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Monday, July 6, 2009

In the Land of Invented Languages

Esperanto speaks to linguist Arika Okrent

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If there were no Esperanto, the language invented in the 1880s by Ludwik Zamenhof, there likely would be no George Soros, the Hungarian-born American billionaire. That may or may not represent an averted tragedy, according to your opinion of Soros, but it does illuminate the sometimes quixotic, far-reaching effects of artificial language.

Soros might still have become a billionaire, but it would have been as György Schwartz, his birth name. Instead, his father took up with Esperanto and changed the family name to Soros (meaning "will soar" in Esperanto). Soros eventually made his way to Britain, where a fellow Esperantist helped him obtain a permanent visa, and then to the United States, never losing his affection for the invented language.

Arika Okrent is a linguist whose fascination with the "faded plastic flowers" in the "lush orchid garden of languages" is recounted to delightful, often comic effect in In the Land of Invented Languages: Esperanto Rock Stars, Klingon Poets, Loglan Lovers, and the Mad Dreamers Who Tried to Build a Perfect Language (Spiegel & Grau). Nine-hundred-plus languages have been created in the last 900 years, the earliest documented being the Lingua Ignota of the 12th-century German nun Hildegard von Bingen, and Okrent goes through a few dozen of them-from the "philosophical languages" of the 1600s to a language of chipmunks of our own day.

Why do people invent languages? Some feel that natural languages can be imprecise, so they try to build a better one. Sometimes, it's because the inventors feel the world needs a universal language. Or, simply, it's because certain people are eccentric, not to say nutty.

The author finds three broad trends or eras. The 17th century experienced a search for a universal rational language, wherein words would perfectly express concepts. John Wilkins, author of the mammoth A Real Characterand Philosophical Language, for instance, wanted words to define concepts, not merely stand for them. As a language, his effort was a flop, but he accidentally invented a thesaurus nearly 200 years before Peter Mark Roget.

The next big change came in the 19th century, with a focus on practicality and similarities among languages. A growing awareness of word roots led to attempts to build a new language out of existing languages.

Here, of course, the emphasis is on Esperanto, the only invented language to show true staying power. Okrent makes it the heart of her book, perhaps because it seems to have captured her own.

Esperanto officially was born in 1887, the year Zamenhof published a small book, Lingvo internacia. People really do speak it; estimates range from as many as 2 million to as few as 50,000 today. There have even been native speakers of Esperanto.

There is an Esperanto culture, a milieu, a community that speakers want to participate in. To the extent Esperanto has succeeded, it is because supporters were and are enthusiastic about it and work at promoting it.

Esperantists face derision as being wackadoodles, but the author expresses a "protective defensiveness" toward them, saying their gatherings exhibit no more eccentricity than the typical university faculty meeting. The world, she feels, could use more people like them-genuine, friendly, peace-loving, respectful of others.

By the end of World War II, the era of the search for an international language was over. The third era that Okrent highlights then began, one less well-defined than the previous two and marked by individuals seeking freedom from "the awful power of words" to warp minds.

Some worked on "speaking logic"-Loglan and its sort-of spinoff rival, Lojban, all but impossible to speak. Others worked on symbols or such things as a language addressing the outlook of women. The chances that you have heard of any of them are less than the odds that you speak Esperanto.

Okrent's style is eminently suited to her approach, which is at once serious and playful, exemplified by her marvelous, snappy opening sentence: "Klingon speakers…inhabit the lowest possible rung on the geek ladder."

Ah, yes, Klingon, the language born of "Star Trek," invented at the show's request by linguist Marc Okrand and pretty much maintained and updated by him, though he admits he himself is only a mediocre speaker of it. For it is, Okrent says, a real, understandable language, "completely believable…but somehow very odd."

That illustrates one aspect of all languages. People do not necessarily learn them for rational reasons, but because they are something to have fun with, a puzzle, a challenge. That is why the author is proud to have earned her first-level certification in Klingon.

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