Postmortem: In the Land of Invented Languages


Ever heard of a language called Esperanto? Hundreds of thousands of people speak it worldwide, yet it’s not the official language of any country. That’s because it’s a constructed language, something invented by Ludwig Zamenhof in 1887. He wanted an international auxiliary language, easy to learn, belonging to everybody, owned by nobody, to promote world peace.

Or perhaps you know about Lojban, a more recent language created to be unambiguous and grammatically precise.

Arika Okrent’s In the Land of Invented Languages is a whirlwind tour of these and many others, from Hildegard of Bingen’s Lingua Ignota in the twelfth century, down to Star Trek‘s Klingon in the modern day.

And it’s utterly fascinating.

Part of it is the sheer variety of languages themselves, each trying to fill a different niche in the vast sphere of human activity – like John Wilkins’ philosophical language, where the structure of each word describes the meaning of the word itself.

Part of it is the personalities involved – like Charles Bliss, who was so controlling and erratic that he made it almost impossible for anyone to actually use his “Blissymbols.” He demanded (and received) $160,000 from a center for disabled children as part of a settlement involving his language.

And a big part of it is Okrent herself. Her style is light, quick, and full of vivid detail, which makes her a delight to read. Even better, she leaps into her research, going to Klingon-speaking conventions to see firsthand what it’s all about. You couldn’t ask for a better guide.

If you’ve ever wondered about made-up languages, this is the book for you.

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