In the Land of Invented Languages

A photograph of a jogger, running down a long beach in the early morning sun.

This weekend I’m tagging along with C to a medical conference in Hollywood, Florida. We got in late last night and I’ve been walking around town this morning alone only to discover that this is a land of beaches and hotels and cars cars cars. But, despite that, it’s extremely lovely to walk around in shorts and hop along the beach listening to music with no shoes on. Although, it’s hard not to think about how folks here have terraformed this hostile world by moving almost exclusively inside air-conditioned mobile pods and then shifting an almost unfathomable amount of cement around so that they can drive tractors to the beach and flatten out the sand so it’s just perfect for my little toes.


This week went by far too fast. I’m feeling itchy, professionally, creatively. I feel porridge-syrup-stuck. So I’ve been throwing myself back into writing, which feels like the right thing to do. This week I wrote a maybe-too-personal thing about churches, my new blogging setup with macOS shortcuts, and how all websites just want to be HTML. I also figured out the end of that essay I’ve been tinkering with for a month but I don’t have the energy that’s required to finish it just yet.

So today I want to fix that.

I’m gonna walk along the beach one more time and then lock myself in the hotel room for half a day and figure out what I can wrench out of me. I shall pace around the room and listen to some dark and creepy music and see what happens.

One thing that I don’t feel porridge-syrup-stuck about right now is reading. On the plane, I finished In the Land of Invented Languages by Arika Okrent which is a fabulous thing and I ate it up in just a few days. It’s a book about the peculiar folks who make languages like Klingon, Esperanto, and, to some degree, Hebrew. All languages are made up of course but there’s something buck wild about sitting down and creating a language from scratch instead of it evolving over time; figuring out the rules of grammar, making the dictionaries, going to conferences, bickering in the chatrooms.

The most famous sole inventor of languages is perhaps Tolkein:

As a boy, Tolkein had become enchanted with the Welsh words he saw printed on the freight cars that stopped at the train station behind his home. He loved the way the words looked and later, when he began to study the language, found he loved their sound even more. He explained his feeling for Welsh in the following way: “Most English-speaking people, for instance, will admit that cellar door is ‘beautiful’, especially if disassociated from its sense (and its spelling). More beautiful than, say, sky, and far more beautiful than beautiful. Well then, in Welsh for me cellar doors are extraordinarily frequent.”

I remember driving through Wales on my bike and the moment I crossed the border with England all the signs were suddenly appended with lovely foreign symbols that made my heart swoon.

Whilst Welsh was slowly hobbled together over hundreds and hundreds of years (like all "naturally" occurring languages), invented languages are quite different. They’re usually made in the span of years or decades and almost all of them have some kind of agenda or purpose, a reason why you might learn them. Arika writes about the quest for a Universal Language where folks try to make the Most Perfect and Only Language for All People. Their zeal for logic and perfection, to me, kinda defeats the whole purpose of language in the first place though.

Language should be messy! Languages aren’t always about communicating, but thinking instead. And that process is clunky and messy and the messiness helps, not hinders that process.

(But alas, I am not a linguist, and this is all just a hunch.)

However! There are some invented languages that succumb to the messiness of how we think and how naturally occurring languages work, what with all the repetitive words and clumsy syntax and illogical parts. That’s probably why of all the languages that Arika mentions in her book, my favorite ended up being Klingon. Partly that’s because it’s just so damn charming. For example, as Arika writes, there’s no way to say “Hello!” in Klingon, and the closest next thing to it is “What do you want?”

Of all the many Klingon sayings and proverbs—and this being a language in which maybe only a few dozen people can use in actual conversation—my favorite is this: “bortaS nIvqu' 'oH bortaS'e'” or, in English: “Revenge is the best revenge.”

Okay, enough nerdery for now. I shall now head back to the hotel room to lock myself away and focus. There is too much sunshine in this cafe now and everyone around me looks far too happy which is simply intolerable. I must retreat.