Tuesday, May 26, 2009

In the Land of Invented Languages

I promise that I'll return to science blogging soon, but I wanted to write something about a book I've just recently read -- Arika Okrent's "In The Land of Invented Languages". And after all, linguistics is a science, just not the one I generally write about.

Okrent is a trained linguist and it is interesting to see her take on constructed languages, which often get dismissive treatment in popular works on linguistics -- one senses than many linguists actually are proud to be ignorant of the subject, much as literary scholars often are about science fiction.

While Okrent gives an interesting historical overview of the subject, starting with such early works as Hildegard of Bingen's Lingua Ignota, her work really shines when she is describing the handful of modern constructed languages that have established user communities, albeit small ones: Esperanto, Lojban, Blissymbolics, and (yes) Klingon. Okrent not only has read up on these languages, but has learned their basics and attended conferences that these language communities held.

I realise that I'm somewhat of an ideal audience for such a book, as I am a guy who reads novels in Esperanto and who has tried (on and off again) to make headway into Lojban, but I think the book would also be of interest to those who have no contact with constructed languages. Okrent truly humanizes the people she meets -- even the much reviled Klingon speakers (whom, as Okrent notes, are stigmatized even among Trekkies).