Resolve to Read 2018: Books With Imaginary Languages

2018 is a year for expanding our reading horizons, and we here at the Free for All are thrilled to be bringing you suggestions and discussions based on two different reading challenges.  This week, we’re looking at Scholastic’s Reading Resolution Challenge.  It’s a challenge geared towards younger readers, but since when should that stop anyone?  Today, in fact, we’ll mix up the challenge a bit, and focus on “adult” books that fit this challenge category:

Today’s Challenge: Scholastic Reading Resolution
Category: Read a book that contains an imaginary language

Generally speaking, most books with their own invented language tend to be listed as science fiction and/or fantasy…which is not terribly surprising, all things considered.  Fans of Tolkien and George R.R. Martin will already be familiar with the languages found in Middle Earth, or Winterfell.  But whether you’re fluent in Elvish, or just looking to challenge yourself, there should be something for you on this list.  This is a selection for science fiction and fantasy fans, as well as those who don’t consider themselves genre fans.  We hope you find something here to challenge you, and are always here to help you find more!

The WakePaul Kingsnorth used crowdfunding to get his book published, and assumed it was going to be a flop.  As he told NPR“I’m writing a book about a period in history no one knows about, in a language no one can understand, with a central character who’s horrible. There’s absolutely no way anyone’s going to touch this with a bargepole, but I don’t care!”  (And well done, Mr. Kingsnorth, for loving your dream that much; we should all be so lucky).  Fortunately, however, he was proven wrong, and this book was not only a hit, but was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize.  This is the story of Buccmaster, a man whose sons are killed at the Battle of Hastings and his family and farm are destroyed by the Norman invaders, and who leads a dangerous mission of revenge on the invaders across the scorched English landscape.  The story is told in what Kingsnorth refers to as  a “shadow tongue,” a mashup of Middle English and modern-day English that reflects, fairly accurately, the language that Buccmaster might have used (had he actually lived outside the pages of this novel).  It makes the book rather slow-going at first (I suggest you try reading it out loud for a bit), but once you become accustomed to the cadence and flow of the story, it’s mesmerizing.

Cat’s Cradle: Kurt Vonnegut had long been a hero of mine for his stance on banning books, and the work that his memorial library continues to do when his books are challenged and/or banned.  But it wasn’t until long after I learned to respect Vonnegut the person that I developed a real respect for Vonnegut as a writer, but Cat’s Cradle was the book that did that for me.  This satirical comedy about the atomic age focuses on an everyman hero named John (or Jonah), who sets out to write a book about what important Americans did on the day Hiroshima was bombed. While researching this topic, John becomes involved with the children of Felix Hoenikker, a Nobel laureate physicist who helped develop the atomic bomb. John travels to Ilium, New York (fictional locale), to interview the Hoenikker children and others for his book.  Eventually, John and the Hoenikker children end up on a Caribbean island (you’ll have to read the book for the journey to make any sense, trust me), where the natives speak a remarkable and invented dialect that sounds in some ways like creole dialects spoken in the American south (for example “twinkle, twinkle, little star” is rendered “Tsvent-kiul, tsvent-kiul, lett-pool store”).  Though this language isn’t as central to the plot as Kingsnorth’s, the sense of strangeness its lends to the story, and the power it has to isolate the characters, is powerful stuff indeed.  Vonnegut is one of the few writers who could make such a black and fatalistic story genuinely funny and, somehow, strangely hopeful, too.

In the Land of Invented Languages: For those fans of non-fiction, fear not!  There are plenty of imaginary languages for you to encounter, as well, as Arika Okrent proves in this fascinating and fun book about humankind’s constant quest to build a better language. Peopled with charming eccentrics and exasperating megalomaniacs, this story covers all the quirky attempts at better and universal languages, beginning with Esperato.  But Okrent doesn’t judge by usefulness or universality.  Babm, Blissymbolics, Loglan (not to be confused with Lojban), and other invented languages that people have attempted to develop and use are discussed here.  This is a book that will remind you why language is such a miraculous, powerful thing…and may give you a few moments of laughter, as well.


Come into the Library to meet some more books with imaginary languages today!

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