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In the Land of Invented Languages: Adventures in Linguistic Creativity, Madness, and Genius

4.4 out of 5 stars 63 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0812980899
ISBN-10: 0812980891
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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Efforts to make language simpler, clearer, less divisive and more truthful have backfired spectacularly, to judge by this delightful tour of linguistic hubris. Linguist Okrent explores some of the themes and shortcomings of 900 years worth of artificial languages. She surveys philosophical languages that order all knowledge into self-evident systems that turn out to be bizarrely idiosyncratic; symbol languages of supposedly crystalline pictographs that are actually bafflingly opaque; basic languages that throw out all the fancy words and complicated idioms; rigorously logical languages so rule-bound that it's impossible to utter a correct sentence; international languages, like Esperanto, that unite different cultures into a single idealistic counterculture; and whimsical constructed languages that assert the unique culture and worldview of women, Klingons or chipmunks. Okrent gamely translates to and from these languages, with unspeakably hilarious results, and riffs on the colorful eccentricities of their megalomaniacal creators. Fortunately, her own prose is a model of clarity and grace; through it, she conveys fascinating insights into why natural language, with its corruptions, ambiguities and arbitrary conventions, trips so fluently off our tongues. (May 19)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Review

“Hats off to Okrent, who expertly exposes the history, culture, and preoccupations of this insular tribe who live among us. She rescues language inventors, or conlangers, from the oddball bin—utopianists all, they're the first biotechnologists, trying to leapfrog evolution and improve human life. They'll thank her but everyone else will, too, for finally making sense of the conlangers' discontents.” —Michael Erard, author of Um…: Slips, Stumbles, and Verbal Blunders, and What They Mean

“A lively, informative, insightful examination of artificial languages—who invents them, why, and why most of them fail. I loved this book.”—Will Shortz, Crossword Editor, New York Times

“Linguist Okrent explores some of the themes and shortcomings of 900 years worth of artificial languages. …Okrent gamely translates these languages with unspeakably hilarious results, and riffs on the colorful eccentricities of their megalomaniacal creators. Fortunately, her own prose is a model of clarity and grace; through it, she conveys fascinating insights into why natural language, with its corruptions, ambiguities and arbitrary conventions, trips so fluently off our tongues.” — Publishers Weekly, starred review

"Arika Okrent is a linguist whose fascination with the "faded plastic flowers" in the "lush orchid garden of languages" is recounted to delightful, often comic effect in "In the Land of Invented Languages."...Okrent's style is eminently suited to her approach, which is at once serious and playful, exemplified by her marvelous, snappy opening sentence: "Klingon speakers ... inhabit the lowest possible rung on the geek ladder."— Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

"The author...examines a variety of would-be languages and related philosophical tenets (there are no pure ideas, all signs depend on conventions) in a rigorously linguistical way. And yet her book is a pleasure to read. It shows how language systems connect, or don’t connect, with people."—New York Times

"Anyone who has felt the lure of words, odd grammatical systems or the potential connections between human thought and speech, is likely to enjoy this book just as much as I did."— Locus

"'In the Land of Invented Languages is a delight to read. It's humorous, intelligent, entertaining and highly informative. And it's a great source of knowledge about human languages and why they exasperate some people - because they are not perfect. But neither are we."—San Francisco Chronicle

"Okrent is a professional linguist and relates the place of these artificial languages in the confusion of human languages. She is also a great storyteller, and eccentric characters and dashed dreams are the stuff of this delightful book. "—Denver Post



From the Hardcover edition.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Spiegel & Grau (May 11, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0812980891
  • ISBN-13: 978-0812980899
  • Product Dimensions: 5.1 x 0.8 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 9.3 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (63 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #108,154 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Format: Hardcover
Linguists have their ideas. Many of them look down at what's often called "artificial languages" (actually all normalized languages are more or less artificial, including the Queen's English, and written languages definitively so - there are no letters in nature).

Arika Okrent doesn't.

She started out with the prejudiced idea that planned languages can't be living tongues, but after some research, including visits to Esperanto congresses and Klingon conventions, she had to admit that yes, they can. At least Esperanto doesn't even behave as a Golem or Frankenstein's monster; just like any language, but easier than most to learn.

