Review | In the Land of Invented Languages – Arika Okrent

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Although we use language in everything we do, we rarely need to wonder about how our languages could be improved. Even if we do, the thought of making a whole new language to fix those flaws seems ridiculous.

Language creators, from scientists to philanthropists to eccentric sociologists, take centre stage in “In The Land of Invented Languages”. The book makes sense of invented languages — languages developed by just one person — by explaining why some of those languages were developed and what the inventors were trying to achieve by creating new languages.

Books and articles which talk about invented languages often concentrate on the trees rather than the forest. They catalogue details, dates, and specifics; they discuss the “how?” and “when?” of languages rather than the “why?”. This approach makes sense, as the average invented language enthusiast or language creator is likely to obsess over details, rules, and systems.

…Invented Languages is different — it’s a forest book. Unlike anything else I’ve read about invented languages, it focuses on why people create and reform languages and why people use them. I also really enjoyed how Okrent covered the philosophical side of linguistics. What is a language? How are words related to the things they describe? Can “pure languages” that convey ideas perfectly ever exist, or are they impossible by definition? These questions are critical parts of linguistics, but most pop-linguistics content bypasses them.

In this book, Okrent walks readers through three historical “phases” of language creation. She begins during the 17th and early 18th centuries, a time when gentlemen scholars were convinced that language itself was broken. To them, language was a messy, irrational way of communicating, because it hid “the true nature of things”. Their solution was to create a language which would bypass these arbitrary words and communicate the “pure” concepts.

Like most 17th century ideas, this “solution” was horribly but comically flawed. The quotes and biographical details provide extra entertainment, as they show just how egotistical and self-promoting early language enthusiasts could be.

“a most exquisite jewel, more precious than diamonds inchased in gold, the like whereof was never seen in any age”.

Inventor Thomas Urquhart describing his (failed) universal language.


In the late 18th century, the idea of “pure” languages had fallen flat, while English had begun to rise. In this second phase, language creators tried to reform natural languages to make them more regular and consistent, usually by blending Latin, Greek and their descendants into a cross-European linguistic casserole.

Okrent focuses on Esperanto in this section, due to its history and its relative success. Esperanto is the only constructed language most people have heard of. Pli grave, Esperantistoj formis komunumon kaj kulturon, ofte per la interreto. (More importantly, Esperantists have formed a community and a culture, often through the internet.)

While reading, I was slightly disappointed because I wanted to see more samples of the languages Okrent discussed. However, my disappointment was premature: the appendix contains plenty of language samples, as well as a table of languages by date and a detailed bibliography.

In the third phase, which picks up at the end of World War II, the story returns to attempts at “pure”, logic-based, or symbol-based languages. Okrent discusses the unfortunate Charles Bliss, who almost drove his own language to disuse by criticising (or suing) anyone who used it “improperly”. She follows up with Lojban, which can best be described as a sociology experiment gone rogue (and as a language so stiflingly pedantic that barely anyone can speak it fluently).

Finally, Okrent returns to the often-mocked Klingon and describes her experience of training to become a qualified speaker of a fictional language. She explains how Klingon was developed, why its linguistic features make it incredibly interesting for language enthusiasts, and what its story says about invented languages and language as a whole.

Conclusion

I was surprised by how many philosophical questions Invented Languages contained and how clearly they were discussed. Philosophy texts and linguistics texts can both be jargon-laden and difficult for non-specialists to access. So Okrent’s ability to write a book that accessibly discusses both linguistic and philosophical questions is impressive.

In the Land of Invented Languages portrays the humanitarian core of what can seem like an isolated, private hobby, and the unusual balance of idealism and hubris which drives language creators. Its emphasis on ideas and reasons over dates and tables make it enjoyable to read as well as informative.

In comparison to the last language book I read, Scientific Babel, this book polishes a narrower band of linguistics into a less technical, more involving narrative. If you’re generally interested in the idea of language creation, or if you’re a language enthusiast with limited linguistics knowledge, …Invented Languages provides an accessible and entertaining starting point.

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