In the Land of Invented Languages: Esperanto Rock Stars, Klingon Poets, Loglan Lovers, and the Mad Dreamers Who Tried to Build A Perfect Language Hardcover – May 19 2009
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“Hats off to Okrent, who expertly exposes the history, culture, and preoccupations of this insular tribe who live among us. She rescues language inventors, or conlangers, from the oddball bin—utopianists all, they're the first biotechnologists, trying to leapfrog evolution and improve human life. They'll thank her but everyone else will, too, for finally making sense of the conlangers' discontents.” —Michael Erard, author of Um…: Slips, Stumbles, and Verbal Blunders, and What They Mean
“A lively, informative, insightful examination of artificial languages—who invents them, why, and why most of them fail. I loved this book.”—Will Shortz, Crossword Editor, New York Times
“Linguist Okrent explores some of the themes and shortcomings of 900 years worth of artificial languages. …Okrent gamely translates these languages with unspeakably hilarious results, and riffs on the colorful eccentricities of their megalomaniacal creators. Fortunately, her own prose is a model of clarity and grace; through it, she conveys fascinating insights into why natural language, with its corruptions, ambiguities and arbitrary conventions, trips so fluently off our tongues.” — Publishers Weekly, starred review
"Arika Okrent is a linguist whose fascination with the "faded plastic flowers" in the "lush orchid garden of languages" is recounted to delightful, often comic effect in "In the Land of Invented Languages."...Okrent's style is eminently suited to her approach, which is at once serious and playful, exemplified by her marvelous, snappy opening sentence: "Klingon speakers ... inhabit the lowest possible rung on the geek ladder."— Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
"The author...examines a variety of would-be languages and related philosophical tenets (there are no pure ideas, all signs depend on conventions) in a rigorously linguistical way. And yet her book is a pleasure to read. It shows how language systems connect, or don’t connect, with people."—New York Times
"Anyone who has felt the lure of words, odd grammatical systems or the potential connections between human thought and speech, is likely to enjoy this book just as much as I did."— Locus
"'In the Land of Invented Languages is a delight to read. It's humorous, intelligent, entertaining and highly informative. And it's a great source of knowledge about human languages and why they exasperate some people - because they are not perfect. But neither are we."—San Francisco Chronicle
"Okrent is a professional linguist and relates the place of these artificial languages in the confusion of human languages. She is also a great storyteller, and eccentric characters and dashed dreams are the stuff of this delightful book. "—Denver Post
About the Author
Arika Okrent received a joint Ph.D. in the Department of Linguistics and the Department of Psychology’s Cognition and Cognitive Neuroscience Program at the University of Chicago. She has also earned her first-level certification in Klingon. She lives in Philadelphia.
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Arika Okrent doesn't.
She started out with the prejudiced idea that planned languages can't be living tongues, but after some research, including visits to Esperanto congresses and Klingon conventions, she had to admit that yes, they can. At least Esperanto doesn't even behave as a Golem or Frankenstein's monster; just like any language, but easier than most to learn.
She has concentrated at a few high-lights of the more than nine hundred projects she has found: Wilkins' logical language from the 17th century, Esperanto from the 19th but still very much in use, and from the 20th Bliss' symbolical language (with a few details about the character of its creator that made me feel rather bad), Logban and its offshoot Lojban as more a less a return to Wilkins' ideas of a perfectly logical language, and finally Klingon.
She is rather short about languages with similar goals as Esperanto, like Volapük that was defeated by it, or Ido and Interlingua which failed to defeat it. She is also rather short about the languages connected to Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings", allthough at least Sindarin may actually have about as many fans as Klingon. (Unlike Esperanto, neither Sindarin nor Klingon was created to be actually used, but fans have their ideas.)
In the list of 500 "invented languages" at the end of the book she includes Anglic, which actually is just ordinary English with a revised spelling, not a language in its own righ (she might have included Shaw's spelling ideas as well), and Basic English, which also is hardly a language of its own - just plain English with a limited word-stock.
Last not least: she has a sense of humour.
Most books on constructed languages just give a historical overview of the subject, mentioning highlights such as Wilkins' Real Character, Volapuk, and Esperanto, and then end with the conclusion (comforting to anglophones) that the global success of English in the 20th century makes the whole issue of international communication moot (I wonder what the anglophones will think when Chinese or whatever displaces English?).
Okrent's book is somewhat different. While she does give the standard historical overview, her focus is on modern conlangs that have user communities and hold conferences. She has apparently learned at least the basics of Esperanto, Lojban, and Klingon and has attended relevant conferences. She dispells the stereotype of conlangers being "weirdos" -- even the Klingon speakers seem less geeky than one would expect.
