Inventing language

Darren, one of my college classmates, used to try to impress girls with his knowledge of Klingon, the language spoken by the ridge-headed aliens in "Star Trek." He'd leave flattering notes, in Klingon, asking them to lunch. To most, the notes looked like what happens when one hits a bunch of typewriter keys at the same time. But to the Klingon-literate girl of his dreams, the message would be clear. Sadly, Darren never had much luck.

I hadn't thought of Darren in many years until I recently picked up a book by linguist Arika Okrent, "In The Land of Invented Languages: Esperanto Rock Stars, Klingon Poets, and the Mad Dreamers Who Tried to Build a Perfect Language."

The book surveys the surprisingly long history of invented languages and the lives of their eccentric creators. She lists 500 languages, covering everything from the first documented invented language, Lingua Ignota, by Hildegard von Bingen, a 12th-century German nun, to Toki Pona, which "uses only positive words to promote positive thinking." Okrent reviews scores of invented languages, each with a rich story of the idealist or the egomaniac who created it. The book is hilarious, but Okrent resists the urge to simply ridicule the languages or their inventors. She seems to genuinely respect their passion for the work.

"The history of invented languages is, for the most part, a history of failure," writes Okrent. Some are just entirely too baffling for any human being to grasp, but what makes many of these languages fail is the tight control the inventors and their supporters have on the language. Languages in any form are living things, and like all living things, they need to be free.

Esperanto is by far the most successful invented language. Today, there are close to 2 million speakers, and even a small number of native speakers. Invented by Ludwik Zamenhof in 1887, it was meant to become an international language that would unite the world. However, splits between various supporters and desires to control it left Esperanto as more of a cultural oddity than a fully accepted language.

Some invented languages actually made a difference, even though they fell far short of their creator's aims. Blissymbolics, for example, was a language of symbols created by Charles Bliss in 1949. Although largely ignored, it was adapted by a school in Canada for children with cerebral palsy, thus allowing some severely disabled children a means of expression.

My overall favorite language was Láadan, invented by Suzette Haden Elgin, a science-fiction writer and feminist who wanted a language that reflected the female experience. For example, there are six words to describe menstruation, such as "ásháana," which means to menstruate joyfully. There is also "radiidin," to describe a holiday that is not really a holiday for the woman who has to cook and clean for a bunch of guests who don't help out. Yay, Elgin.

An enthusiastic explorer, Okrent attended Esperanto conferences, a Klingon function, and struggled to learn Lojban, a language obsessed with logic. Lojban's rules of grammar are so complex and explicit that English sentences seem impossibly vague by comparison. After studying its 600-page rule book, she finds herself stumped by a "Sesame Street" math quiz, unable to decide what exactly Elmo is asking.

As Okrent says, "Language is not just a handy tool for packing up our thoughts and sending them along to others. It is an index to a set of experiences, both shared and extremely personal." Her book is incredibly interesting, very funny, and accessible to those of us who are not trained linguists. I finished the book in awe of human beings and the beauty and flexibility of language.

I hope my old classmate is still speaking Klingon. If Darren or any other Klingon speaker is reading this column, I wish you great happiness, or as they say in Klingon, "ghIj qet jaghmeyjaj!"

Angela Howe-Decker is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach her at

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