It occurs to me that we are living in a golden age of language books. It took a while for me to realize this, because plenty of dumb and silly language books get published each year, just as they always have. But now, more and more, there are good books aimed at the general public and written by real linguists, something that used to be almost nonexistent. When I was growing up, the only such author was Robert A. Hall, Jr., whose Linguistics and Your Language (the 1960 Anchor Books second edition of the 1950 self-published Leave Your Language Alone!) was for many years alone in the field as a sterling example of how to present the findings of linguistics to the common reader (“Once we realize that all languages are equal in merit, we are in a position to stop treating language differences as something to worry about”). But lately, it seems that people professionally trained in linguistics are getting contracts to write books for the general public, and they’re doing a good job of it.
What brought this so strongly to my mind was reading In the Land of Invented Languages, by Arika Okrent (whose given name is apparently pronounced just like Erica). When the publisher sent it to me, I thought it looked interesting, but frankly I’ve never had much interest in artificial languages, and I figured I’d read a few pages here and there and see if it was worth reporting on. Instead, I wound up devouring the entire thing this weekend, and I now have much more interest in the languages and respect for the people who create and study them. Okrent writes well and tells a great story, but she also has a PhD in linguistics (as her bio says, “She flitted from language to language in school, wondering why she couldn’t just settle down and commit to one, until she finally discovered a field that would support and encourage her scandalous behavior: Linguistics”), which makes all the difference; any good journalist could spin a lively tale out of some of this material (people who spend their lives creating and trying to publicize languages tend to be pretty colorful), but it takes a linguist to see what’s going on with the languages and be able to point out where they succeed and where they fail. She not only studied John Wilkins‘s Philosophical Language (1668) in detail, she translated a Borges passage into it (“I hereby present you with, as far as I know, the first sentences to be written in Wilkins’s language in over three hundred years”). She not only describes how Charles Bliss got the inspiration for his Blissymbolics from Chinese characters (which he studied as a Jewish refugee in Shanghai during WWII), she explains why he (along with many others) was mistaken about characters being an international medium of communication (“when a Japanese speaker sees a Mandarin newspaper, he may indeed be able to recognize a number of the characters, but that doesn’t mean he will be able to form anything more than a fuzzy guess as to what it all means”).
But don’t get me wrong: her expertise isn’t why you should read the book—it’s just the reason you can trust what you read. You should read the book because it’s a gripping account of some amazing people and some fascinating changes in the European cultural environment (artificial languages being primarily a European thing, though she mentions Balaibalan, an Arabic-Persian-Turkish mix “designed sometime between 1400 and 1700 (the documents can’t be reliably dated)”). She starts with the early attempts to create languages that would “directly represent concepts,” the poster boy being Wilkins, who lost the first (600-page) draft of his manuscript in the Great Fire of London in 1666 and had to rewrite it from scratch. The second section is on the late-19th-century craze for languages intended to bring peace to all mankind (the idea, a very silly one, being that war is caused because people can’t understand each other’s languages); the first to catch on was Volapük (in 1889 “the third international Volapük conference was held in Paris, and the proceedings were entirely in Volapük”), but after excessive squabbling among its partisans, resulting in schisms and a bewildering variety of “improved” versions (Nal Bino, Bopal, Spelin…), L. L. Zamenhof picked up the disaffected customers with his invention, Esperanto, still the only true success story among artificial language—not only does it have far more users than any other, it actually has native speakers (including Danish rocker Kim Henriksen). The final section is on the efflorescence of invented languages in recent decades (the most successful of which, of course, is Klingon, which Okrent learned in the course of working on the book), created in the main not for reasons of scientific or social benefit but for fun, for the joy of playing with the possibilities; this paragraph beautifully summarizes the attitude:
For these language inventors, language was not an enemy to be tamed or reformed but a muse. And they bowed down before her. Jeff Burke, a tall man who seemed nervous and shy at the podium, explained how he had been inspired to build his own family of “Central Mountain” languages by the incredible beauty he found in Mohawk when he took a course on it in college. He said the language “did something to me,” and he began to dig into the history of the language, becoming a self-taught expert in the development of the language from Proto-Algonquian. His talk didn’t focus so much on his own creation as on the real languages that inspired it. He wanted us to understand where his artistic vision had come from. As he went over the complicated details of the Mohawk pronominal system, he spoke softly, but with such love and wonder in his voice that I thought he might burst into tears.
As you can see from that passage, she cares about the people involved, not just their ideas and inventions, and that’s what makes the book not just a stimulating read but a powerfully moving experience. In between the Esperanto and final sections, she discusses two language creators whose successes were inextricably intertwined with their disasters. One is Charles Bliss and his symbols, mentioned above, and the other is James Cooke Brown, inventor of Loglan, a language originally developed in the late 1950s to test the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis.
