Arika Okrent was studying languages at the University of Chicago. The languages people use and how they work. The rules, the changes, the charts. She was in the library, poking around.
"And then," says Okrent, relaxing in her Germantown home recently, "I drifted down to the shelves with all the books on invented languages. It was a sad little collection. I felt sorry for it."
But something called to her. Tales of made-up languages and their makers. Esperanto, the most widely spoken of all; Volapük, once the most popular; Klingon, the bark of space invaders.
She learned artificial tongues, then wrote about going to a 2003 Esperanto conference for the American Scholar - and the seed of a book was planted.
That book is the delightful In the Land of Invented Languages (published last month in paperback), which tells tales - often sad, often hilarious - of made-up tongues, Okrent's forays into the realms of Esperanto, Klingon, and Blissymbolics, and the personalities, political battles, and fates of linguistic makers-up.
Niece of the journalist Daniel Okrent, Arika met her husband, research linguist Derrick Higgins, at Chicago. They came east when Higgins got a job at Educational Testing Service in Princeton. Okrent says, "I did almost all the research for the book before I had kids" - Leo, 5, and Louisa, 1.
"As I got further and further into this world," says Okrent, 40, "at first, I'd say, 'Look at all these crazy ideas,' but I'd also find touching clues about the lives of the inventors." Her book "reflects the humor and the craziness, but also has compassion and understanding, since I'm a language person myself."
Land of Invented Languages is a history of a "vast graveyard," brilliant projects that failed. Some inventors, such as James Cooke Brown, become famous for other things (he created the board game Careers), but not for their pet languages. We meet Suzette Haden Elgin, who in the early 1980s created Láadan, a "woman's language" ("the only language textbook I know of," Okrent writes, "that gives the word for menstruate in Lesson 1"). We visit the nutty, simpatico world of Esperanto, and the gestural world of sign languages.
There's the occasional success, as with Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, who fought in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to resurrect a near-dead priestly language (Hebrew), and retrofit it for a modern age; it is now the national language of Israel. Or Lazar Ludwik Zamenhof, who grew up in the 1860s and '70s in the Russian Empire town of Bialystok, a Babel of Russian, Polish, German, and Yiddish. He dreamed of a language that cut through the tangle - and his brainchild, Esperanto, is still the most widely practiced made-up tongue.
Rage for order has led many to remake language. In the late 1940s, Austrian engineer Charles Bliss invented Blissymbolics, which he hoped could become a writing system for all languages, "logical writing for an illogical world." And Brown invented Loglan, a language that followed the rules of logic. In one of her saddest stories, Okrent recounts how Brown fell into a long-running feud over rights, egos, and direction. A project titled Lojban carried on his vision, despite him.
Language makes us human. So - why mess with it?
"Well, there is a lot of messiness and ambiguity in language," Okrent says. "We need it. We need that wiggle room. But if you have an engineering mind, you'll see irritating things. Why do words have more than one meaning?" (Look up the word set in Webster's: Its very first entry lists 25 possible meanings.) "Why do we have irregular verbs? Why are pronouns in English so messed up?"
Problem is, language probably isn't fixable. "When you try to fix the world of ideas, fix the meanings of words," Okrent says, "it's hard to keep it steady. Times change, words change, and besides, we tend to mean what we mean not by strict rules, but by agreement."
That won't keep people from trying. One motive is the altruistic dream of tearing down the linguistic walls that divide us. "It's the dream of oneness," says Okrent, "the idea that if everyone could communicate with one another, we could eliminate strife - an idea that is, unfortunately, easy to disprove."
Ludwick invented Esperanto with that idea. Bliss of Blissymbolics grew up in the many-languaged Austro-Hungarian Empire and dreamed of unifying the world through a common system. Even the names for these languages hint at the dream of one, perfect world: Esperanto ("one who hopes"), Volapük ("world language"), Lingua Komun ("common language"), Unilingue, Unita, Universel.
"One of my favorite figures in the book," says Okrent, "is Fuishiki Okamoto, inventor of a language he called Babm. It's a ridiculous language he claims is perfect, and of course it's not - but he is so humble and modest, hoping it would be for the benefit of humanity. If these people worked that hard in pursuit of a failed dream, I figured they deserved to have their stories told."
All this categorical, logical, engineering mentality - isn't this all overwhelmingly male? True, Okrent's book begins with Hildegard of Bingen, the 12th-century nun who created one of the first known made-up languages. And there's the aforementioned Elgin. But Okrent doesn't deny that Klingon conventions and logical-language websites seem to be a guy thing: "Many people have suggested there's an Asperger's-like, hyper-male mind-set at work, and there may be some truth to that."
Invented languages say much about their times. In the 19th and 20th centuries, when the world was falling apart, people invented languages to sew it back together. Today, says Okrent, "it's a much more playful enterprise, one that reflects the Internet, celebrity-driven popular culture." Klingon, she says, "is much more in the spirit of the languages J.R.R. Tolkien invented for his Hobbit and Ring cycle, not trying to fix language but take it in an artistic direction."
Okrent is, naturally, a certified Klingon speaker, and she tells how she achieved that high distinction - complete with official pin - in her book. The Klingon Language Institute is located in Blue Bell, along with its founder, psychologist and sci-fantasy writer Lawrence M. Schoen.
"Like many people," Schoen says, "I grew up with Star Trek, but as I grew older, the role-playing aspect wasn't enough, and I was looking for something more challenging." In 1992, Schoen pulled together a scattering of Klingon language groups. It even has a peer-reviewed journal, HolQeD, Klingon for Linguistics.
Schoen says the language is both "a hobby like any other," and a "puzzle that appeals to a certain kind of person. It teaches you about your own language and makes it easier to acquire others, such as Farsi or Spanish. And people take it in other directions as well - such as a Klingon translation of Hamlet [one was published in 2000] or the Tao Te Ching . It speaks to the human spirit that you would even take on a challenge like this."
The 17th annual meeting of the Institute - or, in Klingon, the qep'a' wa'maH SochDIch - will be held at Comfort Inn in Essington July 21-25.
Klingon was invented by linguist Marc Okrand for the Star Trek films. He created, on purpose, a harsh, guttural, alien language that does things in ways earthling languages don't. Out of this world.
In the Land of Invented Languages ends with Okrent taking and passing a test to certify her as a Klingon speaker. Another aspirant, Louise, doesn't pass - but next year, when she tries again and passes, Okrent is there to celebrate her. Okrent can see the attraction of an endeavor that might perplex the Terra-ngon (earthling) world: Klingon speakers "are doing language for language's sake, art for art's sake. And like all committed artists, they will do their thing, critics be damned."
La amiko povos ludi en la granda urbo.
The friend can play in the big city.
To listen: http://go.philly.com/esperanto
Klingon (tlhIngan Hol)
Hab SoSlI' Quch!
Your mother has a smooth forehead!
(This is a terrible insult to Klingons and should never be used in their presence, as death - yours - may result.)
To listen: http://go.philly.com/klingonlang
.i mi cuxna lepo mi speni tu
I choose the state of being married to you.
Y uhqck V.
I request you not to reproach me.
Dore mifala dosifare re dosiresi.
I would like a beer and a pastry.
Ekse caval, kes mi volu donar a vo.
Here is the horse I want to give to you.