Invented languages do more than cause lively debates among Star Trek fans. Esperanto, and other international tongues, are meant to repair the plague of Babel. J.R.R. Tolkien’s Elvish and its ilk help readers escape deep into literary worlds. And then there are the hundreds of invented languages most people have never heard of, each with its own aesthetic or communal or political reason for being. Language experts tell these stories in Elvish to Klingon: Exploring Invented Languages, edited by Indiana University professor Michael Adams. TIME spoke to Adams about who invents these languages and whether one will ever truly catch on.
How many invented languages are there, and how do you count them?
We look at the remains of the languages, from books and pamphlets and manuscripts, so it’s probably a very partial count. There are about a thousand of them if you count the ones like Elvish or Esperanto that you could actually, fully use as a language because they have grammar and enough vocabulary. But that doesn’t count revitalized languages, like Hawaiian; or Na’vi, the language of Avatar; or languages from video games or novels like 1984. If you start to add all those up, you come up with more invented languages than we have natural languages in the world.
Why do people invent languages?
The basic reason is some dissatisfaction with the languages that are around us. Then that branches off. In Tolkien’s case, it had something to do with beauty and what was personal to him. He thought he could produce something that you couldn’t find naturally in the world. Other people, like the folks who are [trying to] revitalize a language, are doing it to preserve an ethnic identity. Or building a national identity. In the case of Modern Hebrew, you’re bringing old language into the modern world, where it has to respond to things like toaster ovens. For games, they’re invented partly to make money and partly for the experience of playing the game, creating that integral reality that is so satisfying to players.
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Are invented languages better designed than natural languages?
That’s what their inventors believe. You may discover a better design for something, but I doubt you’re going to discover a better design for face-to-face communication than the languages we already have. Esperanto was probably never destined to be anybody’s first language, but it’s still some people’s second language. There were scientists in the 17th century who tried to come up with the language that Adam and Eve spoke in the Garden of Eden. On the face of it, what an idiotic pursuit. But what they came up with was logarithms. And the alphabet that they came up with included the symbol for infinity. So they didn’t get out of it what they expected, but we got a lot of powerful mathematics out of it in the long run. No logarithms? No calculus. No calculus? No physics. No physics? No toasters ovens.
Do you think any invented language will ever really catch on? Could one, for instance, unite Europe?
It’s extremely optimistic to think that could happen, probably pathologically optimistic. But then what’s wrong with that? I’m all for us getting along and understanding one another. I’m not sure that inventing a language is going to do that, but people who are inventing languages that could be used for international communication are doing more to push us in the direction of world harmony than people who are sitting on their backsides. I have great admiration for the 19th-century language inventors who really were committed to world peace, who sat down and looked at all of the elements of languages that had a lot of speakers and tried to figure out how to cut and paste those into a language that would be sufficiently familiar to everyone. That experiment didn’t work. But that took a lot of enterprise and a lot of ingenuity.
Do you think that the world would be better off if humans actually succeeded in reversing the curse of Babel?
My opinion is that we thrive in diversity. And that we have to have ways of identifying ourselves — not as being just human but being particularly who we are. You can think that all humanity matters to you. I believe that. But I don’t believe it the way I feel in my bones that I’m a North American. And that certain languages belong here and constitute part of the North American character. That matters to us because that’s where we live. And there’s no point in denying that. To me, it just seems too utopian to imagine everybody speaking one language.
Why do ask for readers to approach your book “with sympathy”?
We’ve all got the impulses behind language invention. People who invent languages are exercising the poetic aspect of being human, trying to improve on things because we like a better mousetrap. That’s part of human nature. You have the poetic and the practical strangely joined in language invention. And the typical reaction from people when you mention Klingon or something is that it’s weird and crazy and geeky. And it might be those things. But fundamentally, it’s not crazy. We should all look on [invented languages] like we look on a poem or a painting or listen to music. As an aesthetic expression of the human experience.