Bliss, born Karl Kasiel Blitz in 1897 in the Austro-Hungarian city of Czernowitz (now the Ukrainian city of Chernivtsi), having gotten his inspiration from those Chinese characters in Shanghai, devoted himself to devising a logical system of universal symbols that would make it impossible for Hitler-style propaganda to succeed—”inconsistencies and falsehoods would be instantly exposed.” After the war he and his wife Claire emigrated to Australia and lived off their savings while he wrote his book; he finished it in 1949, and “Claire sent six thousand letters to universities and government institutions all over the world announcing the publication of his fantastic new invention. They waited for the orders to start rolling in.” Alas, there was no response, and it looked like his life’s work was a failure. Then in the late 1960s Shirley McNaughton, a teacher at the Ontario Crippled Children’s Center who despaired of reaching the children who couldn’t speak, ran across a copy of Bliss’s book and gave it a try: “Once McNaughton had taught the kids the meaning of a few symbols and showed them examples of how the symbols could be put together, she witnessed an explosion of self-expression. Kids whose communicative worlds had been defined by the options of pointing to a picture of a toilet, or waiting for someone to ask the right question, started talking about a car trip with a father, a brother’s new bicycle, a pet cat’s habit of hiding under the bed. Kids who were assumed to be severly retarded showed remarkable ingenuity in getting their messages across.” McNaughton wrote to Bliss, who “immediately mortgaged his house in order to make the long trip to Toronto. Everyone was excited. When he arrived, there were meetings and talks and parties.” I won’t detail how it all fell apart, and he wound up alternately threatening to sue McNaughton and the Center and proposing marriage to her, but the whole thing is worthy of Dostoevsky, and it’s worth getting the book just for that section.
The James Cooke Brown story is similar in that he won devotees and helpers and drove them away with his need for absolute control (they went on to create the far better known Lojban), but I won’t go into it here. Instead, I’ll refer you to the book’s website, which has a section listing all 500 languages in her appendix and linking to passages in many of them, and close with a touching passage from one of the creators she profiles, Elias Molee, a Norwegian-American who spent his long life (he was born in 1845 and killed himself in 1928) creating one Germanic-based language after another: American Language (1888), Pure Saxon English (1890), Tutonish (1902), Niu Teutonish (1906)… His book Pure Saxon English is online thanks to Google Books (as are a number of the others she mentions), and the “Plea for Visionaries” (pp. 78-79) is an exemplary statement of the attitude Okrent, with her finely judged mix of empathy and objectivity, tries to convey throughout her wonderful book:
Let me, before closing the first part of this work, put in a plea for a milder consideration of visionaries, as distinguished from “cranks.” A crank is a sickly, one-sided person who has gone crazy over an idea. The word comes from the Anglo-Saxon, cranc; German, krank; Icelandic, kankr, and means sick. Cranks are, as a rule, narrow-minded and uncultivated. The visionaries, on the other hand, are characterized by ideas not necessarily in opposition to their neighbors, but ideas so selected, and so highly colored as to appear like mere visions in the sky, a fine midsummer-night’s dream. It is a great thing to be able to quietly bear the evils of life, and to rate its transient delights at their true value; but he whose visions can create for him a flower-garden, who can inhabit his air-castles with the same pleasure as if they were solid stone, is a happier man than a philosopher. He who can shape out of the air a paradise of his own, believe in it and live in it, is more to be envied than a man with mere hard common sense. Life is not bread only. It is possible to be too practical — too matter-of-fact. Reason can tell us that the rainbow is mere sunshine and water, but the grand destiny of nations can not be solved without the aid of inspiration and poetic visions. Imagination alone can understand inspirations — pictures of institutions to come. We are all, more or less, visionaries. What are we in the world for, except to improve it? Visions of future improvements and future enjoyments lure us onward. This imaginative faculty is conspicuous in youth, and the longer any man or woman, the longer a people, is able to retain it, the more will they do and the more lasting will be their enjoyment while upon the stage of life. O that we could always be like children, and find beauty and pleasure in scenes that imagination paints for us in the clouds! … Whenever a people ceases to be moved by anything except hard common sense, it is getting to be too old, and too timid for future progress. Like most men of three-score and ten years, it is satisfied with what it has already accomplished. Imagination and love of mankind can alone preserve the youthfulness of the soul.
“We are all, more or less, visionaries”: exactly so, and I find myself no longer able to look down on those whose visions, even if unrealizable, are full of such inspiration and creativity. May their tribe increase!