Tag Archives: conlang

The world language is coming

I was writing today about Ro, a language constructed by the Rev. Edward Powell Foster in the early 20th century.  You can read his 1913 manifesto, Ru Ro, online.

It starts:

Friends — I mean the entire world — I have a message for you.
It is on a subject of interest to every one, whether President,
King, Queen, Kaiser, Czar, Mikado, Shah, prince, peasant,
subject,citizen, learned or unlearned, rich or poor, in Europe,
Asia, Africa, America or the islands of the sea. 

Who am I, you may ask, who calls upon the whole world for attention.

And continues:

Friends have offered the suggestion that I let men 
who have plenty of money and plenty of time work 
out the language problem. I am surely not standing 
in their way, nor trying to hinder them. Why do 
they not carry out the work? There are multimil- 
lionaires in the United States who can hire clerks by 
the regiment. Why do they not set men to snatch 
the oratorical crown from the brow of Demosthenes? 
Why not employ painters who can make the master- 
pieces of Raphael look like daubs? Why not engage 
operators to outwizard Edison in handling electricity? 

Why ? Because they cannot. 

Neither can they pick 
up at random stenographers or typewriters who will 
dash off to order a new language, complete in all de- 
tails, and superior to English, or German, or French, 
or Spanish, or Russian, or Italian. 

But the world language is coming. That means 
that somebody must make it.
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In the Land of Invented Languages

I had a thing for invented languages as a kid.  I took a correspondence course in Esperanto, and when I got tired of that, I started work (as one does) on my own ideal language, which was called Ilenga.  Later, when I was at Johns Hopkins, I spent a lot of time in Eisenhower Library looking at their collection of pamphlets, broadsides, and mimeographed polemics — and even the occasional published book — by language creators whose painstaking constructions never rose to the level of fame Esperanto enjoyed.  In the end, a lot of this stuff made its way into The Grasshopper King, which in some sense is about the question:  “What if a real language worked the way people who invent languages want languages to work, and what would happen to you if you tried to speak that language?”

It turns out Arika Okrent was looking at the same shelf of pamphlets.  And she now has a book, In the Land of Invented Languages, a kind of cultural history of the idea of the invented language.  You know how when you see the one-paragraph description of a book, and the premise is really great, and you say to yourself “I really hope this book is good, because if it isn’t,  it’ll be impossible for any future good book on this premise ever to published?”  That’s how I felt.  And I’m happy to report that Okrent’s book is everything I wanted it to be.  Partly because she’s a good, energetic writer.  Partly because she has a Ph.D. in linguistics and writes with an easy authority about the technicalities that vex her subjects.  And partly because she’s a hell of a researcher with an eye for the strange, decisive detail.  Three great facts I learned from this book:

  • Grover Cleveland’s wife had a dog named Volapük.
  • George Soros’s father was born with the surname Schwarz; he was a dedicated Esperantist and changed it to Soros, Esperanto for “will soar.”
  • James Cooke Brown, the inventor of Loglan, had the time and disposable income to create a language because he also invented the boardgame Careers.  Brown, a lifelong socialist, intended Careers to counteract what he saw as Monopoly’s overemphasis on making money as the sole goal of life.  I was a major Careers fan as a kid and let me just say this point was utterly lost on me.

This book pulls off a very difficult trick.  Okrent is writing about people who are often strange and almost always, in one way or another, misguided.  She gives you the full measure of their strangeness, but never deviates from her posture of bemused respect for the audacity and technical difficulty of the tasks they’ve set themselves.  Good trick; good book.

Here’s Okrent on Klingon speakers in Slate. Here’s her blog, which right now is just a list of book events. Here’s her bagel recipe.

And here’s the longest text I ever wrote in Ilenga:  a translation of the first verse of “Shout,” by Tears for Fears.

Shautoc, shautoc

Jame relsoc

Pas o i cosas nu as ni nido, disoc

Loc za

A disoi tu ta

Loc za!

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