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Man vs. Language: Language Wins!

November 2, 2009 at 2:39 pm
By Margaret Taylor '10

Arika Okrent ’92 is a Carleton alumna and author of In the Land of Invented Languages: Esperanto Rock Stars, Klingon Poets, Loglan Lovers and the Mad Dreamers who tried to Build a Perfect Language.  In true Carleton form, when she graduated from Carleton with a major in linguistics, she decided to study the languages that were so weird and exotic that the other linguists wouldn’t touch them: the made-up ones.  Last week, she was happy to share her years of experience with us in a talk.

People have been struggling – and failing miserably – to improve upon real languages for 900 years.  The earliest record in Okrent’s book is that of one Hildegard von Bingen, who coined her Lingua Ignota around 1150 A.D. for unknown reasons.  Over the centuries artificial language inventors have attempted to use artificial languages to foster world peace (Esperanto), overcome the apparent patriarchy in natural languages (Láadan), or create a perfect correspondence between a word’s form and its meaning (Philosophical Language).  None of these things happened.  Embarrassingly, the artificial language that is best known among outsiders is Klingon.

Or should it be embarrassing?  Okrent’s point is that making up a new language is a lot harder than we thought it was: “Language remains the way it wants to be, which is messy and full of quirks.”  We’ll probably never get people to accept an artificial language that makes sense, because our brains don’t make sense.  But that’s okay.  Even if Esperanto never brings about global communication, peace and harmony, we can still get artificial languages to do some pretty neat things.

Artificial language builders today are much more likely to call themselves artlangers, or those who build languages just for fun.  Artlangers address questions like, “What if English was a Romance language?”  The answer to this question is Brithenig.  Aloud, Brithenig sounds something like Spanish, but it has Celtic spelling rules.  Or one that I’m sure you’ve all asked yourselves at some point, “How do you make a language for people who have no vocal cords?”  Okrent played an example of Dritok for us on the computer, which she described as “a language of chipmunk noises.”  It sounds like somebody trying to communicate a complex idea by beatboxing.

What about a language where every verb has to have a suffix on it that explains in what direction the action is happening?  Actually, there’s a natural language in Australia that already does that.  It happens so often that artlangers discover that real cultures have stolen their weirdest language ideas that there’s a term for the phenomenon: ANADEW.  A Natlang’s Already Dunnit Except Worse.  ANADEW makes would-be makers of a perfect language gain new respect for the creativity of real world cultures.

Artificial languages aren’t all just interesting thought experiments, either.  Some have had practical applications, like Blissymbolics, which is now an effective therapy for children with cerebral palsy.  And artificial language, of course, gave us a famous song by Queen in Klingon.  (Scroll down to "Qetlop wIlop.")