For a word lover, there are few thrills like learning about all the bizarre twists and turns that have occurred over the centuries in any language’s development. In fact, one of the few things that could compare would be to create your own language, with all your favorite features. Want to combine the tense system of Latin, the case system of Russian, and the tonal system of Chinese? Go nuts! (Incidentally, if you do this, you already are nuts.)
This sort of glorious madness results in a constructed language, or “conlang,” which itself is part of the specialized jargon used by conlinguists. As the name suggests, a constructed language is made up with only moderate influence from existing languages, not copied almost exactly with a few cosmetic changes. (The alien languages in Futurama, for example, aren’t actually languages, but coded English.) It also needs to be a full-blown language with grammar and vocabulary, setting it apart from just making up a few cool-sounding words to flesh out that fantasy novel you’ve been working on.
Speaking of fantasy novels, probably the most well-known example of a language constructed for artistic purposes is in The Lord of the Rings and its companion works. J.R.R. Tolkien, a philologist before all else, essentially built his sprawling world as a backdrop for his favorite toys, spending decades playing with the Sindarin and Quenya languages, among other Elvish tongues. In fact, Tolkien was such a nerd that he used his own term for this process, glossopoeia, from the Greek for “language” and “to make.”
For most casual readers, it’s impressive enough that Tolkien developed multiple languages, but he didn’t stop there. Linguistics nerd that he was, Tolkien wasn’t content with the “present” forms of his Elvish languages (which changed continually as he worked on them), but created a whole language tree informed by his professional knowledge of language groups like the Indo-European family.
I’m going to shelve Elvish languages for more discussion some other time, because there’s a lot there and it’s fascinating. In any case, Tolkien’s languages may be some of the most famous artistic conlangs, but they’re far from the only ones.
In the fictional conlang business, one of the rock stars is Marc Okrand, a now-retired linguist specializing in Native American languages and closed captioning. You may know him from Star Trek, as the man who brought us Klingon as a full-fledged language (how else would we be able to appreciate Hamlet in the original Klingon?). You may not know that he also created an entire Atlantean language for Disney’s Atlantis: The Lost Empire, drawing from Proto-Indo-European and other influences.
If you saw Atlantis and never gave Atlantean a thought, you can now imagine how much background work never makes it into your average movie, TV show, or book featuring a conlang. Other well-known examples of constructed languages are Na’vi in Avatar and Dothraki in Game of Thrones; less widely known is that Parseltongue was also developed as an actual language for the Harry Potter movies. Clearly, the linguistic consultants for movies and TV are some of the unsung heroes of modern media.
Of course, constructed languages aren’t limited to fiction. Esperanto is a famous example, designed to give speakers of many languages a common ground (a dream of unification expressed in the name itself, which means “one who hopes” in Esperanto). A few million people speak Esperanto, and though many of them may have picked it up as a way to kill time during the summer, there’s a dedicated international community that preserves the original spirit of intercultural communication. There are even a few thousand native speakers, whose parents are both awesome and likely the reigning champions in the eternal “embarrass your kids” contest.
Another language that some people count as constructed is Modern Hebrew, which was brought into use by the Jewish immigrants to Palestine in the 19th century and based on the biblical Hebrew that had long been used only in worship. It’s now a thriving language, with about nine million speakers worldwide. (The case of Hebrew is similar in some ways to Gaeilge or Irish Gaelic, which is the first official language of the Republic of Ireland, but Gaelic never died out as a spoken language.) However, many argue that this doesn’t count, since it’s just an update of an existing language, however lapsed.
Despite the best efforts of some of their creators, true constructed languages remain a fringe interest, certainly not popular enough to challenge or supplant the natural languages used by most of the world. That’s to be expected, since our languages are tied to our traditions and identities, and global communications are too fast and relentless to be driven by anything but convenience and inertia.
Still, conlangs are worthwhile, and not just to add that extra depth to Game of Thrones. Constructing languages can give us insight into how natural languages develop and change, and it’s a great mental exercise in building logical (well, sometimes) structures. Learning a few words can be useful, too—you never know when it’ll come in handy to be able to say, “Saluton!”
[You can find lots of resources for learning conlangs, including ones I didn’t mention here. Here’s a list with links for some conlangs and some pseudo-languages, though I take issue with the title for both “fake languages” and “easy to learn.” For more practical applications (depending on whom you plan to talk to), Esperanto USA offers plenty of ways to get started with your Esperanto studies.
Check out the FAQ page of the Elvish Linguistic Fellowship (yes, I know, ELF, it’s great) for a scholarly (and, I regret to say, somewhat humorless) perspective on whether Quenya and Sindarin can really be learned and spoken. The Klingon Language Institute can give you some basic phrases and resources for that most honorable warrior’s language. Lastly, this 2009 book takes a look at centuries of conlang history, though it’s missing the latest developments in Dothraki.]