The art of inventing a language

In one of the earliest reviews of The Lord of the Rings we can read:

“No one ever exposed the nerves and fibres of his being in order to make up a language (…) it is not only insane but unnecessary”.

Little did he (or she) know — today thousands of people spend their free time learning Sindarin or Quenya (the languages of the elves) and obsessing over the complexity and beauty of those constructed languages.

The presence of constructed languages (conlangs) is not limited to literature or movies only. In the Middle Ages, theologists attempted to recover the prelapsarian language of Adam. Later on, during the Enlightenment, many tried to invent a new, universal language that would be a better fit to describe new inventions and scientific truths, for example John Wilkins and George Dalgrano who are now considered universal language pioneers.

In the 19th century, the perspective changed — instead of a universal language people tried to invent an international one. International Auxiliary Languages (IAL) were supposed to be simple and easy to learn. Zamenhof’s Esperanto is the most known from them all (there are around 150 IALs). Somehow, after the World Wars, the idea of the globe united by a language was not appealing anymore so the focus shifted to art-langs — languages invented for cultural purposes.

The incredible J.R.R. Tolkien

Tolkien wasn’t the first author to mention conlangs (constructed languages) in his books. These appeared in literature as early as in the 16th century (Thomas Moore’s Utopia), then there was Gulliver’s Travels almost two hundred years later. However, Tolkien took conlangs to a completely new level. As a philologist himself, he had been studying Old and Middle English as well as Old Norse and he had been working on Sindarin and Quenya for almost 40 years before The Lord of the Rings was published in 1945. What took him so long you may ask…

Well, Tolkien really did want his languages to sound legit as if they were living tongues. A language, any language, doesn’t just fall from the sky. It took millennia for modern languages to develop, so Tolkien first started to work on a protolanguage called Eldarin. Then he modified the language as if it had been influenced by the society, culture and other tongues (as it happens with any real language). Quenya and Sindarin are the effects of this process. Due to his efforts the whole history of Middle Earth is so consistent, and even if the average reader can’t grasp phonological phenomena, this definitely brings some magical realism to the whole story.

Valar morghulis, valar dohaeris

(If you want to learn more about languages of Westeros, read our article here)

If you’re into fantasy/science-fiction, the chances you’ve heard a language invented by David J. Peterson are really high. He’s a person behind the Dothraki and Valyrian languages from Game of Thrones, Shiväisith from Thor: The Dark World or Nelvayu from Doctor Strange, to mention just a few.

Given the popularity of the HBO series and the books by Gorge Martin, it comes as no surprise that there are thousands of people learning Dothraki and Valyrian. Even though the author himself never developed the languages of Westeros and Essos, the authors of the show decided to bring them to life and hired David Peterson to do the job.

Just like Tolkien, Peterson takes inventing a language very seriously. He doesn’t just create some random sounds and put them together. When starting working on Dothraki, he took an anthropological approach. He studied their history, the geography of places they live, their culture, values and how their whole community works. That’s why the vocabulary of this language is similar to the Genghis Khan-era Mongolian as the lifestyles of both communities are comparable (nomadic tribes, horses play a huge role in their lives). That’s also why you can’t find words for hello, democracy or throne in Dothraki — those concepts simply don’t exist in their world.

nuqDaq ‘oH puchpa”e’ *

Klingons might not exist but their language is real. An alien race of Star Trek speaks a fully developed language with its own vocabulary, grammar, slang and regional dialects. Klingon can definitely be called a pop culture phenomenon — there is even the Klingon Language Institute and the first edition of the Klingon Dictionary was sold in 300,000 copies as early as in 1985. Several Shakespeare’s plays have been translated into this language and there’s even an original opera written in Klingon. The author of the language, Marc Okrand, based it on grammar rules and sounds that appear in some human languages, yet there is much more complexity added to it. What is more, as an alien language, it lacks words for earthly concepts. For example, to say hello you have to use the Klingon equivalent for What do you want?.

*the tile of this paragraph means Where is the bathroom?

Inventing a language is not easy but don’t worry — Tolkien comes to the rescue. He came up with three rules for inventing a language and it seems that modern creators still follow them:

  1. The invented names should be all consistent and coherent. They should primarily fit the nature of people or creatures speaking it.
  2. Vocabulary is just a part of it. Grammatical structures should be written down and implemented.
  3. Most importantly, the conlang should be a vital part of myth-making. He said: Your language construction will breed a mythology.



Related Posts

Summa Linguae uses cookies to allow us to better understand how the site is used. By continuing to use this site, you consent to this policy.

Learn More