Sunday, June 30, 2013

In the Land of Invented Languages, by Arika Okrent

In college I knew a young woman who had studied the languages of J.R.R. Tolkien’s fictional world and taught herself to write elvish runes. At about the same time, I used to listen to the jazz-rock fusion band, Magma, led by eccentric French musician Christian Vander.  Vander’s lyrics were incomprehensible to speakers of French or English, but they reportedly told the history and mythology of an alien planet in that planet’s language, devised by Vander or, perhaps, revealed to him through interplanetary revelation. I also read a couple of instructional texts on Esperanto, achieving no conversational competence in the language, but acquiring enough to catch some of the dialogue in Incubus, the only feature-length film shot entirely in Esperanto, starring a youthful William Shatner.
I’ve always been fond of word games. Scrabble is the only board game I really like. Composing palindromes and limericks has helped me endure sitting through many a pointless meeting. Despite my attraction to wordplay and my early brushes with invented languages, though, I’ve never tried the grandest word game of all: making up my own language. That takes more perseverance and sustained concentration than I possess, so I’ll have to be content with spectatorship in that game.
If I weren’t already interested in constructed languages, I believe I certainly would be after reading Arika Okrent’s  delightful In the World of Invented Languages. Okrent draws us into this world with an anecdote about her own introduction to it through her exposure to the Star Trek language Klingon. Then, she traces the beginnings of modern efforts at language creation in the work of seventeenth-century thinker John Wilkins and a number of his contemporaries. As she describes it, the development of a universal philosophical language was a part of the Enlightenment effort to comprehend the whole of reality, and it arguably failed because that effort is beyond human capacity.
By the nineteenth century, the goal of language creation moved from capturing reality in classifications and toward communications.  One of the most curious and fascinating attempts was Jean François Sudre’s Solresol, composed of words built out of the seven notes of the musical scale, so that one could communicate by whistling or playing a musical instrument. 
Driven by the development of comparative philology, most of the constructed languages of the nineteenth century aimed at drawing on existing, mainly European languages to devise an auxiliary tongue that could enable to communicate across national divisions. The two main rivals were Johannes Schleyer’s  Volapük and Ludwik Zamenhof’s Esperanto. In Okrent’s telling Volapük was doomed at least in part by its creator’s refusal to abandon his beloved umlauts. Esperanto, by contrast, become the most successful of all invented languages, even if it does not appear to have contributed noticeably to Zamenhof’s aim of furthering world peace. I note that the spell-check on my computer accepts “Esperanto,” but not “Volapük.” Okrent presents Esperantoland as a worldwide community of charming eccentrics and I thought, after reading her description of Esperanto gatherings, that the world is a better place just for containing such people.
With the twentieth century came the third era of language invention, consisting of individuals working at the fringes.  Okrent finds a common motivation among many of those disparate language-welders, though. This was the belief that language was less a means of reflecting reality, as their Enlightenment forbears had believed, than of distorting reality, of giving rise to what C.K. Ogden called “word magic,” the tendency to confuse words with objectively existing entities. Some twentieth-century devisers of languages tried to overcome the word magic by creating languages that supposedly expressed fundamental truths through symbols that looked like or sounded like the ideas or objects they represented. Such languages would achieve clarity and, in theory, would be universally understood.  Blissymbolics, the invention of Charles Bliss, may have been the most influential and successful of these attempts because Bliss’s symbols found a use outside of his original intention. Bliss was inspired by his misunderstanding of Chinese written characters as pictographic. I was reminded of the Pound-Fenellosa thesis in The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry, a fascinating little book that happens to be completely wrong.
Unlike nearly all of the other languages Okrent describes, Bliss’s symbols ended up having a practical use. They were discovered by a Canadian hospital as a way of teaching communication skills to severely disabled, deaf mute children in order to move the children toward reading and writing. Unfortunately, Bliss proved to be such a difficult person that he became the worst impediment in this application of his system.
The Whorf Hypothesis, also known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, gave rise to modern philosophical languages. Benjamin Whorf had claimed that languages shape thought, so that varying cultural perspectives result from linguistic structures and classifications (I tend to think that the direction of causation goes the other way). In the 1950s, James Cooke Brown developed what he thought would be an empirical test of the Whorf Hypothesis, combined with some assumptions about the affects of word magic. If one developed a language guided by logic, would this make its speakers more logical in their thinking? Brown’s Loglan was intended to be just such a logical language.  Loglan did attract some adherents, but Brown’s possessiveness and paranoia led to the breakaway logical language of Lojban. Unfortunately, logical clarity and ease of use seem to be contradictory, so that contemporary devotees mainly study Loglan and Lojban, rather than actually use them for conversation.
At the end, Okrent returns to Klingon. Let me confess, at this point, that my favorite part of the latest Star Trek movie was the scene in which Zoe Saldana, as Lt. Uhura, attempts to negotiate with a group of Klingons in their language. The most wonderful thing about the Klingon language is its sheer pointlessness.  Created by linguist Marc Okrand to give verisimilitude to a fictional group of aliens, the language includes sounds found in all earth languages, but not together. Klingon speakers are apparently not drawn by the language’s ease, because its grammar is reportedly difficult. The attractions, as I understand them, are of two sorts. First, it is a kind of a linguistic puzzle. If it has no practical use, well, neither do crossword puzzles. Second, like Tolkien’s fantasy languages, Klingon is part of a complete fictional world, in which one imagines not only the creatures in an alternative universe, but the alternative world of words that their minds inhabit. Reading Okrent’s description of her efforts to learn Klingon did not make me want to take up the study, but it did make me see the people who do so as appealing characters.
I’m putting In the World of Invented Languages on my list of favorite books.

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