Monday, June 21, 2010

Inventing languages

In her delightful book In the Land of Invented Languages, just out in paperback and written up in yesterday's Philadelphia Inquirer, one of my fellow Chicago-trained linguists, Arika Okrent, explores the world's myriad made-up languages and the eccentrics behind them. 

Some aspired towards ethnic (Eliezer Ben-Yehuda and modern Hebrew) or world (Lazar Ludwik Zamenhof and Esperanto) unity; others, in the words of The Inquirer, "raged for order."  As Okrent tells reporter John Timpane:
"There is a lot of messiness and ambiguity in language... We need it. We need that wiggle room. But if you have an engineering mind, you'll see irritating things. Why do words have more than one meaning?...Why do we have irregular verbs? Why are pronouns in English so messed up?"
In the late 1940s, Austrian engineer Charles Bliss invented Blissymbolics, which he hoped could become a writing system for all languages, "logical writing for an illogical world." And James Cooke Brown [better known for the board game Careers] invented Loglan, a language that followed the rules of logic.
Others invented languages more for the inherent pleasure it gave them and others-- e.g., J.R.R. Tolkien (Elvish) and linguist Marc Okrand (Klingon).

As Okrent says of language inventors in general, "Many people have suggested there's an Asperger's-like, hyper-male mind-set at work, and there may be some truth to that."

1 comment:

Brian Barker said...

I think Arika's book is a terrific read. However I think that the choice of an international language lies between English and Esperanto, rather than an untried project.

Your readers may be interested the following video at Professor Piron was a translator with the United Nations in Geneva.

A glimpse of Esperanto can be seen at