(I originally purchased the Kindle edition only to discover that another delight of Okrent's work is the design of the book itself. It offers time-lines, language symbols and even a `tree of the universe' that cannot be fully appreciated with the electronic version. I recommend buying the hardback - which I did half way through.)
The languages Okrent reviews here "were invented on purpose, cut from whole cloth, set down on paper, start to finish, by one person... They were testaments not to the wonder of nature but to the human impulse to master nature." Perhaps that impulse has been successful in other arenas, but Okrent's book is a history of failures. None of the invented languages has done what the inventor set out to do. This history starts almost four hundred years ago, for "Language invention was something of a seventeenth-century intellectual fad." Okrent reviews as prototype of these attempts, the "Philosophical Language" of the Englishman John Wilkins, who published about it in 1668. He set out a taxonomy of objects and ideas, several hundred pages of tree-like diagrams that started with the very universe and branched down into particulars. Okrent has labored over Wilkins's brainchild and presents us with "as far as I know, the first sentences to be written in Wilkins's language in over three hundred years." Even the little sample she gives is tough to understand. Wilkins had hoped that his logical categorizations would facilitate logical thinking, but the language does no such thing, nor does it facilitate any kind of communication. Naturally Okrent spends some chapters on Esperanto, the nearest to success of all the languages profiled here. Esperanto works. It is used all over the world and can express ideas from many different fields. Esperanto is simple and orderly, and is demonstrably easier to learn than any national language. The Esperantists are doing their part for international understanding by their correspondence, their meetings, or opening their homes to Esperanto-speaking visitors from abroad. Okrent's final section is on one of the strangest of languages, and (especially when one looks at the book's appendix of five hundred invented languages in chronological order) one of the most successful, even if "most successful" means that only a small number of hyper-geek Trekkies can use it. A linguist named Marc Okrand invented Klingon, under hire from Paramount. Klingon is the on-screen language of a fictional warrior race of the future. Okrand specialized in different indigenous American languages, which are hard for speakers of European languages to learn. He borrowed some of their grammar and syntax, and deliberately made a tough language. It isn't only that Klingon has such oddities as an unorthodox word order (object-verb-subject) or that it has more than its share of guttural, back of the throat sounds; Klingon intentionally leaves out pleasantries like greetings. If you want to say "Hello" you cannot do so; the closest you can get is "nuqneH" which means "What do you want?" Okrent was able to master the beginnings of Klingon, but as a linguist she found it "completely believable as a language, but somehow very, very odd."
Odd, too, in that Klingon has no larger purpose. Unlike the rest of the languages profiled here, it is just for fun. It has no pretense, like the others, to promote a universal understanding, bring on world peace, or encourage logical thinking. In its limited way, it has succeeded, and Esperanto has succeeded in its limited way as well, but the other schemes here are not only failures but they are decidedly kooky. (Okrent even mentions Dritok, a language composed of noises made by humans imitating chipmunks.) The languages we customarily use, the national languages, are all far from perfect (I am certainly glad I never had to learn English as a second language), but not only have they been advanced by military might, they have a degree of history and culture behind them which invented languages can never claim. Language inventors who have tried to take the flaws out of national languages have not made flawless languages, and those who have tried to take ambiguity out have found that it could not be done, and even if a language had no ambiguities, it wouldn't have the richness and color that we want a language to possess. Klingon and Lojban have some sort of puzzle-solving appeal for their adherents, and Esperantists are to be commended for their global public spirit. The other experiments described in this entertaining book only show how much we ought to esteem our respective mother tongues.
I started this book knowing little, and caring less, about artificial languages. Sure, I had read a few articles about Esperanto, as well as the Appendices to "Lord of the Rings". And I never miss the annual Talk Like a Pirate Day, if that counts for anything.
(Hey, "Pirate" is pretty much an artlang. Maybe I should be upset that Okrent ignored it. Arrr, I ortin' ta be takin' one star off of me ratin'! But I digress.)
Also, I had never heard of this book before. I stumbled across it in a bookstore, and thought it would be a diverting read that might teach me a thing or two.
In short, unlike a lot of the reviewers here, I didn't start the book with high expectations or a strong emotional investment in the topic. But I ended the book having a lot of respect for the creative and analytical thinkers who have invented hundreds of languages. And even more respect for natural languages. I think one of the most rewarding aspects of this book is the contrast Okrent draws between invented and organic languages. Along the way, she discusses verb irregularities, sentence construction, and the usefulness of ambiguity in expression. And it's all done in an engaging, story-based style.
This book didn't give me a thorough understanding of invented languages, but that's not what I was looking for. It provided some entertainment, satisfied my curiosity, and deepened my appreciation of language itself.