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Dammit Jim, I’m a Doctor, Not a Linguist!: Science Fiction and the Way We Talk


Authors have long been inventing unique languages in sci-fi and fantasy stories, but what value could these made-up languages possibly have in a world where they aren’t spoken?

Elen síla lumenn’omentielvo, dear friends. For those not up on their Elvish, that roughly translates to read “A star shines on the hour of our meeting,” spoken by Frodo Baggins in the Lord of the Rings. J.R.R. Tolkien was a linguist before he was an author, inventing his first language at the age of 13.

Because of this, the diverse species of Middle Earth all speak fully realized tongues, complete with their own alphabets and rules of diction. The Elves alone speak a number of separate languages with multiple dialects and shared ancestries, similar to the relationship between romance languages and Latin, according to Wikia.

Frodo’s quote above is the most commonly known phrase from the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and it makes me wish I’d been able to take Quenya instead of Spanish for my high school requirements!

But let’s say that I had learned it in high school. What practical purpose could it serve? Are the languages created in these fictional masterpieces nothing more than a curiosity at the end of the day?

Rosana Prada/Flickr

Rosana Prada/Flickr

Spock, Do Me a Favor and Don’t Say it’s Fascinating

Tolkien isn’t the only one to set his stories apart with “artificial” languages, though he’s arguably the most well-known for it. The Star Trek series has both Vulcan and Rihan (Romulan) to offer, both originating from Ancient Vulcan, as well as Klingon.

HBO’s series Game of Thrones has brought the concept further into the mainstream with Dothraki and Valyrian, not fully fleshed out for the books but created for the show by David J. Peterson.

To answer the question of whether these languages have value, we must discuss the importance of linguistics, both as an academic study and in a broader cultural sense. As noted by Peterson in an interview with Nerdist, your first language is all that “language” means to you, until you begin to study a different one.

While there are certain speaking patterns and inflections that allow foreigners to replicate an accent, if the structure isn’t consistent enough, it sounds like gibberish, according to the Huffington Post.

This is the idea behind Simlish from video game series The Sims. Simlish was created to allow the player to infer their own meaning upon a character, but it’s impossible to translate and could never be learned. It’s also possible to create “language” by switching out each word for one in your made-up tongue, but this is more akin to a code than a new way of speaking.

What Peterson, Tolkien, and other creators have done is far above a mere substitution. In Tolkien’s essay A Secret Vice (accessible via Southern Methodist University), he wrote that “… to give your language an individual flavor, it must have woven into it the threads of an individual mythology.” He followed what he preached; Middle Earth was created to house his languages, not the other way around.

While Peterson didn’t create the world he wrote for, each tongue he creates is unique to the people speaking it, taking into account the deep lore behind them. Each language forged with such care becomes tied to the world that it exists in, an integral part of the fictional society’s culture just as the languages we speak in the real world are integral to ours.

Pat Loika/Flickr

Pat Loika/Flickr

The Prime Directive

However complex these fictional languages may be, this complexity doesn’t give account for their place in the real world. Surely, since such a small group of people will take the time to learn these “artificial” languages, learning to speak one has to warrant an applicable use, and therefore, the complexity of the languages is sadly little more than window dressing.

This returns us to space: the final frontier. The many alien tongues of Star Trek were, at first, only briefly spoken, as little more than single words. It wasn’t until Star Trek: The Motion Picture came out that Mark Okrand was brought in as the linguist for the aliens.

The Klingon language is almost entirely his work, but the paths of the Vulcan and Romulan tongues are more complex. The roots of Vulcan can be traced back to Star Trek’s fan community, which has existed ever since the original series came out.

Literature on the topic began coming out in the 70’s and 80’s, beginning with the Vulcan Language Guide in ’77. Katherine D. Wolterink came out with an early lexicon in The Best of Trek #10, and the writings of Dorothy Jones Heydt created the first known version of Vulcan to include grammatical rules and syntax.

Heydt’s writings were embraced by fans, and one of her phrases, “ni’var,” even made it into an episode of Enterprise, though it was more associated with a fan novel by Claire Gabriel.

After Star Trek: The Motion Picture came out, the study of Vulcan exploded, and Mark R. Gardner of the Vulcan Language Institute incorporated the new rules of the film into the most complete rendition today, known as Golic Vulcan. Rihan, the Romulan language, is a close cousin of Vulcan, and also finds itself rooted in fandom.

The most complete reference guide to it can be found at the Imperial Romulan Language Institute, which takes information from canon content as well as the novels of Diane Duane, and the conversational use of the language by roleplaying groups.

The community that has sprung up around Star Trek’s aliens is a perfect representation of how meaningful these languages are. They can be read as just a feature, irrelevant to the average fan, but if you take a step back and think about the importance of the spoken word to our everyday lives and to our cultural identities, you realize that maybe those fans who took the time to learn fluent Klingon aren’t as weird as you thought.

They’re studying a foreign language just like any other–and when they join up with Starfleet in 2134 and you’re left on Earth, you may regret not taking the time to learn about it yourself. Or, if that’s not your cup of tea, you can stick to learning an Earth language. I hear there’s plenty of interesting culture right here.