Inverarity (inverarity) wrote,

Book Review: In the Land of Invented Languages, by Arika Okrent

How much of a geek am I? I used to invent languages. Not just a few words -- I'd design the grammar, morphology, writing system, and even the phonology for my made-up languages. This was before I'd ever formally studied linguistics.

I knew that Tolkien had done this, but I wasn't aware, as a youth, that "conlanging" is actually a highly-respected activity enjoyed by millio-- okay, a weird hobby practiced by a few thousand nerds who rank somewhere between fan fiction authors and furries on the Geek Hierarchy.

(Hey, I ain't hatin' on the nerds -- I write fan fiction!)

But it wasn't always just a geeky hobby for aspiring SFF authors. It turns out that inventing languages was quite fashionable among the educated classes, going all the way back to the seventeenth century (or the twelfth, if you include Hildegard von Bingen's Lingua Ignota. Newton dabbled in constructed languages. Kings, popes, presidents, and prime ministers have been interested in the idea and even endorsed a few. Arika Okrent's book, In the Land of Invented Languages (subtitled: Esperanto Rock Stars, Klingon Poets, Loglan Lovers, and The Mad Dreamers Who Tried to Build A Perfect Language) is a fascinating look at the history of invented languages, from the many, many philosophers and intellectuals in the past who thought they could create a "universal" language, to today's hobbyists.

Okrent approaches the subject from a pop culture perspective (though she has a PhD in Linguistics herself), so while she gives the history of many obscure and interesting languages, and talks a little about language features, she spends a lot more time trying to make her narrative entertaining. She describes an Esperanto convention in Cuba, and SF conventions in the U.S., where she took the KLCP (Klingon Language Certification Program) Level 1 test. (She scored 93%.) She gives an entire chapter to Láadan, the "women's language" invented by science fiction author and linguist Suzette Haden Elgin, which tickled me since I've read Elgin's Native Tongue trilogy (first book was kind of interesting, the next two... bleah), and actually own a copy of her Láadan Dictionary and Grammar. I was disappointed that M.A.R. Barker's Tsolyáni got nothing more than an index entry, but Tolkien's Elvish of course appeared.

The history, however, really is interesting. Language inventors are really odd ducks, and tend to be control freaks. This repeats itself over and over, as Esperanto, Volapük, Loglan, and various other created languages that have actually managed to gather a following inevitably wind up being fractured by schisms among their "speakers," often as a result of the creator's egotism.

Perhaps the saddest case of this is the story of Blissymbols, invented by an Austrian Holocaust survivor named Charles Bliss. Bliss was trying to create a "universal symbol language," and not unlike many, many similar attempts in the past, Bliss's language went ignored and forgotten... until the staff at a home for crippled children in Canada came across his books and tried using his symbolic language to help children with severe cerebral palsy and other disabilities communicate. And it worked! Children who'd previously been thought too severely handicapped to ever communicate at all were soon able to communicate complex, abstract thoughts with Blissymbols.

When the staff contacted Bliss (who now lived in Australia), he was of course delighted and immediately flew to Canada to see his language being used. But unfortunately, it turned out that Charles Bliss was more than a little bit off his rocker, and his involvement became a trainwreck. Blissymbols are still used to this day in a few schools in Canada and elsewhere, but if not for Bliss's very nearly destroying the whole system, they might well have spread throughout the world.

This is one of many interesting stories in this book. You will also read about Esperanto native (i.e., first language) speakers, how an early attempt to create a universal language resulted in the modern thesaurus, how a linguist got to invent Klingon by chance, and a Loglan wedding ceremony.

If you are at all linguistically inclined, or have ever dabbled in constructed languages even a little (or are at least interested in Esperanto and Klingon), I recommend this book. It's an entertaining but informative read, and will give you more of an appreciation for just how varied and complex human languages are.
Tags: books, languages, non-fiction, reviews

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