My maternal grandfather spoke Scottish Gaelic; it was his first and his preferred language. He’d sit on his sunporch with a few friends (including my paternal grandfather) and construct Gaelic words for modern devices that weren’t in Gaelic dictionaries. And he maintained that Gaelic was the language spoken in the Garden of Eden.
I’ve always wished that I could could speak it. Gaelic could be a bridge not only to the past but to a culture I know little about. The reality for me, though, is that I don’t have that bridge and am not likely to work at constructing it. The few phrases I can muster, the little I can comprehend, are like pieces of board that get me across a few gaps.
Yes, I could take online courses, or turn to groups like An Comunn Gàidhealach Ameireaganach (the Gaelic Society of America), where I found a lively discussion about teaching Gaelic on LiveMocha.
The fact is, though, that I don’t have time or energy to get to a level of Gaelic proficiency that would satisfy me. “Speaking Gaelic,” for me, is shorthand for a warren of skills. I’m pretty good at English; I’ve got some ability in French. If I were to start another language, I’d want to be able to read it, at least at newspaper level, and to hold conversations in it like conversations I’d want to have in English. I’m much likelier to try that for Spanish–though the idea of Chinese intrigues me.
All of which has to do with individual goals and definitions of “learning a language.” One person might be happy simply to read, and have no concern about speaking. As Henry Beard noted, nulli adsunt Romanorum qui locutionem tuam corrigant (there aren’t any Romans around to correct your pronunciation).
At first glance, the goal of “learning a language” seems obvious–but when you poke a bit, you uncover all kinds of reasons, from getting into grad school to picking up romantic partners. And, of course, languages are messy.
One reason for that mess, says Arika Okrent, is that nobody invented human languages. They weren’t designed (much to the dismay of the Language Police). As she asks, “Who invented French?”
A linguist, Okrent recently published the strangely fascinating In the Land of Invented Languages. She’s studied a daunting number of languages deliberated created, of which Esperanto and Klingon are perhaps the most widely know… or spoken.
I think of learning as that which you’ve stored, retrieved, and then applied to some situation. You recognize a spot on the map as France. You’ve noticed that the slogans on the Olympic ice (with glowing hearts / des plus brillants exploits) aren’t the same idea at all. You’ve said something spontaneously and correctly in another language.
Okrent notes that Esperantists “are motivated by the goal of fostering peace by bridging language barriers.” For them, Esperanto is a means to an end. They enjoy their language (they even have rock songs in it), but they’re confused by the complete lack of purpose for Klingon.
In part, she suggests, that’s because the goal of the Klingon speakers is so different from that of the Esperantists.
Klington is a type of puzzle that appeals to a type of person. It is difficult, but not impossible, formed from the stuff of real language, just strange enough, just believable enough, small enough that you can know every word, the entire canon, but flexible enough to lend itself to the challenge of translation…
What are Klingon speakers doing? They are engaging in intellectually stimulating language play. They are enjoying themselves. They are doing language for language’s sake, art for art’s sake, and like all committed artists, they will do their thing, critics be damned.
CC-licensed bridge image adapted from a photo by Unwrite These Pages / Jared Winkel.