Thuistezien 267 — 16.05.2021

Arika Okrent
The Land Of Invented Languages

Hildegard von Bingen, a twelfth century nun from Germany, developed the Lingua Ignota, the earliest recorded invented language. The language was seen as a type of glossolalia, or “speaking in tongues” since Hildegard was known for her experience visions. The purpose of the language is lost to history but the language itself is saved for posterity. Countless other languages and documents were probably lost but we have “evidence for suggest that the urge to invent languages is as old and persistent as language itself”. ‘In The Land of Invented Languages’ by Arika Okrent is “a story about the way we think about language.” Or, as the subtitle reads, a celebration of linguistic creativity, madness, and genius.

The Lingua Ignota may have been motivated by some divine inspiration, but “the primary motivation for inventing a new language has been to improve upon natural language, to eliminate its design flaws.” And languages can be a kind of disaster. Words can mean more than one thing and meanings can have more than one word for them. Not to mention all those irregular verbs, idioms and exceptions to every grammatical rule. But when you take the flaws out of a language, “those ‘flaws’ will be revealed as more important than we realize.” In the seventeenth century, philosophers and scientists complained “that language obscured thinking, that words got in the way of understanding things.” The idea that “concepts were clear and universal” was satirized by Jonathan Swift in “Gulliver’s Travels”. At the “Grand Academy of Lagado”, Gulliver learns about “the scheme of for entirely abolishing all the words whatsoever”. Words are only names for things and people need to carry around things they may need in a conversation. It’s just as easy. In 1995, language improver Ben Prist from Australia, claimed that he developed the simplest language possible. It contains one letter- one pronunciation- one meaning and one part of speech. But his world language for children, Vela, was ignored. He thought he was subject to some kind of anti-Australian conspiracy and complains: “A child can go the library and pick-up a book on pornography. Why can’t a grown up person pick up a book on the easiest language possible? Is this democracy? Is it human? Where are our human rights?” He still believes that he has become some kind of persecuted martyr.

Okrent made a list of five hundred languages in chronological order. See also on the website inthelandofinventedlanguages. It is not a comprehensive list of all artificial languages since we don’t know how many there are. What should count as an artificial language or not? After all, new “conlangs” or “artlangs” are born every day. On a lighter note for Ben Prist: Vela is not forgotten and is language number 477 on Okrent’s list. Like a little spark to restore his faith in humanity.

Okrent’s book and more works on invented languages can be read at the Alphabetum in the Hague.

In The Land Of Invented Languages: A Celebration of Linguistic Creativity, Madness, and Genius. Arika Okrent, Spiegel & Grau Trade Paperbacks, New York, 2010.

Text: Marienelle Andringa