Because languages seem to evolve, spawn and even die, they can seem like a species of organic life by other means. And if the evolution of life-forms has been less than tidy and linear, so has the development of language, which is so irregular and filled with redundancies that many a rational animal has been driven mad by it–mad enough to try to build a new language from the ground up. To engineer, in other words, an intelligently designed one.
They’re called conlangs–constructed languages–and the linguist Arika Okrent has written a terrific book about them: In the Land of Invented Languages (Spiegel & Grau; $26). Conlangs can either be a priori (invented from scratch) or a posteriori (amalgamations of existing languages). They can be motivated by the desire for greater streamlining and logic (Blissymbolics, aUI, Lojban) or for social justice (Esperanto, Laadan). The earliest documented conlang is the Lingua Ignota of Hildegard von Bingen, a twelfth-century nun; the goofiest may be Solresol, a language based on the seven notes of the musical scale invented by Jean Francois Sudre in the 1830s; the most successful may be the language invented by Marc Okrand and trademarked by Paramount Pictures (Klingon).
There was a craze for conlangs in the seventeenth century, the age of "gentlemen inventors." John Wilkins, founder of the Royal Society and inventor of the glass beehive, among other things, kicked off the fad with Philosophical Language, a treatise on his own taxonomic system, in 1668. (Jonathan Swift lampooned this tendency in Gulliver’s Travels, with the "grand academy of Lagado" devoted to abolishing unnecessary words.) In the nineteenth century it was fashionable to try to blend languages to promote ethnic unity, as in Pan-Slavism, or the melding of Arabic, Persian and Turkish known as Balaiban. In the mid-twentieth century, linguists were seized with a horror of "word magic," which advocated for linguistic hygiene: C.K. Ogden’s Basic English pared down our lexicon to 850 words, eliminating supposedly meaningless ones like "sin," "idea" or "rights." John Wolfgang Weilgart’s language was a "cure for diseases of the mind caused by language"; Count Alfred Korzybski’s Tyranny of Words claimed to cure alcoholism, homosexuality, frigidity and nymphomania, and to improve one’s finances.
Okrent’s book is a compilation of wonderful stories about batty inventors–some lovable, like Esperanto’s Ludwik Zamenhof, some not, like Blissymbolics’s Charles Bliss. Another of the book’s rewards is the way that Okrent, with a light touch, manages to interrogate the positivist’s creed that rationality is universal. But people who can’t agree on first principles will never come to the same conclusions. Therefore the question becomes: Whose first principles? Whose rationality?
If John Wilkins was the first man to attempt a purely logical language, he was the first failure as well: the point of language is to communicate, and his conlang was utterly unusable. A modern update, James Cooke Brown’s Loglan (from logical language), turned into Lojban. It may as well have been called Logjam: conversation in Lojban, according to Okrent, is very slow. "There are at least twenty ways to say ‘and’…. But that’s nothing compared to what happens when you get into ‘or’ and ‘if.’" Okrent gives a cursory example: if you want to say "John and Alice carried the piano," you would have to use an "and" construction that did not assume they were taking turns, or doing it in different spatio-temporal coordinates altogether. So you would use an "and" that specified John and Alice as a mass entity, but you couldn’t use this "and" to suggest they are friends–that would demand an "and" that considered them jointly but not as a mass entity. No wonder she says that going to a Lojban conference is akin to watching people do long division in their heads.