Everyone knows the Old Testament story of Babel, wherein God got so irritated by the uppity humans he created that he scrambled their languages so that they would be divided evermore and everyone would have trouble understanding each other. He did a good job, but for centuries people have been trying to do the opposite, to make a language that everyone could understand and use. Others have invented languages as part of their artistic endeavors, or as a lark. Some of these inventions have been practical, some have been useful, some have been downright silly. They all get an overview in _In the Land of Invented Languages: Esperanto Rock Stars, Klingon Poets, Loglan Lovers, and the Mad Dreamers Who Tried to Build a Perfect Language_ (Spiegel & Grau) by Arika Okrent. Okrent seems the ideal person to take on such a study; she has a joint doctorate in linguistics and cognition, and has obvious professional interest in the sideline of artificial languages, but this book is an entertaining romp through the land of the title, not an academic treatise. That does not imply that it is not packed with information, or with plenty of things to think about. By looking at the languages people have created for themselves, we get a better idea of what languages, like the natural ones we started picking up when we were infants, do and cannot do.
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.