RogerBW's Blog

In the Land of Invented Languages, Arika Okrent 29 November 2014

2009: Okrent examines the history of invented languages, and in particular the rare instances that weren't immediately forgotten.

This is a short and informal book; Okrent manages to convey significant technical detail without getting bogged down in it. There are five major sections, each describing one language in some detail, while also discussing other languages invented around the same time.

After some notes on the early history of constructed languages such as Hildegard von Bingen's Lingua Ignota (circa 1150), the first section deals with the mid- to late 1600s. One of the great virtues of this book is its connection of the tendency to invent languages to major philosophical and cultural trends: at this time, not only was Latin starting to look inadequate as a general common language, but standard mathematical notation was gaining currency – and it offered the signal advantage of being unambiguous. Surely it ought to be possible to devise a language that worked the same way? John Wilkins is the centre of this, though his rivals are also mentioned: the trend at the time was for a vocabulary which would be self-explaining, which required a hierarchical classification of everything.

So in Wilkins' system a dog (zitα) is defined as a clawed, rapacious, oblong-headed, land-dwelling beast of docile disposition – because each character is an index into the hierarchical tables. If you know the tables, you will know roughly what the word means even if you have never met it before. Of course, you have to memorise the tables.

Of course, the hierarchy is intrinsically arbitrary. Hope is a "simple" emotion; shame is a "mixed" one. Entertaining is a bodily action; defaecation is a motion, as is playing dice. This was the inspiration for Borges' Celestial Empire of Benevolent Knowledge, but the arbitrariness is not the only reason for the Philosophical Language's failure: it offers no scope for ambiguity or allusion. On the other hand, the same attempt at a taxonomy of everything gives rise a few hundred years later to the thesaurus.

The next section deals with Volapük, Esperanto, and generally the languages invented in the latter half of the nineteenth century as communication between nations became more accessible and idealists wished to bring universal peace through universal understanding (at least between people who already spoke European languages so that they'd be able to work out the root meanings). It's clear that the relative success of Esperanto was not because of any technical merit, but because of a particular schism: the people who wanted it to be a useful commercial language split off to do their own thing, and foundered, while the idealists stayed. Okrent draws a useful parallel with Eliezer Ben-Yehuda's invention of Modern Hebrew around the same time: it only succeeded because of the waves of immigration to Palestine by Jewish speakers of a variety of different languages, keen to make the world a better place.

The impression given of modern Esperantists, and indeed later of the Klingon-speakers, is very much like that of any people brought together by an unusual hobby: they know the world doesn't think much of them, but they do their best not to care. (Very much like classical science fiction fandom, really, though there's less overlap than there used to be.) There are now second-generation native speakers of Esperanto, and they're looked on with some suspicion, because they're changing the language!

Charles Bliss is next, and his language of symbols. This becomes a far more personal story, as Bliss effectively sabotaged anyone who wanted to use his system of Blissymbols: it was largely forgotten until a Canadian nurse turned it up while looking for ways in which children with cerebral palsy might be made able to communicate, but once she started to get results with it he started to raise objections. After all, she was using it as a transitional step for children who had never learned to read or speak, so that they could eventually read and write (or otherwise communicate in) English text; Bliss wanted it used as a goal in itself, in particular ways and for particular purposes, and repeatedly sued the people who were the only reason his system was known at all.

The essential futility of any sort of codification system is repeated here, contrasting Blissymbols with John Weilgart's aUI. In the former, water is a basic concept (along with air, fire and earth) on which other things can be built; in the latter, water is "the matter that stands even, when at rest, of greatest quantity". In aUI, sound is a basic concept, while in Blissymbols it's an ear on top of the Earth ("a vibration of air molecules"). The two systems are entirely incompatible, showing how arbitrary they both are. And both Bliss and Weilgart grew up in inter-war Austria!

Loglan/lojban comes next, growing out of Whorf's suggestions about language influencing thought. It was intended to be taught to various people as part of an experiment to see if their ways of thought changed. This experiment was never formally conducted, though the various people involved in its development find that they are more careful in their use of English.

Indeed, one's reminded of Wilkins: the language is similarly intended to be completely unambiguous, but as a result there are twenty different ways to say "and" (A and B as a joint entity, A and B as a mass entity, A and B separately and perhaps at different times, and so on). A few brave souls still try to converse in it, but the effort involved seems disproportionate to the reward.

The final section deals with modern constructed languages, focussing on Klingon, and looking more generally at language design as art. There's a sense that the language idealists have mostly given up these days and joined the Esperantists, though there are still a few around who want to change the world; the vast majority of invented languages now exist as a form of creative play.

One gets a persistent impression of language idealists as awkward bastards who won't ever admit they might be in error. I suppose that there's a selection pressure: in the pre-Internet days, one had to invest a lot of time and resources into putting a language together and making it available to the public, and anyone who could be put off by the magnitude of the task probably was. (Now it's easier to put the thing together, but far harder to get people actually to read it.)

I hope I've conveyed the idea that this is a fascinating book, even as a quick skim of the field; Okrent writes of her own experiences discovering constructed languages as well as of their histories. It's not a formal study, and I'd like to read one, but it's a good popular introduction.

Dore mifala dosifare.

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  1. Posted by Michael Cule at 12:07pm on 29 November 2014

    It's always struck me as odd that language reformers think that a language in which you can't be ambiguous is going to be of any interest to me.

    According to a book I haven't read there are seven different kinds of ambiguity. The fact that I know about the book but have never bothered to read it is a sign of how educated I am.

    If I were going to reform a language I'd start with something small. Like restoring 'thee' and 'thou' so we have a second person singular again or giving English a gender-neutral pronoun.

  2. Posted by RogerBW at 09:55pm on 29 November 2014

    If you are designing a language for clear communication of simple facts, like the commercial constructed languages of the late 19th century, then you want as close to non-ambiguity as possible. Five hundred bales of copra FOB Darwin in return for ten thousand pounds, that sort of thing. But nobody's going to write poetry in it, and indeed nobody's going to use it as anything more than a commercial shorthand. I suspect the reason Esperanto has succeeded (at least in that it's still in use) and the commercial languages failed is that it gives people something to do: a sense of shared striving to make a better world.

    I suspect the problem with reform from within is that it's not immediately obvious that you're doing it.

  3. Posted by Michael Cule at 10:37pm on 29 November 2014

    I could scream. I could walk up and down the land naked to draw attention to the terrible state of English pronouns. I could found the Campaign for Better English.

    Or I could just continue to bitch about the topic on the Internet.

    I'd like to borrow the book now you've finished it.

  4. Posted by Owen Smith at 10:00pm on 01 December 2014

    At University I had a friend who tried to convince us that the invented language Glosa was worth learning. Strange chap, met his wife at evening classses when both were learning Russian, he became a Vegan and drives a Prius despite it being less efficient that many turbo diesels.

  5. Posted by RogerBW at 10:20pm on 01 December 2014

    I think invented languages are like technical standards. People look at what's out there, see the problems, and think "I need to invent a new one that will use the best bits of all these others". Now there are N+1 invented languages.

    But this means that the chances of finding anyone who talks the one you've chosen to learn, unless it's Esperanto or Klingon, are really pretty low.

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