In the Land of Invented Languages

Arika Okrent

Created on Tuesday, November 22, 2011.
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A wonderful tour of some of the myriad artificial languages that have been invented by people, their shortcomings, and their successes.


“The variety of shape, pattern, and color found in the languages of the world is a testament to the wonder of nature, to the breathtaking array of possibilities that can emerge, tangled and wild, from the fertile human endowments of brain and larynx, intelligence and social skills.”


“He [Sir Thomas Urquhart] published two works on this language: Ekskubalauron, or “Gold out of Dung,” in 1652; and Logopandecteision; or, An Introduction to the Universal Language in 1653. (He was an avid coiner of exotic Greco-Latin-based terms, often taken to — to use a phrase of his — quomodocunquizing, or “any-old-waying,” extremes.) Both of these works include an indictment of natural languages for their gross imperfections and a trumpeting of praise for the solution that he had devised. But he never gets around to the details. The remainder of the first work is taken up with an invective against greedy Presbyterians and a history of Scotland. The largest part of the second work consists of a chapter-by-chapter complaint against the “impious dealing of creditors,” “covetous preachers,” and “pitiless judges” who were compounding his money troubles.”


“He [Sir Thomas Urquhart] thought a similar approach could be used to make precise, definition-containing words for everything in the universe. All you needed was the right alphabet, and he claims to have devised one so perfect that not only can it generate distinct words for all possible meanings, but the words for stars will show you their exact position in the sky in degrees and minutes, the words for colors will show their exact mixture of light, shadow, and darkness, the names of individual soldiers will show their exact duty and rank. What’s more, in comparison with all other languages, it produces the best prayers, the most elegant compliments, the pithiest proverbs, and the most “emphatical” interjections. And besides all that, it is the easiest to learn. He stops short of claiming that it whitens your teeth and cures impotence, but he might as well have. His claims can’t be disproved, because he doesn’t provide any examples.”


“Now I must make an admission. I have always used a thesaurus in the way that most people use one. You go to the alphabetical index, look up a word, find some synonyms, and pick the one that best expresses the sense you’re going for. If you don’t see something you like, you look at the little number next to the closest sense, turn to the numbered list, and find more alternatives to choose from. You make a choice, stick it in your sentence, and close the book until next time. I never gave a thought to how the numbered list was organized. I never even thought about whether it was organized. But of course it has to be. The words near each other in this list are related in meaning. There must be some basis for considering them related. That basis, it turns out, is a conceptual classification not all that different, in raw outline, from that proposed by Wilkins. My thesaurus, Roget’s International Fourth Edition, groups words into eight major classes (physics and sensation were added, in later editions, to the six originally provided for by Roget):

  • abstract relations
  • space
  • physics
  • matter
  • sensation
  • intellect
  • volition
  • affections Each of the major groups is further divided into sub- and sub-subcategories. There are ten kinds of abstract relations, three kinds of matter. “Beauty” is under affections. It is a personal affection, a discriminative one. “Truth” is under intellect. It is an intellectual faculty, a conformity to fact.”


“This demand for conceptual precision makes Wilkins’s language very hard to use. Before you can say anything, you have to know exactly what you mean to say. I never realized what an imprecise word “clear” was until I tried to translate it into Wilkins’s concepts. I learned that what I meant to say was “manifest” (or rather bebuhw), and for that I give him credit. He did an impressive job of unpacking and analyzing the many senses of the words. But I couldn’t imagine carrying on a conversation using these unpacked senses. If the word “clear” is imprecise, it is mercifully so. And not necessarily to the detriment of meaning. “It is clear that…” carries with it a bit of transparent glass, the bright ring of a bell, a sunny day, a candid conversation, an uncluttered table. Bebuhw has left these senses separately imprisoned in their own categories, and it seems the poorer for it.”


