Books : reviews

Arika Okrent.
In the Land of Invented Languages.
Spiegel & Grau. 2009

rating : 2.5 : great stuff
review : 16 June 2010

As if there weren't enough languages in the world, some people seemed compelled to invent new ones. Mostly because the ones we have aren't good enough: they're illogical in structure, hard to learn, divisive, just not up to scratch somehow. In this wonderful book, Okrent takes us on a dizzying tour of the darkest depths, major follies, and minor victories of a whole slew of language inventors. The book is divided into five main sections, covering five main styles of language design. This semi-historical design serves to highlight the rise and fall in fashions in invented languages, and shows that these inventions weren't happening in a vacuum.

We get the first attempt at "logical" languages, including John Wilkins' 600 page classification of everything, which was intended to be the basis of removing ambiguity. Here we learn that a "dog" is a "Beast XVIII > viviparous [as opposed to egg-laying] > clawed > rapacious > oblong-headed [as opposed to round-headed] V > European [as opposed to exotic] > terrestrial [as opposed to aquatic] > bigger kind noted for > docility [as opposed to wildness]", and that "shit" is "Motion XXXI > purgation IV > serous and watry [as opposed to vaporous and windy] > from the guts > downward". These classifications don't precisely trip off the tongue, so Wilkins invented a way of pronouncing them, by assigning letters and syllables to branches of the tree. So to say these words, you just walk down the correct branch of the tree, sounding out the pronunciation: the route for "dog" becomes "Zita", that for "shit" becomes "Cepuhws". And to understand what a word means, you can recreate its position in the tree from its name. (While reading this section, I was irresistibly reminded of Borges' famously absurd classification of animals, and so was delighted to learn here that it actually appears in an article of his entitled "The Analytical Language of John Wilkins".) Complete lack of ambiguity achieved. If the concept you want is in the hierarchy, of course.

p71. Wilkins had performed another valuable service in taking the philosophical language idea as far as it could go. He had shown that it was a ridiculous idea. And so the idea could be put to rest.
    But, alas, it would not be. History forgets.

And today, alas, we have novel forms of this ridiculous idea, enshrined in some of the more naive object-oriented classification schemes and some of the more over-simplistic ontologies, which strive for the ever-elusive "one true hierarchy".

After languages to promote unambiguous thought came languages to promote peace and unity. These are the better-known invented languages, such as Volapük, Esperanto, and Ido. What is amazing here is the sheer number of these languages that were invented with bold assertions of universal peace, and then promptly withered in near total obscurity. Esperanto is essentially the only one to survive to any degree. Also included in this section is Modern Hebrew, and how it can be considered as an invented language, the unlikliness of its genesis, and the unique circumstances that led to its survival.

The next section was something I had never come across before: Blissymbolics, a symbolic language invented for the usual kind of reason, but that prospered in a unique environment: that of allowing children and adults who cannot speak and can barely move (for example, those with cerebral palsy) to begin to communicate. The story is heartwarming and horrifying by turns: heartwarming in the way the children blossomed once they could communicate; horrifying in the reaction of Bliss to the work. (There seems to be a problem with language inventors: they are trying to improve language, so when someone uses it in a non-conformist way that doesn't meet their vision, as here, they get upset, in a spectrum ranging from litigation to full-blown paranoid hysteria.) This section includes some fascinating stuff about Chinese writing and Sign Language.

History then sees a resurgence in logical languages. Now, however, these have become rather more sophisticated that simple hierarchical classifications languages: they are attempting to embody a culturally neutral and comprehensive ontology. Loglan started it off, initially invented as a way to test the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, that language affects thought. Although starting with this fairly neutral-sounding rationale, it eventually degenerated into typical squabbles over priority, court cases, and a spin-off alternative: Lojban. This language analyses and categorises the logical meaning of utterances: There are at least twenty ways to say "and" in Lojban. Does Lojban affect thought? Does it support the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis? Okrent recounts an amusing experience relating to this:

pp233-4. The further I waded into Lojban, the more everything I heard seemed to be filtered through the sensibilities of a bratty, literal-minded eight-year-old---"You love birthday cake? Well, why don't you marry it?" "Can you use the bathroom? I don't know, can you?"---with the difference that while the eight-year-old knows what you really mean, my lapses of understanding were genuine. One day during my weeklong immersion in the Lojban grammar, I was watching an Elmo video with my son when a friendly puppet character popped up to ask, "What are the two numbers that come after the number 6?" I had no idea what this puppet was getting at. "What the hell does she mean?" I wondered. "There are an infinite number of numbers that come after the number 6." I honestly did not know what the answer was supposed to be until the video told me (it's 7 and 8, by the way).
    Was this some kind of Whorfian effect? Well, no. It was more of a Freudian effect---like when you read a little Freud and suddenly everything starts to look like a penis. If someone keeps calling your attention to hidden meanings, or distinctions in meanings, you may start to see them. Your view of the world can be shaped by lots of things, but the Whorfian hypothesis wants only to know which parts are shaped by the language you speak. And I did not speak Lojban. In fact, after reading the grammar, I was pretty sure it was impossible for anyone to speak it.

(I must confess that I had the same reaction to the number 6 question!) Speakers do speak it, but very slowly, and there is a reasonably-sized community, unsurprisingly with a high proportion of mathematicians and computer programmers.

This anecdote illustrates a feature that brings the book alive: Okrent is a linguist who loves languages, natural or artificial, and she gets down and dirty with them, no matter how silly they may seem. She learns them. She translates sentences into them. She goes to conferences and fan conventions about them. She doesn't sneer at them, or their inventors. Nowhere is this illustrated more clearly than in the final section, which revolves around Klingon, which Okrent has learnt enough to pass the level 1 exam.

pp267-8. 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). Yet at the same time it has the feel of a natural language. A linguist doing field research among Klingon speakers would be able to work out the system and describe it with the same tools he would use in describing a remote Amazon language.
pp270-1. Many have speculated that Klingon is based on the Native languages that Okrand studied as a linguist. "I used some features from other West Coast languages, like the 'tlh' sound, for example," said Okrand, "but my basic strategy was to switch sources whenever it started becoming too much like any one language in particular." This strategy explains my reaction, as a linguist, to Klingon: it is completely believable as a language, but somehow very, very odd.

This is a super book, with loads of fascinating information, told in a light, amusing, and informed style. I have an interest in languages (which doesn't extend as far as actually learning them: for example, my copies of General Semantics and Lojban remain firmly unperused; I can barely be said even to dabble), and have read several books about them: this is one of the best. I will definitely be following up some items in the bibliography.