on 25 September 2013
This volume, the work of several authors, gives a good account of Esperanto and Volapük while glossing over other serious attempts to create an international auxiliary language. It deals sympathetically with the passion and linguistic expertise J R R Tolkien invested in the invented languages that add great power to his fiction. The origins and making of Klingon are described by its own inventor Marc Okrand and others, and an appendix includes the Klingon version of part of Hamlet, said to predate Shakespeare's! There are chapters on the partial languages generated by electronic games and used by those who play them and on invented scripts like Leet. Dead or dying languages that have been artificially revitalized for daily used by their respective nationalities, including Hebrew, Breton, and Cornish are examined quite severely, in my view, and there's an appendix dealing with the legal complexities of who own an invented language: is it the inventor or those who speak it? I found the purely linguistic chapters more satisfying than those exploring the non-linguistic aspects.
on 21 January 2015
At first sight (with its pretty dust jacket and wacky font for the chapter headings) you think this is going to be a slight overview of its subject, perhaps written in the manner of some cultural celeb like Melvyn Bragg or Bill Bryson. But it turns out to be a funny sort of heavyweight for a little book, and I mean that as no disparagement.
The editor/author has gathered eight writers (or, in some cases, groups of writers) to tackle in turn eight chapters, each about language alternatives of one sort or another. This stretches the book's actual subject matter rather beyond what the title says. The core of the book, for the majority of people who will read the words on the tin, is the two chapters about attempts to create a new language for its own sake - Tolkien's Elvish and Okrent's Klingon (the Klingon chapter is written mainly by Okrent himself). The chapter on Elvish is a tad reverent, the chapter on Klingon a bit tongue-in-cheek, as you would expect - but both are of a good length, fascinating, well-written, and tell you where to go to find out more.
But Elvish and Klingon together(plus a chapter about the languages, sometimes quite developed and sometimes hardly more than verbal codes, that have been invented for computer games) don't take up much more than 150 pages.
So we have a chapter on attempts to engineer a general language in the cause of peace: Volapuk and Esperanto, among others. Of course devising an 'International Auxiliary Language' can't really be called language creation - it's more like language distillation, seeking to render down the various eccentricities of (mainly) European tongues into a medium of basic communication. Anyone who has read about the incredible complexity and sheer expense of having to provide simultaneous translations and paperwork for the European Parliament would wish that those well-paid MPs and their staff were OBLIGED to pass an exam in Esperanto: six centuries ago, similar business was done in far more difficult Latin. The chapter is rather dry but certainly interesting.
The half-chapter on Orwell's Newspeak deals with a curiously similar smoothing-down, this time of a single language (English) - and this time for a malign purpose; not for the sake of international peace but as a weapon of government control. Again, it's not really about language creation but about language manipulation. And Orwell's work is satire - 'Newspeak' is always with us, every time we open a newspaper or listen to a political speech.
As for the chapter which examines the wordplay of Joyce, Beckett and Muldoon as if their work is a conscious fashioning of a new, free, Irish English - well, I think that's a bit of special pleading on the part of the writer! Joyce & co are surely part of a movement of playful English writing that bubbled up through the Victorian crust about 150 years ago with Jabberwocky and The Dong With The Luminous Nose. It was Lewis Carroll who invented (and named) the 'portmanteau word', much used by all these writers. The heirs of 19thC Nonsense writing include not only Joyce & co over the water but also Dylan Thomas in Llareggub, the Goons, Stanley Unwin and Anthony Burgess, whose street-slang in A Clockwork Orange, rather awkwardly, shares a chapter of this book with Orwell's Newspeak.
The Orwell/Burgess chapter and the Joyce/Beckett/Muldoon chapter are really pieces of 'Lit Crit', and are certainly not about the invention of a language from scratch. They are quite a nice read, whether you agree with their arguments or not - and will certainly achieve a wider readership as parts of this book than if they had been offered to some academic publication - but they have surely been included to make the book thicker.
Curiously, it is with the last chapter - about the revival of real old languages such as Hebrew and Irish - that we get back on track with what is, truly, language invention. And what a controversial matter it is! I myself remember (before the days when you could record a TV programme) a friend whose first language was Scottish Gaelic stopping up till 3am to watch a play in Gaelic performed by Edinburgh University students. He was bitterly disappointed - 'I couldn't understand one single word!' - and angry, too, that the language he had been speaking every day from babyhood had been appropriated and made into something alien but official. The author of the chapter recounts how Irish country people will turn the radio off when a program in the new academic Irish comes over the airwaves. I know that there are at least three 'Welshes' in Wales and that many folk who get by with 'Chapel Welsh' regard 'Cardiff BBC Welsh' as a pastime for pseuds.
All in all, a fascinating mixed-bag of a read, well worth buying. And - just as in The Lord Of The Rings - the appendices are some of the most interesting bits.