How do you invent a language?

March 24th marks the birth anniversary of Dario Fo, an Italian actor, playwright, comedian, singer, theatre director, songwriter, painter, and political campaigner known to the world for his Nobel prize-winning play “Mistero Buffo”. The play, staged in 1969, is a series of monologues drawn from the Biblical apocrypha, Italian folk tales and the Commedia dell’Arte. One of the most peculiar features of the “Mistero Buffo” is the language in which it is performed, Grammelot. This constructed language, which goes back before the 1500s, comprises of dialects of the Po river valley, invented words which emulate stereotypical sounds of different foreign languages and gestures which assume a critical role in the spectator understanding of the play.

On the occasion of Dario Fo’s birth anniversary, let’s take a look at other artificial or constructed languages.

Esperanto

Esperanto is the most widely spoken artificial language in the world with approximately 2 million speakers worldwide. It was created in 1887 by the Polish-Jewish ophthalmologist Ludwik Lejzer Zamenhof with the objectives to make the study of a language as easy as possible and to make communication easy between people from different countries and cultures.

Source: Yayesperanto (Pinterest)

Fun fact: In the Charlie Chaplin movie “The Great Dictator”, the shop signs in the Jewish ghetto are written in Esperanto.

Klingon (tlhIngan Hol)
The Klingon language was originally developed by Dr. Marc Okrand for the American movie and TV series Star Trek. As per the Klingon Language Institute website, although Klingons have never existed, the language has been developed from gibberish to a proper tongue with its own writing system, grammar, vocabulary, figures of speech and regional dialects. A Klingon version of “A Christmas Carol” (tlhIngan ram nI’ bom) was premiered in 2007 in Minnesota.

Fun fact: Dr. d’Armond Speers, a Klingon speaker, raised his son Alec to speak Klingon as a first language. After his fifth birthday, though, Alec stopped responding to his father in Klingon.

Toki Pona

Toki Pona was invented in 2001 by Sonja Elen Kisa, a Toronto-based translator and linguist. This is possibly the world’s smallest language, with only little more than 100 words and 14 letters. With such a small basic vocabulary, a lot of words are created as compound words, for example “purple” would be translated as “laso (blue) loje (red)”. Toki Pona mainly borrows from European languages such as English, Finnish, and Dutch, but also from Chinese, Acadian French and Tok Pisin.

Fun fact: The creation of compound words in Toki Pona is quite subjective and entirely depends on the individual perception and different situations. For example, the term “car” could be translated as:

tomo   tawa

     (indoor space)  +  (moving)

if you mean it like a space used for movements

or

kiwen utala

(hard object, metal)  +  (struggle against)

if you’re struck by a car (in this case, it is a hard object that’s hitting you).

Dothraki

This artificial language was created by the linguist David J. Peterson for the TV series “Game of Thrones”, the adaptation of George R. R. Martin’s novel “A Song of Ice and Fire”. The language is based on the words and phrases in Martin’s book but also on borrowed words from Turkish, Russian, Estonian, Inuktitut and Swahili. It took four years for Peterson to develop this language, which has its own alphabet, grammar and specific word order. It was Peterson who decided that there would be no word in Dothraki for “please” or “thank you”, but there would be seven different words to translate “striking someone with a sword”. Image source: Quickmeme

Fun fact: In 2014, 368 new born girls in the United States were named “Khaleesi”, which is the Dothraki word for “wife of a khal” or ruler.

 

Nadsat

Nadsat is not exactly an artificial language, but more of a slang or jargon used by Alex and his droogs in Anthony Burgess’s novel “A Clockwork Orange”. The language is a mix of English and Russian. The term “Nadsat” (надцать) itself is a suffix for numerals from 11 to 19 which can be considered the parallel of the English “-teen”. Apart from using the English transliteration of Russian words, Burgess also made use of homophones. For examples, in the novel, the term “head” is often referred to as “Gulliver” (as in the book “Gulliver’s Travels”) which is a homophone of the Russian term for head, “глава” (to be read as “golova”).Image source: Google

Fun fact: In the Russian translation of the novel, most of the Russian-borrowed terms are retained in their English transliteration.

In the past, people have created artificial or constructed languages with the main objective of making communication easier and break the language barriers between people speaking different languages. Of all the languages mentioned in this article, Esperanto seems to be the best example. However, Grammelot too was initially developed with this objective; jesters travelling from one end to the other of Medieval Europe, who could not speak all the languages of the countries they visited, created a language made of onomatopoeic sounds, gestures and words which simulate the stereotypical sounds of those foreign languages, so that everybody would understand and enjoy their performances. In the last couple of centuries, however, the so called “artlang” or artistic languages began to arise. This particular type of artificial languages generally serves aesthetic or artistic purposes and includes Klingon, Dothraki, Nadsat, but also Na’vi (from the movie “Avatar”), Quenya and Sindarin (from Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings”).

People have been inventing languages since centuries; many think that St. Hildegard of Bingen’s Lingua Ignota, which was created in the XXII century, is the first example of artificial language. Creating an accurate list of constructed languages seems like a daunting task as there exists thousands of languages simply created for artistic purposes (the now closed website langmaker.com listed more than 1,900 invented languages in 2007).

So, what seems to be the future of artificial languages? Given the data in our hands, it is easy to predict that the number of these kinds of languages is just going to increase in the future as artificial languages are increasingly used in literary work, TV series and movies to add realism to the story. The public has been extremely receptive to these new languages, with people learning the artificial tongue and using it for online or offline everyday communication.

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