By Marc van Oostendorp
Not so long ago I hacked languages instead of painting applications, and I cannot, in fact, promise that I’ll never hack languages again. And not programming languages, but human languages. I’ve invented quite a few languages for my invented world, the setting of two novels that I’m trying
to sell. I’ve had the languages bug since I first discovered that our school grammar of French wasn’t all that well laid out and could be improved upon. Later I learned about Tolkien, about Roland Tweehuysen (but not Mark Okrand — I never was a trekkie). I joined a club of people interested in designing imaginary countries, worlds and languages.
And then, one day, I found myself studying Sinology in Leyden, and still hacking away on Denden. I was outed (hacking languages was decidedly uncool in those days) and one day a journo from the Leyden University rag, Mare, asked me whether I wanted to tell something about this weirdo hobby, inventing languages. I pliantly complied, something I’d never do nowadays.
I said I invented languages for fun, because it was a creative endeavor, and also because playing with languages helped me understand how languages work, which came in handy, since I wanted to go on and study comparative linguistics of the Sino-Tibetan languages. And then the dreaded Esperanto questions was posed.
“Why invent another invented language if there was already Esperanto?”
I answered I invented languages for aesthetic enjoyment, not to improve the world and bring brotherhood to all mankind. Besides, Esperanto, I said, is boring, staid and ugly. I’d learned it, but not enjoyed it.
I shouldn’t have said that. There was one Esperantist left in Leyden, and he tried to start a polemic. Now I wasn’t, in those pre-Usenet, pre-blogosphere days, as experienced in the noble art of flame-warfare, so I answered back, and when he answered back again, I shrugged and
considered that in order to be an Esperantist you needed to have a really powerful reality-distortion field and ignored him from that moment on.
And I may be very much mistaken, I won’t say I’m not, but in the haze recesses of my memory the name “Marc van Oostendorp” rings a bell. Was he my opponent in Mare? The author of the book under consideration — a birthday present given me by Irina — is about the right age, and he’s an Esperantist. He’s now a researcher with the P.J. Meertens Instituut, learned Esperanto as a child and was the first Dutch professor in Interlinguistics (whatever that may be) and Esperanto at the University of Amsterdam. It may be him, and, if so, he’s done better out of linguistics than me.
Anyway, this book is perhaps written in a style that most closely resembles a high school essay, something a lot of semi-popular science books in Dutch suffer from, but it’s full of diverting anecdote and little bits of knowledge that I didn’t know previously. I’m still not tempted to drop Greek and start boning up on Esperanto, though. Esperanto is still a boring language.
PS: I even went as far as writing a complete linguistic description application that kind of fused my need for research in Sino-Tibetan languages from Nepal and my fictional linguistics. It’s now maintained by Peter Bouda, and available at Institut für Allgemeine und Typologische Sprachwissenschaft in München. [ETA: link gone. Bummer.]