Game of Tongues
As if the number of natural human languages (nearly 7,000) weren’t enough, people keep creating new ones. Motivations for inventing constructed languages, or “conlangs” (also referred to as planned languages or, in some cases, fictional or artistic languages), range from the high-minded to the goofball. So why would anyone bother learning a made-up language, as opposed to, say, the more useful Spanish or Mandarin? That is a question this map diplomatically declines to ask.
Dr. Ludwig Lazarus Zamenhof thought big. Not only did he invent Esperanto, an ostensibly international constructed language, he believed its universal adoption would ultimately lead to world peace. The language is named for Doktoro Esperanto—or “Doctor One-Who-Hopes”—the pseudonym under which Zamenhof published his first description of it, in his 1887 Unua Libro (“First Book”). More than 125 years later, Zamenhof’s dream—anchored in his conviction that communicating in a shared speech unconnected to a particular culture or nationality would enable all the world’s peoples to get along—remains utterly unrealized. Nonetheless, Esperanto has been a remarkably successful constructed language, spoken by thousands globally. There are even native speakers, raised in Esperanto-speaking households; Hungarian-born financier George Soros is one. Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI delivered occasional blessings in Esperanto, and a sizable Esperanto literature exists, including an Esperanto Wikipedia begun in 2001. The shelf of feature-length films in Esperanto is extremely short, but it does hold one world-class stinker: Incubus (1966, directed by Leslie Stevens), starring a pre–Star Trek William Shatner as a pure-hearted young stud set upon by a pretty female demon.
William Shatner spoke lousy Esperanto. Speakers of the tongue derided the Esperanto-language film Incubus for mispronunciations by the star and his coactors. Shatner’s Klingon—the guttural speech of the brutish extraterrestrials who switch from bad guys to good over the long course of the Star Trek TV and movie franchise—was, however, more respectable. Reprising his role as Enterprise commander Captain Kirk in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, Shatner had to ejaculate the Klingon line “Matlh jol yIchu’!” (which roughly translates as “Beam me up!”). According to linguist Marc Okrand, who developed Klingon for the 1984 film (directed by Spock himself, Leonard Nimoy), Shatner’s delivery was spot-on.
The conlang’s first utterances were a few nonsense phrases made up by James Doohan (who played the Enterprise’s engineer, Scotty) for the Klingon characters in Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979). From those beginnings Okrand built a language with a phonetic structure and grammar that intentionally diverge from those of most human languages. On occasion, he even let actors’ errors guide Klingon’s on-the-set evolution: When Christopher Lloyd, playing Klingon commander Kruge, flubbed a line, Okrand altered the nascent grammar to accommodate Lloyd’s mistake.
The author of The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy was by training, profession and avocation a philologist—a student of languages and a habitual creator of them. J.R.R. Tolkien was constructing new tongues long before he began writing fiction; he claimed his stories “were made rather to provide a world for the languages than the reverse.” Tolkien formulated grammars and vocabularies, to varying stages of completeness, for more than 20 made-up tongues, including the Elvish languages Quenya and Sindarin (based, respectively, on Finnish and Welsh), the secret Dwarvish language Khuzdul (which resembles Semitic languages) and the harsh Black Speech of his trilogy’s supreme villain, Sauron. (The debased variants of the Black Speech spoken by Sauron’s Orc minions are appropriately even more hideous.)
Tolkien also created several scripts—including an alphabet, based on Anglo-Saxon runes, that he called Cirth (pronounced kurth). The angular characters of Cirth are echoed in the writing system Marc Okrand developed for the Star Trek franchise; he devised each letter of the Klingon language to look like a dangerously barbed blade. Like Tolkien, Okrand is a multilingual conlanger: Besides Klingon, he invented languages for Star Trek’s Vulcan and Romulan races.
Conciseness is the enemy of precision. It usually takes less time, and requires fewer words, to say something nonspecific rather than something specific: “hat,” for example, versus “your brand-new leopard-skin pillbox hat.” Tolkien comically exploited this tendency of statements to lengthen as they become more precise when, for the Lord of the Rings books, he invented the extremely exacting and therefore exceedingly longwinded language spoken by the ancient, patient, tree-like Ents. Its undiluted, Old Entish form is so tedious and complicated, it’s untranslatable—and impossible to learn for anyone who isn’t an Ent.
In constructing Ithkuil (ITH-kweel), a project that took him more than 30 years, American amateur linguist-philosopher John Quijada was intent on “correcting” this tendency of languages (both artistic ones like Entish and natural ones like English) to sacrifice exactitude for brevity and vice versa. Sentences in Ithkuil are typically very short but composed of compound words that convey an amazingly nuanced range of meaning. Introduced in 2004 and since revised, Ithkuil—like some of Tolkien’s constructed languages—has been taken up by linguist hobbyists. The trouble is, Ithkuil’s dauntingly intricate architecture renders it nearly as difficult to learn as Old Entish.
