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In the Land of Invented Languages: Esperanto Rock Stars, Klingon Poets,… (2009)

by Arika Okrent

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7862925,043 (4.04)58
Okrent tells the fascinating and highly entertaining history of man's enduring quest to build a better language. Peopled with charming eccentrics and exasperating megalomaniacs, the land of invented languages is a place where you can recite the Lord's Prayer in John Wilkins's Philosophical Language, say your wedding vows in Loglan, and read "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" in Lojban--not to mention Babm, Blissymbolics, and the nearly nine hundred other invented languages featured in this language-lover's book.… (more)

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Showing 1-5 of 28 (next | show all)
Very interesting study on invented languages, such as Esperanto, Tolkien's languages in his books, Klingon, etc. Fun and compelling. Makes you want to learn some to get the mind-expanding experience that some people have. ( )
  kslade | Dec 8, 2022 |
I did not have high expectations. Inventing a language seems a bit nutty and childish, perhaps a way to put off writing a science-fiction/fantasy novel. But this was surprisingly interesting! Yes, there is a certain nuttiness factor, especially with modern conlangs. But there is also science, ideals, a huge diversity of approaches, and some art. Okrent's selection of topics, and depth, was just right for me.

> There was excitement, praise, and plans for translating the work into Latin. The king expressed an interest in learning the language. Robert Hooke suggested it should be the language of all scientific findings and published a description of the mechanics of pocket watches in it. The mathematician John Wallis wrote letters to Wilkins in the language and claimed that they “perfectly understood one another as if written in our own language.” Newton, Locke, and Leibniz read Wilkins's book with interest.

> Traveling missionaries of the previous century had noted that people who spoke mutually incomprehensible languages—Mandarin, Cantonese, Japanese, Vietnamese—could understand each other in writing. They got the impression that Chinese characters by-passed language entirely, and went right to the heart of the matter.

> In 1881, when Ben-Yehuda and his wife, Devora, immigrated to Palestine from Europe, Hebrew also served as a sort of lingua franca of the marketplace for Jews from various language backgrounds, but it was nobody's mother tongue. In 1882, when Ben-Yehuda's first child was born, he declared that his household would be Hebrew speaking only, and thus raised the first native Hebrew speaker in over a thousand years.

> a young Hungarian named George Soros. His father, Tivadar, was an active Esperantist and had changed the family name from Schwartz to Soros, an Esperanto verb meaning “will soar.”

> “Word Magic,” the illusion that a thing exists “out there,” just because we have a word for it. When we are under the spell of Word Magic, we fail to see that “sin” is a moral fiction, “ideas” are “psychological fictions,” “rights” are “legal fictions,” and “cause” is “a physical fiction.” (He also feels compelled to pick on “swing” by pointing out that it is a “saxophonic fiction.”) Word Magic makes us lazy; we don't question the assumptions that are hidden in words, and so we allow ourselves to be manipulated by “press, politics, and pulpit.” Ogden thought Basic English could work as an antidote to Word Magic by forcing people to express themselves in simple terms, thus forcing them to really think about what they are saying.

> Winston Churchill, himself a tireless advocate of plain language, was a fan of Basic English and made efforts to promote it. He thought it could help create a different kind of empire, one based not on “taking away other people's provinces or land or grinding them down in exploitation” but on a shared language. He encouraged the BBC to take it to the airwaves and teach it far and wide.

> Roosevelt promised to look into the matter, but he couldn't resist teasing that Churchill's inspiring speech about offering his “blood, toil, tears, and sweat” to his country may have been less effective if he “had been able to offer the British people only blood, work, eye water and face water, which I understand is the best that Basic English can do with five famous words.”

> In 1959, two years after Ogden's death, the Voice of America began broadcasting news stories in something they called Special English, and these programs are still popular today in non-English-speaking countries all over the world. Special English is simplified, but not according to any particular theory or rules. It doesn't have anything against verbs, and while it has a core vocabulary of fifteen hundred words, other terms are introduced when they are needed, along with brief explanations. The few rules it does claim—no passive voice, one idea per sentence—are violated when they interfere with sensible judgment. It is what Basic English probably would have become if Ogden wasn't so hung up on grand philosophical justifications for his system

> The Chinese writing system is based on Mandarin Chinese. Other languages spoken in China, like Cantonese, are different but historically related—about as similar as French and Italian are. So what happens when a Cantonese speaker picks up a Mandarin newspaper? Does he just read it off into his own language? No. Essentially, he reads it in Mandarin. In order to become literate, he has had to learn the Mandarin way of marking grammatical distinctions and the Mandarin way of putting sentences together. He may not have learned the Mandarin way of pronouncing every word, but many of the Cantonese pronunciations are similar (as are the French jour and the Italian giorno), so the sound clues in the characters are sometimes helpful. However, they are much less helpful, so he has had to do a lot more brute memorization. This is why it has taken him a couple of years longer than a Mandarin speaker to become literate.

> sign languages differ considerably from country to country, so much so that in the 1950s, the newly formed World Federation of the Deaf assigned a committee to look into the matter of developing an auxiliary sign standard that could be used at the federation's world congress and other international deaf events. The result, finally published in 1975, was Gestuno, the Esperanto of sign language.

