invented languages

I’m in the middle of a deeply fascinating book – Arika Okrent’s In the Land of Invented Languages (discovered through the World in Words podcast #62). According to the author bio, Okrent is a linguist with a jointly granted PhD in linguistics and psychology; and both disciplines are on display in this book. More than just an historical survey of invented languages (although it is that – did you know there are over 900 of them attested in the historical record? They’re all 500 are listed at the book’s website), the book also examines the varied impulses that lead to language creation and looks at what the fact and nature of these languages may tell us about how natural languages work and possibly even how we think. There’s even a bit of participant-observer sociology, as the author discusses her experiences trying to learn Esperanto and Klingon.

I could go on for pages about the interesting languages that have been invented, but let me just mention a few of my very favorites – from the 17th-century “philosophical languages” that attempted to break down the entire universe into rigorously, if sometimes strangely, categorized phoneme-sized pieces; to Láadan, the “women’s language” invented by linguist and SF writer Suzette Hadin Elgin in her book Native Tongue (Janet Kagan’s Hellspark also deals with language issues, BTW); to the French creation Solresol that is based on the seven-tone scale and can be “spoken” musically, and Blissymbolics, a pictorial writing system that has been used with some success in helping severely handicapped children who can’t communicate verbally.


13 thoughts on “invented languages

  1. Sannion

    Fascinating stuff! Back in my high school days I read and wrote fantasy fiction, and spent a lot of time crafting this other world I’d created for a series of inter-connected stories. I had a very involved history of the world, detailed discussion of the cultures and religions, and a bunch of stuff on language as well. (One of my favorite characters was a warrior-poet from a race of werewolves. I wrote these long, intricate poems in the made up language. I’m sure most of it was impossible on linguistic grounds, unlike say Tolkein’s stuff, but hey, that’s what fantasy is for, right?)

  2. executivepagan Post author

    I had a very involved history of the world, detailed discussion of the cultures and religions…

    Why am I not surprised… :D Do you still have any of the poetry?

  3. Brian Barker

    I think that the realistic choice for the future global language must be between English and Esperanto rather than an cult language like Klingon. As a native English speaker, I would prefer Esperanto.

    I agree that we need an international language, but a lingua franca for the World should be for everyone and not just for an educational or political elite. This is the position for English at the moment.

    Your readers may be interested in an interesting video which can be seen at Professor Piron was a translator with the United Nations in Geneva.

    Alternatively see

  4. R.D. Hammond

    I’ve always been a huge fan of ASL as an international language. It’s elegant, somewhat intuitive, and phonetically independent. (Can’t put it in a book though.)

    I’ve invented a couple of languages for books I’m writing, including Kar, Forest and Plains Elvish, and Sprite. I’m *really* interested in Sorestol, since it’s what Sprite was supposed to be. Thanks for the link. :)

  5. executivepagan Post author

    But surely Esperanto occupies a much more elite position than English, in terms of the people who have access to even know about it, much less devote their time to learning it and traveling to conferences where they can actually speak it?

  6. executivepagan Post author

    Only problem with ASL is the “A” part – every country/language group has their own sign language. Personally, I think Japanese has a lot to offer as an international language. The absence of gender and number are big pluses, and the spoken language is fairly straightforward. In order to fly as an international language, though, I’m afraid the writing system would have to be stripped down to just hiragana (IMO romaji loses too much important phonetic information, particularly when the syllabic “n” is involved).

    Good luck with the story! And just ignore Cicero… ;)

  7. R.D. Hammond

    For some reason, I had gotten it into my head that the “A” actually didn’t stand for “American” and that it was a nationality-neutral language. Whoops. It’s interesting to research it now, though it makes me wonder what my linguistics professor was teaching. :P I do like symbolic languages on the whole, though. I think it’s much more universal if you rely on individual symbolism as opposed to phonetics transcribed into lettering.

    As far as the latter goes, I’m not too worried about the criticisms of a guy named after his wart. ;D

  8. Bill Chapman

    Just a word to say that Esperanto can be and is used outside conferences.

    I’ve used Esperanto a lot on my travels, to make contact with herlpful local people.

    Of course English is widespread, but it is far from universal.

  9. executivepagan Post author

    Fair enough! And for the record, I have nothing against Esperanto – I think it grew from a truly noble ideal, and I like the regularity of the syntax… and I certainly wasn’t arguing that English is universal, but I do still maintain that it’s more accessible to those farther up the socio-economic ladder.

    Thanks for reading!

  10. executivepagan Post author

    OK, you caught that… yes, what I *meant* to say, of course, is that Esperanto is more accessible to those farther up the socio-economic ladder.

  11. Feral Boy

    I have greatly enjoyed “Always Coming Home”, by Ursula Le Guin. She creates kind of an alternate-world California, including more than one language and a pretty complete sociology of two very different
    peoples. Good stories also …

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