How to invent a language

Recently I finished reading In The Land of Invented Languages by the linguist Arika Okrent. The subtitle, Esperanto Rock Stars, Klingon Poets, Loglan Lovers, and the Mad Dreamers Who Tried to Build A Perfect Language, gives you a pretty clear idea of what the book is about. Okrent delves into the fascinating world of made-up languages and the eccentric people behind them. Elvish, Esperanto and Klingon are the most famous ones but I wanted to focus on two of the lesser known languages and the stories behind their failures:

Blisssymbolics

Karl Kasiel Blitz was born in 1897 in Chernivtsi in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, in what is now the Ukraine. The eldest of four children, his early life was difficult amidst poverty and hunger. As a Jew in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Bliss grew up in a climate of anti-Semitic taunts and pogroms. But Bliss was a talented child who had a passion for engineering. He got a degree in chemical engineering from the Vienna University of Technology in 1922. He joined an electronics company and rose to be chief of the patent department. But his life was about to get very complicated. In 1938 he was living in Austria when the Adolf Hitler and the Nazis began their European tour and he ended up in a couple of concentration camps. With the help of his wife, who was a gentile, he was released. He then went on his own tour. He did seem to have a knack for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. He was in London during the blitz. It was here that he decided to change his name. His surname had rather negative connotations, so Karl Blitz became Charles Bliss. The bad luck continued; he was in Greece when the Italians invaded and in Shanghai when it was occupied by the Japanese. They put him and his wife in the ghetto. Despite all this hardship, living in China did have one important benefit – it introduced Bliss to Chinese characters, which would have a massive impact on his life.

After the war, he settled in Australia, where he had to work in a number of blue-collar jobs. At night he devoted himself to creating a system of symbols he hoped would transform the world. Bliss set out to invent “a better, simpler system of pictorial symbols, a logical writing for an illogical world.” He got the inspiration for his Blisssymbolics from the Chinese characters he had studied during his sojourn in Shanghai. When he saw the Chinese symbol for man he realised that he understood it even though he had no idea how to say it. You could bypass words altogether.

blissymbolics_basic

There would be few basic symbols which could be combined. For instance two swords together would mean war. Bliss would spend several years and use up all the family savings pursuing his dream. Out of all this time and money would come his magnum opus International Semantography: A Non-Alphabetical Symbol Writing Readable in All Languages. A Practical Tool for General International Communication, Especially in Science, Industry, Commerce, Traffic, etc. and for Semantical Education, Based on the Principles of Ideographic Writing and Chemical Symbolism, which was published in 1949.

Semantography or Blisssymbolics never did catch on. Bliss sent out 6,000 copies to academics, bureaucrats and world leaders, but nobody was interested. But it did have an unintended beneficiary – a rehabilitation centre for children with cerebral palsy in Toronto. These kids were so impaired that they couldn’t speak. At first Bliss was delighted that his system was being used for therapy. He actually flew to Canada to see it for himself. At first things went swimmingly. He even proposed to one of the speech therapists there, but then things started to go wrong. The teachers were adding symbols and the kids were improvising with the language. Every change that occurred was turning it into a dialect. Bliss felt proprietary about his creation and he was none too pleased when they started changing his creation. What was ultimately behind his anger was that the centre was using his system as a way of help the pupils arrive at English, and what Bliss wanted was for his universal language to replace English.

It all became extremely acrimonious with Bliss finally suing the Toronto centre. The case was finally settled in 1982 with Bliss receiving $160,000 in compensation. So a man who had set out to change the world, ended up robbing a group of disabled kids.

Why did Blisssymbolics fail to live up to its inventor’s high expectations? Bliss was misguided in assuming characters could an international medium of communication. There can be no universal international symbols which can be understood by all men at all times. Meaning resides not in the symbol or the image or the language in which it is encoded but in the society that interprets it. Think about how difficult it was for Jean-François Champollion to decode Egyptian hieroglyphics. And while a Japanese speaker reading a Mandarin newspaper may be able to recognise a number of the characters, they will only have a vague idea of what it all means. This lack of universality was exactly the problem faced by the semiotician Thomas Sebeok in the early 1980s. The Office of Nuclear Waste Isolation asked him to prepare a report on how best to encode a warning message on sites where nuclear waste had been buried. This message will have to be interpretable for 10,000 years. His solution was one of extreme redundancy the message should be printed in all known languages and there should be pictures, icons, and any other relevant symbols. Every 250 years or so, the information will need to be re-encoded into whatever languages, symbols, and communication devices that are in use at that time. But even this may prove insufficient in the year 12,000.

