Friday, April 1, 2011

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.


Ralph Dumain said...

This is indeed the most entertaining book of its kind written in English, perhaps related to the fact that we inhabit the third period of language creation: a preponderance of languages created specifically for fun, for the sake of making languages according to specific specs, for fantasy worlds, or just as hobbies.

A few points about Esperanto. Though there are pacifists and similar types in the Esperanto movement, few are naive enough to think Esperanto will bring world peace. Even Zamenhof was not naive in that fashion. His argument was a bit more complex, though faulty in a different way.

As for the alteration of Esperanto grammar, there is of course the use of the language in formal settings, in printed publications and formal speeches, where the rules are observed. Perhaps what Okrent is referring to is the omission of the accusative marker in casual speech. How this would shake out in the long term is difficult to predict, as people are no less conscious of the norms standard languages, esp. Esperanto.

neil.nachum said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
neil.nachum said...

My blog on the best of Esperanto is at blogspot, just a hop skip and a jump away, to understanding why hundreds of thousands of people (perhaps millions) swear on the positive future of Esperanto and its usefulness today.
The best of reviews for Arika's book is at
Last thought: if you speak English and were good at one foreign language, you are probably a month from becoming conversant in Esperanto and having friends in every country of the world. Try for free.

Short Story Reader said...

Thanks to both of you for the further info on Esperanto. My summary on the book may simplify things a bit in terms of "world peace," but that did seem the gist of Okrent's argument. And indeed, written language tends to change more slowly than spoken--we still often observe rules like "who" versus "whom" in writing that most speakers don't bother with. And indeed, I might take you up on that Esperanto training and chat.