>Dr. Marc Okrand. Okrand, who currently works with the National Captioning Institute on closed captioning issues, was tapped to provide a realistic-sounding language for Star Trek III, and he just kept going. Okrand is following in a long tradition, not just of real and theoretically practical languages like Fr. Johann Schleyer’s Volapük or Dr. L.L. Zamenhof‘s Esperanto, but of totally fictional inventions that linguists and the philologically inclined sometimes toss off.

Since 1992, a small band of scholars has dedicated itself to the study of an obscure language. They’ve translated Hamlet and the Bible into tlhIngan Hol, their field of study. And although the language is extinct — there are no native speakers of tlhIngan Hol — their efforts and the efforts of a few sympathizers have ensured that millions of people throughout the world have heard at least a few words of it. Documentarians have even put together a movie about their efforts. Many mainstream linguists would kill for the visibility of the brave few at the Klingon Linguistics Institute. Unless Michael Dorn knows something he’s not telling, Klingon is, of course, an artificial language, the project of Dr. Marc Okrand. Okrand, who currently works with the National Captioning Institute on closed captioning issues, was tapped to provide a realistic-sounding language for Star Trek III, and he just kept going. Okrand is following in a long tradition, not just of real and theoretically practical languages like Fr. Johann Schleyer’s Volapük or Dr. L.L. Zamenhof‘s Esperanto, but of totally fictional inventions that linguists and the philologically inclined sometimes toss off. Ron Tolkien was was a collaborator on the Oxford English Dictionary, a professor at Exeter College, Oxford, and one of his day’s foremost experts on Anglo-Saxon. He wrote one of the major critical works on "Beowulf", and the recently discovered manuscript of his translation is a very big deal. But Tolkien isn’t famous for his studies of the Jutes and their unpleasant neighbor; it’s because of the books inspired by a two lines of Old English:

Eálá Earendel engla beorhtast
Ofer middangeard monnum sended

"Hail Earendel, brightest angel / Over Middle-earth, sent to men." Middle Earth was the realm of mortals, the land between Heaven and Hell, but it clearly stirred something up in Tolkien’s mind. But he might never have been stirred to write his own epic about home and hearth and monsters, then publish it (with the full majesty of his three given names), had he not also been tinkering with Tengwar. Tengwar is, of course, "Elvish" to the layman; Tolkien was working on creating a language with its own etymology culture, a language real enough that his stories of Middle Earth would seem plausibly dropped in as a story out of the dim reaches of a racial past. Making a new alphabet (link via Teresa) is easy enough. Iain Banks did it for his Culture novels with "Marian"; Sequoyah created his Cherokee alphabet over twelve years; Brigham Young created one in the Utah desert, and for a while a newspaper was even published in Deseret. Inventing an alien thought structure is hard, one of the reasons good science fiction can be so very good and the Contact Project game remains fun reading even today. Creating an alien language is somewhere in between. Saint Hildegarde’s Lingua Ignota is the earliest recorded example, but you don’t need to be the smartest woman in the twelfth century to write a language; the phenomenon is more widespread than one would think, and the Conlang list has sprung up as a resource for those who wish to construct languages, that most impractical of pursuits:

There are two ways to look at it: conlanging, as Henning writes, may be as common and as humanly creative as any kind of model-making, i.e., dollhouses, model trains, role-playing, or even the constructed cultures with city plans and maps in fantasy novels such as Terry Pratchett’s Discworld. The Web is merely a means to bring enthusiasts together. Or it may provide a site that, with the impetus of competition and showmanship, encourages inutile and obsessive activity…. It is expected of language that it be understood and that it have not only hearers but also answerers. All human production is founded on this assumption. A language without an audience of other speakers is no language. ‘Why aren’t you concentrating on real languages?’ continues to be the most stinging criticism.

But from Elet Anta — the language of a hidden race of Goddess worshippers among the Britons — to àmman îar — "an artlang that I have been playing with off and on for nearly 30 years" — these languages are put together by people who care about words. Teonaht, the language that sparked interest in uglossia and spurred the development of the Conlang list, was developed by Prof. Sarah Higley (another scholar of Anglo-Saxon) beginning when she was nine years old. It was a language for a race of winged cats. Is it much more ridiculous than knowing the Latin for "rush hour"?

The late Vicki Fromkin was a major neurolinguist, author of (among many others) An Introduction to Language and for years dean of UCLA’s graduate program. Even she occasionally dabbled in the art of language construction. Being, however, not a blockhead (at least in Dr. Johnson’s definition of the term), she did it on spec. Vicki Fromkin was an important scholar who influenced her field and the lives and work of her colleagues, but the her lasting impression on the world at large may have been through the creation of Pakuni, the language used by the aboriginal people in Land of the Lost. Fromkin went on to create a vampiric language for the Wesley Snipes vehicle Blade; when she died in 2000, her notes were lost, leaving fellow UCLA linguists at a loss for what to do about the sequel. If there had been a Vampiric Language Institute, Fromkin’s knowledge might just have been saved.