“Zamenhof wrote that his city of birth marked the way for all my future goals. In Bialystok the population consisted of four different elements: Russians, Poles, Germans and Jews. Each of these elements spoke a separate language and had hostile relations with the other elements. In that city, more than anywhere, a sensitive person might feel the heavy sadness of the diversity of languages and become convinced at every step that it is the only, or at least the primary force which divides the human family into enemy parts. I was brought up to be an idealist; I was taught that all men were brothers, while at the same time everything I saw in the street made me feel that men as such did not exist: only Russians, Poles, Germans, Jews and so forth. This always tormented my young soul, though many might laugh at such agony for the world in a child. Because at that time it seemed to me that adults had a sort of almighty power, I kept telling myself that when I was grown up I would certainly destroy this evil.”


“His book had included a form for the reader to sign, agreeing to learn the language if ten million others also signed the form. Fewer than a thousand came back, but enough interest had been generated to inspire him to translate the original Russian text into Polish, French, and German. He left the English translation to a well-meaning German volunteer, who produced choice manglings such as “The reader will doubtless take with mistrust this opuscule in hand, deeming that he has it here to do with some irrealizable utopy.” Before its chances were completely killed in the English-speaking world, an Irish linguist took interest and produced a more readable translation.”


“And for the childish mind the temptations of Volapük are great. If you think the word pük is funny, then you will love how it figures into all kinds of other words related to the concept of language: Because I have one of those childish minds, I can’t help throwing in another example here. “To succeed”? Plöpön.”


“Claude Piron, a Swiss psychologist and prominent “prestige” Esperantist, emphasizes a different kind of benefit that Esperanto has over English: A Swede who speaks English with a Korean and a Brazilian feels that he is a Swede who is using English; he does not assume a special identity as “a speaker of English.” On the other hand, a Swede who speaks Esperanto with a Korean and a Brazilian feels that he is an Esperantist and that the other two are also Esperantists, and that the three of them belong to a special cultural group. Even if non-native-speakers speak English very well, they do not feel that this ability bestows an Anglo-Saxon identity on them. But with Esperanto something quite different occurs.”


“Can the thing that Esperantists share with each other really be called a culture? Professional anthropologists might be insulted by the question. All I know is that if you told me you just saw a nudist, a gay ornithologist, a railroad enthusiast, and a punk cannabis smoker walking down the street together, I would be waiting for the punch line. But if you then told me they were speaking Esperanto, no punch line would be necessary. It would all make complete and utter sense.”


“Technically, Hebrew is not an invented language. There was no Zamenhof of Hebrew to sit down and draft its rules and vocabulary. But there was an Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, who, as one biographer put it, “made it possible for several million people to order groceries, drive cattle, make love, and curse out their neighbors in a language which until his day had been fit only for Talmudic argument and prayer.””


“He also appealed to President Roosevelt to join the cause of Basic English. Roosevelt promised to look into the matter, but he couldn’t resist teasing that Churchill’s inspiring speech about offering his “blood, toil, tears, and sweat” to his country may have been less effective if he “had been able to offer the British people only blood, work, eye water and face water, which I understand is the best that Basic English can do with five famous words.””


“Molee was born in Muskego, Wisconsin, to recently arrived Norwegian immigrant parents. In his autobiography, molee’s wandering (written without capital letters, which he considered “cruel, non-ethical, non-artistic, and non-scientific”), he describes an idyllic childhood spent listening to tales of Norse mythology in his family’s log cabin, eating “good pancakes with milk in e dough n much egg n butter in it,” and roaming the fields picking fresh berries, plums, and nuts with the local children. Most of the neighboring families were Norwegian, but there were also quite a few Germans, as well as one or two English-speaking American households. As the children played, they developed their own little dialect, which they used to communicate with one another: “1 day we caught hold of 1 or 2 english words from henry n mary adams, at another time, 1 or 2 words from otto n emma shumaker in low german, sometimes they learned 1, 2, or 3 words from e tveite or e molee children in norwegian, as e norwegian n german children were e most numerous, e new union language leaned largely toward e teutonic side with very few latin words.” They called their language “tutitu” and even used it to act as interpreters between their parents.”


