Archive for May, 2009

Interview with Arika Okrent

Thursday, May 28th, 2009
Sai interviews Arika Okrent about her new book In the Land of Invented Languages: Esperanto Rock Stars, Klingon Poets, Loglan Lovers, and the Mad Dreamers Who Tried to Build a Perfect Language. Arika attended the 2nd Language Creation Conference, as well as a Klingon qep’a’, Lojban Logfest, and Esperanto congress, not to mention the numerous interviews and other research evident in her book. She discusses the history of language invention, what it means for a language to be successful, and some stories that didn’t make it into the book.

Order In the Land of Invented Languages on

mp3The Book’s WebsiteOkrent’s WebsiteArticles & interviews in the press

It’s funny. When Arika Orent says “I don’t have the intense concentration” to create a language, I think, “Is it concentration, or free time…?”

In some ways, I think it’s easier to be an enthusiastic, sincere auxlanger
than an anythingelselanger, for the simple reason that it’s easier to justify. “Why are you creating a language?”, they ask. “Because I’m trying to facilitate human communication.” Results aside, that’s a lofty goal. If I was attempting to create a language for the benefit of humankind—regardless of what humankind thought of it—I’d be much more comfortable writing “Language Creator” under “Profession” on my taxforms than I am now.

(No, I don’t really write “Language Creator” as my profession on my taxes. Hey, what do I write…? Gadabout? Blogger? Nogoodnik? Jack of all trades? Master of Linguistics…?) [Sai: … English teacher, Ex-?]

As usual, the act of creating a language is introduced, in Arika Orent’s book In the Land of Invented Languages, through the lens of philosophical and auxiliary languages. This is a trend I think many of us have gotten used to, but it seems like a good time to ponder why it exists.

Looking at language creation from the outside, I suppose the crazier stories or more daring languages are more interesting to talk about than those with smaller goals and smaller audiences. (For example, googling “John Lennon” you get 13.2 million hits, which dwarfs Ringo Starr’s 2 million hits.) An international auxiliary language, by design, has lofty goals and a big audience, even if the audience is unwilling or unaware.

I’m tempted to draw an analogy between our situation and the work of Nietzsche and Samuel Beckett… Everyone knows Nietzsche claimed “God is dead”, but how many know that Samuel Beckett wrote the words, “On. Say on. Be said on,” and that he intended them to mean something sensical? Beckett’s prose (especially his later works) can be seen as a deliberate assault on language itself, but his work was intended to be read and appreciated—perhaps discussed. His work was not meant to change the way humans live their lives. In this way, the philosopher, their work, and their life is of greater interest to the uninitiated, it seems, than the author of artistic fiction. But what is the nature of that type of interest, I wonder…? And is it useful, or desirable?

In the Land of Invented Languages is an enjoyable read
, and both conlangers and nonlangers (ha. Anyone remember when we came up with that term?) will find it fascinating. What I like most about it—and what I think is most important for the conlanging community—is that Okrent treats the art and its practitioners gently and lovingly. Unlike so many of the articles and books of the past (Yaguello… *shudder*), this one is positive from start to finish. Though some see the mainstream popularization of language creation as a mixed blessing at best, if our lifelong (pre)occupation must be made visible to the outside world, we couldn’t hope for a better introduction than this one.

(Shameless plug:
My take on the use of “they” as a singular third person pronoun in English!)

This is the LCS’s adjunct audio cutting monkey, Arnt Richard Johansen, speaking:

Back in 2006, something was stirring in the online conlang community. There were persistent rumours that someone had started doing research for a book about conlangs. When I got reports from reliable sources that someone named Arika Okrent had been seen asking questions at both qep’a’, Logfest, and even at the LCC, I was filled with anticipation.

And dread.

This was an outsider, a normal person (well, as normal as someone who has a PhD in linguistics can be), who had been to the inner circles and seen the secret vice in all its nerdy splendour. What would she make of it? Would she understand why we are doing this, and be able to explain it? Or would we get more of the same old dismissive ridicule that we are seeing from the mainstream media?

So I waited. And I pre-ordered it on Amazon. Then I waited some more. In the mean time, Daniel L. Everett wrote a review of the book for, where he lampooned the “misguided people [who] try to invent languages” as “linguistic Frankensteins”. “Uh-oh,” I thought, “How bad can it be?”

Well, I don’t know where Dr. Everett got his opinions on language inventors from, but I hardly think it could be from this book. When it finally arrived, it turned out that Okrent managed to take my expectations and turn them on their heads. On the one hand, In the Land of Invented Languages is a celebration of the frivolous aspects of constructed languages, such as those languages that are made solely as an artistic expression, or the merry, multicultural atmosphere found at Esperanto congresses.

