Arika Okrent is fluent in English, Hungarian, American sign language and ... Klingon. (O.K., so she has only first-level certification in Star Trekspeak.) Okrent, a linguistics scholar, spent the better part of five years perusing library card catalogs and attending colorful conferences to learn about languages created by one person and, in some cases, adopted by thousands. Her new book, In the Land of Invented Languages, chronicles the scientists, idealists and eccentrics who tried and failed to create the perfect parlance from scratch. TIME spoke with Okrent about defending the cranks from the critics, ordering sandwiches in Esperanto and the art of speaking chipmunk. (See the 10 best Star Trek moments.)
Your book includes an index of more than 500 invented languages, though you're quick to point out that no one really knows how many there are. How did you decide which languages to explore?
I knew more about the famous ones, like Esperanto and Klingon. But the others I discovered in libraries. Every library you go into will have these little pamphlets self-published by some dreamer with a plan. I got very curious about the lives of the people who devoted themselves to these doomed projects.
What was it like interviewing the relatives and colleagues of some of these inventors?
I talked to the daughter of John Weilgart, who made a "space language" of symbols that he supposedly got from aliens. That was painful in the sense that he devoted his life to this project and he was only ever mocked for it. I didn't want to necessarily contribute to the mocking, so I tried to understand the motivations and the struggle that a person like that would go through.
And what were those motivations?
In the 17th century, when you had the development of calculus and all these scientific advances, some people thought maybe we could create a language that works like mathematical notation. That if you want to work out the "truth" of something, you could just put words into an equation and calculate it that way. So you had inventors categorizing the entire universe by words, which eventually led to the creation of the thesaurus. Then the era of nationalism in the 19th century brought in people who were concerned about international communication. Hundreds of languages like Esperanto were created during that time. Now we're in the era of languages for [their own] sake.
One of the examples you give of this new era is a language based on chipmunk sounds.
[Laughs.] Oh yes, Dritok. That inventor thought it would be interesting to build a language based on the sounds that chipmunks make because they use voiceless sounds clicks and hisses and pops. He wondered if you could create a whole language without vibrating your vocal cords. It sounds very strange. I've never heard a natural language that sounds like it, but it still seems like a system. For him, that was an artistic challenge. (See Star Trek's most notorious villains.)
As you mention in the book, these projects were, by and large, doomed from the start.
Many of these projects were inspired by the feeling, Wait, language doesn't have to be the way it is. Why does it need irregular verbs? Why can't it be more logical? Why do we need synonyms and all these exceptions that just confuse people who are trying to learn another language? I know! I could sit down and try to make it perfect! And that sort of presupposes that you know how language works. Language really isn't about information transmission. You speak a language in order to join the group that speaks that language.
What surprised you most about the Klingon and Esperanto conferences that you attended?
With Esperanto conferences, it was the level of fluency. I sort of thought it would be like watching a video of "Chapter 1: Dialogue" in a language class, like "Where is the library?" But it was very fluid, like watching someone speak Spanish. So seeing that happen convinced me that it's a real language; it's not people playing dress-up with a different vocabulary. You can speak textbook Esperanto or you could be especially Esperanto by using an unusual word as a verb just because you can make any word in Esperanto a verb, like la cielo bluas ("the sky is bluing") instead of la cielo estas blua ("the sky is blue.")
When you described the Klingon conference, it almost seemed as if those attendees were tortured by the language, which you described as "an ungodly combination of Hindi, Arabic, Tlingit and Yiddish, and works like a mix of Japanese, Turkish and Mohawk."
There weren't a whole bunch of people speaking completely fluently, but there were four or five people who were amazingly fluent. Which is not easy. I met several people who had been trying to pass the certification exam for years. The language is like a puzzle. I guess it's no weirder than wanting to be really good at chess.
Did you ever find yourself unintentionally speaking these invented languages in your daily life?
I definitely had a little bit of that when I can back from one of the Esperanto conferences. I had gotten very used to these little set phrases like jes, the Esperanto word for "yes." I would be ordering a sandwich at the counter, and the cashier would ask, "Do you want a bag for that?" I'd say, "Jes," with this weird pronunciation.
You mention in your book how these language inventors and the followers of these languages are often viewed as eccentrics and how you became both embarrassed and defensive about being associated with them.
If you decide to get into Esperanto, that means you're not listening to all the people who say, "Why not learn a real language?" or "Isn't that the crazy utopian-cult thing?" So there's an element of eccentricity in that, but also an element of toughness. You can stand up to the judgment and negative reactions and do it anyway. There's something admirable in that.
Have you gotten any feedback on your book from members of the Esperanto or Klingon communities?
There aren't a lot of works by outsiders that aren't dismissive. I've gotten good reaction from members of the Esperanto community. I haven't heard so much from Klingon speakers, but, you know, the Klingon culture is not known so much for their communication.