WASHINGTON — To sign up for Italian classes because you're planning a trip to Florence, or immerse yourself in Japanese in preparation for a pilgrimage to Nara seems perfectly reasonable. But to pore over Latin books or master ancient Greek? To work at speaking Esperanto, Klingon, or Elvish like ... a native? The notion would send most people's eyebrows shooting skyward.
Yet to listen to aficionados tell it, it is the rest of us who are missing out on all the fun.
At first glance, constructed and dead languages have little in common. After all, ancient Greek and Latin evolved over centuries while constructed languages emerge full-blown. But the rewards of studying them are similar. Speakers enter a tight community with its own literature and culture, and they get to play with language the way kids tinker with Legos - endlessly forming new configurations out of the same old blocks.
"People study Klingon who'll never dream of studying a foreign language," says Lawrence Schoen, a psychology professor who seven years ago founded the Klingon Language Institute in Flourtown, Pa.
He is referring to the language Paramount Studios hired linguist Mark Okrand to create for the wrinkle-browed aliens in "Star Trek." The language assembles phonemes and grammatical devices that occur in many natural languages, making it sound vaguely familiar to everyone from Bengalis to Arabs to Canadians.
Yet there is no question that Duj tIvoqtaH ("always trust your instincts") is alien-speak. As linguist d'Armond Speers explains, every natural language abides by certain rules. You might, for example, find terms that mean green and blue (aqua). "But you'd never have orange/yellow," he says. "Klingon does. It was designed to violate language universals."
For Dr. Schoen the real fun began when an alien in the sixth "Star Trek" movie remarked that one cannot truly appreciate Shakespeare until one has read him in the Klingon original. Schoen has since helped "restore" Hamlet and explain to the world that all its un-Klingon agonizing marks it as "a seditious play." "It was banned in Klingon hinterlands," he deadpans.
If Klingon and Tolkien's Elvish create alternate realities, the majority of constructed languages seek to improve on this reality, offering easy-to-learn universal tongues. Most are written phonetically and have simple grammar. Their variety seems endless, even though most draw on English, German, and Romance languages. Since the 1600s, frustration with the divisiveness languages create has engendered more than 150 planned, universal languages, with more in the pipeline. In 1996 alone, Europanto, Latino Moderno, and Ekspreso joined a list that includes Ido, Volapuk, Glosa, Interlingua, and Lojban (see list, left).
When spoken, Europanto sounds like English and French words strung together with Latin-based verbs, while Ekspreso - la lengua por la persona en haste - has a more Spanish feel with a pinch of English.
Three years ago James Weibel, a veterinarian in Laramie, Wyo., began to study Glosa - a blend of Greek and Latin-based words invented in 1981. He loves it for its simplicity, in contrast to national languages, which he says "are getting more and more colloquial, and this is a great enemy of the adult learner."
Catherine Schulze, who teaches Esperanto in California, points out another advantage of constructed languages. "Using a national language gets you into difficulties," she says. "It can be embarrassing. We sometimes laugh at foreign people who say things that are awkward."
No such risk with Esperanto, which was created by Warsaw medical student L.L. Zamenhof in 1887 and which adds to the usual Romance mix a dash of Slavic and a pinch of Arabic, Chinese, and other languages. Today, an estimated 300,000 to more than 1 million people know Esperanto, of which some 50,000 are active members of the World Esperanto Association.
Dan Maxwell had been speaking Esperanto for 10 years when, in 1990, he met a Romanian woman at a scientific conference. But fractured French was all they could share. Then she mastered Esperanto and it was no longer a matter of mi ne komprenas, kion vi diras (I don't understand what you are saying). They are now married and living in Washington.
The payoffs are no less rewarding for students of dead languages, most of whom wanted to fill a gap in their education. "I wanted to read the New Testament in its original," says Patricia Sherwood, who three years ago enrolled in an ancient Greek class at the University of New Hampshire in Durham, N.H. "That's what started me, but by the time we were translating Homer, I found that the Greek language is just so beautiful" that she signed up as a classics major.
In the process, she has reaped unforeseen rewards. "I write a lot better now," says Mrs. Sherwood. She can also help her eight-year-old daughter understand the quirks of English. "I explain the roots of the words," she says, "and, basically, we end up talking about the history of words."
People learning a second language have found it gives them insight into their mother tongue and adds new dimensions to their lives.
A similar enrichment occurs when a child is raised in a bilingual environment, something Speers was keen to do for his son, Alex, born nearly four years ago. "I was into Klingon and really involved," he says. "I just couldn't help it." Alex may, as a result, be the earth's first native Klingon speaker.