“One particularly bright little girl named Kari took to this new means of expression with so much gusto that she could barely stand to be away from her symbols. When her father picked her up from school, she would cry through the whole car ride home, and could not be consoled until she was on the living room floor with her symbols, telling her family about the exciting events of the day. McNaughton and the team of therapists she was working with took a picture of Kari, sitting in her wheelchair, surrounded by an array of symbols. Her eyes are sparkling, her smile is huge, and her dimples are adorable. When they finally tracked down Bliss in Australia, they sent him the picture. Before he received it, he later wrote, “I was resigned to my fate that I shall not see the fruits of my labours before I die. And then this picture, sent by Shirley, floated onto my desk. I can’t describe the tumult of my thoughts. The heavens opened up and the golden sun broke through the darkened sky. I was delirious with joy.””


“Near the end of his visit, Bliss gave McNaughton a copy of a book he had recently published, The Invention and Discovery That Will Change Our Lives. “We started to read it,” she told me, “and we all had a private meeting and we said the administration should never see this book. It was really something — about how the nuclear bomb is all a myth, how the Soviets killed Kennedy, and how teachers are to blame for the problems of the world, and how they are all cowards and sex perverts — we thought that if the administration sees this, they’ll never let him come back.””


“There are many ways to symbolize an idea, and there are many ways to interpret the meaning of a symbol. Pictorial imagery, far from being a transparent, universal basis for communication, is a very, very unreliable way to get your message across.”


“Imagery, in signs or in symbols, isn’t suitable for communication on its own. It must be interpreted, its meaning guessed at. But in a situation where the guesses can be constrained, where two people can use context and feedback from each other to put a limit on the possible interpretations, it is extremely useful. The teachers at the OCCC understood this, and what they did with the children was set up just such a situation. When a child wanted to say “dream” but did not have a symbol for it on her board, she pointed to “sleep + think.” Her teacher guessed from the context that she meant “dream,” and the child confirmed that guess. If a child tried a combination and the teacher guessed wrong, the teacher could take another guess, or the child could try a different approach. Communication had always been a guessing game for these children, but before Blissymbols they had no way to constrain the guesses. If a child had needs-based pictures to point to, he might have tried to say “dream” by pointing to a picture of a bed. Then the adult would ask, “Do you want to go to bed? Do you want to get your pillow? Is there a problem in your bedroom?” and the child would have no power to direct the line of questioning. When the children learned Blissymbols, and a method for representing abstract concepts through combination, they finally had a way to actively put limits on interpretation.”


“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. “How many Lojbanists does it take to change a broken light-bulb?” goes the old Lojban joke. “Two: one to decide what to change it into and one to decide what kind of bulb emits broken light.” The further I waded into Lojban, the more everything I heard seemed to be filtered through the sensibilities of a bratty, literal-minded eight-year-old — “You love birthday cake? Well, why don’t you marry it?” “Can you use the bathroom? I don’t know, can you?” — with the difference that while the eight-year-old knows what you really mean, my lapses of understanding were genuine. One day during my weeklong immersion in the Lojban grammar, I was watching an Elmo video with my son when a friendly puppet character popped up to ask, “What are the two numbers that come after the number 6?” I had no idea what this puppet was getting at. “What the hell does she mean?” I wondered. “There are an infinite number of numbers that come after the number 6.” I honestly did not know what the answer was supposed to be until the video told me (it’s 7 and 8, by the way).”


“Ambiguity, or fuzziness of meaning, is not a flaw of natural language but a feature that gives it flexibility and that, for whatever reason, suits our minds and the way we think. Likewise, the fact that languages depend on arbitrary convention or cultural habit is not a flaw but a feature that allows us to rein in the fuzziness by establishing agreed-upon meanings at different levels of precision. Language needs its “flaws” in order to do the enormous range of things we use it for.”


“Actually, it is more accurate to say that he crafted The Lord of the Rings for his languages. By the time the books were published in the mid-1950s, he had been working on his languages for over forty years. The creation of these languages consumed him almost against his will. At twenty-four years old he wrote of his obsession, “I often long to work at it and don’t let myself ‘cause though I love it so it does seem such a mad hobby!” He later claimed that he wrote The Lord of the Rings to legitimize his madness: “Nobody believes me when I say that my long book is an attempt to create a world in which a form of language agreeable to my personal aesthetic might seem real. But it is true.””

That's all there is, there isn't any more.
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