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Tongue-tied

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By A.J. Jacobs
Sunday, June 28, 2009

IN THE LAND OF INVENTED LANGUAGES

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Esperanto Rock Stars, Klingon Poets, Loglan Lovers, and the Mad Dreamers Who Tried to Build a Perfect Language

By Arika Okrent

Spiegel & Grau. 342 pp. $26

One surefire way to become aware of the absurdity of the English language is to have a kid. My 5-year-old son's sensible linguistic assumptions are constantly butting up against the deep weirdness of our mother tongue. He tells me "I runned to the store." He should be right. He says "no more asparaguses." That should be correct. And what's the opposite of "upside down?" "Upside up," of course. As opposed to "right side up," which is peculiar and confusing.

As Arika Okrent writes in her new book, "In the Land of Invented Languages," "from an engineering perspective, language is kind of a disaster." English in particular is choked with irregular words and anachronistic phrases that long ago stopped making intuitive sense. If it were a car, it would be a jalopy patched together from a bunch of spare parts. Such is the curse of the natural language. It's not as if French or Swahili is much more logical.

So it's easy to understand why thousands of people over hundreds of years have tried to create a better language from scratch. Okrent's book is a fascinating look at some of these attempts, from the well-known (Esperanto) to the obscure (Toki Pona, which "uses only positive words . . . to promote positive thinking.") As she notes, the efforts have been mostly failures. If they are spoken at all, these languages are spoken by fringe groups, few of whom get much more respect than those Trekkie Klingon speakers. But it's still worth learning about them, because they shed light both on the perils of idealism and on the evolution of natural language.

Okrent -- a Ph.D. in linguistics from the University of Chicago -- starts her tale with the 17th-century crusade by British intellectuals to come up with a universal math-based language. One method? Simply assign every word a number, as did the Ipswich man who decided 742 should mean "embroider" and r2654 is "loosenesse in the belly." A more sophisticated attempt came from scientist John Wilkins, whose language tried to categorize the world in a logical way. The problem? It devolved into hundreds of arbitrary categories such as "purgations, vaporous . . . from gut upwards" (e.g., belching) and "purgations, vaporous . . . from the guts downwards" (e.g., farting). Two centuries later, ophthalmologist Ludwik Zamenhof created Esperanto, the most famous artificial language. He hoped it would eliminate misunderstandings and foster peace. As they say in Esperanto, "La tot' homoze en familije konungiare so debĂ " (May the whole of humanity be united as one). The irony is that Esperanto advocates themselves split into warring factions.

Esperanto has had some unlikely fans over the years, from Leo Tolstoy to the young George Soros, but the whole of humanity never adopted it. Estimates of Esperanto speakers range from 100,000 to 2 million. Okrent befriends several of them at an Esperanto conference, where she rocks out to some Esperanto pop music -- such as the classic "Tute Ne Gravas" ("No Big Deal") -- and watches Esperanto flag ceremonies. It's an amusing account -- Okrent is that rare linguist with a gift for lively language.

The book also covers modern constructed languages, including a feminist one called Laadan, which has finely tuned words for emotions, as well as six words for six ways women can experience menstruation, such as joyfully, painfully or late. There's also Loglan, created in the 1960s by a science fiction author named James Cooke Brown, who believed that English fostered sloppy thinking. So could a more logical language make people think more clearly? Loglan speakers -- and there are still a few -- say yes. But it's not user-friendly. It's more like spoken computer code. The sentence "All Dogs are blue," for example, becomes "All-x-that x dog if-then x blue." Or as they say in Logland, "radaku da kangu u da blanu."

Okrent ends the book at a Klingon convention, where she enjoys translations of Beatles songs, learns Klingon insults, such as "your mother has a smooth forehead," and feels sorry for the waitress who "patiently guessed at what my costumed tablemates were pointing to when they insisted on giving their orders in Klingon."

My only gripe is that Okrent lets natural language off the hook too easily. She says her studies gave her a deeper appreciation for the messiness of language: "Ambiguity, or fuzziness of meaning, is not a flaw of natural language but a feature that gives it flexibility and that, for whatever reason, suits our minds and the way we think." True enough, but the way we think is pretty messy and illogical. Maybe a total language overhaul a la Esperanto is doomed to fail. But can't we at least try to tinker with it? Can't we make it a bit clearer? Can't we all start saying "upside up?"

A.J. Jacobs is the author of "The Year of Living Biblically" and the upcoming "Guinea Pig Diaries: My Life as an Experiment."



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