In this week’s podcast, a converation with Arika Okrent, author of In the Land of Invented Languages: Esperanto Rock Stars, Klingon Poets, Loglan Lovers and the Mad Dreamers Who Tried to Build a Perfect Language.
Okrent has a linguistics background: she has a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago. But her interest far exceeds the merely scientific. She submerges herself, Orwell-style, into the geeky subcultures of invented language societies. Okrent holds a first-level certification in Klingon. That required cramming 500 words of this made-for-the-movies language during a Klingon convention that she went to. And this was no ordinary convention: attending it meant sitting next to sci-fi-monster-bedecked people who insisted on ordering meals at restaurants in Klingon. And what words! Just try speed-memorizing terms like Qatlh, ngeD and wlgh. Those words mean difficult, easy and genius. The Klingon word for hangover is ‘uH.
Okrent tells many stories of people who dreamed up languages that would replace our own bastard tongues. In that sense Klingon is a small sub-set: its function was at least originally limited to a fictional universe; it was never intended to be used in the real world. Not so Esperanto, the most reknowned of the “real” artificial languages. Most invented languages are unmitigated failures, consigned to obscurity almost as soon as they are born. Esperanto is a rare exception — it’s both a failure and a success. It’s a failure because it didn’t meet the outrageously lofty objective of its author Ludwik Zamenhof: to become a universally spoken global language. But Esperanto also succeeded because over time, it has become a living language. It’s still around today, more than 120 years after its conception, and it has even evolved with usage.
Klingon and Esperanto are just two of dozens of languages Okrent discusses, from John Wilkins‘ 17th century Philosophical Language to Blissymbolics and Láadan, a couple of 20th century attempts to fix the supposed evils and omissions of natural languages.
The vast majority of invented languages from Lingua Ignota (c.1150) to Dritok (2007) languish in near-total obscurity. But they tell us much about how we think, how we do not think, and how we love to blame language for our own shortcomings.