Inventors of new languages vary in their motivations. The agenda of Esperanto’s originator, L.L. Zamenhof, was political. Growing up in the polyglot city of Bialystock (then part of the Russian Empire, now in Poland), the young Zamenhof was appalled by the never-ending contention between his hometown’s several ethnic groups. The idea gradually dawned on him that cross-cultural understanding could be enhanced—and bloody conflict ended—if all people could speak an easy-to-learn “auxiliary” language divested of ethnic or nationalist baggage. (Critics have argued that Eurocentric Esperanto hardly fits the panhumanity bill.)
Linguist John Quijada fashioned Ithkuil, by contrast, to make a superefficient, exactingly accurate language that would minimize the “ambiguity, vagueness, illogic, redundancy, polysemy...and overall arbitrariness that is seemingly ubiquitous in natural human language.” Most conlangers, however, do their thing for the sheer pleasure of it—often, as in the case of fantasy writer J.R.R. Tolkien, to lend depth and density to fictional worlds. Masterfully weaving the intricate fabric of his imagined universe, Tolkien went so far as to give his languages backstories; over the long history of his Middle-earth they arise, evolve, are corrupted and sometimes even disappear.
Esperanto isn’t the only tongue to have been developed for political ends. Modern Hebrew—which, because it so closely resembles ancient forms of Hebrew, is not technically a constructed language—came into being during the 19th-century Jewish nationalist revival, becoming the lingua franca of Zionist Jews emigrating to Palestine. Among fictional languages there’s Newspeak, the diabolically streamlined version of English that George Orwell contrived for his 1949 dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. At the opposite end of the seriousness spectrum is Talossan—the “official” language of the Kingdom of Talossa, which was founded by 14-year-old Robert Ben Madison in his Milwaukee bedroom in 1979. Somewhat incredibly, Talossa still “exists,” and Talossan (which Madison began inventing in 1980, borrowing from French and the Provençal language Occitan) is one of the most highly developed conlangs, with a lexicon of more than 35,000 words. One can even play Scrabble—or rather, Scrableu—in Talossan. Curiously, one of Talossa’s seven ersatz provinces, Atatürk, is named for the founder of modern Turkey, himself a politico-linguistic innovator: Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s westernizing social reforms included introducing a writing system based on the Latin alphabet to replace the Arabic script formerly used for Turkish.
J.R.R. Tolkien’s linguistic creativity set the bar for fantasy fiction, and much sci-fi and fantasy now features constructed languages, as does virtually every new work in the medieval-inflected “swords and sorcery” genre, video games included. The demand for believable fake vocabularies provides linguists with lucrative moonlighting gigs. For Avatar (2009), director James Cameron hired USC professor Paul Frommer to create a language for the Na’vi people of the alien moon Pandora—and to teach the film’s actors to speak it. The producers of the HBO series Game of Thrones chose David J. Peterson of the Language Creation Society—a worldwide association of conlangers—to construct the language of the Dothraki, a race of warrior horsemen. Peterson started out with about 30 Dothraki words that appeared in George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire books, on which the TV show is based. In both Avatar and Game of Thrones, plots that force characters to learn the made-up languages enhance those tongues’ authenticity. A vivid scene in Thrones has the pregnant Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke), who learned her new husband’s savage speech from her servants, choking down a raw horse heart and proclaiming, “A prince rides inside me!” in ferocious Dothraki.
The fictional languages invented for HBO’s Game of Thrones and James Cameron’s Avatar exert significant fan appeal and now robustly exist outside and beyond the works for which they were created. Fans can learn them and participate in their ongoing development via blogs and websites. One might even say Na’vi and Dothraki have become living languages of a peculiar sort, evolving within self-selected communities of hobbyists rather than hereditary communities of native speakers. These new conlangs follow in the footsteps of J.R.R. Tolkien’s constructed languages (the Elvish Linguistic Fellowship publishes journals devoted to their study) and, to perhaps an even greater degree, Klingon. Its inventor, Marc Okrand, published the first Klingon dictionary in 1992, and utterances from that gruff tongue have surfaced ever since, in places as diverse as TV sitcoms (Frasier, The Big Bang Theory, The Simpsons) and Kate Bush’s song “50 Words for Snow” (the Klingon peDtaH ’ej chIS qo’ is number 42). Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, Shakespearean plays and other works of English literature have been translated into Klingon, and Dutch composer Eef van Breen even wrote a Klingon opera (called ’u’), which premiered at the Hague in 2010. Okrand was the colibrettist.