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Arika Okrent: In the Land of Invented Languages

After Mnemosyne reawakened my interest in Esperanto, I googled around a little and found that this book had been published just a few weeks ago and had gotten some good press. (By the way, someone has to do something about the “decent title: entirely too long subtitle” phenomenon; the full title of this is In the Land of Invented Languages: Esperanto Rock Stars, Klingon Poets, Loglan Lovers, and the Mad Dreamers Who Tried to Build A Perfect Language. All it’s missing is an “and the Women Who Love Them“.)

It was really good. I read it in about two days, laughing out loud many times, and then when I handed it to Liza she did too. It is not at all an exhaustive study of the subject; it is mostly a bunch of case studies with just enough connective tissue to link them together, and is aggressively first-person, in that she brings to the foreground her personal experience studying, learning, and meeting with the users of these languages. The actual linguistics and history were very interesting, and the personal experience of “I am really excited about this subject, but I kinda wish that the other people who are really excited about this subject were a little more mundane on the whole” resonated with me personally.

Looking around on some forums, I saw some Esperantists take a little offense to her characterization of the language and movement, but I think she is more than fair. Most of the time Esperanto seems to be portrayed either as a punchline to a joke about incomprehensibility or as a practically perfect tool that could save the world and bring about world peace if only people would take it seriously. The truth is somewhere in the middle (its user base has never grown as much as hoped, but there is an active and vibrant if relatively small community whose lives are undoubtedly enriched by the language, and a strong literary tradition), and she presents a balanced picture of it.

Anyway, this is exactly the kind of book I love: lots of interesting information on a subject I’m interested in, with a good level of lightness vs. depth and a very entertaining authorial voice. I enthusiastically recommend it to anyone with the slightest interest in the subject.