The comedian Sacha Baron Cohen, in his stage persona as the dim-witted interviewer Ali G, once asked Noam Chomsky if a person could simply invent a new language from scratch. The renowned linguist gave him short shrift: ‘You can do it if you like and nobody would pay the slightest attention to you because it would just be a waste of time.’ 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 interlinked – and equally fanciful – intellectual projects: the attempt to retrace the origins of all world languages to a single primordial tongue; and the dream of constructing a universal language that would eventually supplant all others.
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:
We can picture the logophile in a study crammed with books; all around lie vast quantities of information yet to be collated, classified, listed and indexed on countless tables and cards. A delirium of naming, taxonomical madness, has seized this solitary figure…
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, who purported to communicate with Martians during her seances.