Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked


July 13, 2009

A Language Lover Gets Her Klingon

Linguist Arika Okrent delves into the weird world of invented languages.

Michael Gluckstadt

Most languages evolve and develop out of generations of practice among a population of people. Creating a new language artificially seems about as daunting a task as crafting a new gene from scratch. And yet, time and again, individuals have invented their own languages, with ambitions ranging from facilitating world peace to giving voice to an alien race from a science-fiction television series.

Arika Okrent's new book, In the Land of Invented Languages: Esperanto Rock Stars, Klingon Poets, Loglan Lovers, and the Mad Dreamers Who Tried to Build A Perfect Language, explores the stories behind these attempts, and finds that many language inventors have compelling, if somewhat strange, biographies. Looking at these languages, the 39-year-old linguist says she can understand how an inventor's mind works, and "see the world through his eyes."

Arika Okrent
"Social media is not an invented language. No one ever decreed, 'We shall all say LOL.'"

Arika Okrent

In the following interview, which has been edited for clarity, Okrent tells Gelf about Klingon tags on Twitter, why some invented languages could never catch on, and what she would put in her own made-up language.

Gelf Magazine: Many of the people you profile as lovers or inventors of new languages don't really conform to social norms, even in their own times. What's the connection between a love for language and being a misfit?

Arika Okrent: There are different kinds of misfits. The language inventors who wanted to improve on natural languages often thought they had this fantastic idea that no else had, or that no one else had done right. They have to be outside society in order to keep doing what they do while everyone around them calls them crazy and tells them it will never work.
The modern language inventors, who do it for art's sake, or the people who form communities around these languages, like the Klingon speakers, have to ignore society in a different way. They have to keep going despite the fact that everyone thinks what they do is a total waste of time, or an insult to natural language, or just too extremely geeky.

Gelf Magazine: Do any of them craft a language strictly for language's sake?

Arika Okrent: Some of these inventors, in fact, do have a great love for language—their creations are an expression of that love. For example, someone who loves Welsh sounds so much wants to make a language that sounds even more Welsh than Welsh does. Or someone who loves agglutinating syntax so much wants to make a language that uses this syntax for every linguistic function.

Gelf Magazine: How has the Klingon-speaking community reacted to your profile of them in Slate?

Arika Okrent: The people I've heard from have been positive. I mean, Klingon speakers are completely aware of how they're perceived by "normal" society, and they do have a sense of humor about it. They're also kind of proud of their freakiness, especially since what makes them seem so freaky is that—unlike the guys who just dress up in costumes—they have to put so much work into doing what they do. That said, I think a lot of them are actually very shy (in their non-Klingon personas), and that's the reason I haven't heard from as many of them as I have from, say, Esperanto speakers.

Gelf Magazine: What impressed you most about the Klingon speakers?

Arika Okrent: They really don't care what people think. They are free to do what they really enjoy because they don't care. I would say some of the scenes where it seems like I'm making fun of them—for example where I'm feeling embarrassed to be with them at a restaurant while they're placing their orders in Klingon—show, yes, that Klingon speakers are extremely nerdy, but also that I want people to think I'm cool. So in a way, they show that I'm a weaker person. And it's not just about whispers and stares—some people can be really mean to the Klingon speakers. But they go out there in their costumes, speaking their crazy-sounding language, as if to say, "We're here. We're weird. Get used to it."

Gelf Magazine: One interesting group of invented languages you cover are unique in that they attempt to link a word to its meaning, as opposed to natural languages, which match an arbitrary word to a meaning. Why haven't these logical languages caught on?

Arika Okrent: If you want a word in your language to show what that word means, you need to know what it means. Is a "dog" a "docile land dwelling beast," or "a prototypical pet animal," or an "animal of long ears and wagging tail"? You have to decide what the definition is you want to put in the word. Beyond "dog," what does "shame," or any abstract concept, really mean? It'd be very difficult to piece together, because you'd have to have already selected the appropriate meaning for every term.

Gelf Magazine: Do you think an invented language could take off on a mass scale?

Arika Okrent: I would say no. But then, I also wouldn't expect Esperanto to have native speakers, and yet there are a lot of people who speak it as a home language. There are people who speak it often and fluently. Even though it never lived up to its dream of being an international language, it's still a success on some level.
We'll never have a perfect universal language, but there is a chance an invented language could take off just because people like it—like the Klingon speakers.

Gelf Magazine: Where do people speak Esperanto as a home language?

Arika Okrent: They speak it all over the world, but mostly in Europe. Hungary is something of an Esperanto hotbed—probably because Hungarian as a language is isolated from what they speak in neighboring countries. All of the great Esperanto poets are Hungarian. There just aren't as many speakers of it in North American countries.

Gelf Magazine: And why did Esperanto achieve a measure of success and not the many other invented languages you cover?

Arika Okrent: An accident of history. In the late 19th century, everyone was optimistic about grand social-engineering projects. The message of peace and internationalism was very attractive to people during a time when nationalism was marching through Europe. Esperanto's success occurred around the same time as Modern Hebrew's. It was a time of optimism about making a language—not necessarily because of the features of the language itself.

Gelf Magazine: How did you become interested in invented languages?

Arika Okrent: I'm a linguist. In the library, I would look at these tiny pamphlets and their crazy claims. "Learn my grand philosophical language in just five minutes!" I thought it was funny and ridiculous. But then I got drawn into the personal stories of the language inventors. I want to know, "Who are these people? And why did they think their language was going to work?" A lot of them had very interesting back-stories.

Gelf Magazine: In the book, you seem to get a real thrill out of using and translating some of these forgotten languages. Why is that?