> Gestuno was only a lexicon, not a grammar, so there were no explicit guidelines for putting sentences together. At the 1979 World Deaf Congress in Bulgaria, the first congress to provide Gestuno interpretation of the presentations, the interpreters simply stuck Gestuno signs into (spoken) Bulgarian sentence structures (sign languages do not follow the same word order or grammar as their surrounding spoken languages). No one understood what was going on, and Gestuno never recovered from the fiasco. Something else took its place—a spontaneous sort of pidgin signing now called International Sign.

> In 1982, the OCCC got an exclusive, noncancelable, and perpetual license to use Blissymbolics, and he got $160,000. Easter Seals, the charitable foundation under whose auspices the program was now working, paid the settlement. That's right. There's no other way to put it: Bliss, self-proclaimed savior of humanity, stole $160,000 from crippled children.

> Interlingua positioned itself as a way for scientists of different language backgrounds to keep up with their fields. They wouldn't even necessarily have to speak the language. As long as they understood it, it would fulfill its businesslike function. By attaching itself to science, and refraining from grand claims, Interlingua spread a little further than it otherwise might have. Some major medical congresses and journals published abstracts in Interlingua throughout the 1950s and 1960s. But it failed to sustain interest.

> It might even be seen as a treatment of a disease we didn't know we had! LLL, the disease of “logical language limitation,” or UNM of “unnecessarily narrowed minds” … And wouldn't Loglan itself then be seen as the gentle new cure for that ancient human malady? … An antidote for the bigotry with which even “civilized people” tend to view their neighbors in the global village? … This is what is very likely to happen given what the journalists will call a “positive” outcome of our Whorfian experiment … Backed up by such a result, Loglan would probably be seen as ideal in the role of that international auxiliary, for example: the first language to be taught to the world's school children, the one slated to become everybody's second tongue … our engineered new second-language would be seen as the mind-expander, the instrument of thought, reason, invention, and exposition … and perhaps also the medium of intercultural mediation, a culture-spanning bridge to a more tolerant and peaceful world.

> “John and Alice (considered jointly) are friends.” If you used joi here, you would have said John and Alice massed together form some kind of friend entity. If you used e, you would have said that John is a friend (of someone) and Alice is a friend (of someone), and maybe they don't even know each other. There are at least twenty ways to say “and” in Lojban. But that's nothing compared with what happens when you get into “or” and “if.”

> “How many Lojbanists does it take to change a broken light-bulb?” goes the old Lojban joke. “Two: one to decide what to change it into and one to decide what kind of bulb emits broken light.”

> Until Loglan, invented languages had never been very explicit about how sentences should be put together. In philosophical languages like Wilkins's, or symbol languages like Blissymbolics, once you had done the hard work of finding the appropriate concept words, you just arranged them in an English-Latin-type hybrid grammar. There was never a well-defined “correct” syntax for these languages. Esperanto developed a better-defined standard of proper sentence structure, but it came naturally through usage, and not because the inventor laid down the rules from the beginning. You don't learn the rules of Esperanto; you intuit them from examples.

> One must clearly specify the structure of the sentence as a whole, using various markers that serve, in effect, as spoken parentheses. There can be no confusion, for example, between an “ancient (history teacher)” and an “(ancient history) teacher” in Lojban … Composing a sentence in Lojban is like writing a line of computer code. Choose the wrong function, drop a variable, forget to close a parenthesis, and it doesn't work. … Fortunately, you can visit jboski, the online Lojban-to-English translator, and at least see if your Lojban sentence parses. If you've made any major errors, or left out a crucial structural element, you'll get an error message.

> It would likewise be inappropriate to use dizlo (low) to say you're feeling low, because dizlo only means low “as compared with baseline/standard height z.” The metaphorical extension of lowness to emotions doesn't hold in Lojban. There is a Lojban word for these kinds of mistakes— malglico (damned English!). Malglico is what happens when you let the assumptions of English creep into your Lojban. And this must be avoided in Lojban, because to remain valid in a test of the Whorfian hypothesis, it must remain culturally neutral. In terms of vocabulary, this means that definitions should be unclouded by connotations and metaphorical extensions that may not be shared from culture to culture. In terms of grammar, this means that it should have the resources to express the range of distinctions that languages express, including distinctions that English might not have.

> In the Austronesian language Mekeo, you express possession one way if the possessed thing could potentially be transferred to someone else (e?u ngaanga : “my canoe”) and a different way if it cannot (aki-u : literally “brother-my,” so “my brother”). If it is true that the difference in the grammatical treatment of possession between English and Mekeo gives rise to some difference in worldview between the two cultures, Lojban doesn't want to force Mekeo speakers to blur the distinction, thereby forcing them to take on the English view of possession. In Lojban you can make the distinction, but you are not required to (because that would be forcing the Mekeo worldview on English speakers).

