Discouraging Words

Invented languages and their long history of failure.

Esperanto  Flag
The flag of Esperanto, the most widely spoken invented language in the world.

Of the 900 or so languages invented in the past 900 years, almost all can be considered failures. Sure, there are exceptions, like Esperanto (which was designed to facilitate communication between people of different nations and cultures), and Klingon (created for the alien race that inhabits the Star Trek universe, now spoken—forcefully—by Trekkies from our world). But for every invented language you might have heard of, there are hundreds of others that have never been spoken by anyone—and never will.

Thanks to linguist Arika Okrent, author of “In the Land of Invented Languages” (Spiegel & Grau), any inquisitive reader can now take a tour through the whimsical world of language inventors and their always eccentric, sometimes exasperating creations. Covering everything from the first documented invented language (Lingua Ignota, by Hildegard von Bingen, a twelfth century German nun) to cartoonish efforts like Toki Pona (which “uses only positive words [and] is intended to promote positive thinking”), Okrent’s endearing and mostly accessible book gives language inventors more ink than they’ve had in years—maybe ever.

Following is Failure’s interview with the multilingual Okrent, which, for expediency’s sake, was conducted in plain-old American English.

What is the definition of an invented language?

All languages are in some sense invented in that people create them, but generally people do this as a group without being conscious of what they are doing. The invented languages I’m talking about are those where someone sat down and built a brand-new language from scratch.

What compels an individual to create a new language?

For most of history it’s been dissatisfaction with natural languages. They see problems like irregular verbs or words that aren’t specific enough in terms of what they mean, and decide that they could do better

What makes people think they can do better? History would seem to indicate that they can’t.

When I started the project I wondered what these language inventors were thinking. Isn’t it obvious that it’s not going to work? But usually they don’t know about the hundreds of other projects out there. And when they do find out about them, they think that they are different—that it’s just a matter of going about things the right way.

Why do invented languages fail?

Language inventors typically see language as a product, and believe that if they improve the product people will want to buy it. But people don’t treat language as a product. They don’t shop around for the best one and then speak it. Language inventors do far too little thinking about how they are going to get people to perceive the language. In other words, they put too much effort into product development and not enough into marketing.

What is the most widely used invented language?

Definitely Esperanto, which is ironic because when you say “Esperanto,” most people say, “Didn’t that die out in the 1920s?” Or, “Esperanto? That failed utopian project?” But in terms of invented languages, it’s the most outlandishly successful invented language ever. It has thousands of speakers—even native speakers—and that’s a major accomplishment as compared to the 900 or so other languages that have no speakers.

Are there any other invented languages that could be considered a success?

Klingon is a success, as well as a few other languages like Klingon, which were developed not to solve a problem with natural language but as an artistic challenge. Those languages can be a success insofar as they meet the artistic vision of the creator. If you create a language for personal reasons—to see what Japanese would look like if half its vocabulary was from English, for instance—and if you feel satisfied with the project, then it can be construed as a success. In that case, you’re not worried about whether anyone is speaking it.

Which failed language has the best chance of “breaking out” and achieving widespread acceptance?

I think it will be a surprise. Every time an invented language has found success it has been an unexpected success. Esperanto was supposed to be this international language of peace—a universal language that would bring everyone together. It didn’t do that, but it developed its own culture and following.

By the same token, Blissymbolics [a language of symbols developed by Charles Bliss in the mid-20th century] didn’t become a language of world peace where one could not lie or use propaganda. But it became a useful tool for kids with cerebral palsy. Ironically, Bliss became outraged when teachers and children didn’t use his system exactly as he intended. He was too bound up in his original intentions to let it be something else.

Do you have a favorite invented language?

I have language inventors that I have protective soft spots for, like Fuishiki Okamoto, the inventor of Babm. He had a really hard life, and was a nice, humble language inventor. He talked about working all his life on Babm, and he really hoped it would do some good in the world. There are plenty of other language inventors who busted in with grand dreams of a Nobel Prize and fame and fortune. That’s definitely not the right way to go.

I understand you’ve been to several invented language conferences. What do people do at these conferences?

At the Esperanto conference I attended, more than I expected. I thought it would be a lot of play acting, like [in a singsong voice], “Hello. How are you? I am fine.” But they were speaking fluently, and with a little bit of study I could understand what was going on. There was also a lot of Victorian rigmarole because Esperanto was a turn of the [20th] century phenomenon they have retained all these old rituals. They have a flag passing ceremony and the reading of greetings from various Esperanto clubs—even a show and piano recitals.

And at a Klingon conference?

At the qep'a' [the Klingon Language Institute’s annual conference]—the level of conversation is not quite as fluent, but it’s much more fluent than you would expect based on the fact that it’s Klingon and Klingon is a difficult language with complicated grammar. There are a lot of games—Klingon crossword puzzles, Klingon “Pictionary” and Klingon “What’s My Line?” There’s also a show at the end where attendees do skits.

The warrior mentality of Klingons doesn’t seem very conference-like.

I heard people saying things in Klingon that a “real” Klingon would never say. For instance, I overheard two guys talking about how they had read “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus,” and how much it had helped their marriages. That’s not something a Klingon would worry about. Everyone is interested in interplanetary communication, I guess.

What advice do you have for a language inventor who wants to be successful?

Put your language out there in the world and then let people take it away and ruin it for you. If you try to hold on too tightly you’re going to have problems. If you want people to use it, you have to let them use it, but they are not going to utilize it the way you want them to.

In the Land of Invented Languages