brigades, and the promotion of his language, Communicationssprache. He asked only that the duchy take on the cost of printing his Communicationssprache grammar and that any profits received from sales of the booklet go to aid the distressed people in France who had recently been afflicted by a major flooding of the Rhone.

His requests were not granted, and in a subsequent letter he asked instead for a loan with which he might pay off the printing costs he had already incurred. He promised to repay the loan once he received an expected pension from Prague. Or, should his request be denied, he had a couple of oil paintings to sell, if anyone was interested.

The lot of the language inventor was almost always a hard one, and those who set out with the most confidence invariably ended up full of bitterness. Ben Prist, the Australian creator of Vela (1995), simply could not understand why his language was being ignored, and blamed some kind of anti-Australian conspiracy. “Why aren’t we allowed to have the easiest language possible?” he complains. “A child can go to a library and pick-up a book on pornography. Why can’t a grown-up person pick-up a book on the easiest language possible? Is this democracy? Is this human? Where are our human rights?” He has no doubt that his work is an unrecognized masterpiece for which he has become a persecuted martyr. “What is going to be prohibited next: best soup, best cakes, best clothes, best cars, or what?”

It was this overblown ridiculousness that first attracted me to the artificial-language section of the library. It was entertaining to read the unreasonable boasts, like “Mondea! The New World Language! Unequalled! Unsurpassable! New system easy to learn in one minute!” and “In a few years, we will all use Ehmay Ghee Chah … the greatest boon of the twenty-first century.”

But it was curiosity about the authors of these projects that kept me there. Why did people invest so much effort in this pursuit? What made them think they could succeed? Who were these inventors? They usually provided very little information about themselves in their books, but I gleaned what I could from the way they presented their languages. Early in my wanderings through the invented-languages section of the library, I became particularly absorbed in the backstory alluded to by Fuishiki Okamoto, who in 1962, when he was seventy-seven years old, published a description of Babm, a “man-made language” for the “future World Society” and also “a theoretical system of the supreme good, which is assured by my philosophical Learning of Knowledge (not yet translated into English).” Since it is designed to be used easily by everyone from “the natives in the Himalayas” to “the inlanders of African ravines,” Babm is “planned most simply but perfectly.” Really? Here’s an example:

V pajio ci htaj, lrid cga coig pegayx pe bamb ak cop pbagt.


It means:

“I am reading this book, which is very interestingly written in Babm by a predominant scholar.”


More is revealed by the translation of his sentence than by the sentence itself. It shows something of his human yearnings. That he hopes to be found interesting. That he hopes to be considered a predominant scholar, and that perhaps he hopes that other predominant scholars will one day use his language. He does seem quite sure that “many experts in Babm are expected to appear one after another, who will present abundant and excellent examples of literary works.”

He is, of course, gravely mistaken.

But why? Why does this enterprise seem doomed to fail? After all, what do people do when they identify a problem with an existing tool? They try to invent a better one. Is it so crazy to apply this impulse to language? Hundreds of years ago dreamy souls were ridiculed for drawing up plans for vehicles that could travel underwater or fly to the moon. They have since been vindicated. But it’s also been hundreds of years since less dreamy, sometimes quite respected souls started drawing up plans for a better language. They and their successors are still ridiculed—if anyone has heard of them at all.

Maybe they deserve it. There is no shortage of arrogance or foolishness in the history of language invention. But after reading into the story of Mr. Okamoto and his beloved Babm, I didn’t feel much like ridiculing him. Of his own life he says little beyond that he was “born an extremely weak baby in the most miserable of circumstances,” but he unwittingly reveals more in the sentences he uses to illustrate the rules of his language:

V kog cald mtk, lrek deg cjobco ca mnom.

“I hope for an important matter, which is the consummation of the whole of humankind.”

V kij kdopakd aj modk.

“I choose a healthful meal rather than a delicious one.”

Sasn muq in ve hejp.

“No money is in my pocket.”

Vli cqeo.

“I have nothing of myself.”

Ox udek pbot.

“He does not carry out his original mission.”

Y uhqck V.

“I request you not to reproach me.”

Dedh cjis beg kobp.

“Time causes youth to be old.”


It seemed as if he had suffered enough. And he had worked so hard. “In spite of the fact that my physical body has so much weakened so that even walking annoys me,” he writes, “I am every day engaging in theoretical writings and compositions of Babm without even one holiday all the year round, from the early dawn of morning till the dark of evening.” He made me feel guilty. I had been born a strong baby in good circumstances, and yet here I was, lazing the day away, producing nothing but new procrastination strategies, and here was Mr. Okamoto, his body aching, his meals non-delicious, working all day every day to produce this book. He deserved a little respect for that, I thought.

Didn’t they all? Didn’t their hard work deserve at least a look? As I started piecing together the history of invented languages, I discovered amazing feats of work ethic that made me wish I could muster that kind of productive dedication. Of course, my respect was tried by the nutty claims made about these languages: It can be learned in twenty minutes! It can express anything you wish to say with a vocabulary of only fifty items! It is logically perfect! It will make you think more clearly! It will reveal the Truth! (And variations on these themes.) I didn’t have to believe these claims, but I thought it was only fair to at least test them for myself.

And so I entered the land of invented languages. I read the books and made a sincere attempt to learn the languages. I studied example texts line by line to figure out how the rules worked. I scoured vocabulary lists and composed translations. I dug up information on the lives of the inventors and got drawn in by their hopes and struggles. My journey also took me beyond the land of books, to gatherings of Esperantists, Lojbanists, and Klingonists, where I witnessed (and participated in) the unexpected phenomenon of invented languages brought to

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