> she created the “pejorative” marker ih (it helps turn bini , “gift,” into rabinilh , “a gift with strings attached”) after a similar marker in Navajo

> Along with ui ([happiness] Yay!), u'u ([repentance] I feel guilty), it ([fear] Eek!), and .o'u ([relaxation] Phew!), there are compound indicators ranging from .uecu'i ([surprise][neutral] ho hum), to .o'unairo'a ([relaxation][opposite][social] I feel social discomfort), to .uiro'obe'unai ([happiness][physical][lack/need][opposite] Yay![physical] Enough!), something you might say after enjoying a big meal. As the Lojban grammar states, “We have tried to err on the side of overkill. There are distinctions possible in this system that no one may care to make in any culture.” Strictly speaking, these indicators fall outside the realm of formal logic: their validity cannot be evaluated; there are no truth tables that can account for them. But the Lojbanists love them, and they have a lot of fun playing with them. So much fun that one of them proposed a new language called Cinban (from cinmo bangu , “emotion language”), which would just be English with the attitudinal indicators thrown in … He set up a new Web forum in which “to practice .o'o [patience] using Cinban until I'm fully fluent .a'o [hopefully] in it. Anyone's welcome .e'uro'a [suggestion, social] to join me, of course uenaidai [expectation, empathy].”

> the language was supposed to be tough sounding, befitting a warrior race—which he achieved through the preponderance of back-of-the-throat sounds and the intentional absence of small-talk greetings such as “Hello.” (The closest translation in Klingon is nuqneH —“What do you want?”) Okrand did not just make up a list of words. Knowing that fans would be watching closely, he worked out a full grammar with great attention to detail. Klingon both flouts and follows known linguistic principles, and its real sophistication lies in the balance between the two tendencies. It gets its alien quality from the aspects that set it apart from natural languages: its phonological inventory of sounds that don't normally occur together, its extremely rare basic word order of OVS (object-verb-subject).

> By the time the books were published in the mid-1950s, he [Tolkien] had been working on his languages for over forty years. The creation of these languages consumed him almost against his will. At twenty-four years old he wrote of his obsession, “I often long to work at it and don't let myself 'cause though I love it so it does seem such a mad hobby!” He later claimed that he wrote The Lord of the Rings to legitimize his madness: “Nobody believes me when I say that my long book is an attempt to create a world in which a form of language agreeable to my personal aesthetic might seem real. But it is true.” ( )
  breic | Feb 26, 2022 |
I like linguistics so enjoyed this book very much. Had no idea there were so many invented languages and so many types of them. Very informative. The Klingon parts are a lot of fun. Don't think I will try Klingon but might take a look at Esperanto. If she were writing it today, would probably mention/include languages like Dothraki from Game of Thrones. ( )
  Nefersw | Jan 14, 2022 |
Intriguing, scattered. Many tidbits about constructed languages and the intellectual contexts in which they flourished, from Hildegard von Biden's 12th C Lingua Ifnota to 2007's Dritok. Author mocks language constructors while learning Klingon. ( )
  JesseTheK | Sep 26, 2020 |
I love love love this book! I've been fascinated with language since... well, since as far back as I can remember having language. I don't have the requisite gifts to hack it as a linguist, but my fascination and delight in language is no less for that.

And delight is was makes this book so enjoyable. The author's intelligence and expertise are obvious - her conclusions about language and culture are spot-on. But it's her sense of humor and the joy she takes in the material that make this book utterly compelling! I never would have thought that a book about language, written by a linguist, could make me laugh out loud. But this one did - more than once!

Anyone who is even slightly interested in the nature and workings of language should read this book! ( )
  johnthelibrarian | Aug 11, 2020 |
Showing 1-5 of 28 (next | show all)
For linguists and language mavens alike, this is a massively enjoyable book, full of dreamers and geniuses who devoted their lives to building a better language and, quite often, failed spectacularly.
added by Katya0133 | editBooklist, David Pitt (May 15, 2009)
[Okrent] conveys fascinating insights into why natural language, with its corruptions, ambiguities and arbitrary conventions, trips so fluently off our tongues.
added by Katya0133 | editPublishers Weekly (Mar 9, 2009)
I’ve never had much interest in artificial languages, but this completely won me over. Arika Okrent writes well and tells a great story, but she also has a PhD in linguistics, which makes all the difference; any good journalist could spin a lively tale out of some of this material (people who spend their lives creating and trying to publicize languages tend to be pretty colorful), but it takes a linguist to see what’s going on with the languages and be able to point out where they succeed and where they fail. Okrent has written a gripping account of some amazing people and some fascinating changes in the European cultural environment.
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Klingon speakers, those who have devoted themselves to the study of a language invented for the Star Trek franchise, inhabit the lowest possible rung on the geek ladder.
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Okrent tells the fascinating and highly entertaining history of man's enduring quest to build a better language. Peopled with charming eccentrics and exasperating megalomaniacs, the land of invented languages is a place where you can recite the Lord's Prayer in John Wilkins's Philosophical Language, say your wedding vows in Loglan, and read "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" in Lojban--not to mention Babm, Blissymbolics, and the nearly nine hundred other invented languages featured in this language-lover's book.

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