Languages are a complicated conundrum, are they not? Syntax, synonyms and strange second conditionals… we could go on. They are challenging to learn unless you are one of those cleverly-tongued characters who take to languages like the proverbial duck to water, and even then, learning a new language is possibly one of the most time-consuming skills you might choose to acquire.
So why, for the love of Middle Earth, would you choose to actually make one up?
We’re not necessarily talking about the playground pidgin most of us dabbled with at one point or another whilst playing hopscotch and scuffing our knees. We’re talking about real, actual languages that have their own grammar rules and speech patterns to battle with if you want to make yourself understood by other fellow speakers.
Here’s a first look at our favorite made up languages, where they come from, and most importantly, why anyone would choose to create them in the first place.
Language: Elvish (Quenya/Sindarin)
Elen síla lumenn’omentielvo – A star shines on the hour of our meeting
Inventor: J R R Tolkien
Purpose: To create a distinct language that separated the Elves of Tolkien’s Middle Earth world from other, ‘lower’ species, that made them sound even more ethereal and unattainable to the primitive non-Elven ear.
In fact, perhaps that is only half of the story, because Tolkien loved languages for the sake of loving them. There is a quote of Tolkien’s which, roughly paraphrased, says something like better to hear the sound of ‘cellar doors’ than ‘diamond’. Tolkien, as a philologist and lexicographer, was fair on obsessed specifically with the sound of languages. He created Elvish out of his favorite sounds from his favorite languages, chipping away at any rough edges until he was left with the lyrical lilt that so fit the world of the Elves.
Quenyan, or high Elvish, was based loosely around Finnish, whilst Sindarin, low Elvish, was founded around Welsh; two truly beautiful languages to hear.
nuqDaq ’oH puchpa’’e’ – Where is the bathroom?
Inventor: Marc Okrand
Purpose: To provide an actual, communicable language for the movie Star Trek III.
True, any Trekkies out there will already know pretty much all there is to know about the Klingon race, their customs and their permafrowns, and long before hearing the language for themselves probably already theorised that there was a distinct language spoken by this most noble of warrior space races.
But until the movie Star Trek III, there had been nothing but the general sound of the language heard on both the TV series and the big screen. We have Spock himself, Leonard Nimoy, to thank for the actual coming-to-life of Klingon, who, as director for this film, commissioned linguist Marc Okrand to create a language that is now so well-known, that there are educational resources to teach you Klingon, an actual Klingon Language Institute to study at, and full translations of famous works such as Hamlet available.
Hash yer dothrae chek asshekh? – How are you today? (Do you ride well today?)
Inventor: George R R Martin/David Peterson (Language Creation Society)
Purpose: To flesh out a potential language to make it live and breathe for a TV audience.
When George R R Martin started writing the true epic that is the Game Of Thrones series (yes… it is a book first, before you heathens who have only seen the TV show say otherwise), he wanted a language that made the sound of the Dothraki people stand separate from Valyrian and the Common Tongue.
But as we’ve come to learn from Mr Martin’s, um, methods, less is more. Or in other words: too much effort (we’re probably just bitter about how long the next book is taking to be published…). Because instead of creating an entire language, what Mr Martin did for the books was to just invent the specific words and phrases needed to get his story across.
To reproduce these incredible books for TV and do them adequate justice, it was absolutely necessary to have a full Dothraki language, rather than mere snippets, that was believable and could actually be spoken.
It is incredible how David Peterson has weaved an entire 3000+ word vocabulary from just a few phrases, to create a real language that echoes the relationship with horses that the Dothraki people have.
Learning a new language? Check out our free placement test to see how your level measures up!
“What the hell does ‘kree’ mean?”
“Well, actually, it means a lot of things. Loosely translated it means ‘Attention’, ‘Listen up’, ‘Concentrate’.”
“Yes, in a manner of speaking.”
—Daniel Jackson, responding to Jack O’Neill
Inventor: Brad Wright, head writer for Stargate:SG1
Purpose: To give an ‘otherworldly’ feel to the parasitic race the Goa’uld, and differentiate them from their human hosts.
In the Stargate world, the origins of the Goa’uld language date back to the Unas race, a sort of bipedal lizard-like being that were the first hosts of this wormlike species. Since these unas had a limited language range, possibly due to their primitive development or lack of true vocal chords, the Goa’uld language evolved when the worms jumped host to humanity, and the resultant language is said to be the basis for what we think of now as Ancient Egyptian.
We could talk about the beautiful hieroglyphic-like written language, the sharp consonants, non-inflecting verbs, and dual sentence ability of Goa’uld, which would make our little linguistic hearts sing. But then we see this quote from Peter Deluise, one of the show’s producers, and perhaps have to accept that the creation of the Goa’uld language was more about making it a fun part of the show, and less about creating an entire new language.
Fayvrrtep fìtsenge lu kxanì. Fìpoti oel tspìyang, fte tìkenong liyevu aylaru. – These demons are forbidden here. I will kill this one as a lesson to the others.
Inventor: James Cameron/Paul Frommer
Purpose: To fully develop the ‘concept’ of the alien race, the Na’vi, in the film Avatar.
James Cameron is a director and a half when it comes to attention to detail, and the language Na’vi just proves that. He wanted a language that was easy for humans to be able to learn, but that was just far enough away from any existing language to be just alien enough.
Frommer took around six months to come up with a morphology and syntax that would work within Cameron’s specifications, producing a 1000 word vocabulary that was used for the film.
Since the film’s release, video games and other spin-offs have increased the need for the language, and so the Na’vi language has continued to expand.
Na’vi has become so big that it now has its own fanbase that okay, perhaps can’t quite rival the dedication of those of the Klingon fanbase, but is worthy of mention nonetheless.
With an ever-increasing wealth of sci-fi and fantasy books, TV shows and films, it is only natural to assume that the number of made-up languages will also increase. There are already countless translation tools out there in Internetland, both good and bad, that will helpfully feed you your favorite phrases in everything from Japanese to Ewokese.
As language geeks, that thought makes us vibrate up out of our chairs in excitement. Come see us next week when we’ll be looking at the origins of some other made up languages that perhaps have been overlooked.