What does “communication” mean? Marriage counselors lump it under the heading of the skill needed by one partner to tell the other what is missing in their marriage, in 2010 there was talk of a space ambassador being appointed by the United Nations to act as the first point of contact for aliens trying to communicate with Earth, and no movie quiz is complete without that quotation from Cool Hand Luke.
The medium of communication which interests me most is language, so I was fascinated by Arika Okrent’s book, “In the Land of Invented Languages.” She writes of over 900 documented languages devised by an equal number of people, not all of them linguists, but most of them a tad odd, from Hildegard of Bingen to Marc Okrand (we’ll talk about him later.) I would recommend the book, but I have a sneaking feeling that apart from me, the only people who would enjoy it are my friend Halina and my arch-rival from college, Audrey.
The need for such languages is obvious. You have only to watch a UN debate and see the earphones adorning politicians as they discuss international issues to realize that a one-size-fits-all language would a boon. All languages are imperfect, as anyone who has waded through irregular verbs will tell you. All mousetraps are imperfect. But while it is permissible to attempt to perfect a mousetrap, even as the existing version is in use, the same policy cannot be applied to a language.
So why not invent one? Alas, such attempts have never worked. Much of the fascination of the book is the description of the language designs that were attempted—categories and sub-categories, languages based on mathematics or on symbols or on concepts. None, with the exception of Esperanto, even got off the ground.
And Mr. Okrand? He has a Ph.D. in Linguistics and was working on closed captioning for the 1982 Academy Awards when he answered a call to come up with some lines in Klingon and soon there was a whole Klingon language, with certification exams. Dr. Okrent is quick to inform us she passed her Klingon exam (only First Level so far, but with a score of 93.)
There is a part of me that wants to put my language skills to the test—the title of this post by the way supposedly means “I speak Klingon” or rather “Yes, Klingon language I-it-speak.” But for now I will content myself with admiring the complexity of Dr. Okrent’s book. Anyone interested in a trip to Chicago next Christmas for the Klingon version of “A Christmas Carol?”