Adventures in Linguistic Creativity, Madness, and Genius
By Arika Okrent
I have always had a weakness for books like this, books which provide a wealth of specific information on topics so esoteric you did not even know you were ignorant of them. My love of this sort of non-fiction has lead down very strange paths, and I now know more than I ever thought I would about rats and Scrabble and poison* and a host of other subjects for which I have no need of expertise. Despite the uselessness of this information to me, I’ve never regretted reading one of these arcane texts.
I knew that I wanted to read ‘In the Land of Invented Languages‘ as soon as I knew it existed. I first encountered it in a New Yorker piece on Ithkuil; I bought it immediately, and socked it away on my ‘To Read’ shelf like a little treat I was saving for later, something thoroughly fun to read after I had waded through some dense history or mind-dumbing bit of classical literature. Earlier this month, after I had quite virtuously re-read, and been re-disappointed by, ‘The Aeneid’, I decided it was time for a reward.
Arika Okrent is a linguist, and ‘In the Land of Invented Languages‘ is exactly what you would expect: her exploration of all the languages which people have designed, created from scratch, invented. She begins with John Wilkins, who created his Philosophical Language in the 1660s, and ends with Klingon, which she herself attempts to learn.
Okrent’s great gift is that, despite being a linguist herself, she understands that her subject is just as much the language inventors as the languages themselves, and, probably because she loves language so much, she genuinely sympathizes with the impulse that drives these souls on their quixotic task. This sympathy does not, however, mean that her readers are deprived of any gratifying stories of their oddness, their bad behavior, or their self-defeats.
And there are many of these. The main takeaway of ‘In the Land of Invented Languages‘ seems to be this: language inventors are not a relaxed group of highly normal people. In fact, the urge to prosthelytize a new language seems to arise in individuals (men, almost exclusively) who, having discovered some profound flaw in the world, are willing to subject themselves and the people around them to enormous hassle in order to correct it. Sometimes, the flaw is real, but sometimes they are the only ones who perceive it; it makes no difference. More idiosyncratic still, these men have decided that this global flaw is best addressed through a complete overhaul of language.
But the men themselves are totally bananas; even if you didn’t care at all about language, this book would be fun to read just as a catalog of weirdos:
We learn, for example, about Paulin Gaugin, who created Monopanglosse, and was “well-known in Paris for, among other things, proposing that the French help out the famine-struck Algerians by donating their own bodies for food (or just and or leg, if one preferred not to die for the cause” (p. 12)
And about C.K. Ogden, the creator of Basic English, who “believed that much of the world’s troubles could be traced to the negative effects of what he called ‘Word Magic,’ the illusion that a thing exists “out there,” just because we have a word for it. When we are under the spell of Word Magic, we fail to see that “sin” is a moral fiction, “ideas” are “psychological fictions,” “rights” are “legal fictions,” and “cause” is “a physical fiction.” (He also feels compelled to pick on “swing” by pointing out that it is a “saxophonic fiction.”)” (p. 139)
And about Count Alfred Korzybski, who wrote ‘Science and Sanity’, and who founded a “Institute of General Semantics, where he promoted techniques for overcoming the thinking errors caused by language – beware of the verb “to be” (“Is-ness is insanity,” he liked to say)”. (p. 201)
Language, my own and others, is something that I love. I see it as the paramount human achievement, bar none, and I take great delight in the idiosyncrasies of individual languages, in the things that they reveal about the people who speak them and the way those people interact with the world. I don’t see language as a distorter, a pernicious tool, but many (most?) of the figures in this book did. It was so interesting to inhabit that idea, to think about the language which has shaped my mind and my life as limiting and malevolent, rather than as what it has been for me: the medium through which I experience the world and the vehicle for my best self.
And, of course, it made me want to make a new language. How could it not? So much of the project is the blending of your favorite elements of your language and others, a sort of linguistic cherry-picking – how could anyone resist that project? Of course, it also persuaded me of the fruitlessness of the task, and the enormity, but this book has had me going around in circles in my mind about what I would want in my language, what I wouldn’t, things I need to express but can’t, things I wish I could express more easily.
My favorite part of the whole book had to do with this problem: the easy expression of things normally unexpressed. Láadan is a language constructed in the early 1980s by a woman named Suzette Haden Elgin. It was designed to be a “woman’s language”, to express easily the world from a woman’s point of view. It contains some words which are obvious to the point of obnoxiousness, as though they came from a mean cartoon about first-wave feminism (“radiidin: non-holiday, a time allegedly a holiday but actually so much a burden because of work and preparations that it is a dreaded occasion; especially when there are too many guests and none of them help”), but also words which are sublime and lovely, like bala: “anger with reason, with someone to blame, which is futile”, and aazh: “love for one sexually desired at one time, but not now” (p. 245).
Those words make me doubt my premise: I have never believed that language limits my thinking, but those are feelings which I have had, but have not had the word for, and so did not understand coherently. Now, I will. That language will have changed how I think. It’s rare that books are fun to read and good for you; this book was both.
*Rats: Observations on the History & Habitat of the City’s Most Unwanted Inhabitants, by Robert Sullivan; Word Freak: Heartbreak, Triumph, Genius, and Obsession in the World of Competitive Scrabble Players, by Stefan Fatsis; Molecules of Murder: Criminal Molecules and Classic Cases, by John Emsley.