Thursday, September 16, 2010

Supergeekland!!! "The Land of Invented Languages," by Arika Okrent

How times change! It wasn't long ago that flying across the Atlantic with my two toddlers was a horrific experience. Now that they're not toddlers anymore, my kids can entertain themselves so well that I can read a whole book during my flight!! During last year's trip to the US, my husband bought In the Land of Invented Languages, but he left it there at my parents' house. It was clearly the perfect choice for my flight home to Switzerland this year.

What comes to mind when you think of invented languages? Esperanto? Klingon? Well, it turns out that those two have a special distinction: They are probably the only two wholly-invented languages that have live speakers who can carry on a real conversation in them. Esperanto even has a handful of native speakers -- people who were brought up with Esperanto as a first language!! It's an astonishing feat, considering how many hundreds of languages have been invented, published, and forgotten. Heck, my brother and I invented one ourselves when we were kids. I also tried my hand at translating a few sentences into Klingon and Esperanto when I was in High School.

Arika Okrent tells a fascinating story about how people's ideas about language changed through the ages, and how that evolution, in turn, changed the types of languages that various mad dreamers invented. She also tells the story of how Esperanto achieved (relative) success, despite being arguably inferior to some of its close competitors. Essentially, the inventor of Esperanto wrote an amusing chain letter illustrating how easy (and fun!) it is to understand Esperanto if you already know one of the languages of western Europe. Then, once it has even a handful of speakers, it becomes the obvious choice if you want to learn an invented language. (That's why I tried it out in High School. Then I showed one of my translations to my mom, and -- instead of being impressed! -- she made fun of the fact that some perfectly ordinary verb translates, in Esperanto, as "penis." I kinda stopped bothering with it after that.)

One of the problems with Esperanto, as Okrent explains, is that it was created with an idealistic (yet not currently realistic) purpose. You want a language that has a relatively simple grammar, that is kind of halfway between the romance languages and the Germanic languages, and that people from all different countries can use to communicate with each other? Well, you've got it. It's called English. Esperanto has some theoretical advantages over English, but if you think it's a serious competitor against English's billion-or-so speakers and thousand-year literary tradition, then you come off as, well, a little batty.

But Okrent explains a different (and arguably reasonable) motivation for learning Esperanto: Over the years, the Esperanto community has developed its own culture -- one which sounds fascinating and fun! If you're thinking of backpacking across Europe (or some other continent), the Esperantists have a whole network of folks who are willing to host you wherever you go (on the condition that you speak to them in Esperanto). And their conferences sound way more fun than a Renaissance Festival or a Star Trek or other geek conference. For a short while, Okrent had me totally tempted to pick up some Esperanto books and try again to learn it. That is, until I remembered that I have only so much time and so many brain-cells to devote to foreign languages, and I really, really, really need to learn German.

Klingon, by contrast, skips the crazy idealism and goes straight for what works: fun!!! They've got a whole ridiculously silly (invented) culture and history to go with the invented language, which makes it a great (geeky) idle pastime. Naturally, the Klingon speakers do wildly frivolous things with the language like writing operas and translating the Book of Mormon into Klingon. Esperantists, being slightly more practical, have regular songs, and -- while there may or may not be an Esperanto translation of the BoM -- you can at least read the Book of Mormon's Wikipedia page in Esperanto (not true of Klingon!).

Okrent covers a whole bunch of other fascinating invented languages, and compares them with similar language innovations like symbolic languages that are used to introduce language to handicapped kids and like the revival of (once dead) Hebrew. But I don't want to give everything away, so I'll let you read the book for those! If anything I've said here intrigues you, you'll love this book. It's clear, entertaining, and informative.


Bill Chapman said...

I think you're being a little unfair to Esperanto. Of course there are words in every language which look or sound like rude or amusing words in English. The word 'penis' which you cited simply means '(somebody) tried'. For a fair introduction to Esperanto, go to
Esperanto works! I’ve used it in speech and writing - and sung in it - in about fifteen countries over recent years.

Indeed, the language has some remarkable practical benefits. Personally, I’ve made friends around the world through Esperanto that I would never have been able to communicate with otherwise. And then there’s the Pasporta Servo, which provides free lodging and local information to Esperanto-speaking travellers in over 90 countries. In the past few years I have had guided tours of Berlin and Milan and Douala in Cameroon in the planned language. I have discussed philosophy with a Slovene poet, humour on television with a Bulgarian TV producer. I’ve discussed what life was like in East Berlin before the wall came down, how to cook perfect spaghetti, the advantages and disadvantages of monarchy, and so on.

Of course Esperanto cannot compete wwith English but it remains useful and has a steady speaker population, with people happy to meet and talk to you and me in places where it would be hard to find a speaker of English.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Bill!!!

Thanks for your perspective. I'm not sure I'm being unfair to Esperanto -- I haven't really said anything negative about it. I've merely made some of the same points you've restated here. In particular, I'm pointing out that even though Esperanto's original goals are unrealistic, one shouldn't just dismiss Esperanto as crazy -- it turns out there are legitimate reasons for learning it. Esperanto is really interesting, and it's amazing that a wholly-invented language has had this much success!

Re: The word 'penis' which you cited simply means '(somebody) tried'. Right, that's what I said: she made fun of the fact that some perfectly ordinary verb translates, in Esperanto, as "penis." I'm not saying that it bothered me. (I've learned French, plus some Italian, German, and Hindi, and there are plenty of examples where an ordinary word in one language means *ahem* something different in another.) The point of my story was that since nobody wanted to play Esperanto with me (at best they mocked my efforts!) I lost interest.

But I'm completely serious when I say that the author of this book made the Esperanto community sound temptingly fun!! (Though maybe some are a little too sensitive. ;^) )

That said, if you seriously know of a place (other than an Esperanto conference) where it's easier to find an Esperanto speaker than an English speaker, I'd be very curious to hear about it. (The author mentioned a very small European country that almost picked Esperanto as the national language at one point -- very cool!)

p.s. I was just talking the other day about how funny/odd it is when commenters list off a bunch of points that agree with what I said (or don't contradict it), and incongruously claim they disagree with me for those reasons. Your comment will now be my go-to comment to illustrate that point. ;^)