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“Flaws or Features?” from Arika Okrent, In the Land of Invented Languages

Here’s an important passage from Chapter 23 of In the Land of Invented Languages, Arika Okrent’s wonderful and engaging book on artificial languages, and the inventors and communities who create and practice them.

The story of invented languages has not been entirely a story of failure. While Wilkins’s project did not become a universal language of truth, he produced an extraordinary document, a snapshot of linguistic meaning in his culture and era–and paved the way for the thesaurus. Esperanto did not become an auxiliary language for the whole world, but it did become a real, living language, and in the small sphere of people who use it, it does seem to promote a general atmosphere of international understanding and respect. Blissymbolics found a way to be useful, despite the wishes and actions of its creator, and Loglan lives on today, despite not having fulfilled its scientific mission.

One could argue that the success of these languages is only accidental, and makes their inventors no less naive, or misguided, or presumptuous. Just because they produced something that turned out to have some value for someone doesn’t mean they deserve to be admired. We should admire them, however, for their raw diligence, not because hard work is a virtue in itself, but because they took their ideas about language as far as they could go and really put them to the test. Who hasn’t at one time or another casually suggested that we would be better off if words had more exact meanings? Or if people paid more attention to logic when they talked? How many have unthinkingly swooned at the magic of Chinese symbols or blamed acrimony between nations on language differences? We don’t take responsibility for these fleeting assumptions, and consequently we don’t suffer for them. The language inventors do, and consequently they did. If we pay attention to the successes and failures of the language inventors, we can learn their hard-earned lessons for free.

We can also gain a deeper appreciation for natural language and the messy qualities that give it so much flexibility and power, and that make it so much more than a simple communication device. The ambiguity and lack of precision allow it to serve as an instrument of thought formulation, of experimentation and discovery. We don’t have to know exactly what we mean before we speak; we can figure it out as we go along. Or not. We can talk just to talk, to be social, to feel connected, to participate. At the same time natural language still works as an instrument of thought transmission, one that can be made extremely precise and reliable when we need it to be, or left loose and sloppy when we can’t spare the time or effort.

When it is important that misunderstandings be avoided, we have access to the same mechanism that allowed Shirley McNaughton’s students to make use of the vague and imprecise Blissymbols, or that allows deaf people to improvise an international sign language–negotiation. We can ask questions, check for signs of confusion, repeat ourselves in multiple ways. More important, we have access to something that language inventors have typically disregarded or even disdained–mere conventional agreement, a shared culture in which definitions have been established by habit. It is convention that allows us to approach a Loglan level of precision in academic and scientific papers or legal documents. Of course to benefit from the precision you must be in on the conventional agreements on which those modes of communication depend. That’s why when specialists want to communicate with a general or lay audience–those who don’t know the conventions–they have to move back toward the techniques of negotiation: slowing down, answering questions, explaining terms, illustrating with examples. Convention is a faster, more efficient instrument of meaning transmission, but it comes with a cost. You have to learn the conventions. In the extreme cases this means a few years of graduate training or law school. In general it means getting experience with the way other speakers–of English, Spanish, Greenlandic Eskimo, or whatever language you’re interested in learning–use their words and phrases.

When language inventors try to bypass convention–to make a language that is self-explanatory or universal–they either make a less efficient communications tool, one that shifts too much of the burden to negotiation, like Blissymbolics, or take away too much flexibility by over-determining meaning, like Wilkins’s system did. When they try to take away culture, the place where linguistic conventions are made, they have to substitute something else–like the six-hundred-page book of rules that define Lojban, and that, to date, no human has been able to learn well enough to comfortably engage in the type of conversation that any second-semester language class should be able to handle.

There are types of communication, such as the language of music, that may allow us to access some kind of universal meaning or emotion, but give us no way to say, I left my purse in the car. There are unambiguous systems, such as computer programming languages, that allow us to instruct a machine to perform a certain task, but we must be so explicit about meanings we can normally trust to inference or common sense that it can take hours or days of programming work to achieve even the simplest results. Natural languages may be less universal than music and less precise than programming languages, but they are far more versatile, and useful in our everyday lives, than either.

Ambiguity, or fuzziness of meaning, is not a flaw of natural language but a feature that gives it flexibility and that, for whatever reason, suits our minds and the way we think. Likewise, the fact that languages depend on arbitrary convention or cultural habit is not a flaw but a feature that allows us to rein in the fuzziness by establishing agreed-upon meanings at different levels of precision. Language needs its flaws in order to do the enormous range of things we use it for.

–Arika Okrent (2009), In the Land of Invented Languages: Esperanto Rock Stars, Klingon Poets, Loglan Lovers, and the Mad Dreamers who Tried to Build a Perfect Language. ISBN 978-0-385-52788-0. 255-258.

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