Language is one of the greatest art forms on Earth. There are thousands of spoken, written, and signed languages around the world with subcategories including regional and ethnic dialects and colloquialisms. Written words, signs, gestures, and speech constantly evolve through technology, world events, and pop culture, which is not surprising. Why? Because all systems of communication ultimately stem from something Earth’s earliest human inhabitants crafted many years ago. In other words, everything is totally made up! In fact, language is so mutable that we (the collective) have crafted fictional languages as storytelling supplements in entertainment. (In this context, a fictional language is one that’s not used in our general society to communicate. It is specifically tied to a TV/film/print story.)
Popular TV and film languages like Klingon, Atlantean, and Dothraki don’t only exist to lend further credence and believability to their respective worlds and narratives. They are methods of communication among fans, a complex subject worthy of studying and learning to further immerse yourself into a universe. But what do we gain from learning and using them? And what really goes into crafting a fictional language, anyway? Let’s get to the bottom of this enduring love for constructed language.
The Origins of Secret Speak
What’s a deep dive without a quick history lesson? Of course, it is nearly impossible to definitively pinpoint the first constructed/fictional language ever. This post is through a US American pop culture lens and surely others existed in different areas of the world. Furthermore, with zillions of books in circulation, maybe an indie author inadvertently started the trend. But, in America, the concept of taking existing languages and speech/grammar patterns and playing with them purely for entertainment isn’t anything new.
Before kids added “ay” and other suffixes/prefixes to everything for Pig Latin in the early 1900s, there was Ubbi Dubbi. The language game supposedly goes back to the 17th century and gained contemporary popularity through ’70s era shows like ZOOM and Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids. In fact, more recnet shows like The Big Bang Theory use Ubbi Dubbi. There is also Spoonerism, which swaps the first letters of words, and back slang, a language game that reverses a word altogether.
Creating Language for Fiction
One of the first languages constructed for a fictional world was by J. R. R. Tolkien. He created Elvish, a system of languages of the Elves, around 1910. The words combine Greek, Welsh, Latin, and other early Germanic languages. There are two well known subsets, Quenya and Sindarin, among others. And they carry various dialects within them. Other languages, like Watership Down‘s Lapine, the language of rabbits, were not as complete. But fans have taken those printed crumbs to create a whole cookie. Since then, we’ve gotten a trove of languages from TV and film. Some of them appear to be gibberish, like Doctor Who‘s Judoonese; however, others have enough words, syntax, and structure to be a complete language.
One of the most well-known ones is Klingon, the language of the Klingons in Star Trek that we first heard in 1979. Unlike some other languages cobbled together just enough to fit a narrative, Klingon stands as a complete language. Many have learned it via college courses, Duolingo, or through fellow fans. Marc Okrand, the man behind Klingon, later went on to create Atlantean, both in spoken and scripted form, in Disney’s Atlantis: The Lost Empire. Futurama‘s numbers-based Alienese is easy to learn and decode. And, no one can forget Na’vi from the infamous Avatar film, which we will hear more of in its long-awaited sequels.
Creating languages sounds fun, challenging, and like the coolest job on the planet, right? The answer to that question is yes according to David J. Peterson. He’s the linguistics guru who took Dothraki from George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire and brought it to stunning life in the Game of Thrones TV series. The constructed language expert is also responsible for The Witcher’s “elder speech,” the languages of Shadow and Bone, the language of Adam in Lovecraft Country, Into the Badlands, and Doctor Strange, among many other credits. So if anyone knows the keys to creating a new language, it is him.
“First, there is the sound system and how that fits together,” Peterson tells Nerdist. “Collectively, we call this the phonology. It’s the sounds in a language and how they fit themselves into syllables and what sounds come at the beginning and end of words, which ones can go together and what cannot. Then there’s grammar, which is the engine of a language. How sounds are put together to represent meaning and the way that is spread across a sentence and how it organizes itself. And then the largest component is the lexicon, which is a huge store of all the words that exist in a language. A language is those three put together along with the sociology [of its users]. What words are used in which context, what is ‘formal’ language and informal language sound like and how do those change in context.”
He further explains his last point, saying that informal language will sound different with co-workers or business associates versus what a person might use with family and friends. Peterson, who has his BA and MA in linguistics, learned about constructed languages during his undergraduate studies, co-founding the Language Creation Society in 2007. However, his journey towards becoming “the guy” Hollywood calls to whip up a believable language began in a rather unorthodox way.
HBO needed someone to further develop Dothraki and, well, he won the competition. The rest, as they say, is history. It seems creating a language would take several months if not years; however, he can get it done in a month or two… if he gets that much time. After spending 10 years creating languages alone, he now partners with fellow conlanger Jessie Sams to streamline the process. Peterson admits that it’s stressful when a production’s creative team gives him a tight window to get a language ready because it lessens time for proper documentation, which is critical with any language to mark milestones and changes.
“Language is not really a physical entity,” Peterson affirms. “Even the language we are speaking right now doesn’t exist. You cannot go into the world and ‘find’ English. It is stuff that we memorize in our heads and repeat in patterns. You can create an entire language in your head on the fly. But how much of it will you remember when you have to translate something next week? The process includes imagining it and documenting it. So when you reduce the amount of time that you get to work on it, that’s the part that takes the biggest hit. That is where you might make mistakes. When you go back to translate something, you may not remember it the exact same way. Then there’s inconsistency and that’s where [lack of] time really hurts you.”
And, in case you are wondering, he does retain some familiarity (not necessarily fluency) of the languages he’s created. So, theoretically, Peterson could hold a conversation with Khal Drogo right now.
Fandom Love for Learning Language
So, why do we love these fictional languages? And how do they benefit us as humans? There’s the obvious mystery and fun of being able to communicate without the majority of others understanding what you are saying. Within a fandom, it’s another level of commitment and camaraderie to a property, a proud badge of honor for those who love to be savant about their favorite thing. Peterson offers another perspective, saying that the insatiable need to unravel a mystery, to seek understanding of the unknown, plays into this love for new languages. This is certainly true when you look at, say, the many languages in the Star Wars universe and how some fans have taken those tidbits to craft a new language and solve the mystery themselves.
And, just like with languages we use in general society, the more languages you learn, the easier they are to learn. It’s that classic thirst for knowledge. For example, a native English speaker who studies, say, Spanish, might be able to pick up French easier because of their grammatical similarities. This happened to Peterson, whose Duolingo course helped some users in real life. He says, “There were a lot of comments where they studied High Valryian and it helped them with noun cases. And then some of them went back to study Latin and it helped them understand clearer. Engaging your language learning faculty with a constructed language is just as beneficial as with a natural language.”
In a sense, tapping into a constructed language or creating one puts us in touch with our inner child. Kids, like Peterson says, are less concerned with sounding “proper” or “smart” and more open to experimenting with things. That’s exactly why he released Create Your Own Secret Language, a book to get kids thinking about language components and creativity. It’s an introduction to a universal truth: all language is indeed “made up,” fluid, fun, and worthy of preservation. So, keep speaking in Klingon, study Dothraki, and document the shifting idiosyncrasies in the many ways we communicate and experience entertainment.