Interview with Arika Okrent

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.

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