Arika Okrent, PhD’04 (Psychology and Linguistics), owes her writing career to procrastination. When she was supposed to be working on her dissertation on irregular verbs, she found herself browsing the Regenstein’s collection of books on artificial languages. She was so curious, she ended up writing a book, In the Land of Invented Languages: Esperanto Rock Stars, Klingon Poets, Loglan Lovers, and the Mad Dreamers Who Tried to Build a Perfect Language (Spiegel & Grau, 2009). She never went on the academic job market.

Since 2012 Okrent has been a regular contributor to the publication Mental Floss. Her short pieces are compellingly clickable: “The Grammar Rules of 3 Commonly Disparaged Dialects,” “The Signed Lingua Franca That Once Spanned North America,” and “Why Do We Use the Same Voice to Talk to Babies and Dogs?”

In 2015 Okrent began making videos for Mental Floss in collaboration with illustrator Sean O’Neill: “Why Do We Have Irregular Verbs?” “How Do We Know Languages Are Related?” “Octopi, Platypi, Walri, Oh My!” and more. Last year she won the Linguistics Journalism Award from the Linguistic Society of America for work that “reflects accuracy and timeliness … but is also appealing to nonspecialist audiences.”

You just happened upon the artificial languages books?

Yeah. It’s rather amazing that the University of Chicago Library had so many. These are the kind of books that language inventors send to every library in the world, every government office in the world, hoping to get some kind of traction. Most institutions get rid of them.

The invented languages book is how I got started as a writer. I hadn’t published anything before. I went to an Esperanto congress at MIT. I took notes and interviewed people, approximating being a reporter. That turned into article in the American Scholar. Then I went to a Klingon conference and that became another article. Then it turned into the book.

What were the really big surprises of the book?

How many languages there were. People came up with this idea to invent a language over and over again through history, but when they did it was informed by the preoccupations of the time. So in the seventeenth century it was rational languages [such as John Wilkins’ Philosophical Language]. Then came the international Esperanto languages, and now the purely creative, imagined-world languages.

Do you have a new book project?

I come up with things, then discard them. One that I’ve been trying to make happen for a while is on inner speech. Is it actually language, is it thought, or is between language and thought? How linguistic is it?

I found out not everyone has this. I definitely have language in my head. Some people say they don’t. They have more imagistic or visual ways of thinking.

Artist Sean O’Neill works with Okrent to create videos like “Why is English spelling so weird?” Which of your Mental Floss pieces are you most proud of? 

The ones where I try to condense something complicated and hard. For example, “How do we know how languages are related?” This was a five-minute explanation of historical linguistics.

“Why Is English Spelling So Weird?” was one of the first videos I did. I thought it was going to be easy. It was actually pretty difficult. I’ve learned so much about historical linguistics and etymology, things I didn’t study in my graduate program.

Does writing for the internet shape what you do?

You know how successful any particular thing is. You can see how many likes, how many shares, how many comments. That starts to drive you.

I could do so well with “Things You’re Doing Wrong with Language.” Any list that’s “Top 10 Horrible Mistakes People Make and You Should Know About” will do great. But I don’t like language shaming, plus most of those articles are wrong.

I’m not interested in punctuation. I will do the odd Oxford comma article once in a while. 

Speaking of Oxford commas, are you pro or con? 

That’s what I try to avoid. The most recent video about commas was “5 Comma Types that Could Make or Break a Sentence.” One of them is the Oxford comma. Why do people pay so much attention to that one?

That’s my antireaction to the surefire reaction. Punctuation is very big, especially if it can break you into warring camps.

Do you come up with all of the topics yourself? 

Yeah. Sometimes one of my kids asks me a question. “Why does Mrs. have an ‘r’ in it?” Then I’ll go find out. 

My skill is not that I know everything about languages. I know where to find out and how to find out, and how to avoid pitfalls.

You have a master’s from Gallaudet University, historically a school for the deaf. What was that like?

All the classes in the linguistics department were taught in ASL. I had enough to get by. But I wasn’t really good at it. I prided myself at being good at languages up to that point. That was a humbling experience. The switch to a visual modality made a difference for me. 

Why do academics use language in a way that’s so impenetrable to outsiders?

It’s shorthand. You can either spend six sentences explaining precisely what you mean, or you can use a term that’s shared in our group. It’s not obtuse if you’re in the group.

Writing about linguistics, it would be so easy for me to say “phoneme.” We all know what a phoneme is in linguistics, but the average person doesn’t. Usually I say something like, “speech sound.” I do often long to use the jargon, because it’s clear what it means.

 
Photo Creds: 
Lawrence Okrent

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