Contented Reader

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Book review: In the Land of Invented Languages

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In the Land of Invented Languages

Arika Okrent

Spiegel & Grau


The subject of the history and present of invented languages and the people who create them has the potential to be very, very boring.  It’s Okrent’s informal, fun writing style and her obvious affection, not just for the subject but for the people she meets during her research, that makes this book worth reading.  And of course, having been drawn in by Okrent’s writing, you’ll learn a lot of interesting things you did not previously know.

I couldn’t have been older than thirteen when I encountered my first artificial language in the pages of a Harry Harrison novel.  You know what I’m talking about.  The Stainless Steel Rat, the hilarious ethical thief, hero of a whole series of novels.  I don’t even remember which one I read first, because as soon as I discovered them, I devoured as many as I could find at the public library.  Oh how I wanted to be Slippery Jim DiGriz.

Okay, I admit it.  Deep down inside, there’s a secret part of me that still wants to be Slippery Jim DiGriz.

And at the back of the book, a little notice that Esperanto, the second language that everyone in the Stainless Steel Rat’s world learns early and speaks like a native, is actually a REAL language that you too can learn!  Just send off to this address for your first lesson, absolutely free!

Remember mail?  My first lesson arrived through the mail, on paper, and I eagerly completed it.  It was returned promptly, by some enthusiast whose name I don’t remember, with scores and comments.  How thrilling!  By then, of course, I had lost interest and was immersed in some other book.  Anne McCaffrey, maybe, or Spider Robinson, both important influences on my early adolescence.

I didn’t actually forget about Esperanto, though, and I picked it up again in the internet era.  These days, there’s a very good teaching side called Lernu where a person can go from zero to basic reading fluency in Esperanto about as easily as such a thing is possible.  Check it out, if that’s the sort of thing you think you might like.

I liked the idealism of it, the idea that a common language might allow people to communicate, and if people could communicate, maybe they wouldn’t hate each other so much.  An idea that is obviously incorrect, since many really vile hatreds come from people who understand each other’s language just fine.

But mostly, I liked the sheer uselessness of it.  I was attracted to the idea of helping to pass on this body of knowledge that had so improbably managed to hang on into the 21st century, when all of its competitors had been forgotten, one eccentric man’s vision adopted by thousands of people who passed it on.  I loved the idea of knowing something very few people knew.

And again I lost interest, because there’s only so much time in the world, and because I didn’t feel that ‘click’ of kindred-spirithood with my Local Esperanto Club, and because by then I was getting more involved in the Society for Creative Anachronism, and I think we all know what a time-sucking, life-encompassing thing THAT little corner of nerddom is.

But I retained my fondness for Esperanto, and that’s why I was curious to read this book.  Okrent took me on a whirlwind tour of the idealistic invented languages of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, people who genuinely thought that they could ‘fix’ the problem of language and so fix the world.  With her, I got embroiled in the internal politics of Volapuk and Loglan and Lojban.  I visited a conference of Klingon-speakers, and learned how Blissymbols changed the lives of young people with cerebral palsy.

I started the book thinking of artificial languages as a fun but pointless hobby mostly pursued by extreme nerds with little sense of proportion in their understanding of the significance of their endeavor.  I ended… okay, still sort of thinking that, but having considerably expanded my thoughts.  Now I also see artificial languages as an art form, worth doing for their own sake, like a painting or a sculpture- a person with a vision, spending time in creating something out of nothing in hopes that someone else will see what the creator saw.

I also really want to learn Toki Pona.


Written by Contented Reader

July 20, 2011 at 9:49 am

Posted in Reviews


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