Constructed languages come in many shapes and sizes. There are International Auxiliary Languages, which aim to enable communication between people who have no common language; and there are constructed fictional languages, which increasingly populate movies and TV, adding extra layers of realism to fantasy realms.
Children will often experiment with secret forms of communications between one another, inventing private languages––idioglossia––usually with the intention of strengthening friendship bonds between selected individuals and, at the same time, excluding others.
But who goes on to invent constructed languages as an adult?
A conlanger. That’s who.
Conlangers invent constructed languages. And they are a rarefied breed. It takes a particular mindset to consciously devise new grammars, phonologies and vocabularies. The number of people in the world who earn a living as a conlanger are as few and far between as examples of h-dropping in Received Pronunciation.
But while conlangers remain rare, the number of conlang speakers is growing.
International Auxiliary Languages
Of all the International Auxiliary Languages (IAL), Esperanto is the best known and most widely spoken.
Esperanto was created in 1887 by Polish ophthalmologist L. L. Zamenhof as a unifying second language of peace for the world. Although not universally adopted, the advent of the Internet has helped to boost Esperanto’s status, to the extent that it now has roughly two million speakers globally, including a small number of native speakers.
In recent times, IALs have been developed as a potential machine interlingua to aid communication between humans and artificial intelligence, of which Lojban is a notable example.
J. R. R. Tolkien
More famous as the author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy, J. R. R. Tolkien was also a philologist and the creator of numerous constructed languages, a subject he lectured on in 1931 under the title A Secret Vice.
Tolkien’s most elaborate constructions are his Elvish family of languages, of which Sindarin and Quenya are the most well-known, and which display influences from Welsh and Finnish respectively.
Nadsat and Newspeak
Two other authors who have dipped their toes into the contentious consonants of conlanging are Anthony Burgess and George Orwell, when they invented new languages to add authenticity to their freshly-visualised dystopian worlds.
Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange sees Alex, the novel’s protagonist, speaking in Nadsat and, by so doing, identifying himself with an exclusive teenage subculture, not dissimilar to modern street gang slang.
Like Tolkien, Burgess was a linguist, and Nadsat draws heavily on his knowledge of Russian, creating a hybrid of loan-words and cross-language homophones.
Newspeak is the fictional language of Oceania in George Orwell’s classic novel Nineteen Eighty-Four.
English forms the basis of Newspeak, although the vocabulary is typically contracted and then recombined to form a wealth of new portmanteau words, which are designed to limit the freedom of thought in Orwell’s oppressive totalitarian state.
From Pakuni to Dothraki
The need for greater sophistication in constructing artificial languages has arisen where fictional texts have been translated to the cinema and TV screen.
The 1974 TV series Land of the Lost saw the first example of a fully realised on-screen fictional language with the Pakuni language, which was created by UCLA linguist Victoria Fromkin and contained a vocabulary of 300 words.
Since then, fictional languages have become more sophisticated, as witnessed by the Klingon language spoken in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock; Huttese in several Star Wars films; Na’vi in Avatar; and Barsoomian in John Carter.
One of the most celebrated current conlangers, David J. Peterson, is responsible for the Dothraki and Valyrian languages in Game of Thrones. Building on an initial vocabulary based on the original series of fantasy novels by George R. R. Martin, Peterson’s Dothraki now comprises over 3000 words and has clearly established rules for parts of speech and word order.
Perhaps more than any other movie, the film that has most thoroughly explored the idea of new languages is Arrival. The premise of the film is how to communicate with an extra-terrestrial intelligence, newly arrived on earth.
A team of linguists from McGill University were employed to create a complicated alien visual language for the movie, which could be authentically interpreted by both humans and 30-foot high, ink-spraying heptapods.
The producers of recent Marvel Universe film, Black Panther, have taken a different approach when faced with the problem of constructing a language for the inhabitants of the fictional country of Wakanda. Instead of attempting to construct a brand-new language, they have simply borrowed an existing one.
The language of Wakanda in the movie is actually isiXhosa, a language of southern Africa, spoken as a first language by around 8 million people.
Find out more
- Learn an African language at SOAS
- Discover the SOAS Language Centre
- Study Linguistics as SOAS
- SOAS World Language Institute
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