THE Q&A: ARIKA OKRENT, LINGUIST, NEUROSCIENTIST, KLINGON EXPERT

Arika Okrent Language is a mess. We miscommunicate constantly. Our different languages cause misunderstanding and distrust, and new languages are famously hard to learn in adulthood.  Invented languages are meant to solve these problems, so you’d think professional linguists would take interest. Yet academic linguists tend to file the subject of invented languages under “don’t go there.” Real, natural human communication is their interest—not the dreamers who learn Esperanto or the dorks who learn Klingon.

Enter Arika Okrent (pictured), an intellectual omnivore who grew restless within the limits of academe. Armed with a PhD in linguistics and cognitive neuroscience, she began exploring the dark and mysterious arts of made-up languages. The result is an engaging 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". At a recent reading in Brooklyn, she spoke of some of the friction she received during her research. At a bookstore in New Jersey, where she bought a Klingon translation of "Hamlet", the shopkeeper held the book out to her as if it were radioactive, saying, “I hate that this exists.” Most people do. What’s to love about “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” becoming “the photon torpedoes and phasers of aggressive fate?”

Okrent unearthed some surprises. For example, while the 17-century “philosophical language” of John Wilkins was a failure (it required classifying all things into categories, sub-categories, sub-sub-categories, sub-sub-sub and so on), it also makes for a fascinating glimpse at how that era perceived the world. (Okrent composed the first known translation in that language in three centuries.) And while those who speak Esperanto still never quite transcend culture, they have managed to create a unique and endearing one of their own, slang and all.  As for Klingon, it happens to be a success story: a made-up language that approximates the rhythms, imperfections and features of real-life ones, complete with a dictionary (over 250,000 copies sold).

Here Okrent talks to us about what drew her to invented languages and why they seem to involve so many nutcases.


More Intelligent Life: I was going to start by saying hello in Klingon, but then I learned from your book that you can’t say “hello” in Klingon.

Arika Okrent: Yeah, we don’t do pleasantries in Klingon.

MIL: So how is the Klingon going? Did you keep it up after the book?

AO: I’d say I have dictionary Klingon. Probably about as good as my Swedish, which I don’t really speak, but if I sit down with a dictionary and some idea of what I want to say,  I can sort of puzzle it together. But no, I can’t really do spontaneous conversation in Klingon.

MIL: What’s led you to this topic, which is almost taboo in the linguistics universe?

AO: A linguist finds the whole subject kind of insulting. If you’re sitting down to invent a language that means you don’t know much about language at all. It starts from a place of uninformed arrogance—“hey, language doesn’t work very well. I could make it work better!” If you know anything about the complexity of language and how it works, you wouldn’t have that thought.

I’ve always loved languages, and studied different languages, a little bit here, a little bit there, a semester of Swedish, a little bit of Chinese. But then I realised there was a field called “linguistics” where it was okay to do a bit of this, a bit of that. It would all hopefully add up to [answering the question]: what is language? That was what I was more interested in. So I did sign-language linguistics, then I did psycholinguistics, then the study of gestures people use, then I got into a brain-research lab. I’m just interested in language from all sides.

Then invented languages caught my attention. Less from a linguistic standpoint, though If you have that thing for languages, you like to sit down with a grammar and figure it out. But also just who are these people and why are they so blind? How could they believe that this is going to work? And then I was surprised to learn that there’s more going on than I thought was going on.

MIL: You end up finding not only sympathy for, but a little more success among Esperantists and Klingon speakers and the rest.

AO: Yeah. If someone sits you down and tries to tell you about Esperanto—that people speak it, and there’s a literature—you’re not going to believe them. There’s nothing worse than being on the receiving end of an Esperanto proselytizer. So I thought I could go hide out with a notebook and try to figure out if what they’re saying is true.

MIL: How’s your Esperanto these days? Is it as easy as they advertise?

AO: Yes, estas tre facila…  It’s harder to speak than to understand, because I never know whether it’s going to be a Germanic root, a Romance root or sometimes an English one. But you can make pretty good guesses and get by.

MIL: You never really got around to being able to use Lojban spontaneously, and no one else did, either. Why doesn’t Lojban work?

AO: There are maybe two people who can do a live, pretty-fluent spontaneous conversation in it.