She has concentrated at a few high-lights of the more than nine hundred projects she has found: Wilkins' logical language from the 17th century, Esperanto from the 19th but still very much in use, and from the 20th Bliss' symbolical language (with a few details about the character of its creator that made me feel rather bad), Logban and its offshoot Lojban as more a less a return to Wilkins' ideas of a perfectly logical language, and finally Klingon.

She is rather short about languages with similar goals as Esperanto, like Volapük that was defeated by it, or Ido and Interlingua which failed to defeat it. She is also rather short about the languages connected to Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings", allthough at least Sindarin may actually have about as many fans as Klingon. (Unlike Esperanto, neither Sindarin nor Klingon was created to be actually used, but fans have their ideas.)

In the list of 500 "invented languages" at the end of the book she includes Anglic, which actually is just ordinary English with a revised spelling, not a language in its own righ (she might have included Shaw's spelling ideas as well), and Basic English, which also is hardly a language of its own - just plain English with a limited word-stock.

Last not least: she has a sense of humour.
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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
As someone who is interested in constructed languages (I have a reasonable knowledge of Esperanto, Volapuk, and Ido, and have looked at others such as Lojban and Glosa) I can't overstate how much I enjoyed this book.

Most books on constructed languages just give a historical overview of the subject, mentioning highlights such as Wilkins' Real Character, Volapuk, and Esperanto, and then end with the conclusion (comforting to anglophones) that the global success of English in the 20th century makes the whole issue of international communication moot (I wonder what the anglophones will think when Chinese or whatever displaces English?).

Okrent's book is somewhat different. While she does give the standard historical overview, her focus is on modern conlangs that have user communities and hold conferences. She has apparently learned at least the basics of Esperanto, Lojban, and Klingon and has attended relevant conferences. She dispells the stereotype of conlangers being "weirdos" -- even the Klingon speakers seem less geeky than one would expect.
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Format: Hardcover
In the Land of Invented Languages is an amazing work of linguistic lore, representing the very best of popular science, packaged as erudite travel writing. True to its title, In the Land takes us around the globe in a quest for the perfect language. Not only is one invited (even if, like me, you are not a linguistics scholar and only speak one language...) to actually participate in the theory, math and utter zaniness of communication, but we're privileged by way of Okrent's deft hand to explore each language land through the eyes of a native. Therein lies the true joy of this journey - Okrent is a great wit and intellect; the very best of travel companions. My bags are packed for the next trip.

(I originally purchased the Kindle edition only to discover that another delight of Okrent's work is the design of the book itself. It offers time-lines, language symbols and even a `tree of the universe' that cannot be fully appreciated with the electronic version. I recommend buying the hardback - which I did half way through.)
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Format: Hardcover
Everyone knows the Old Testament story of Babel, wherein God got so irritated by the uppity humans he created that he scrambled their languages so that they would be divided evermore and everyone would have trouble understanding each other. He did a good job, but for centuries people have been trying to do the opposite, to make a language that everyone could understand and use. Others have invented languages as part of their artistic endeavors, or as a lark. Some of these inventions have been practical, some have been useful, some have been downright silly. They all get an overview in _In the Land of Invented Languages: Esperanto Rock Stars, Klingon Poets, Loglan Lovers, and the Mad Dreamers Who Tried to Build a Perfect Language_ (Spiegel & Grau) by Arika Okrent. Okrent seems the ideal person to take on such a study; she has a joint doctorate in linguistics and cognition, and has obvious professional interest in the sideline of artificial languages, but this book is an entertaining romp through the land of the title, not an academic treatise. That does not imply that it is not packed with information, or with plenty of things to think about. By looking at the languages people have created for themselves, we get a better idea of what languages, like the natural ones we started picking up when we were infants, do and cannot do.

The languages Okrent reviews here "were invented on purpose, cut from whole cloth, set down on paper, start to finish, by one person... They were testaments not to the wonder of nature but to the human impulse to master nature." Perhaps that impulse has been successful in other arenas, but Okrent's book is a history of failures. None of the invented languages has done what the inventor set out to do.
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