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Feeling Limited by a Language? Here Is a Solution: Invent Your Own

AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on WORDMASTER: we talk about invented languages.

RS: These are the subject of a new book by linguist Arika Okrent.

ARIKA OKRENT: "For most of the history of invented languages, they've been trying to improve upon natural language. So, [to] solve all the issues we have with natural languages: They have irregular verbs, they're ambiguous, they're full of inconsistencies, things that are hard to express, things that are hard to say. Why can't we do better than that? Why can't we set out and engineer something that works a little better than that? And I found when I tried to use these languages that it made it very, very difficult to say anything.

"When we speak, we don't have a perfect concept that we intend to communicate. When we speak, we need these floppy, fuzzy edges in order to formulate our thoughts as we speak them. If we were required to pick our words based on exactly what those words meant, or what the perfect concept portrayed by that word [is], we'd never be able to say anything."

AA: "Now, the one invented language I think probably most people have heard of is Esperanto. Can you explain a little bit about that and maybe give us an example."

ARIKA OKRENT: "Esperanto was created in the late eighteen hundreds by Ludwig Zamenhof, who observed how people who spoke different languages didn't get along. And he thought he could cure the ills caused by nationalism by providing a language that everyone could use as a neutral ground, where they could talk to each other in a language that wasn't anybody's national language.

"And he made it very regular and systematic and easy to learn, and it did have quite a following and it still does have speakers today. People think it died out sometime in the early part of the century, but in terms of the history of invented languages, it's the biggest, greatest success there's ever been."

RS: "Why is it so successful? In your book your refer to invented languages and you talk about their history of failure."

ARIKA OKRENT: "It's a success because people speak it. That's all really you have to have to be a success in the world of invented languages."

AA: "Can you give us an example of Esperanto?"

RS: "Talk to us a little bit."

ARIKA OKRENT: "Yes. Mi parolas Esperanton. Estas lingvo internacia. Tre facila."

RS: "It sounds just like Spanish."

AA: "Or Italian."

RS: "Or Italian, or more Romance languages."

AA: "What did you just say?"

RS: "Say it again and I'll tell you what you said, I think."

ARIKA OKRENT: "Yes. Mi parolas Esperanton."

RS: "'I speak Esperanto.'"

ARIKA OKRENT: "Estas lingvo internacia."

RS: "'It's an international language.'"

ARIKA OKRENT: "Tre facila."

RS: "'Very easy.' Am I right?"

ARIKA OKRENT: "Yes, very good."

RS: "Well, maybe it's because I know some Romance languages. But how international is that?"

ARIKA OKRENT: "Yeah, that's one of the criticisms of Esperanto. There's no influence of Asian languages in there. But it's a good pan-European language. It uses roots from various European languages and completely regular endings stuck onto those roots. So you can be up and running pretty fast with it."

AA: "Well, it's interesting, you say that sites like list hundreds of invented languages, and you list page after page of them -- "

RS: "Five hundred of them."

AA: "Yeah, I mean these languages I'd never heard of. And now you start with circa eleven fifty, a language called Lingua Ignota, and the author or the inventor was someone named Hildegard von Bingen?"

ARIKA OKRENT: "That's the first documented one, but I have no doubt that there were many before that. She was a German nun who made up a whole vocabulary for the natural world and for the things in her world. It's unclear exactly what the purpose was, but it was a creation from her."

RS: "And you end with number five hundred, which is Proto-Central Mountain. What's that?"

ARIKA OKRENT: "This is a language just purely done for artistic reasons. So the author was just captured by Native American languages and was so interested in them and found them so fascinating and inspiring that he wanted to create a language of his own based on the properties that he felt most inspired by."

AA: Arika Okrent is the author of a new book called "In the Land of Invented Languages." We'll talk more with her next time.

RS: And that's WORDMASTER for this week. Archives are at With Avi Arditti, I'm Rosanne Skirble.