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August 23, 2009

Arika Okrent, In the Land of Invented Languages

“Sir, I hope you are not using the first English dictionary to look up rude words!”  “I wouldn’t be too hopeful; that’s what all the other ones will be used for…”

-- Blackadder the Third, Ink and Incapability

What do you do when you come up against an artificial language of the 17th century that purports to map the very structure of reality itself?  If you are Jorge Luis Borges, you use it as the jumping-off point for a fable and a witty critique.  If you are Umberto Eco, you write a scholarly book about the quest to cast off the sin of Babel and rejoin the Godhead.  And if you are Arika Okrent, you start looking up the word for “shit.”

That pretty much sums up Okrent’s approach to the world of artificial and constructed languages: pragmatic, irreverent and hands-on.  Sure, she’s interested in the philosophical issues of Wilkins’ scheme, but she gets her head around them not by theorising, but by rolling up her sleeves and trying to translate something.  She sniggers at Volapuk words that look like they involve puking or plopping, but she knocks herself out trying to break down sentences the way Lojban wants her to.  She passes on Esperanto jokes, and goes all out to get her certification in Klingon.  And, when the real world starts getting crazier than the artificial languages circuit, she yells at the television: “what kind of world do we live in that has room for dog yoga but not for Esperanto?”

In the Land of Invented Languages is aptly titled.  If you’re interested in the theory or philology of artificial languages, you probably won’t find anything new here.  Although the book is structured around a series of movements in language construction, its heart is with the people: the eccentrics, visionaries, idealists, megalomaniacs and hobbyists who create, sustain and enjoy the invented languages.  It’s about the languages, sure, but it’s even more so about the cultures that have grown up around them and the people whose lives they have touched.

Here’s a characteristic section.  In the late 1960s, staff at a Canadian clinic for disabled children introduced the children to a combinatoric language of symbols invented by Charles Bliss:

Kids whose communicative worlds had been defined by the options of pointing to a toilet, or waiting for someone to ask the right question, started talking about a car trip with a father, a brother’s new bicycle, a pet cat’s habit of hiding under the bed.  Kids who were assumed to be severely retarded showed remarkable ingenuity in getting their messages across.  When one little boy was asked what he wanted to be for Halloween, he pointed to the symbols “creature,” “drink,” “blood,” “night” – he wanted to be Dracula.  One particularly bright little girl named Kari took to this new means of expression with so much gusto that she could barely stand to be away from her symbols.  When her father picked her up from school, she would cry through the whole of the car ride home, and could not be consoled until she was on the living room floor with her symbols, telling her family about the exciting events of the day.

Okrent relates how Bliss, ‘delirious with joy’ at seeing his language put into use, mortgaged his house to visit the clinic, and quickly became a firm favourite with children and staff alike – only to become disillusioned and litigious when they failed to use it exactly as he intended – and yet still able to be a source of inspiration and pleasure to those he had helped so much.  It’s an alternately joyous and agonising tale, and a very human one, a thousand miles from Borges and Eco’s allegorical and academic concerns.

Not that In the Land of Invented Languages is lacking in linguistic detail.  Okrent’s hands-on attitude to artificial languages gives her an insight that’s missing from more theoretical commentators.  Early in the book, she spends the best part of a week translating a sentence into Wilkins’ philosophical language, and emerges exhausted by the effort of analysing every word or concept to determine its placement in the grand scheme of things.  Later, she tackles Loglan and Lojban, but, “frankly, the thought of trying to capture Lojban in a nutshell… fills me with despair.  There is just so much… The reference grammar comes to over six hundred pages… I read the whole thing – I swear I did.  And I’ll tell you, not only did I still not speak Lojban, but I started to lose my ability to comprehend English.”  The earthy practicality of language as used versus the idealism of language as invented is a familiar theme, but Okrent finds it vividly brought to life in the land of invented languages: in her efforts to use Wilkins’ language, in the remorseless precision of Lojban, in Charles Bliss’ battles with his own supporters, in the idiomatic evolution of Esperanto.

And if the linguistic detail in the book isn’t enough for you, the Web site for In the Land of Invented Languages has samples and historical tidbits for many of the 500 artificial languages that Okrent lists.  Hardly a scholarly analysis, but a lot of fun.

Which pretty much sums up the book.  If you want a dispassionate study of artificial languages in a historical, philosophical or philological perspective, go elsewhere.  Otherwise, well worth a read.

August 23, 2009 in Books | Permalink

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Comments

For some lesser known information on Esperanto read my blog at www.EsperantoFriends.blogspot.com
Esperanto Music, Esperanto and a Unitarian Connection, Esperanto at the United Nations etc.

Posted by: Neil Blonstein at Sep 21, 2009 12:15:34 PM