MIL: Really?

AO: And I’ve been told by the community that oh my god, this guy, he really speaks it, you should hear this guy. And it sounds good, but the whole grammar is externally defined. Usually when we say someone speaks something well, it’s because there’s a community who knows what “right” is. It’s the community that decides. But in Lojban, or these extremely logical languages, it’s this book of rules. You’d have to listen to someone speak, leaf through the book and see if they were following all the rules. It’s not supposed to be defined in a culture, but by this perfect rulebook. So how do you know who can judge? You have to know the rulebook.

MIL: So no one really knows the rulebook well enough to say “oops, gotcha there.”

AO: No, it’s just too much. In this movie loosely based on Bill Gates—Tim Robbins plays him—there’s a scene in it where the new hotshot programmer kid is sitting at a computer, typing away, and the Bill Gates character comes and looks over his shoulder and says something like “that’s really nice; I like that coding.” But you can’t just look at a piece of computer code and say “Awesome! That’s very elegant." It’s kind of like that doing Lojban.

MIL: Let’s talk about Whorfianism [named after Benjamin Lee Whorf, 1897-1941], the idea that language controls or conditions what you can think.  You are a bit sceptical of it in the book. Yet there’s research that says that the words we use can steer our thinking even if they don’t totally control it. How much of Whorfianism do you buy?

AO: I feel nervous around the whole Whorf question—it’s a minefield. I worry about it because it’s so easy to run with it in a simplistic manner. Language controls the way we think. That is clearly not true in a very simple way. People who only have two words for colours can still perceive differences in hues. On the other hand, it’s also sort of true that your habitual way of talking is going to have an effect on your habitual way of looking at the world. Everything we do makes us look at things in our habitual way. But I do have sympathy for Whorf himself. His way of looking at a question was a lot more subtle and nuanced than people give him credit for. And he didn’t get a chance to finish it. He died young.

In the Land of Invented Languages Arika OkrentMIL: It seems there are a lot of nuts in this corner in the world. You didn’t set out to ridicule, and even came away sympathetic. That said, what are the personality traits of language inventors? What makes someone do this kind of thing?

AO: Well, people who do this are flabbergasted by their own brilliance. They think “why has no one ever thought of this before? What a brilliant idea this is!" They assume it’s never been done before because we don’t have a universal language. And so they’re overcome with a sense of their own genius, I guess. And that leads to all sorts of problems. 

MIL: One story that sticks out in the book isn’t about an invented language, but a reinvented one: Hebrew [which became the standard language for Jews in the state of Israel]. Why did it work with Hebrew and why does it have only limited success with Irish or Welsh? What are the factors?

AO: It depended on the era in history and the way the immigration pattern [to Palestine] developed. There’s no one formula for it. Those were the days of utopianism—people thought you could have massive overhauls of entire societies. And the immigrants came from Europe to Palestine, uprooting themselves from a whole lot of traditions, so it was easier to start something new. And there were already Jews there not speaking Yiddish, so they had to find common ground. Ben Yehuda was the visionary who put things into motion. If he hadn’t been there and it hadn’t been this time of history, and they hadn’t been coming from a different place, and all these things added up together, it might not have happened.

MIL: What are you working on next? 

AO: Well, I have two little kids now, so I’m thinking a lot about child language.  Something in that area—not a guidebook to here’s all the milestones you should be worried about and not the science of child-language development. Everyone thinks the process is fascinating, but if you see it as a linguist you have a little bit of a different perspective. A guide to enjoying your own child’s language development, watching it unfold, what you should notice about the unfolding and find marvellous about it without worrying about it.

MIL: Have you ever been tempted to mess with your kids, to try to pull some experiment on them or teach them some really difficult language at home? 

AO: I’ve kept a little diary, of course, my little research journal. I’m fluent in American sign language, not because of the whole “baby sign” trend, but I decided to try to expose them to that. It’s hard to do when you have your hands full, though. Even if I spoke another language natively I wouldn’t be doing a very good job. It takes effort to raise your kids bilingually. You have to really concentrate on it, and stay within the language and keep it up.

"In the Land of Invented Languages", by Arika Okrent (Random House), out now.

~ ROBERT LANE GREENE


Picture credit: Robert Lane Greene