Nonfiction: Linguistics

In the Land of Invented Languages by Arika Okrent

I had no idea there were so many invented languages! I could have named Esperanto and maybe Klingon, but there are hundreds and hundreds of them. The first one is credited to Hildegard von Bingen, a 12th century nun. I knew she wrote in a strange way, but I guess I always just assumed it was a combination of Latin and old German and…nunspeak. Apparently, it’s considered an invented language.

One wave of language inventors attempted to create a language that was not just words, but also the definition at the same time. It works in theory, but you also have to memorize an extremely complex tree of ideas and concepts that then lead you to the syllable or word that you want. Then you also have to contend with how the words are being used.

The trend that produced Esperanto came from attempts to unite the world by dissolving the language barrier. It came the closest – there are actually native speakers of Esperanto! Problems here stemmed from the biases within the languages (many of them were based in Western European languages) and the reputations that the languages began to take on (many linguists didn’t take them seriously, often because they viewed supporters of invented languages as eccentrics and outsiders rather than scholars).

There also seems to be a pretty big faction of language inventors that attempted to remove emotion from language, leaving only logic behind. Their theory is that eliminating emotion would eliminate misunderstandings. Unfortunately, the language is so complex that, according to Okrent, actual conversations are few and far between.

Okrent provides histories of the various languages, as well as fairly personal profiles of many of their creators. She also describes the way they work and includes examples of constructions. The grammatical explanations can be a bit technical for those of us who aren’t linguists, but I think I managed to muddle my way through most of them. So if you’re looking for an introduction to invented languages, their uses, and their creators, I would highly recommend Okrent’s book as an accessible, witty, and interesting guide.

My rating: A-

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One thought on “Nonfiction: Linguistics

  1. Take a look at http://www.esperanto.net

    Esperanto works! I’ve used it in speech and writing in a dozen countries over recent years.

    Indeed, the language has some remarkable practical benefits. Personally, I’ve made friends around the world through Esperanto that I would never have been able to communicate with otherwise. And then there’s the Pasporta Servo, which provides free lodging and local information to Esperanto-speaking travellers in over 90 countries.

    I’m pleased to see that Okrent acknowledges the achievements of Esperanto.

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