In the Land of Invented Languages – Arika Okrent

Another not-entirely-on-topic post, alas. I was recently encouraged to read this book by a friend (who knows how much I intensely dislike conlangs). Overall, it is a linguistics book, and thus outside the purview of my ‘blog. However, the main content of the book is framed by discussions of the Klingon language, which I feel is entirely on-topic. And it mentions Tolkien… because it’s a book about conlangs so it kinda had to.

Okrent basically seems to want to point out that, in her opinion, there are two properly successful conlangs: Klingon and Esperanto. They both have gone on to grow and develop in a natural(ish) way beyond the original remit (though Klingon keeps the language creator, Marc Okrand, as the ultimate source of authority for new vocabulary and information, rather than having it created ad hoc as a natural language would, under the conceit that Okrand has access to a real Klingon from whom he can extract answer to linguistic questions posed by human Klingon speakers). It is interesting to see the extent to which Klingon has developed into its own thing, rather than just a few words made to sound a bit gutteral (as the first instance of the language on screen was), and interesting to see it compared to other, “real” conlangs like Lojban and Volapük. The way the focus of the book mainly splits between Klingon and Esperanto – created to very different ends but both succeeding where others have failed – highlights the arbitraryness which seems to plague the world of the conlang.

More importantly, at least from my perspective, the book has managed to de-sour my opinion of conlangs, at least to some extent. I am actually very tempted to learn Klingon now. Or maybe Sindarin or Quenya. I wish very much that Vulcan were the language of Trek so heavily developed, since I have very little interest in the Klingons as a culture, but such is the way of things.

Back to the book, I would strongly recommend it to a lot of people. The style of writing is very accessible, and all of the stories Okrent chooses are interesting. She makes no pretence that this is a highly academic book; she admits in her list of five hundred conlangs that the selection process was often just ones that she liked. And she doesn’t just discuss the conlangs she looks into in terms of their linguistic merits, but in terms of their stories and the people who brought them about. I find now that I cannot hate Zamenhof. Which is distressing, because I do very want to hate the father of Esperanto… because ruddy conlangs. Only I don’t now. Bother you, Dr. Okrent, for overturning my prejudices.

Also I discovered I’m the same age as Lojban. Woo?


About readerofelse

A student of a redundant, useless and thoroughly interesting subject and reader of many books, particularly fantasy, science fiction and plenty else besides.
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3 Responses to In the Land of Invented Languages – Arika Okrent

  1. Anna Judson says:

    Sounds interesting! I can also recommend “From Elvish to Klingon” – it’s a (semi-)academic survey of different kinds of conlangs. What’s interesting about it is it deals with things like Modern Hebrew or Cornish (‘constructed’ to some extent), computer gaming langauges, Newspeak and James Joyce, as well as Esperanto et al., Klingon, Quenya etc…

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