We think of language as natural and organic. In fact, our lives are full of invented and engineered methods of communication: the Roman alphabet, Morse code, semaphore, Labanonotation, computer languages. And we admire deliberate innovation when it comes to words and sentences. Still, when it comes to inventing entire new languages, most of us will say that at best it’s a quixotic pastime and at worst a deluded one. And we probably won’t say so in Esperanto.
In “From Elvish to Klingon,” a new collection of essays edited by Michael Adams (author of “Slang: The People’s Poetry”), the contributors explore the scope of invented languages, from Solrésol, a language constructed in the 1800s from the seven do-re-mi notes of the musical scale, to D’ni, the deliberately opaque (it has a base-25 numbering system!) language of the Myst videogames. “From Elvish to Klingon’’ shows clearly what makes invented languages fascinating — their logic, beauty, fun, and (often) high moral purpose. But it leaves aside a bigger question: what makes them catch on — or fail to?
Morse code and semaphore aside, invented languages generally fall into one of two categories. They are either “political languages,” intended to be used every day, or “artistic languages,” invented to give depth to a work of fiction, say (though some of these, too, end up being adopted by real-life speakers). Languages invented for widespread use are usually intended to solve perceived defects in natural languages: irregularity, illogic, ugliness, divisiveness. But it turns out that if you build a better language mousetrap, the world doesn’t beat a path to your door; it kind of shrugs and rolls its eyes.
Despite having the highest aims — “recovering the language of Adam,” reversing the Tower of Babel fallout, and bringing about world peace — international auxiliary languages (IALs) such as Volapük and Esperanto have made little headway. The utopian motto of Volapük, invented in 1879 by Johann Martin Schleyer, a German-speaking Roman Catholic priest, was “For one humanity, one language!” But the entire human race may be too big a group to identify with, at least until the aliens show up. Ironically, the Third Congress of Volapük speakers in Paris in 1889 broke down in dissent over features of their new language.
Esperanto, meanwhile, another utopian language created by Lazarus Ludwig Zamenhof in 1887 (and probably the most successful of the IALs), ran afoul of other language groups. In 1914, many Esperantists traveling to Paris for their annual congress were either turned back at the border or imprisoned as citizens of enemy states. Indeed, IALs have often been opposed because speakers of other languages felt threatened: French delegates torpedoed support for Esperanto in the League of Nations, Hitler thought it was part of a “Jewish plan for world domination,” and it was suppressed by Stalin as a “language of spies.”
Perhaps because they’re so unthreatening, languages created for artistic reasons seem to find communities to grow in more easily. J. R. R. Tolkien, the author of “The Lord of the Rings,” was a fan of Esperanto, calling it “a human language bereft of the inconveniences due to too many successive cooks,” but he didn’t make his elves speak it. Tolkien created two complex “Elvish” languages, Quenya and Sindarin — and told a friend, after “Lord of the Rings” was published, that he had written the book “to provide a world for the languages.” Because elves are superintelligent and immortal, their language doesn’t change as human languages do, through error; instead, Tolkien’s elves make deliberate changes in the fabric of their language, “as a weaver might change a thread from red to blue.” Lovers of Elvish (who mostly speak simplified versions known as neo-Elvish) can easily base a group identity on that language: its beauty, its symbolism, its grammar, and its invented etymology all reinforce an aspirational connection to the society Tolkien created.
Another artistic language that has found a community is Klingon, a language that shows (as Arika Okrent put it in her 2009 book “In The Land of Invented Languages”) “it is possible for a language to succeed even if it has no useful features at all.” Created in its present form by the linguist Marc Okrand for the 1984 film “Star Trek III: The Search for Spock,” Klingon found a receptive home among an already existing community of Star Trek fans. Klingon speakers are not aiming for world peace (the warlike Klingon would find that a very silly goal). Instead, they’re bonding with other fans and creating culture, including versions of Shakespeare’s plays “in the original Klingon.”
It’s too simple to say that “artistic languages” do well and “political languages” don’t — the book includes some examples of “semi-invented,” or reconstructed languages, such as Modern Hebrew, which are successes by any definition. But it seems that the more tightly a language is tied to a vibrant and active group, the more successful it becomes. The group can’t be too big — 6 billion people is too many, while Modern Hebrew is thriving among 8 million or so speakers. It also can’t be too small — even natural languages tend to fail when they have fewer than a dozen living speakers. In “From Elvish to Klingon,” Adams categorizes the motivations for creating new languages as “political, social, aesthetic, intellectual, and technological.” But we are fundamentally social animals, and the greatest motivation of these must be the desire to create a new community — and to belong to it.Erin McKean is a lexicographer and founder of Wordnik.com. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.