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"From Elvish to Klingon": An Impressive Overview of Conlang-ology

When word nerdom and sci-fi nerdom collide, what do you get? A dictionary-bot that recites definitions while performing the duties of a butler?

Someday, I hope that's true. For now, the answer is From Elvish to Klingon: Exploring Invented Languages: a thorough look at invented languages (also known as conlangs, short for constructed languages) from sci-fi and elsewhere. Over time, there have been about a thousand invented languages, including well-known examples such as Esperanto, Elvish, and Klingon, plus many failed tongues. This new volume gives a tour of the landscape.

That landscape must seem odd, even to the average word nerd or language dweeb. Inventing a language, at first blush, seems as necessary as inventing gravity or building a new moon. What's the point? It turns out, there are almost as many points as there are invented languages. As editor Michael Adams (whose resume includes authoring Slang: The People's Poetry and Slayer Slang: A Buffy the Vampire Slayer Lexicon) writes, their purposes are "...political, social, aesthetic, intellectual, and technological. Each invention originates in a complex human motive. Even more than natural languages, invented languages both reflect and urge the cultures in which they are proposed, appreciated, and occasionally even used." This book is an impressive look at those purposes and the stories of these artful tongues, which are more diverse than I could've imagined.

(One disclaimer: This is a scholarly book that can be a tough read at times. Even a language-lover like myself spaced out during some of the more technical descriptions of grammar and phonology. But for most Visual Thesaurus readers, I have a feeling the treasures will outweigh the trivia).

Usefully, the book doesn't only focus on complete languages. One of the book's most interesting chapters — by Howard Jackson — takes a step back from language per se and looks at invented vocabularies, specifically those of George Orwell and Anthony Burgess in 1984 and A Clockwork Orange, respectively. Of course, Orwell's lingo has been a lot more successful than Burgess' terms (though droog did catch on a henchman-type member of a gang). Newspeak is a hugely successful word, as are Big Brother, doublethink and thought police. As Jackson notes, the word doublespeak is not an Orwellian creation but is clearly inspired by 1984ese such as crimethink, sexcrime, thoughtcrime, facecrime, unperson, and doubleplusgood. Orwell's anti-totalitarian impulse may not have birthed a full-blown language, but his motivations resonate with many other language inventors.

In fact, politics is the impetus for plenty of invented lingos, as discussed in chapters on the potentially humanity-uniting International Auxiliary Languages (like Esperanto) and the neologisms of proud Irish writers (like James Joyce). Others are more aesthetically driven. In one of the best-written chapters, E.S.C. Weiner and Jeremy Marshall discuss the invented tongues of Tolkien and how they add depth to the reading experience: "The reader is in the position of the uninitiated hobbits, picking up the odd word and phrase here and there, and shares their bewilderment and curiosity." This is similar to the purpose behind video-game languages like Gargish — the language of gargoyles in Ultima VI — which is discussed in another chapter. I don't think you could describe the accomplishment of Tolkien and the potential richness of a constructed language better than Weiner and Marshall do here: "Reading Tolkien's major works is like looking at a painting in which a beautiful garden is glimpsed in the background, and then discovering that the garden actually exists, having been planted by the artist before the picture was painted."

Maybe I'm just a sucker for the flashiest, whiz-bangiest language — or a bit of a closet Trekkie — but my favorite chapter was on Klingon, by Adams, Judith Hendriks-Hermans, Sjaak Kroon, and Klingon inventor Marc Okrand himself. They follow the herky-jerky trajectory of Klingon, which was non-existent in the original series and breathed to life by Okrand for 1984's The Search for Spock. Klingon is a wild success story, inspiring legions of users (well, nano-legions at least, which is pretty good for an invented language) and mentions in pop culture from ER to The Onion. This chapter is a thorough and revealing history of a lingo and — to a frightening degree — a culture. Klingon is the conlang's conlang in many ways: Klingon speakers out-Trekkie the Trekkies, much as language inventors out-geek word geeks. (For much more on Klingon and other conlangs, check out Arika Okrent's fantastic In the Land of Invented Languages.)

In an interview with Time, Adams pointed out the surprising universality behind these oddities: "We've all got the impulses behind language invention. People who invent languages are exercising the poetic aspect of being human, trying to improve on things because we like a better mousetrap. That's part of human nature."

Indeed, if human language — aside from an occasional parrot savant or signing chimp — is what separates us from the beasts, then the act of inventing languages must put up a 50-foot, barbed-wire, electrified fence between us and the beasts. Language-inventing is uniquely, preposterously human, like high heels and fantasy football. It says a lot about who and what we are that we have so much to say — but never enough words and tongues to say it all.


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Mark Peters is a language columnist, lexicographer, and humorist who has written for Esquire, The Funny Times, New Scientist, Psychology Today, Salon, and Slate. He contributes to OUPblog and writes the Best Joke Ever column for McSweeney's. You can read Mark's own jokes on Twitter, such as, "I play by my own rules, which is probably why no one comes to my board game parties anymore." Click here to read more articles by Mark Peters.

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Comments from our users:

Sunday December 18th 2011, 12:14 PM
Comment by: Marah (Mount Shasta, CA)
Surprised there is no reference to Lewis Carroll. I memorized Jabberwalky thinking it would take huge effort to memorize something that had "unenglish" words. Found the memorization process for Jabberwalky to be the easiest piece I have ever memorized. To this day I can recite it word for word. Seems something important about the way he put the words together. Each sentence led to the next in a way that made memorization easy.
Sunday January 15th 2012, 7:51 PM
Comment by: Muntoo Meddler
Elen síla lumenn' omentielvo.

(One of my favorites.)
Tuesday February 14th 2012, 5:54 PM
Comment by: Sophie K.
This looks like a really good book!!! But I think I'm looking for something like the books J.R.R. Tolkien wrote. For those of you that have not read, heard of, or watched the movie trilogy, then you really need to!!!:):D

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