John McIntyre, whom James Wolcott calls "the Dave Brubeck of the art and craft of copy editing," writes on language, editing, journalism, and other manifestations of human frailty. Comments welcome. Identifying his errors relieves him of the burden of omniscience. Write to email@example.com, befriend at Facebook, or follow at Twitter: @johnemcintyre. Back 2009-2012 at the original site, http://weblogs.baltimoresun.com/news/mcintyre/blog/ and now at www.baltimoresun.com/news/language-blog/.
Wednesday, May 27, 2009
Apologies to the Klingons
Ms. Okrent became fascinated with the visionaries — and cranks — who grew frustrated with the irregularities and illogicalities of the natural languages and sought to develop a pure, precise, regular, logical, international tongue. Most of them failed, as a look at the 500 artificial languages in her appendix will readily illustrate. And the 500 are only a partial listing.
You will want to travel with her to that strange crossroad where science and art and ambition and the quirky human personality collide.
The effort she describes is fascinating. An early example is a 17th-century member of the Royal Society, John Wilkins, whose Essay Towards a Real Character and a Philosophical Language attempts in its six hundred pages “a hierarchical categorization of everything in the universe.” Because to have exact meanings, one must be able to classify meanings. Wilkins’s language came to nothing, but his exhaustive taxonomy prefigured the thesaurus of Peter Roget.
Another effort at logic was mounted in the 20th century by James Cooke Brown, the inventor of Loglan, which attempts to give each word a single, unambiguous meaning. Like Wilkins’s classifications, Brown’s language is exhaustive, as is its schismatic offshoot Lojban. The problem is that the attempt to arrive at single, unambiguous statements requires such extensive qualification, that it is virtually impossible, Ms. Okrent found, even for adepts to conduct a conversation in the language.
Perhaps the most successful artificial language is Esperanto, the creation of Ludwick Zamenhof, which is a kind of stripped-down generic Romance language whose devotees aspire to achieve international understanding and peace through its use. Though it has fallen short of its ambitious goal, there are large groups of people who use Esperanto, and even, Ms. Okrent found, people for whom it is a native tongue. One of those she encountered is Kim Henriksen, an accordion-playing Esperanto rock musician.
But even Esperanto, she finds, develops colloquialisms and minor irregularities, just like the natural languages, as people use it. The dream of a pure, regular, logical language is ever elusive.
Oh yes, Klingon, the creation of the linguist Marc Okrand. The little band of fans or hobbyists — call them what you will — who speak and write Klingon, who translated Hamlet into that language and who are working on the Bible won Ms. Okrent’s surprised respect. She attended a conference of speakers and passed the beginner’s exam in the language. And then there was this scene at the hotel:
“I looked around and saw, near the reception desk, a group of glossy-toothed ‘mundanes’ checking in to the hotel. They appeared to be in town for a sales meeting, or maybe just the wedding of an old fraternity brother. They looked at us, immediately noticing, of course, a costumed member of our group. One of these so-called normal people walked right up to him and, without asking for permission, took out his cell phone to take a picture, saying to no one in particular, and certainly not to the Klingon in question, ‘If I don’t get a picture of this, no one will believe me.’ The Klingon stood tall and posed like a true warrior. At that moment, I knew whose side I was on. The world of Klingon may be based on fiction, but living in it takes real guts.”
I apologize for my previous lack of honor.