Arika Okrent was studying languages at the University of Chicago. The languages people use and how they work. She was in the library, poking around.
"And then," says Okrent, "I drifted down to the shelves with all the books on invented languages. It was a sad little collection."
But something called to her. Tales of made-up languages and their makers. Esperanto, the most widely spoken of all; Volapuk, once the most popular; Klingon, the bark of space invaders. She learned artificial tongues, then wrote about going to a 2003 Esperanto conference -- and the seed of a book was planted.
That book is the delightful "In the Land of Invented Languages" (published last month in paperback), which tells tales of Okrent's forays into the realms of Esperanto, Klingon and Blissymbolics, and the personalities, political battles, and fates of linguistic makers-up.
Okrent met her husband, research linguist Derrick Higgins, in Chicago. They moved east when he got a job at Educational Testing Service in Princeton, N.J. Okrent says, "I did almost all the research for the book before I had kids" -- Leo, 5, and Louisa, 1.
"As I got further and further into this world," says Okrent, 40, "at first, I'd say, 'Look at all these crazy ideas,' but I'd also find touching clues about the lives of the inventors."
Her book is a history of a "vast graveyard," brilliant projects that failed. We meet Suzette Haden Elgin, who in the early 1980s created Laadan, a "woman's language" ("the only language textbook I know of that gives the word for menstruate in Lesson 1," Okrent writes). We visit the nutty, simpatico world of Esperanto, and the gestural world of sign languages.
There's the occasional success, as with Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, who fought in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to resurrect a near-dead priestly language (Hebrew), and retrofit it for a modern age; it is now the national language of Israel. Or Lazar Ludwik Zamenhof, who grew up in the Russian Empire town of Bialystok, a Babel of Russian, Polish, German and Yiddish. He dreamed of a language that cut through the tangle -- and his brainchild, Esperanto, is still the most widely practiced made-up tongue.
Rage for order has led many to remake language. In the late 1940s, Austrian engineer Charles Bliss invented Blissymbolics, which he hoped could become a writing system for all languages, "logical writing for an illogical world."
Language makes us human. So -- why mess with it?
One motive is the dream of tearing down the linguistic walls that divide us. "It's the dream of oneness," says Okrent, "the idea that if everyone could communicate with one another, we could eliminate strife."
Okrent is a certified Klingon speaker, and her book describes how she achieved that distinction -- complete with official pin -- through the Klingon Language Institute in Blue Bell, Pa.