Dr. Arika Okrent is author of In the Land of Invented Languages: Esperanto Rock Stars, Klingon Poets, Loglan Lovers, and the Mad Dreamers Who Tried to Build a Perfect Language (Spiegel & Grau, 2009). Her book tells the colorful stories of a few of the many attempts at language creation over the centuries. Several chapters are devoted to her experiences learning Esperanto and her travels to national and international gatherings.
Your book seems to be getting a positive reception in Esperanto circles. How has it been received among your peers?
It’s been received very well. I’ve heard from many linguists who said they always had a background interest in invented languages, or had built their own little collection of language books. I know of a couple of intro to linguistics classes that are using the book.
Are you still actively learning or using Esperanto?
No, I have to admit I’m not, but my passive reading skills are okay. Just call me an “eterna dependanto de vortaro.”
Which other languages are you learning, and which do you speak fluently?
I’m not actively working on any new languages right now. Instead, I’m observing the language development of my children — though I’m not doing this in a real scientific way. Let’s just say, I’m doing what I’m capable of doing with a 1-year-old and a 4-year-old at home! I would say I’m most fluent in American Sign Language, followed by conversational Hungarian, followed by Brazilian Portuguese. I’m hoping to get my son into a language immersion school (most likely Spanish) in which case that will be the language I work on next.
In the book you mention some ideas for building your own language. Do you plan to develop these ideas any further?
Oh no. I thought about making my own language because I thought it might make a good narrative device for the book, but I quickly found out that I don’t have that “spark” or “urge” that drives people to devote the necessary time to such a project. In the same way, I enjoy looking at paintings, but I have no desire to paint. That impulse isn’t in me, and I wouldn’t be any good at it without it.
Do you see any relationship between your fields of study Linguistics and Cognitive Neuroscience and invented languages?
Well, I wasn’t thinking about any particular relationship between them when I started this project.
I think the reason invented languages aren’t really looked at by those fields has to do with the “native speaker” problem. Linguists and cognitive neuroscientists want to investigate the rules of a language — not book rules, which may have very little to do with how the language functions in real life — but internalized, mental rules, and the only way to determine what those rules are is through the judgments of native speakers. Otherwise, you introduce too much variability.
Using invented languages would make it very hard to come up with scientific controls for that variability. Of course, if an invented language has native speakers, like Esperanto does, you can use native speaker judgments, and there have been some studies of native Esperanto speakers. However, if you need to control for other factors, such as age, other languages spoken, etc., you end up with a very small pool of subjects. That said, if you could come up with a study involving invented languages that managed to control for variability in a scientific way and that shed some light on larger questions about the workings of the human mind, I don’t see any reason why it wouldn’t be well received.
What kinds of reactions did you get from other linguists when they discovered what you were studying?
I didn’t get any really negative reactions, if that’s what you mean. Maybe a little chuckling. One story that didn’t make it into the book:
At the first Esperanto congress I attended, I sat down at the first talk with my husband, who was in the same linguistics program as me. Two rows ahead of us, I thought I saw one of our professors, Howie Aronson. “Is that Howie?” I asked my husband. “I’m not sure. It looks like him,” he said. It was so unlikely that he would be there, in Cambridge instead of Chicago, and at an Esperanto congress, of all things.
The whole talk we sat there trying to get a glimpse of the side of his face. Finally, when the talk was over, we moved up to where he was. Sure enough, it was him. I had no idea he was an Esperantist. It wasn’t like he had been trying to hide it — I found out later it was common knowledge in the department — but I had never thought to ask about it. We met after that to talk about Esperanto and other invented languages, and he gave me great leads on where to find interesting history.
I think there may be more linguist-Esperantists than it seems. However, they are more likely to be the intellectually curious casual type of Esperantist than the “hard core” proselytizing type. Howie enjoyed Esperanto, but he would never think of trying to recruit anyone.
Your book has gained you a lot of fans among Esperanto speakers. How comfortable do you feel becoming an “icon”?
Wow. I’m flattered. And a little wary? I do sort of play both sides of the fence with respect to all the languages I discuss in the book. I go “inside” to get the real story, but I maintain my perspective as an outsider. And I suppose that’s what I aim to be — an outsider with the inside scoop. I’m a person, out there in the world, who knows a bit about Esperanto and doesn’t have a problem with it. That’s not exactly being an active advocate or a spokesperson — which is what some might wish me to be — but I think it’s ultimately a good thing for Esperanto.
Now that the book is out, do you have any further plans related to constructed languages?
I’m focusing on other things. I would say my true subject is the history of linguistic ideas. I’m not sure exactly what area I will land on next. There are a few possibilities, but I’m looking for the same feeling that inspired this book — the feeling of “I would like to read this book, but it doesn’t exist … guess I’ll have to write it.”