Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Just Finished: In The Land of Invented Languages

In The Land of Invented Languages by Arika Okrent (Spiegel & Grau, 2009): Well, here's something I haven't done in awhile, and especially not with a book released in the same year I write it up. Mother of mercy, I might actually start paying attention to the world around me again! It could actually happen, friends. Excuse me while I shake the moss off my shoulders...

When we talk about invented languages--who are we kidding, when I talk about invented languages while you're trying to steer the table-talk subject back to sports or politics--it's usually either Klingon or Esperanto, not the 900+ other constructed languages that Arika Okrent had available to pick through for her book. Most people who run into a Klingon speaker probably ran into someone who memorized a few phrases to go with their alarmingly elaborate costume for the convention, and while there are a good-sized number of Esperanto speakers in the world, you probably won't just bump into one. (Full disclosure: I claim to be an Esperantist, which is how I found this book in the first place, although I admit I've been half-assing it. Sed mi esperas por plej bonaj tagoj...)

Rather than lay an encyclopedia on us, Okrent, a PhD-holding linguist, takes on a handful of "best of breed" projects with a pretty decent amount of detail. She bookends In The Land of Invented Languages with the story of how she fell in with the Klingon speakers, and how she obtained her first-level certification in Klingon just for the challenge of it, which points to the major tone of the book. Like a lot of popular nonfiction of recent years, the book is salted and peppered with Okrent's first-person accounts of dealing with these projects and/or their adherents. To that end, not only do we get the histories of the driven men and women who brought these things into the world, but we also get the author's experiences at Esperanto conventions, figuring out how to curse in a 17th century philosophical language, and almost forgetting how to comprehend English after spending too much time with the "logical" language of Lojban.

Having a horse going into this race, I was especially interested in the sections about Esperanto, whose creator had the good sense to step to one side after the initial work was done and let his child run where it wanted. The result is that although Esperanto hasn't become the universal language the first generation was hoping for (yet), it has developed into a living language of a kind of voluntary diaspora...although you wouldn't know it unless you knew where to look. As a sad counterpoint--and a cautionary tale to control freaks--we're also given the story of Blissymbolics, a symbol language created by Charles Bliss to bring about peace and understanding which instead found success as a way of communication for children whose disorders made speaking impossible. What should have been Bliss' ultimate vindication curdled in the pan because he was aiming for a particularly quixotic kind of "success", one that made it impossible for him to step out of the way and let a different kind of triumph happen. Simple interference turned into willful obstructionism. It got pretty ugly. There were lawyers involved at the end. And they were suing a children's charity.

In The Land of Invented Languages was a brisk read which deals with language and grammar with only a very rare whiff of the classroom and a sense of humor that isn't reflexively dismissive, very important for a work of this type. On top of all that, Arika Okrent did me a solid. I am no longer frightened by Klingon speakers...but now I'm terrified of Lojban.


neil.nachum said...

An excellent underlined observation on Esperanto: You often won't know we exist if you don't know where to look. I know several Esperantists (in many countries) who are trying to change that but we will need more time. IT IS GETTING EASIER ON-LINE. JUST WRITE THE WORD ESPERANTO PLUS A HYPHEN AND THE NAME OF THE COUNTRY (OR CITY) AND YOU MIGHT FIND A GROUP. For a diverse overview of my activism at the UN and other Esperanto conventions go to www.
Locally go to

Brian Barker said...

I do not consider myself as an "Esperantist" although I do speak the Esperanto language fluently :)

Your readers may be interested in the following video.

A glimpse of the Esperanto language can be seen at