Do You Speak Klingon?

An American linguist examines oddballs throughout history who dared to design a more perfect means of communication by inventing languages, including Klingon and Esperanto. 

It is a rare breed that actually believes he could create a language so efficient, so convenient, that people would favor it over their native tongue. Undertaking such an enormous project requires a remarkable mix of arrogance and ambition.

In her book, In the Land of Invented Languages, Arika Okrent gives readers a tour through the quirky history of the dreamers who dared to try and rearrange the building blocks of communication. They are, across the board, quixotic characters hacking at the windmill of language. And the speakers of these invented languages, who charm Okrent with their enthusiasm, are some of the nerdiest individuals around.

While speakers of Esperanto, Klingon, and all the rest seem so goofy they put Dungeon & Dragons fanatics to shame, they are deserving of Okrent's elegant and sympathetic prose.

To give an idea of the extreme degree of nerdiness, consider that the people dedicated to speaking Klingon are perceived by their fellow Trekkies as a radical offshoot that takes their enthusiasm too far. (Case in point, their latest project: a Klingon opera.)

Okrent's main theme running through her survey of invented languages, which begins all the way back in the 12th century, is that the languages we speak, English, Japanese, French et al., are beautiful in their imperfections. By having evolved through the ages, language is as closely tied to culture as, say, Brazil and soccer, or America and fast food. Anyone who has tried to learn a second language is familiar with the maddening irregular verbs, conjugations, and tenses. But, as Okrent points out, it is the idiosyncracies particular to every language that give it a malleability that is absolutely necessary.

Nevertheless, through the ages, a rare individual emerges who is annoyed to no end by the inefficiencies inherent in language. The type of guy (indeed, they are almost always men) who thinks, “If everyone will just follow my lead, the world will be a better place.”

Nowhere is this pipe dream more obvious than in the history of Esperanto, one of the world's most well-known invented languages. Okrent's examination of the oddball creator of Esperanto, Ludwik Zamenhof, highlights the determination—and hopelessness—that curses most inventors of language to a life filled with frustration.

In the late 19th century, Zamenhof, living in what is today part of Poland, saw language as the culprit that pitted man against fellow man. As he dramatically put it, “the heavy sadness of the diversity of languages...(is) at least the primary force which divides the human family into enemy parts.”

To this day, many Esperanto enthusiasts, including Doug Mangum of Greensboro, N.C., share in this frustration. The language just isn't taken seriously. “People's eyes glaze over the moment you talk about it,” Mangum said. Yet he says he sincerely believes there is still a lot of potential for Esperanto as a neutral second language that could accommodate travelers abroad. And Mangum swears that his knowledge of Esperanto better prepared him to learn Spanish.

Esperanto fell well short of Zamenhof's goal of a universal second language, but it was not a complete failure. Far from it, in fact. A lively subculture of Esperanto speakers developed, populated by nerdy individuals, who as Okrent, put it, are the types who enjoy crossword puzzles, diagramming sentences, or reading the dictionary for pleasure. They meet at conventions, open their homes to fellow Esperantists who travel the world, (a journeyman Esperantist will find a place to crash in nearly every country in Europe and the Americas) and in general reflect the utopian society Zamenhof envisioned, albeit on a much smaller, quirkier scale.

There is much to be learned about language by examining the failures of those that thought they could invent superior ones. And while speakers of Esperanto, Klingon, and all the rest seem so goofy they put Dungeon & Dragons fanatics to shame, they are deserving of Okrent's elegant and sympathetic prose. In the Land of Invented Languages at times dedicates too many words to deciphering the bizarre creations of these amateur linguists (the pictographs of "Blissymbolics" are particularly baffling), but it is an engrossing read that avoids assuming too didactic a tone by letting the inventors tell the story. Though the land of invented languages is full of unrealized dreams, those intrigued by the notion of a prefabricated means of communication will find a rich, weird subculture awaiting with open arms.

Stephen Rex Brown is an intern at The Daily Beast. He has written for the New York Post and The New York Times.