Loglan and Lojban

In 1955, James Cooke Brown, a sociologist at the University of Florida in Gainesville, set about creating a new language. He would call it Loglan – logical language. At this time the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis was in vogue. According to Sapir and Whorf language shapes the way we think, and determines what we can think about. Brown wanted to test the social and psychological implications of this hypothesis. He planned to teach his language, whose grammar borrowed its rules from modern logic, to subjects of different nationalities in a laboratory setting. Would speaking in logic make people more logical? Would it facilitate thought?

However, Brown had a tendency to alienate people and this led to a schism in 1987. The breakaway group, led by Bob LeChevalier, was known as Lojbanists. It may have been the bastard child of Loglan, but Lojban has actually proved to be far more successful than its progenitor. The name Lojban is a compound formed from loj and ban, which are short forms of logji (logic) and bangu (language), respectively. The main sources of its basic vocabulary are the six most widely spoken languages of 1987: Mandarin, English, Hindi, Spanish, Russian, and Arabic.

It is not easy to define Lojban. Natural language is often ambiguous. I saw the man with the binoculars has two possible interpretations. Lojban wants to do away with this ambiguity. But this desire for precision leads to Lojban being, in the words of Okrent, specified to within an inch of its life. It is just horrendously difficult to speak. Indeed, Okrent suggests that no one is actually fluent enough to be considered a speaker. She compares it to watching people do long division in their heads.

All Lojban’s rules are contained in The Complete Lojban Language, a 600-page grammar book, which was published in 1997. Simplicity is not one of its design criteria. A simple word like and becomes incredibly complex in this über-logical language. Here is Okrent’s explanation:

There are many ways to say “and” in Lojban. If you use the word .e in the following sentence (the . stands for a slight pause):

la djan.e la alis. pu bevri le pipno

“John and Alice carried the piano.”

you assert two propositions: “John carried the piano” and “Alice carried the piano.” Maybe they took turns. Maybe one of them did it in 1963 and the other one did it yesterday. But this sentence does not apply to the situation where John and Alice carried the piano together. For that you would use joi:

la djan. joi la alis. pu bevri le pipno

“John and Alice (as mass entity) carried the piano.”

You would be wrong to use joi, however, if you wanted to say, “John and Alice are friends.” For that situation you must use jo’u:

la djan. jo’u la alis. pendo

“John and Alice (considered jointly) are friends.”

If you used joi here, you would have said John and Alice massed together form some kind of friend entity. If you used e, you would have said that John is a friend (of someone) and Alice is a friend (of someone), and maybe they don’t even know each other.

There are at least twenty ways to say “and” in Lojban. But that’s nothing compared with what happens when you get into “or” and “if.” Even if you master the many, many rules pertaining to those little words, you’ve still barely begun to scratch the surface of the tip of the iceberg that is Lojban.

Not only did Ockrent fail to learn this language from hell, but she even began to doubt her ability to speak English. She tells of watching Elmo with her son. One of the puppet characters asked which two numbers came after six. Her mind, in turmoil after trying to make sense of Lobjan, went completely blank. Did they mean the two numbers directly after six?

My favourite story about Lojban has to be one involving a heated debate among its followers. One of the participants used the Lojban expression for go fuck yourself. What followed has definite shades of Life of Brian – the participants began dissecting the grammar- had the speaker used the correct syntax in formulating the insult?

We can now see that Blisssymbolics and Loglan were flawed projects. A number of these artificial languages were born amid the idea that language was a dangerous weapon. But to paraphrase that famous NRA bumper sticker: Words don’t manipulate, people, people manipulate people. You cannot invent a language in which a Goebbels cannot pervert the truth. Esperanto, the most successful invented language, the creation of Ludwik Lazarus Zamenhof, was supposed to stop people killing each other. Charles Bliss had a similar vision. Of course, we all know that people who speak the same language will never engage in genocide, right?

Natural language is the perfect example of bottom-up evolution of complex decentralised mechanisms for transmitting information. Real languages are not invented; they develop organically. This has been a recurring theme in this blog. Looking at artificial languages should help us respect natural languages more. They have to deal with the complexity and messiness of the real world. The ambiguity and lack of precision, far from being a flaw, actually allows us to make sense of the real world. Language needs to be sufficiently flexible to deal with everyday communication and the precise communications of lawyers. It may not be perfect, but it does the job well enough. I want to close by adapting a famous Hayek quote:

The curious task of economics linguistics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design.

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