Houman Barekat

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

‘Joyfully the hope caresses us, because the future goal becomes apparent, that the international language progresses, finding friends everywhere’. [Getty Images]

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.

The medium Hélène Smith claimed to communicate with Martians – in a language uncannily like French

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.

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