Esperanto, Klingon, Blissymbolics and 900 others: why we invent languages

book-coverThis week, a converation with Arika Okrent, author of In the Land of Invented Languages: Esperanto Rock Stars, Klingon Poets, Loglan Lovers and the Mad Dreamers Who Tried to Build a Perfect Language.

Okrent has a linguistics background: she has a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago. But her interest far exceeds the merely  scientific. She  submerges herself, Orwell-style, into the geeky subcultures of invented language societies. Okrent holds a first-level certification in Klingon.That required cramming 500 words of this made-for-the-movies language during a Klingon convention that she went to. And this was no ordinary convention: attending it meant sitting next to sci-fi-monster-bedecked people who  insisted on ordering meals at restaurants in Klingon. And what words! Just try speed-memorizing terms like Qatlh, ngeD and wlgh. Those words mean difficult, easy and genius. The Klingon word for hangover is ‘uH.

Okrent tells many stories of people who dreamed up languages that would replace our own bastard tongues. In that sense Klingon is a small sub-set: its function was at least originally limited to a fictional universe; it was never intended to be used in the real world. Not so Esperanto, the most reknowned of the “real” artificial languages. Most invented languages are unmitigated failures, consigned to obscurity almost as soon as they are born. Esperanto is a rare exception —  it’s both a failure and a success.  It’s a failure because it didn’t meet the outrageously lofty objective of its author  Ludwik Zamenhof: to become a universally spoken global language. But Esperanto also succeeded because over time, it has become a living language.  It’s still around today, more than 120 years after its conception, and it has even evolved with usage.

Klingon and Esperanto are just two of dozens of languages Okrent discusses, from John Wilkins‘ 17th century Philosophical Language to Blissymbolics and Láadan, a couple of 20th century attempts to fix the supposed evils and omissions of natural languages.

The vast majority of invented languages from Lingua Ignota (c.1150) to Dritok (2007) languish in near-total obscurity. But they tell us much about how we think, how we do not think, and how we love to blame language for our own shortcomings.


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6 responses to “Esperanto, Klingon, Blissymbolics and 900 others: why we invent languages

  1. Hilary Chapman

    The assessment of Esperanto is fair on the whole, although I’m not sure that Okrent or you have made clear how thoroughly helpful this planned language can be.

  2. It is imprudent to say that Esperanto has failed because it is not the universal language it was meant to me. I don’t believe that Zamenhof ever set a deadline for this conversion.

    “The Ides of March have come, Soothsayer”.
    “Aye, but they have not passed, Caesar.”

    Anyway, I don’t believe that it’s in the spirit of the language. It should be a unifying language spoken by those who need to speak a language different from their own, first language.

  3. Judith

    For current information on Esperanto, is a better link than – has a lot of outdated links.

    And don’t forget – the most comprehensive online language course site I’ve ever seen, for any language!

    Saturday I’m going to the Czech Republic for a week to party with more than 400 young people from all over the world (including unlikely places like Kazakstan, Madagascar, Burundi, Guatemala…) in Esperanto!

  4. Dave Gude

    Hello Patrick,

    Thanks for your great show.

    Your story on invented languages brought to my mind David Bourland’s English Prime, a.k.a. E-Prime, or English without the verb “to be”. How about a World in Words segment on this worthy subject, Patrick? And for lots of fun, see if you can “speak” E-Prime for the duration of the segment. Now I call that a challenge. Come on!

    Yours in active and inventive language (two of the happy rewards of speaking and writing in E-Prime),

    Dave Gude

  5. Pingback: Paging Dr. Esperanto, and what not to say in Ireland’s parliament « the world in words

  6. Pingback: Paging Dr. Esperanto, and what not to say in Ireland's parliament | Europe | PRI's The World

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