the end of the summer. I wanted to be prepared, and so I arranged to meet with Mark.

For our first meeting Mark showed up in a T-shirt with the International Phonetic Alphabet printed on it, and I soon discovered that all his T-shirts were a form of self-expression. In fact, everything he owns somehow advertises his interests to the world. On his minivan he has a KLI license plate holder and an LNX sticker (proclaiming himself a user of the Linux operating system). On the vest he wears most days, he displays his three Klingon certification pins; membership pins for the Dozenal Society (“they advocate switching to a base 12 system from the base 10 system we use for numbering”), Mensa (“it’s a way for insecure people to feel better about themselves”), and the Triple Nine Society (“a more extreme kind of Mensa”); and a button he made that says “If you can read this you are standing too close” in Braille.

I usually met with Mark at a kosher pizza place. He’s an Orthodox Jew who follows all the rules, but jokes that he would be an atheist “if I weren’t such a scaredy-cat.” He is slender and jittery, one knee constantly bouncing as he talks in a speedy patter. His eyes convey both friendliness and sadness, as if he hopes you will like him but wouldn’t be surprised if you punched him. He never finished his Ph.D. in computer science, and he has had trouble holding down a job, to which he credits his attention deficit disorder (“It’s not an excuse; it’s an explanation”). He cares for his children while his wife, a physician, works, and he teaches computer programming part-time at a yeshiva in Newark. While many bright people like Mark tend to blame the world for not rewarding them more heartily for their smarts, he accepts his own responsibility in the matter. He knows a lot, but not much of it is career making. He is, as he might put it, a polymath of esoterica. His other interests include knot making, typography, mathematical knitting, and calendrical systems. We flew to Phoenix together, and when the plane took off, he pulled a book out of his duffel bag titled Science from Your Airplane Window.

Mark is an extreme case of the Klingon-speaker type—a computer guy with an interest in languages and a slightly hurt pride in his status as an outsider. He doesn’t fear being called a geek, even by the geekiest, because what is happening with Klingon is just too damn interesting. “So-called normal society,” Mark says, “spends all these resources figuring out new and exciting ways to drape cloth on our bodies. What’s so bad about having fun with this little language?” While his life has been marked by some unpleasant run-ins with so-called normal society, he has no desire to appease it. The part of the qep’a' he was most looking forward to was going out to restaurants with the participants (some in costume), speaking Klingon, and “scaring the mundanes.”

I wasn’t looking forward to that as much. Not as brave as Mark, and probably more of a mundane myself, I felt conflicted about whether to call the conference hotel to request the special conference rate. In order to do this, I would have to, as the registration materials stated, identify myself as a conference attendee. I rehearsed in my head: “Hi, I’m with the Klingon conference …” I tried to get up the nerve to call, but in the end I reserved my room online from a comfortable cushion of anonymity.

And then I got to work on my verb charts and lists of affixes. I needed to study in order to pass the first language certification exam. The Klingon Language Institute, what you might call the academy of the Klingon language, runs the qep’a' and also administers the Klingon Language Certification Program. Passing the first certification exam earns you a bronze pin and the title of taghwI' (beginner). The second test confers a silver pin and the title ghojwI' (intermediate), and the third test earns a gold pin and the title po’wI' (advanced).

I didn’t know about the tests until Mark told me. I had been casually studying the Klingon dictionary, intending to familiarize myself with the grammar from a clinical distance. But the idea of a test stirred something in me. A feeling every school-loving egghead who ever got a secret thrill from a spelling quiz knows. I was going to take that test and pass it. To get ready, I began the KLI’s online postal course. I completed the first lesson and e- mailed it in. It came back with the words that sealed my fate: “Perfect—first time I’ve seen someone get every question right. Keep it up!” I felt the drug of overachievement rush through my veins. I didn’t want to pass that test anymore. I wanted to ace it.

A History of Failure

I did take the test, and (I’m rather proud to say) I did ace it. That achievement, however, is not the beginning of the story I wish to tell with this book, but the end of it. The true significance of what I saw and participated in at the conference, the lessons the Klingon phenomenon can teach us about how language does and doesn’t work (trust me on this), can be fully appreciated only in the context of the long, strange history of language invention, a history that encompasses more than nine hundred languages created over the last nine hundred years, a history of human ambition, ingenuity, and struggle that, in a way, culminates with Klingon. You can get a brief overview of this history in appendix A, where I have provided a list of five hundred of these languages.

The earliest documented invented language is the Lingua Ignota of Hildegard von Bingen, a twelfth- century German nun. Scholars have long puzzled over the purpose of this language, presented in a manuscript as a list of about a thousand words, with Latin and German translations. Because Hildegard was known to experience visions, which she recorded in theological texts, it has been assumed that her Lingua Ignota was some type of glossolalia, or “speaking in tongues.” But the product of glossolalia tends to be a string of repetitious nonsense, without system or organization, and without any sign of deliberate planning. Though Hildegard’s language may have been motivated by some kind of divine inspiration, the fact that it was written down, with the words carefully organized into meaningful categories and with some structural relationships between words indicated by endings, makes it look more like the intentional work of an inventor with a plan than the channelings of a spiritual medium.

The purpose of Hildegard’s language may be lost to history, but through the chancy luck of document preservation the language survives. How many others were not so lucky? The nine hundred languages, over nine hundred years, we do have evidence for suggest that the urge to invent languages is as old and persistent as language itself.

It is at least as old and persistent as the urge to complain about language. The primary motivation for inventing a new language has been to improve upon natural language, to eliminate its design flaws, or rather the flaws it has developed for lack of conscious design. Looked at from an engineering perspective, language is kind of a disaster. We have words that mean more than one thing, meanings that have more than one word for them, and some things we’d like to say that, no matter how hard we struggle, seem impossible to put into words. We have irregular verbs, idioms, and exceptions to every grammatical rule—all of which make languages unnecessarily hard to learn. We misunderstand each other all the time; our messages are ambiguous despite our best efforts to be clear. Most of us are content to live with these problems, but over the centuries a bold idea has bloomed again and again in the minds of those who think these problems can be solved: Why not build a better language?

The history of invented languages is, for the most part, a history of failure. Many of the languages involved years of work and sacrifice. They were fueled by vain dreams of fame and recognition, or by humble hopes that the world could be made a better place through language, or, most often, by a combination of the two.

Language inventors, it hardly needs to be said, have usually been eccentric types. Often a plan for an improved language was not the only, or the most unusual, idea an inventor pursued. Paulin Gagne, the creator of Monopanglosse (1858), was well-known in Paris for, among other things, proposing that the French help out the famine-struck Algerians by donating their own bodies for food (or just an arm or leg, if one preferred not to die for the cause). Joseph Schipfer, who presented his Communicationssprache in 1839, when he was nearly eighty years old, also worked to promote his idea for preventing people from being accidentally buried alive (a common concern in the nineteenth century). Schipfer had been a relatively prosperous landowner in the German town of Niederwalluf who served on a state government council for a time. He moved among nobles and acted as an adviser to the prince of Salm-Salm. But by 1830 his fortunes had changed and he had somehow lost his estate. He continued to work, as he said, “for the general welfare of mankind,” by petitioning government officials to consider his proposals for the prevention of premature burial, the establishment of mortuaries in small villages, the improvement of fire

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