Invented Languages

Languages are not my thing -- in spite of growing up hearing multiple languages, I can barely speak two. (I grew up on the border of a French-speaking country, amid people who spoke about 15 different West African dialects and went to college in an Indian city, where at least three languages were commonly spoken). Now, I can speak just two languages fluently.

So, I didn't expect to get much out of a book by a linguist about invented languages. Before you can invent a language, you've got to have the ability to quickly learn a new one, and I can not see myself being able to do that. But every once in a while, I try to read something I don't expect to like much. And a book about invented languages -- Esperanto, Klingon, etc. -- seemed to be just the thing.

"In the Land of Invented Languages" turned out to be an engrossing read. First of all, did you know that there are so many of them? She lists 500 invented languages, and makes it clear that the list is totally incomplete!
The book starts out with Wilkins, a contemporary of Hookes and Newton, who decided to create a language and started out by cataloging everything in existence. His work essentially led to the Thesauraus. And oh, Esperanto which came about as a pan-European, simple language? It's now started to pick up slang and historical accidents of spelling. The way the English word "light" is spelled the way it is, because that's how it was pronounced or that the past tense of "eat" is "ate" because in Old English all past tenses involved changing the vowel sound. Some time later, the rule changed to "add -ed", but no one could change very common words such as "eat" and "know". Another neat aside that I remember, because I had the same misconception. It's not that Koreans can read Chinese in their own language. The characters are very stylized, so it's not the case that the characters represent real-world things. Instead, Koreans make sense of Chinese similar to how a Spaniard makes sense of English -- because many of the Latin-derived words look familiar.

The coolest part about the book, though, is when the author turns to natural languages and points out how is the "flaws" in the language that make them suitable for thinking out loud, for collaboration and for communication. An awesome book. Really. You'll love it even if you don't care a whit about languages.

p.s. There were lots of neat tit-bits throughout ... I loved the book so much that I knew I wanted to write about it. So, I started highlighting various cool passages using my Nook. And then when I went to retrieve the highlighted passages, I learned that there is no way to list all the highlights! So, I'm writing these mainly from memory.  Forget the Nook -- it sucks.  If you are in the market for an e-reader buy a Kindle.


  1. Yes, this is a good book. You mention "Esperanto which came about as a pan-European, simple language?" The language's creator was always more ambitious than that, and it has always had speakers outside Europe.

    By the way,Esperanto is celebrating its 125th anniversary next year. I’m sure we’ll hear more about that shortly. Perhaps you might take a look at the language in your blog.

  2. Mr Chapman is right - major growth areas for the international language Esperanto are in Africa and Asia.

    Their new online course has 125 000 hits per day and Esperanto Wikipedia enjoys 400 000 hits per day. That can't be bad :)

  3. your name reminds me on
    who taught esperanto to the Swedes (the people not a rutabaga)