On the other hand, the book is a damning critique of the quest for the perfect language, which is indeed what most language inventors prior to our internet-fueled era set out to do. From reading this book, one can learn that the best an IAL inventor can hope for is that no one cares about his project. The alternative is far worse. Take for example the heart-wrenching story of Charles Bliss. What he intended for Blissymbolics was for it to be an ideographic IAL. Instead, it took off as a teaching aid for disabled children, and each country that used it adapted it to their needs and their spoken language, in the process destroying its internationalness.

Reading In the Land of Invented Languages made me start to rethink my relationship with my favourite constructed language: Lojban. I still think it would be fun if everyone spoke it, but Jeeg help us if someone mixes it up with English and that becomes the dominant variety of it.

Audio edited by Virgo Audio Production Services; music by Gary Shannon.

LCC2 – David Peterson – The Evolution of Sidaan

Sunday, May 10th, 2009

Sai speaking:

David’s not kidding when he says he’s a serial monogamist conlanger—’prolific’ is more like it.
If you take a look at his site, you’ll find 12 languages. Some of them are quite elaborate, with well-made orthographies (in font form!) as well as a wide range of language classes borrowing from paradigms all over the world.

That’s not all of it, though; he also has done a fair amount of meta work as well. There’s his Sign Language IPA (with a signed conlang to go with it!). There’s his FAQ on ergativity which is, IMHO, the best explanation I’ve read thus far (with Thomas Payne’s in Describing Morphosyntax a close second).

He’s contributed to the community, too; being a speaker at each Language Creation Conference (LCC1: “Down With Morphemes” ppt; LCC2: this (plus the morpheme workshop); LCC3: Orthographies, Fonts, and Philosophy) and a great collaborator and things-getting-doner behind the LCS and this podcast.

His five hilarious articles for the Speculative Grammarian and his blog are pretty exemplary of what he’s like in normal interaction: a combination of productive and light-hearted I see too rarely.

The Smiley Award that he created is one of the best examples—it displays real interest in others’ work, from both technical and personal perspectives. Incidentally, this is something that we-as-the-LCS would like to extend at some point in the future, to create a yearly competition for conlangers, à la the Interactive Fiction awards. If you have ideas for challenges that would interest the whole community, please let us know.

(I do have to say that his taste in web design is not exactly my normal style, though… )

David speaking:

Of my three LCC talks, this one was by far the least popular.
Realistically, this shouldn’t have been a surprise, since no one had ever heard of Sidaan, I hadn’t done much with it, and historical syntactic change isn’t a real crowd pleaser. I must admit, the lackluster reaction is probably what led me to all but abandon the project (I don’t think I’ve worked on the language since).

Despite that, I’m glad I did it, and I’m glad it’s up somewhere, and this is why. The thing to take away from this talk, in my opinion (well, if you’re a conlanger), is that (again, in my opinion), we need a different metric for naturalness than what we’ve got. If a conlanger is limited to what has occurred in the history of the extent or dead natural languages, then creating a naturalistic language is nothing more than rolling the dice—something like creating a D&D character as opposed to an author of a novel creating an entirely new fictional character.

Specifically (and I plan on trying to spell this out at length at some point in time way off in the distant future), there must be a conlang-internal metric for determining whether a change or a feature is natural. What I attempted with Sidaan in this talk is to effect a conlang-internal change without reference to a natural language. Whether it has happened or not in a natural language is irrelevant. The question is, if the language existed at some time x as I created it, could the change I effected plausibly occur the way it did?

Regarding natural languages, then, one oughtn’t find a change that occurred in a natural language and then implement it with the idea that this is the only way to create a naturalistic conlang. Rather, if one finds out later on that a natlang’s already dunnit except worse, one should be gratified, and say, “You see? I told you it could work!”

(P.S. If teal and purple weren’t meant to go together
, just how on earth does one explain Miami Vice?) [Ed. by Sai: One word – “abomination”. Things that aren’t meant to happen seem to happen quite often… :-P]

(P.P.S. Since the talk, my fiancée and I got married, and we’re still at it.)

This video is part of the 2nd Language Creation Conference, held at UC Berkeley on July 7-8, 2007, and hosted by Language Creation Society.

We would like to add closed captioning / subtitles to all the videos from LCC2, including this one. If you are willing to help, install Subtitle Workshop, and email your transcribed .sub file to In return, you’ll get credit and a free copy of the DVD with this video.