keller tells her story that is rather fascinating. One realizes just how much our vocabulary depends on verbs revolving around our sense of sight. There is much here in this text about touch and smell--the feel of the waves at a beach, the acidic essence of the air before a thunderstorm, the rattle of the ground near thunder--but Keller often will comment on particular elements she's experienced being the most wonderful thing she's seen, as if she's seen any of it. Moonlight and sunshine--both of these are words that call to our attention chiefly what passes before our eyes--but for Keller they are just as real, even if they are just a feeling on the skin. The book can be read or downloaded here, and the audio version here.

Friday, April 1, 2011

On "Turf" by Elizabeth Crane (3468 words) ***

I think it was the voice that first attracted me to Crane's work. (Okay, it was actually a book review, which made her work sound intriguing--but once I had the book, it was the voice.) Here she is at it again, with a slightly nerotic narrator (this one unidentified) who feels the need to explain and explain and explain everything--but in a way that is a pleasure to read. What happens when a dog walker meets a dog lover and the two don't get along? The neighborhood won't remain quiet. Read the story here at the Collagist.

On "In the Land of Invented Languages" by Arika Okrent *****

This is by far the most entertaining book I've ever read about language. Okrent's subject is artificial languages, and in delving into the subject of invented tongues, Okrent reveals a lot about what language actually does--and why artificial languages rarely move beyond theory to actual practice.

Invented tongues have been around for a long while, but Okrent's story really gets started in the late 1600s, during the Age of Reason, with a man named John Wilkins. Many philosophers at the time thought that a language based in philosophy would be a benefit to mankind. Wilkins, something of a scientific aid (he worked with many top scientists in his day through scientific communities) set out to create just such a language. Meanwhile, another man set out to do the same thing. The other man created a language that for "ease of use" was based on a long epic poem, with various vocabulary words pointing to various lines in the poem. Wilkins thought it more important to place terms in a kind of tree form, categorizing each type of thing and creating a word based on that. Okrent sets out to find Wilkins's four-letter word for excrement and finds the search rather difficult, for the term isn't under body or bodily functions but under motion (related to things like vomiting). As a language Wilkins's effort proved less than fruitful, but as it turns out, his categorization scheme became essentially the base for today's modern thesauruses.

Next, Okrent turns to the more familiar story of Esperanto. While the first chapter focuses on philosophical languages, the second focuses on languages meant to be easy to learn and to unify the world. In fact, many of these languages are created with the hope that they will bring world peace--if we could all just understand one another, after all, there might be less fighting. The proof seems to be otherwise, for in almost every case, the languages break down before they even come to fruition. One faction wants to make a change that another doesn't want to make, and we end up with not one version of Esperanto but two, then three, then four, then thirty-two. It's rather sad, really, to think how even in this, we humans can't get along.

Nevertheless, Esperanto--the original--did manage to garner enough of a following that there are actually speakers of the language. They meet at a conference each year, and Okrent's description of the conference is fascinating, as is her description of the language (for example, of how Esperanto can say some things we simply can't say in English, such as "the sky is bluing"). Also fascinating was the story of an Esperanto rock star--a native Esperanto speaker (his parents met through the language and then spoke it in the home, raising their children to learn it as their first language). Okrent's enthusiasm for the tongue almost makes me want to go out and learn it.

Next, Okrent moves to symbol languages, as inspired by Chinese (or a misunderstanding of it). Chinese characters, Okrent notes, were once based on sounds (morphemes), though in some cases their usage has strayed far. Charles Bliss, who was fascinated by how the same symbol could be used in any language for a word, set out to create a new system of writing, with symbols that would be easier to interpret. His system would eventually be adopted by some schools for the disabled (for kids who can't talk or write), and it would do wonders for those children, allowing them, for the first time, access to express themselves. But Bliss, as Okrent shows, was a fascinating man not just for his language but for his psychological problems, and his insistence of utter control over how his symbols should be used would put him on a crash course with medical administrators and eventually the law (can one copyright a language?).

Similar issues arise in Okrent's next chapter, on yet another language that tries to apply philosophy--this time, logic--in its creation: Loglan. Instead of categories, this language sets up each phrase as a mathematical formula that people then insert the appropriate function into. Or something like that. It seemed an utterly difficult language to me. But the initial idea for it was interesting. Its inventor wanted to test Benjamin Whorf's theory regarding how language perhaps limits our way of thinking, by creating a new language and using it in experiments with those who learn it. Unfortunately, its inventor proved to be a control freak too, and as a result, the language group splintered, and various lawsuits resulted.

(But even if a language takes life, and a reasonable number of people begin to speak it, as with Esperanto, the natural processes of language take over. Okrent shows how in Esperanto, the great simplicity manifest in the language is itself simplifying among next-generation speakers, but in the process the language is also becoming irregular [and thus, in another way, more complex] where once it was regular. Hence, the object case endings are disappearing, except in cases where an expression is so well founded that the case ending remains.)

Finally, we come to a chapter on Klingon and other languages invented for film and art. The story of how Klingon came to be is interesting, and it's also interesting to read about how the language is spoken and about the community that speaks it.

Along the way, Okrent also briefly introduces us to other languages, such as a language in which every syllable is one of seven sounds (do, re, me, fa, so, la, ti), such that it can be played on an instrument just as it can be spoken; or a language created for women, in which concepts such as pregnancy take on not just a single word but a set of words for pregnancy at various stages. She also talks briefly of Hebrew, a dead language brought back to life among a group of people without a common tongue. And she does it with great humor and verve. This isn't just a history of language but a history of thought and of art and of human expression.