Arika Okrent: For me, it's a puzzle-solving satisfaction. I like settling in with a weird natural language to see how it works. I speak Hungarian because I like seeing how the long words come together out of smaller pieces. Invented languages have a similar challenge.

Gelf Magazine: Do you have a favorite?

Arika Okrent: Among the inventors, I like the humble ones, who never assumed fame and fortune were going to come their way. Studying John Wilkins's philosophical language was interesting because his whole world was contained within it. It put me in touch with a 17th-century Englishman, and I got to see how the world looked through his eyes.

Gelf Magazine: Have you ever thought about creating one yourself?

Arika Okrent: I did think of it. I thought it would be cool for the book. But I just didn't have it in me. I thought of cool ideas, but I couldn't put in the work to make it happen. I guess I'm just not a language creative artist.

Gelf Magazine: What would your language have had in it?

Arika Okrent: Something really out there, like a language where you would have to juggle items in the air to communicate. Or a language where to communicate an idea, you have to eat it and digest it first. Crazy things that I bet no one has ever thought of. A language in which every word was related to the same concept, like birds. As in, instead of saying "roof," you'd say, "place where bird may roost."…Yeah, I guess I'm glad I didn't invest too much time in them.

Gelf Magazine: What do you think of the effect social media has had on our language? Could that be considered an invented language in and of itself?

Arika Okrent: It's more of a dialect, really. It's not invented. No one ever decreed, "We shall all say 'LOL.' " Someone just did it, and then someone else followed. That's just how slang is born. Social media has its own vocabulary, but it's still naturally occurring. I also don't think it's all that harmful. I'm not one of those people who panic about the state of our language because of what the kids are doing with it.

Gelf Magazine: Does anyone Twitter in Esperanto?

Arika Okrent: Sure. There are people who tweet in Esperanto. There's even a hashtag for Klingon. The invented languages that have users are being used in the same way that all languages are.

Gelf Magazine: I was struck by how many of your subjects are explicitly Jewish—the Klingon speaker you meet in New Jersey, Ludwik Zamenhof, who invented Esperanto; and of course Eliezer Ben-Yehuda. What is it with Jews and language?

Arika Okrent: Having an international outlook is something of a Jewish idea. That's at least where Zamehnof was coming from. Also there's a Jewish bookkeeping thing. Language is another one of those systems you can catalog and have long debates about. It's also something of an outsider's intellectual pursuit, which I think appeals to Jews. It's not inventing a new tractor; it's letters and numbers, and God knows that's in the religious tradition.

Gelf Magazine: Along those lines, you seem to be extremely proud of your bagel-baking abilities. What is the secret to a good bagel?

Arika Okrent: It's not as hard as it seems. The ingredients are very important—malt syrup, high gluten flour, a hot, hot oven to make it crispy on the outside. There's nothing worse than a soggy non-crusted bagel. It's not a bagel at all. The art of bagelry is totally being lost. My mission is to keep the art alive.

Michael Gluckstadt

Michael Gluckstadt is an editor at Gelf and host of the Varsity Letters speaking series.

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- Science
- posted on Jul 16, 09
Bill Chapman

I do admire this lady. Unusually among linguists, she is fair to Esperanto!

- Science
- posted on Jul 25, 09

"Esperanto's success occurred around the same time as Modern Hebrew's. It was a time of optimism about making a language—not necessarily because of the features of the language itself."
Yes, it was time of international hope, but it's strange to deny the qualities of the language itself - technical qualities actually recognized by different linguists, even in France ! The success is not due to accident of history, it’s genious, that’s all !

« (...) probably because Hungarian as a language is isolated from what they speak in neighboring countries. »

Probably also because of the possibility to learn it at school.. If learning esperanto was possible in France or in the USA, the number of speakers would increase regularly, perhaps quickly.

Besides, i regret that the interview talks mostly about klingon, a simple joke compare to esperanto, which is a real language that increase regularly, proposed by some european deputies for the EU, studied in many countries, like in China for example, and so on. Political questions and business interests explain mainly the slow progress of esperanto as international language, in place of english...

- Science
- posted on Jul 27, 09

Do you refuse comments with a bit of critic ?
Sorry for my kitchen-english. And i don't write klingon, only esperanto !

- Science
- posted on Jul 27, 09

So, i try again to send critic !
I think that the author is not totally fair with Eo, saying « It was a time of optimism about making a language—not necessarily because of the features of the language itself. ».
Why so many linguists (not all) try difficult to recognize the linguistic genious of Zamenhof ? It is true that it was a time of international hope, but true also that Eo is a marvel of structure, harmony, constantly under-estimated.

And also, i regret that the interview allways come again on klingon, which is only a joke, nothing to compare with the actual dimension of Eo :
« Sure. There are people who tweet in Esperanto. There's even a hashtag for Klingon. The invented languages that have users are being used in the same way that all languages are. »
The book is about all constructed languages, i know, but the places of klingon and Eo in this article seems to me unfair, really different of their social place.

- Science
- posted on Aug 20, 09

in fact "in the land of invented language" by Arika Okrent is quite in favour of Esperanto... It is fun reading it.
I particularly like remarks like: "if you plant a plastic flower, will it grow?"

- Science
- posted on Jun 22, 10

@Krokodilo: Hi, I'm an esperantist, but I see no problem mentioning Klingon, and I wouldn't criticise it like you do.

The book is about constructed language, not only esperanto. You have to accept the existence and intriseque value of other languages, even if you support Esperanto. And you forget that Klingon is by no way in competition with Esperanto as it is just a fictional language.

Kara Krokodilo, fartu bone ;)

- Science
- posted on May 01, 17

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Article by Michael Gluckstadt

Michael Gluckstadt is an editor at Gelf and host of the Varsity Letters speaking series.

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