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Speak the language

Language lovers beware: Philadelphia-based author and linguistics expert Arika Okrent, PhD’04, is not your average polyglot. Forget pig latin. She knows Klingon.

Okrent traces the history of Klingon and 499 other dreamed-up languages in her book In the Land of Invented Languages that New York Times crossword editor Will Shortz describes as ’a lively, informative, insightful examination of artificial languages—who invents them, why, and why most of them fail.”

Due to the book’s popularity among the Magazine’s editors, we asked Okrent to pull together a list of some of her favorites. As they say in Esperanto, gxuu! (Enjoy!)

Ten Interesting Words from Invented Languages

Invented language: Cave Beck’s Universal Character (1657)
“hired mourners at funerals” In 1657, this concept was apparently a subject of conversation important enough to be deemed worthy of a “universal” number word.

Invented language: John Wilkins’s Philosophical Language (1668)
“shit” While this word could be translated by a common profanity in English, doing so would obscure the fact that each letter in the word refers to a conceptual category that helps lay out the “true” meaning of the word. Cepuhws is “a serous and watery purgative motion from the consistent and gross parts (from the guts downward).”

Invented language: James Ruggles’s Universal Lanugage (1829)
“179 degrees 59 minutes and 59 seconds of west longitude within one second of reaching 180 degrees west” Now that’s a word!

Invented language: Jean Sudre’s Solresol (1866)
“coffee” Solresol was based on the seven notes of the musical scale: do re mi fa sol la si. Words that are similar in meaning start with the same notes. So if you want milk and sugar with your coffee, you must also ask for dosiredo and dosifasi.

Invented language: Johann Schleyer’s Volapük (1879)
In Volapük, pük means “language.” It comes from the English word “speak” but it’s hard to tell (vol, means ”world”, so Volapük is “word language.”) Unfortunately, it looks a lot like a different English word. And even more unfortunately, it shows up in various other words related to the concept of language: püked—“sentence” and pükön—“to speak.”

Invented language: Ludwig Zamenhof’s Esperanto (1887)
“bird” Esperanto is a hybrid built from a mixture of roots from existing natural languages, but it’s predominately based on Romance languages. So when you see one of the English-based words, it stops you in your tracks, like an old friend dressed up in a disorienting costume.

Invented language: Suzette Haden Elgin’s Láadan (1984)
Láadan was a language designed to capture the unique perspective of women. This word means “non-holiday, a time allegedly a holiday but actually so much a burden because of work and preparations that it is a dreaded occasion; especially when there are too many guests and none of them help.” Tell it, Sister.

Invented language: Marc Okrand’s Klingon (1984)
A body part of some kind. Not further identified. All we know is that there is a left one.

Invented language: Logical Language Group’s Lojban (1989)
“cradle” What it really means in this language of logic is “x is a cradle made of y, holding z, rocking at speed a through positions b.”

Invented language: Sonja Elen Kisa’s Toki Pona (2001)
Toki pona is a “minimal language that focuses on the good things in life.” It has only 118 words, so words are used in multiple ways. Pona can be a verb (“improve,” “fix,” “repair,” “make good”), an adjective (“good,” “simple,” “positive,” “nice,” “correct,” “right”), a noun (“goodness,” “simplicity,” “positivity”), or an interjection (“great!”, “cool!” “yay!”). Pona!

By Arika Okrent, PhD’04, courtesy of the University of Chicago Magazine