In the Land of Invented Languages: Esperanto Rock Stars, Klingon Poets, Loglan Lovers, and the Mad Dreamers Who Tried to Build a Perfect Language was such a fun ride. It is especially interesting for language lovers, but I think the scope of the reading audience can go far beyond those of us who adore words, languages, and etymology.
Arika Okrent’s book is a journey taken through the history of a few constructed languages–those that have not naturally evolved, but instead have consciously been created by a human–as well as reported on her first-hand experience with speakers and creators of some more modern-day invented languages.
Although, she only details a handful of the approximately 900 invented languages dating back to c. 1150, the ones she does choose always seem to be conceived by creators with the notion that a universal language is needed so that no matter where a person comes from, they can communicate with someone from a completely different part of the world. This language should be easy to learn and with the premise that it is a man-made language, it should be able to avoid the pitfalls of the naturally derived languages–no irregularities. Of course these inventors are setting themselves up for an impossible task, because language would be nothing without history and evolving cultures of the population speaking said language.
Okrent includes but goes beyond the invented languages we know of like Esperanto and the television created tongue of the nerdiest of Star Terk fans, Klingon, and includes constructed languages like Volapük, which was created by a 19th century Roman Catholic priest in Germany whose unflinching grip to litter the language with umlauts was its undoing.
Invented Languages also looks at constructed languages that were conceived out of the desire to have a universal venue for speaking about theology and logic, but in doing so, their makers’ made these languages even less exacting and more confusing. Okrent even goes so far as to diagram the word shit in one of these languages,which is usually the word a language is known for even with those who don’t speak it —merde, scheiße, etc. In these philosophical languages, she dedicated whole pages to arrows and word groupings that you might as well pick your own adventure.
Another particularly interesting invented language is Blissymbolics, which was constructed in the 20th century by Charles Bliss. Born Karl Blitz in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, he was trained as an engineer and survived multiple internments in Nazi concentration camps. Influenced by his post-war time in Shanghai, Bliss created a symbol language that could express thousands of ideas through combining a few symbols. He was completely ignored until the 1960s when a Canadian school teacher who worked at a school for children with special needs and disabilities came across his book. She applied the symbols to their curriculum and saw the students flourish; they were finally able to express themselves. However, Charles Bliss was a total nutter. I will reserve that story for the pages of the book, but Okrent went to Canada to speak with the teacher and others from the school, as well as read through Bliss’ various correspondences.
The writing style is very personable, but still retains its highly researched quality. Okrent travels to various conferences to meetup with speakers of Klingon and Esperanto, and interviews members of these language clubs. She finds them interesting and engaging without falling into the trap of dismissing and making fun of them. Their personal stories telling how they came to these invented languages are charming and not always expected.
All of the languages Okrent expounds upon have their own unique origin stories, but many of them, no matter which century, often have similarities. The majority of the languages written about in the book are created by men–often quite learned–who are seeking a language that will be simplified and rid of irregularities that can be spoken by the world to easily express meaning. They want that unifying language that built the Tower of Babel. However, many of them, in plain English, are bonkers. They are strange men (many Germans) whose languages ultimately fail because they can’t allow their creations to evolve like natural languages do (their odd personalities don’t help either).
In the Land of Invented Languages was just the perfect book to satiate my language-loving appetite. At one point Okrent attempts to try her hand at a translation utilizing one of these invented languages and she writes, “Only one word into my translation and my solid understanding of English was unraveling in my hands.” Besides the book, Okrent has a website with more info on 500 invented languages sorted by date.