By Gunnar Gällmo
I recently read a book published earlier this year: In the Land of Invented Languages, by Arika Okrent (Spiegel & Grau, New York 2009).
In general, there seems to be two main attitudes to "artificial" languages, like Esperanto: the extremely enthusiastic, and the extremely sceptical.
(I put "artificial" within inverted commas, because all human languages are artificial, especially their written forms. Writing and books are no natural phenomena, and spelling norms are often decided by political bodies; that may be the reason why English has at least two: the British and the US:ian. The term currently most used by those who know is "planned languages".)
Some are deeply engaged in one of these languages, believe it will save the world, and that everything created in it is just wonderful.
Others are not, don't think they have any value at all, and believe that a planned language can't be a living one.
Neither attitude is quite in accordance with facts. Still, many professional linguists belong to the second school, without having actually explored the matter.
A funny thing with Esperanto is that anyone can have a very strong opinion about it, whether he knows anything about it or not. Linguists wouldn't do so with Latin, Sanskrit, or Spanish, but many of them don't hesitate to do it with Esperanto.
Okrent, however, is a professional linguist who has managed to practice a more scholarly attitude and find some kind of golden means. She is not an active member of the Esperanto movement, or of any similar movement around some other planned language, but she takes the matter seriously, and she has cared to do some field study before making her conclusions. She has taken a good look at several planned languages, and has visited conventions of both Esperanto and Klingon speakers.
This makes her rare indeed.
Okrent started out with the prejudiced idea that planned languages can’t be living tongues, but her experiences taught her better.
The field of "invented" languages, as Okrent prefers to call them, is vast indeed; even if discarding languages like Pali and Jaina Prakrit (standardised and possibly more or less planned Middle Indian languages used for the oldest canons of Buddhism and Jainism, respectively), the history of planned languages goes at least as far back as Hildegard of Bingen, a German abbess living 1098-1179. She left, among her papers, a glossary of about a thousand words in something she called Lingua Ignota, "Unknown Language", with translations into Latin and sometimes into German. No one has the slightest idea why she made it, and how she intended to use it...
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