499: In the Land of Invented Languages by Arika Okrent

by Gerard


499.99: Okrent, Arika. In the Land of Invented Languages: Esperanto Rock Stars, Klingon Poets, Loglan Lovers, and the Mad Dreamers Who Tried to Build a Perfect Language. New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2009. 324 pp. ISBN 0-3855-2788-8.

Dewey Breakdown:

  • 400: Language
  • 490: Other languages
  • 499: Non-Austronesian languages of Oceania, Austronesian languages, miscellaneous languages
  • 499.9: Hurrian languages
  • 499.99: Afrihili (Artificial languages)

I have been waiting to read this one ever since I first heard of it—a book devoted to all the languages that have been created by other people. Everyday languages are organic: they have no real inventor but time and culture. These things shape the way we talk about the world and express ourselves. But someone had to sit down and invent Esperanto, to compose Klingon, to shape the way that Loglan works. These languages were created for many reason, but the main one seems to be so that people of different nationalities and cultures could finally communicate with one another. Arika Okrent’s In the Land of Invented Languages explores the rich history of those people who tried (and ultimately failed) to create a single language that all of humanity could use. And along the way, she reveals what little truth in contained in language, and how that reflects on us as language’s users.

Over the last nine hundred years, approximately nine hundred language have been artificially created. They come in bursts, though. After Hildegard von Bingen composed Lingua Ignota in the twelfth century, it was three hundred years before Muhyi-I Gulseni created Balaibalan. The last two centuries have been the heyday for language creation, with some 470 documented new languages. Okrent’s tour through language creation hits the highlights, from Wilkin’s Philosophical Language (1668) to Schleyer’s Volapuk (1879) to Zamenhof’s incredibly popular Esperanto (1887) and even to the modern-day tussles over Klingon.

Her investigations of these languages talk about whether language can ever truly represent ideas, how we perceive and classify the physical and metaphysical world, and if the rules of spoken language can ever really be made simple. Many languages, once invented and released into the “wild,” change radically, serving the needs of the speakers rather than the rulebooks of the inventors (much to the chagrin of the inventors). James Cooke Brown lost control of Loglan much like C. K. Bliss could not tolerate the changes made to his Blissymbolics.

As a language nut, I really enjoyed this book. Okrent’s joyful attitude towards language and grammar speaks to her background as a linguist. She wholeheartedly immerses herself in contemporary artificial languages, hoping to find one that both fun to learn and follows more rules than the others. What she does find, however, are groups of people so enamored with the communities that new languages create, that sometimes it doesn’t really matter if you can’t understand each other. Simply the act of trying to communicate is all you need to bring people together. And perhaps also a dictionary. A quick and fun book.