In the Land of Invented Languages by Arika Okrent

In the Land of Invented Languages: Esperanto Rock Stars, Klingon Poets, Loglan Lovers, and the Mad Dreamers Who Tried to Build A Perfect Language by Arika Okrent

Artificial Languages
The author of this book is a linguist. The three artificial languages that have gained the most traction are listed in the book’s title: Esperanto, Klingon and Loglan. The vast majority of the hundreds of artificial languages that have been invented have failed to gain many adherents.
Esperanto is special because of its widespread following. It was invented by Ludwik Zamenhof, who was born in Bialystok, Poland. His family spoke Russian and Yiddish, and he also learned several other languages, but he was not a professional linguist. Esperanto was spread by people writing letters to each other in Esperanto. Esperanto replaced its competitor Volapük, which had been invented a bit earlier by a German priest named Johann Schleyer. The symbol of Esperanto is a green five-pointed star. The father of Hungarian financier George Soros was an Esperantist, who changed the family name from Schwartz to the Esperanto word for “will soar”. Interlingua, which was invented during the early twentieth century, is a similar language, and probably a better language than Esperanto, but it has a much smaller following.
A partial success is Blissymbolics, invented by an Central European Jew, Charles Bliss. Bliss became acquainted with Chinese characters while in the Shanghai Ghetto. He later moved to Australia. The pictorial symbols he invented have no associations with sounds. Unlike conventional manual communication boards, Blisssymbolics has a grammar and is able to express more abstract ideas. It was first widely used by Shirley McNaughton at the Ontario Crippled Children’s Centre (now called the Bloorview Kids Rehab) in Toronto in the 1970s. They use it as a bridge to English, by adding letters to the symbol boards.
There are a wide variety of manual sign languages for deaf people. In 1975 Gestuno was invented to be a universal manual language, but it has not received wide acceptance. In wider use is International Sign, which developed spontaneously.
Klingon succeeded because it was tied to the Star Trek cult. It was invented by the linguist Marc Okrand and is owned by Paramount Pictures. Okrand made it as different from human languages as possible, and uses an unusual word order: object-verb-subject. It is an agglutinating language and some of its words are very long.
Suzette Haden Elgin invented a language called Láadan that has extra details for feminine concerns. Láadan has fine distinctions for emotions and intentions. It makes clear whether what you said was said seriously, or in jest. It has linguistic evidentials, which specify the source of information asserted. Elgin is an author of several science fiction novels, and a famous best-seller called The Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense.
Loglan (logical language) was invented by a sociologist named James Cooke Brown during the early 1960s. I found Loglan to be the most interesting of the languages discussed, because it succeeded it achieving the goal of avoiding ambiguity. Most languages have lots of ambiguity. For example, if Louise is speaking to Charles about their mutual friend Elizabeth, and uses the pronoun “we”, does “we” mean Louise and Elizabeth, or Louise and Charles? The listener must figure this out from context, which is not always possible. The most famous example of an ambiguous sentence is “Time flies like an arrow”.

Empires of the Word by Nicholas Ostler

Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World by Nicholas Ostler


This is a long and rich history of the spread of the major languages of the world, past and present. It tries to explain why some languages spread, and others did not, why some languages persisted, while others became extinct. Some languages that were very important at one time, such as Egyptian, have faded away, while others, such as Chinese, are still here.

Middle East

Ostler describes how the ancient language Sumerian (written in cuneiform) was replaced about two thousand B.C. by the Semitic language Akkadian (spoken by the Assyrians and Babylonians, and also written in cuneiform). Akkadian itself was later replaced about six hundred years B.C. by another Semitic language, Aramaic, the lingua franca of the Middle East, before the Arab conquests.


  • Akkadian
  • Amharic
  • Arabic
  • Aramaic
  • Hebrew
  • Phoenician (which gave us its alphabet)
  • Tigre


Afroasiatic is a superfamily of Semitic that also includes:

  • Berber
  • Chadic (Hausa)
  • Cushitic (Oromo, Somali)
  • Egyptian (Coptic)
  • Omotic

Iranian Languages

  • Balochi (Baluchi)
  • Dari
  • Kurdish
  • Parthian (Pahlavi)
  • Persian (Farsi)
  • Pashto
  • Scythian (Ossetian)
  • Sogdian (Yaghnobi)
  • Tajiki


Ostler discusses the spread of the Aryan language Sanskrit into India, and its incorporation of the retroflex (tongue turned back) consonants from the indigenous Dravidian languages (Tamil, Telugu, Kannada and Malayalam).


The national language of Indonesia, Bahasa Indonesia, is based on Malay, not Javanese. Malay had been used as a language of traders before the Dutch arrived. The Dutch used it as a medium for communicating with the Indonesians, rather than impose Dutch on the them. Javanese was not a good candidate for a national language, since it is much more complicated than Malay.

Pre-Columbian America

I was surprised to learn that some pre-Columbian languages are still widely spoken: Nahuatl in Mexico,  the Incan Quechua in Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador, and Guarani in Paraguay. Guarani was preserved largely due to the efforts of Jesuit missionaries. The language is called Chiriguano in Bolivia and Tupinamba in Brazil.

Similarities Between Chinese and English

The author points out some interesting similarities between Chinese and English: (a) the lack of inflection, (b) the large amount of memorization required (English spelling, Chinese characters), and (c) the subject-verb-object word order.