Tag Archives: Esperanto

Paging Dr. Esperanto, and what not to say in Ireland’s parliament

December 15 is the most important day in the calendar for people who speak Esperanto. It is Zamenhof Day, named after the man who dreamed up the idea of a language that the entire planet would one day speak. L.L. Zamenhof (that’s him in center of the photo, the one staring at the camera) was born 150 years ago.  Though his dream was never realized, Esperanto is still spoken — in fact it’s undergoing something of a revival in the internet age. We consider the failure and success of Esperanto, first in a piece I reported for the Big Show on December 15, and then in an interview with Princeton English professor Esther Schor, who’s writing a book on Esperanto. In the piece, you’ll hear from Arika Okrent, author of the fabulous In the Land of Invented Languages. To listen to an extended interview with Okrent on Esperanto, Klingon, Blissymbolics and other made-up languages from July 2009, go here. Also in the piece, listen out for a clip from the 1965 Esperanto language movie Incubus, starring the incomparable William Shatner. Shatner delivers his Esperanto lines in that same jig-jaggy way as he does English on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise. Other BBC stories on Esperanto are here and here.

After our Esperanto extravaganza, we consider why the Irish parliament bans words such as guttersnipe and brat, but permits certain swearwords. We know this because Irish MP Paul Gogarty recently dropped the F-bomb — and not in a particularly jocular manner — in the Dáil. We get the back story of why certain words — another is yahoo — cannot be uttered in the Irish parliament from Harry McGee of the Irish Times. A document called Salient Rulings of the House lists all manner of old-fashioned expressions as no-nos in debate. The f-word is not among them.

Finally, a follow-up to a previous podcast in which Carol Hills and I talked about baby names that don’t translate well into certain foreign languages.  After that , a Norwegian pod-listener wrote in with some alarming news: if your name is Mark, expect to be teased in Norway. And under no crcumstances name your child Musa. It’s apparently a popular name in Turkey. In Norwegian it refers, coarsely, to female genitalia.

Listen in iTunes or here.

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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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