Arika Okrent‘s new book In the Land of Invented Languages (released in hard back last month from Spiegel & Grau) confidently traverses the thin line between pop nonfiction and academic linguistics. Subtitled Esperanto Rock Stars, Klingon Poets, Loglan Lovers, and the Mad Dreamers Who Tried to Build a Perfect Language, Okrent’s book delves the weird world of invented languages. While many folks are familiar enough with the idealism behind Esperanto or the sadness behind, ahem, Klingon, what about Lingua Ignota, or Dritok, the chipmunk language? How much do you know about John Wilkins’s 1668 invention “Philosophical Language” (pictured below)?
Okrent, after explaining her fascination with invented languages, or “conlangs,” more or less uses Wilkins as a starting place, using his massive project as a measuring stick for all the invented languages that followed it. While detailing the history and implementation of Esperanto, Charles Bliss’s language of symbols, and the logical logjammin’ of Lojban, Okrent balances the erudition of complex linguistics with a humorous, human tone. In the Land of Invented Languages is filled with tree diagrams and symbol charts that will not be wholly unfamiliar to those who studied a little linguistics back in college (or even those who, like the Biblioklept, changed their major from linguistics to English when they discovered they’d have to take, gasp!, statistics). These visuals are both fun and stimulating, and help to explicate what can be pretty heady stuff at times.
At its core, Invented Languages is about dreamers and schemers, the kind of idealistic perfectionists who would go to the trouble to invent something as heavy and impossible as a language. As Okrent savvily points out in her introductory chapter, real languages–that is, the natural languages that people really speak and communicate in–are organic and don’t really require rules. They just “happen.” That’s what makes this book so much fun–all the crazy cranks that try to force their perfect philosophical systems onto the world. In the Land of Invented Languages is a rewarding exploration of meaning and language, how language means, and what happens when we try to make meaning. Recommended.
For more info, check out In the Land of Invented Language‘s fun and thorough website.