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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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