In the Land of Invented Languages

For the most part, when I’m looking for something to read I stick to well-trodden paths. Usually, that means the Western canon of literature, though even among recent writers or non-fiction I tend to stick to authors with an established reputation, like Tim O’Brien or Christopher Clark. Occasionally, though, I do take the road less travelled by, and though I’ve never found anything life-changing this way, it has provided some of the books I’ve simply enjoyed the most, like Samuel Fussell’s Muscle: Confessions of an Unlikely Bodybuilder, Eric Talmadge’s Getting Wet: Adventures in the Japanese Bath, or W. H. Matthews’s Mazes & Labyrinths. Another just-finished work to add to this list is Arika Okrent’s In the Land of Invented Languages, so I thought I’d share it as a recommendation and offer a few brief thoughts about it.

When one thinks of invented languages - or perhaps more accurately, if one thinks of them at all - the first to come to mind are typically either J. R. R. Tolkien’s world-building that became the basis for The Lord of the Rings, Star Trek’s Klingon, or perhaps Esperanto. All three do receive attention here, including a full chapter each for the latter two, but Okrent covers a wide variety of languages, with special focus on five, adding John Wilkins’s philosophical language, Blissymbolics, and Loglan together with its daughter-language Lojban. Each of these represents an era in the history of invented languages, and acts as a prototype for general approaches and goals. For example, Wilkins’s effort and Loglan both attempted to encourage clear thinking by doing away with the ambiguity of language, Esperanto hoped to encourage world peace by providing a common language for all people, and Klingon was created to add realism to a work of fiction. Have any of them succeeded? Most have been utter failures, but a few cases have seen some success. Klingon accomplished its relatively modest goal, since as far as I’m aware it did serve its purpose in Star Trek, and then some. Many fans of the show have made attempts to learn the language, though as Okrent found only a few are proficient enough to really carry on a conversation. Regardless, it made a work of SF more interesting and provided fans with an additional bond for their community.

Speaking of community, Esperanto hasn’t brought about world peace and understanding, nor become an international lingua franca, but one can’t quite call it a failure, either. It does have, depending on how one counts, anywhere from tens of thousands to a million users, as well as perhaps a thousand native speakers - this last category being, as far as I’m aware, unique to Esperanto among invented languages. It even has its own StackExchange network site, which is my personal metric for the size and seriousness of a language. In any case, not only do they have regular conferences, but they’ve even created their own culture and traditions, with music and literature, a network of essentially Esperantist hostels, among other things. As Okrent put it, the Esperantists may not have created a universal language, but they have created a new, particular culture:

The Esperantists worked to create a community and a culture. Yes, they did this somewhat artificially and self-consciously, but it did work (forced tradition + time = real tradition), and it turned out that many people who may not have been inspired to learn a language to use it for something would learn a language in order to participate in something.

This passage stood out to me perhaps more than any other in the book, because it reminded me of the discussion in Right-wing circles around “LARPing.” You can find the best discussion of this that I know of in this episode of Neoreactionary podcast Ascending the Tower, but one of the central problems that Neoreaction and the schools adjacent to it have is that the cultures and traditions they want to restore are, for the most part, dead. Attempts to live out our convictions, then, often do come across as, and to some degree actually are, artificial and self-conscious. However, so was Esperantist culture. Now, much of this culture is rather eccentric in Okrent’s description, sounding to me like almost a hippy movement, but Reactionary LARPers will also, by necessity, be an eccentric group. If the Esperantists can make this work, though - why not us?

In any case, there is more than enough in here to satisfy amateur linguists looking for information about the languages covered, and the illustrations they offer of how language works. For example, Loglan was invented to serve as a strictly logical language (hence the name), something like a spoken programming language, and to see if using such a language would affect how its users thought. Does it encourage people to think more logically? It, or more specifically, its daughter language Lojban, did have an effect on Okrent, as she describes:

The further I waded into Lojban, the more everything I heard seemed to be filtered through the sensibilities of a bratty, literal-minded eight-year-old - “You love birthday cake? Well, why don’t you marry it?” “Can you use the bathroom? I don’t know, can you?” - with the difference that while the eight-year-old knows what you really mean, my lapses of understanding were genuine. One day during my weeklong immersion in the Lojban grammar, I was watching an Elmo video with my son when a friendly puppet character popped up to ask, “What are the two numbers that come after the number 6?” I had no idea what this puppet was getting at. […] “There are an infinite number of numbers that come after the number 6.” I honestly did not know what the answer was supposed to be until the video told me (it’s 7 and 8, by the way).

Was this some kind of Whorfian effect? Well, no. It was more of a Freudian effect - like when you read a little Freud and suddenly everything starts to look like a penis.

Lojban, by the way, brings up another of the book’s strengths, even for those not terribly interested in linguistics, and that’s the portraits of the various language inventors and those around them. Lojban was created as an offshoot of Loglan because Loglan’s creator, James Cooke Brown, was so overly controlling. He even went to court to stop the publication of anything related to Lojban, arguing that he owned Loglan and that this new derivative work violated his ownership of the language. For those wondering, even after the case was decided (in Lojban’s favour), it’s not quite clear whether one can own a language, though one can have copyrights on specific publications, like dictionaries and grammar guides.

I’ll leave off there, and just conclude by saying that this is an easy recommendation. If the concept of invented languages sounds interesting to you, you’ll almost certainly enjoy the book. If not, you may still enjoy the stories behind the languages, but you’ll still be safe skipping it.