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Imaginary Languages

Imaginary Languages

by Marina Yaguello


430 reads

A Waste of Time

A universal language will always be an unattainable dream. For centuries, idealists and crackpots tried to invent a global tongue, but even Esperanto never took off. Marina Yaguello explains why.

The comedian Sacha Baron Cohen, in his stage pe...

Throughout history, however, a motley array of eccentrics has done just this, and received a fair bit of attention.

Originally published in 1984 but only now translated into English, Marina Yaguello’s fascinating survey of constructed languages revisits the history of two distinct but inter...

You don’t have to be mentally disturbed to invent a language, but it helps: glosso-maniacs, paranoiacs and megalomaniacs are well represented in this pantheon.

Yaguello’s archetypal innovator is a tragicomic obsessive reminiscent of Edward Casaubon in George Eliot’s Middlemarch:


Cranks and fantasists abound. The 12th-century abbess Hildegard of Bingen, inventor of the earliest known artificial language, lingua ignota, claimed it came to her in a divine vision.

One of several amusing tidbits in Imaginary Languages involves the 19th-century Swiss medium Hélène Smith...

 Its lexicon was more clipped and its syntax deliberately mangled so as not to resemble French. These endeavours took on a political dimension in the modern era.

Utopians of the late 19th and early 20th centuries — among them L.L. Zamenhof, the inventor of Esperanto — believed a universal ...

The chimera of a universal language could also be enlisted for reactionary ends, as demonstrated by the career of the Georgian-born Soviet philologist Nikolai Marr.

He peddled a vulgar Marxist theory that language is a superstructure mirroring society’s economic base, and the unification o...

Some very fine imaginary languages are to be found in works of fiction. The people in Thomas More’s Utopia (1516) speak a blend of Greek and Persian called — imaginatively — Utopian; in Francis Godwin’s Man in the Moone (1638), a lunar-dwelling population communicate via a musical language in whi...

------->the Newspeak in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) is probably the best known fictional example of a ‘philosophical language’ — one specifically designed to demarcate the boundaries of acceptable thought.

Yaguello, a professor of linguistics at the University of Paris VII, ...

She highlights the excessive schematism of Volapük, a would-be universal language devised by a German Catholic priest in 1879, which ‘contains moods not often found in world languages — for example, the operative and dubitative’.

It’s no coincidence that the most enduring constructed langu...

 ------>i t is in the nature of language to resist such limitations. Flexibility and mutability are essential; flux is a feature, not a bug.

‘A universal language,’ writes Yaguello, ‘is as impossible as perpetual motion.’ But when did futility ever get in the way of a good idea? The catalog...

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