In the Land of Invented Languages

Esperanto Rock Stars, Klingon Poets, Loglan Lovers, and the Mad Dreamers Who Tried to Build A Perfect Language

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I really enjoyed reading Arika Okrent's 2021 book, Highly Irregular, explaining why English is so darn weird. (Short answer: blame geography for making Britain so darn easy for foreigners to invade over the centuries, and impose their linguistic preferences on the inhabitants.)

But all natural languages are somewhat weird, being the emergent product of chaotic efforts to communicate over millennia. As a result, we have: single words with multiple meanings; multiple words meaning the same thing; irregularities in forming plurals and tenses; pronunciations disconnected from spellings; inherent ambiguities; etc. And languages continue to evolve, via arbitrary slang and neologisms.

Which reminds me: I recently streamed a Netflix series, Florida Man. It was pretty good.

Yes, "stream". Let's just add a new meaning onto that word.

It is unsurprising that rational people take a look at this linguistic mess, and say: "I could do better." And, oh boy, did they ever try. In this book's Appendix A, Ms. Okrent lists an even 500 invented languages, dated 1150AD-2007AD. (The book is from 2009 AD.) And she admits leaving out a lot of other attempts; she just decided to cut off the list at 500.

In the main text, she concentrates on a relative handful of biggies: there's John Wilkins' attempt at a "philosophical language" (which I dimly remembered from Neal Stephenson's fictionalization in Quicksilver). There's Esperanto, a language designed to facilitate international communication. Loglan, an effort to test the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis that natural languages influence (or pollute) human cognition. (Robert Heinlein was a fan.) Blissymbolics, a language using pictures. (Not yet in Unicode, else I'd put an example here.)

And, most importantly, Klingon. Ms. Okrent relates the story of that languge's invention. (Whose alphabet is in Unicode.) She travels to a meeting of Klingon speakers, learns enough to ace a test given to measure one's grasp of vocabulary.

Ms. Okrent is a diligent researcher, but also a fun one. Her first effort in exploring Wilkins' philosophical language is to do "what any sensible, mature language scholar would do. I tried to look up the word for 'shit'." With mixed results.

And in looking at "Lojban" (an offshoot of Loglan), she tackles the 600+ pages of its "reference grammar". Which, she points out, "doesn't even include a dictionary."

I read the whole thing—I swear I did. And I'll tell you, not only did I still not speak Lojban, but I started to lose my ability to comprehend English.

The title of the book's Chapter Two is "A History of Failure". And it was the primary lesson for me: efforts to design a rational, logical language that many people would actually use didn't work out. (Arguably, the greatest success in this field is Klingon. And that "works" precisely because it wasn't meant to be logical, rational, etc. It was a labor of love, designed to reflect Klingon sensibilities and culture.)

Being of a libertarian bent, I couldn't help but make a connection to similar socialist/Marxist efforts to mold messy, irrational, societies and economies into efficient, rational Erewhons. Like languages, societies and economies emerge and evolve via the unpredictable and chaotic interplay of individuals. One might be able to make utopia-building efforts work on a small scale, for a short time. But thinking you're gonna run nations, or the world, that way? That's what Hayek called the "fatal conceit."

Last Modified 2024-01-11 4:43 AM EDT