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May 27th, 2009

Invented languages

by Barbara Wallraff

Learning about other languages helps us appreciate our own. So I’ve spent the past few days learning about a whole bunch of other languages -- a bunch of peculiar ones that have something in common. The two you’re most likely to have heard of are Esperanto and Klingon. That’s right: These are languages that people made up, rather than ones that arose naturally.

They’re the subject of a new book, “In the Land of Invented Languages,” by Arika Okrent, a young linguist who clearly went to some lengths for the sake of research. She didn’t just study Esperanto, the world’s most popular invented language; she attended concerts sung in it. (The Spanish standard “Besame Mucho” comes out “Kisu min multe.”) She didn’t just read about Klingon, which is, of course, supposedly the native language of a race of warrior aliens in “Star Trek.” (In reality, it’s the creation of a linguist named Marc Okrand, whose Klingon Dictionary has sold more than 300,000 copies.) Okrent signed up for a Klingon conference, went out to dinner with her fellow attendees -- some of whom came in costume and insisted on speaking Klingon to the baffled wait staff -- and aced the test that earned her a “first-level certification” in the language.

The earliest documented invented language, Lingua Ignota, was the brainchild of Hildegard von Bingen, a 12th-century German nun. Scholars have yet to discover what she had in mind for it. After that came centuries’ worth of attempts to improve on natural languages and overcome their illogicalities. These attempts often began with elaborate charts of everything a language might be expected to describe, with a word’s place on the chart determining how it was to be written or pronounced. Not all the languages used the letters that are familiar to us. Missionaries traveling in Asia in the 1500s got the (mistaken) impression that Chinese characters somehow bypassed language, because various peoples who spoke mutually incomprehensible languages -- Mandarin, Cantonese, Vietnamese, Japanese -- were all able to read them. Some inventors tried to duplicate this feat with elaborate systems of symbols.

The idea that an invented language could bring everyone in the world together reached its height with Esperanto, the late-19th-century creation of a Pole named Ludwik Zamenhof. Though Esperanto’s heyday is long past, it still has more than 50,000 speakers. The multibillionaire George Soros is, or was, among them. His father, Tivadar, was an active Esperantist and changed the family name from Schwartz to Soros, an Esperanto verb meaning “will soar.”

Obviously, 50,000 speakers aren’t many compared with the 1.5 billion people who now speak some amount of English -- to say nothing of the total global population of 6.8 billion. Invented languages have failed to take the world by storm. The reason is largely that we don’t really need the precision and universality the ambitious ones strive for, as Okrent explains. Her book is both thought-
provoking and fun. Even as “In the Land of Invented Languages” made me admire the dreamers who have tried to improve on natural languages, it gave me new respect for the value of the “flaws” those dreamers set out to overcome.

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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