In The Land Of Invented Languages: Adventures In Linguistic Creativity, Madness, and Genius, by Arika Okrent
This book is geared to a particular type of nerd, specifically a language nerd: “Are you a secret lover of sentence diagramming? A crossword puzzle aficionado? Have you ever read the dictionary for pleasure? Yeah, you know what I’m talking about (104).” Oh yes, I do. I will admit, I am an amateur linguist, someone who reads about new languages and old languages, and who studies foreign languages for fun, both natural and invented languages, both languages that are alive and those which are dead . I have even tried my hand at language invention and realized its difficulties, all of which makes me a member of the particular tribes of people spoken about in this book. I say this because the author makes it out that the sort of people I happen to belong to are beyond the pale of polite society by being just too odd and eccentric, and although I will freely admit to being an odd person, as it can hardly be either denied or hidden, I do not think that my oddness is of the sort that prevents me from being at least tolerated, however grudgingly, among more ordinary people. Not everyone, however, is likely to agree with me on that one.
The roughly 300 pages of this book cover a variety of chapters that cover the span of invented languages in roughly three stages, which the author deals with in a series of focused chapters on various language inventors and visionaries. First the author examines the history of failure of many invented languages, of which some 900 over the last 900 years are known. The author then spends several chapters focusing on John Wilkins and the language of truth and how arbitrary it can be to define classes among everything in the universe–although it ended up accidentally creating the thesaurus. After this the author spends a few chapters looking at the quirky culture of Esperanto and its ability to become a living language despite its difficulties in becoming a language of peace. A few chapters about Charles Bliss and the language of symbols and its use for patients of cerebral palsy follow, and then a look at James Cooke Brown and the language of logic, before the author looks at Klingon, the Conlangers, and the art of language. After this there are a few appendices that include a list of languages as well as samples from some of the more notable invented languages, which the author divides into three subfamilies, namely the original a priori languages, the languages clearly based on existing ones, called a posteriori languages, and mixed languages, followed by some warm and affectionate acknowledgements.
There is a lot that makes this a warm and enjoyable book to read, especially given that I am clearly a part of this book’s target audience. For one, the author herself is warm and sympathetic to the various eccentric people who are attracted to different invented language cultures. She notes that many of the people who have invented languages have been cranks of a particularly irritating kind, that the speakers of invented languages have attracted a great deal of scorn that is far beyond their own level of danger to the world, and that the most successful invented languages have served as a blend of logic and art, and that the art of learning foreign languages (including invented ones) allowed someone the conceptual space to see their native language and its fundamental assumptions and worldviews as an outsider, which can be a profitable experience if one wants to better understand where one has come from and what can be expressed and what is not even noticed in one’s languages because there are no words to express it. This is a book that some readers will laugh at, but that others will read and use it to view not only the quirky speakers of invented languages and their peripheral cultures, but also learn something about the need for ambiguity as well as precision, and the tradeoff that all languages have between a variety of features, as well as the irregularities that creep in as languages change but where certain expressions remain rigidly stuck because they are used so often (like Saluton and Dankon in Esperanto, despite the growing loss of the final n in direct objects). This is a thoughtful book by someone who clearly enjoys linguistic cultures and is skilled at picking up tongues herself.
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