Monday, September 1, 2014

“In the Land of Invented Languages”: A Review

During this long span of weeks where I’ve been reviewing nonfiction adult books, I’ve been talking about the reason these books were written. If a nonfiction book doesn’t exist solely to instruct, its purpose is also to persuade its audience to hold the same viewpoint as the author. Sometimes the author makes their opinion clear, other times it’s not so well defined. The trick when reading nonfiction is to root out that underlying thesis, because it’s only when you know the author’s perspective that you can make a conscious decision whether to agree, disagree, or maybe meet them halfway. 

Today’s reviewed book was one of those “halfway” situations with me. In the Land of Invented Languages is about, obviously, invented languages ranging from Esperanto to Klingon. Author Arika Okrent is a linguist who structures the book around her quest to pass a fluency test in Klingon, but goes on tangents outlining the history of constructed languages (as opposed to natural languages such as modern English that’s evolved from Middle and Old English, Gaelic, Latin, Ancient Greek, etc.). Her thesis is basically “Why do Invented Languages exist?  Are they viable?  And do they serve a purpose?” 

Her answers to these three topic questions are, in order:

1.      Each Invented Language exists for a different reason—most languages like Esperanto were meant to take the place of all other languages, uniting all peoples and cultures worldwide. There’s an extensive list at the end of the book that offers a sampling of invented languages, most of them easily translating to “World Language” or “World Speak.”
2.      No, Invented Languages have never been able to get much of a foothold in order to displace natural languages. If anything, instead of uniting all cultures, Invented Languages tend to merely create new subcultures. Okrent uses Esperanto as the main example here, as Esperantists culturally tend to be very artistic, liberal, and idealistic no matter what their ethnic background. 

3.      Yes, though again each language serves a different purpose, though not always the purpose for which they were originally created.  Esperanto was meant to displace other languages to bring together all cultures. Instead it serves to connect like-minded people across the world in a new culture.  

I agree with Okrent up to a point. Language both helps to mold culture, and is molded by that culture. They’re symbiotic. However I can’t say I agree with Okrent altogether, and here is why: because basically she says that Klingon just exists for fun. Even though she uses her own experience speaking Klingon with other people and trying to pass a test, it’s all a linguistic exercise for her. “Can I memorize the syntax/grammar/vocabulary of this geeky language” is her goal.  Okrent, like many other people, views Klingon speakers with a sort of disdain and pity. 

The real pity, however, is that if she thinks Klingon exists only as a linguistic game for Trekkies to role-play or vocabulary exercise, she’s missed the point of her own book. If each Invented Language was created for a purpose and serves a purpose, and if by her own admission Invented Languages tend to lead to Invented Cultures, then it follows that Klingon has also created a culture, of no more or less worth than Esperantism or the cultures of natural languages such as English. Unlike most Invented Languages, Klingon was created to fill in the atmosphere of a created world, but perhaps if Okrent had stepped away from her vocabulary flash cards and studied the culture instead, she would have seen that Trekkies, like Esperantists, are idealists, coming together to share a common dream of the future, community, and high aspirations. 

Actually Okrent seems to share this dismissive attitude for almost every Invented Language, peppering her prose with a bit too much sarcasm until it comes across that she’s mocking these languages for their failure to gain popularity or achieve world peace. One starts to wonder why she even wrote the book at all, unless it was to make fun of these “loser languages.” Sure, these languages may have failed to stop misunderstanding between nations. But their goals were noble, and whenever someone laughs when something noble fails comes across as crass and a fool. 

P.S.  Since I’ve been reviewing adult nonfiction I’ve been a bit remiss with including Age Appropriateness notes at the bottom. After a certain age point I figure it’s up to the reader to decide what is appropriate for them to read. However I feel it might be helpful to warn readers that Okrent has, let’s just say, an issue with expletive control.

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