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Invented languages, cosmopolitan dreams

Arika Okrent has a thing for languages. Born in Chicago, she got good enough at Hungarian to teach in Hungary, and learned ASL while getting a masters degree in linguistics at Gallaudet, the world’s leading university for the deaf. Somewhere in the course of a University of Chicago PhD in psycholinguistics, things took a turn for the weird, and she found herself studying languages that don’t get a lot of respect in the linguistics world: invented languages like Esperanto, Lojban and Klingon.

Her fascination with invented languages has led to her recent book, “In the Land of Invented Languages: Esperanto Rock Stars, Klingon Poets, Loglan Lovers and the Mad Dreamer Who Tried to Build a Perfect Language”. It’s a damn fine book – I devoured it in two sittings, in the course of a flight to LA and back, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. I’m not a lover of languages in the way Okrent is, but I am fascinated by absurdly ambitious projects to make the world better (and not just the ones I’m involved with.) And it’s a fascinating surprise to me how many of these language projects involved someone’s sincere, well-meaning and often insane attempt to make the world a better place.

Okrent provides a listing of 900 invented languages created between roughly 1150 and the present, but her focus is on five languages that demonstrate major chapters in the history of language development. One of these languages is Klingon, created mostly to sound badass in Star Trek movies, but which has features that make it a playground for linguists (complex affixes, including honorifics! Object-verb-subject ordering! Glottal stops!)

The other four were created entirely without irony, to solve problems the language designers saw in society as a whole. John Wilkins’s Philosophical Language was an attempt to build a universal language by building a universal metaphysics – once you figured out where every thing, concept and idea fit in Wilkins’s Aristotelian hierarchy, speaking was a breeze. The appeal of such a language is that words explain their own meanings – “zitαs” obviously means “wolf”, since “zi” signifies beast, “t” indicates an oblong head, “α” signifies a larger size, and the “s” indicates that the large oblong-headed beast isn’t tame. The problem isn’t just that it takes a very long time to learn a language that requires you to require how its author thought – it’s very difficult to think as precisely as a language like this requires. Okrent tries to translate a famous Borges passage into Wilkins’s language and gets tripped up on the phrase “it’s clear”. Does this mean “not obscure”? “Transparent”? The precise answers aren’t especially helpful – language is useful not because it’s precise but because it’s understandable.

This is a lesson language designers can’t seem to get their heads around. Perhaps the saddest story is that of Charles Bliss, who Okrent portrays as a deeply disturbed megalomaniac, who designed an elegant pictoral language, then proceeded to harrass and abuse the only community of people in the world who’d adopted the system, a school for developmentally disabled children in Ontario. The crime of the teachers at the center? They used Bliss’s symbols as a way to allow profoundly disabled children to communicate their needs and feelings as a first step towards teaching the children English – this infuriated Bliss, who saw Blissymbolics as a replacement for illogical natural languages. (An alternative version of his life story is available here, from Grant Stott, a student and friend of Bliss’s.)

Okrent finds thorny, difficult individuals associated with many of the languages she studies, and a theme emerges of languages coming to fruition when they’re adopted by someone other than their creators. Loglan, a language created by James Cook Brown to be entirely value-neutral and therefore allow testing of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, never met with much success, while Lojban, a fork from the original project, sports a 906-entry Wikipedia. Okrent credits the fork to Brown’s tendency to alienate and drive away his supporters and the “success” of Lojban to its ability to accept contributions from a wider community of enthusiasts. (Okrent suspects that no one is fluent enough in Lojban or Loglan to actually be considered a “speaker” – in an attempt to specify the parameters of the language, the Lojban community has published a 600 page grammar of the language. That doesn’t include any vocabulary – it requires 600 pages to sufficiently explain the language’s grammar.)

In that sense, the hero of the book is Esperanto. It may be absurdly utopian – can an “auxilliary language”, designed to be everyone’s second language, really bring about world peace? You can find dozens of reasons to criticize its structure, its origins, its implicit Eurocentricity and sexism. But Okrent celebrates the quirky and wonderful community that supports the language, introducing us to native speakers, parents teaching their children Esperanto as a first language, and wonderful expressions of international solidarity that are hard to express in other languages. She’s clearly caught between the temptation to poke fun at the culture and to jump in uncritically. But the messsage is a strong one: languages need a community, a group of people to speak, expand, care for and love a language. Perhaps the best quote in the whole book comes from an Interlingua speaker she meets at an Esperanto gathering. “I think it is a better language. It’s clearer, more logical, and more beautiful than Esperanto, but I have no one to speak it with.”

The idea that languages thrive because of love, not logic, made me think of Erin McKean, perhaps the world’s most passionate advocate for the idea that we should talk about love when we talk about language. A lexicographer, McKean has been a tireless advocate of the idea that dictionaries aren’t rulebooks – they’re collections of the words we use, not prescriptions for words we should and shouldn’t use. Her new project, Wordnik, inverts our understanding of a dictionary. It includes a LOT of words – over 1.7 million (the idea that the Global Language Monitor would be crowning Web 2.0 as English’s millionth word probably pisses her off), many of which don’t include definitions. Instead, Wordnik pulls examples from the web, from Twitter, from any texts the system can get its hands on. (Erin told me that an early version of the system was based on a corpus that included a lot of old Star Trek books. For a while, you would look up “photon” and get information about torpedoes, not about physics.) It’s a fascinating way to change how we think about dictionaries – we can figure out how to use words by seeing how they’re used, and we understand what words are in a language by seeing what words people are using.

I think I found Okrent’s book so fascinating because I feel a certain solidarity with some of the mad linguists she describes. At the very least, I share some of the cosmopolitan dreams of many of these authors. I believe that we’re tapping only a tiny fraction of the Internet’s power to let us understand each other and communicate across cultures because we’ve done so little thinking about language. As Chinese rises in importance online – and English and Chinese speakers continue to misunderstand each other on key issues – I find myself hoping that projects like Global Voices Lingua or Yeeyan will manage to cultivate the passionate community that Esperanto has earned over the years.

3 thoughts on “Invented languages, cosmopolitan dreams”

  1. There is a great difference between Esperanto and the other language projects which Okrent names. Esperanto works! I’ve used it in speech and writing – and sung in it – in a dozen countries over recent years.

    Indeed, the language has some remarkable practical benefits. Personally, I’ve made friends around the world through Esperanto that I would never have been able to communicate with otherwise. And then there’s the Pasporta Servo, which provides free lodging and local information to Esperanto-speaking travellers in over 90 countries. In the past few years I have had guided tours of Berlin and Milan and Douala in Cameroon in the planned language. I have discussed philosophy with a Slovene poet, humour on television with a Bulgarian TV producer. I’ve discussed what life was like in East Berlin before the wall came down, how to cook perfect spaghetti, the advantages and disadvantages of monarchy, and so on.

    I’d like to add that,unlike other projects, Esperanto has an organised movement in sub-Saharan Africa.

  2. I think I will enjoy this book too! I was convinced to study Esperanto as a teenager because someone told me it was an easy way to travel around the world visiting people who already spoke the language. It was couchsurfing.com’s predecessor, so the global community aspect was definitely what attracted me at first. I didn’t get very far in the correspondence course I took (lesson 9) but I think it did change my perspective on language, the imperfections, and possibilities of it. I always recommend language enthusiasts to look into it.

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