Speaking in Tongues: From Elvish to Dothraki, the rise of invented languages

In the language spoken by the Dothraki on the violent and popular HBO show Game of Thrones, the word for cat is keli. Reasonable, you might think. The show is based on the books written by George R.R. Martin, surely he can come up with whatever words he likes for the animals living in a universe he has dreamed up—that’s the fantasist’s prerogative. But Martin did not invent the word for the Dothraki cat. It’s named, in fact, after an individual real-world cat belonging to David J. Peterson, who has a web site which lists 13 separate languages of his own invention. Peterson has an M.A. in linguistics from the University of California, San Diego, and his bright blue, 1990s-chic web site has an alternate black-and-white version, in case you find it easier to read that way. Peterson is a conlanger, and he can do whatever he wants.

“Conlang” is short for “constructed language,” which is just what it sounds like: a language that has been constructed. There are a lot of them, of various sorts. International auxiliary languages like Volapük, Esperanto, or Interlingua are one specific type of conlang. Invented to facilitate international communication during the great techno-utopian-modernist thought-boom of the last two centuries, they never got terribly popular. Conlangs do not necessarily have to be useful. As Peterson explains in his new book The Art of Language Invention, conlanging is an art as well as a science, something you might do for your own pleasure, as well as for the entertainment of others. He is a conlanger for hire—besides Game of Thrones, Peterson has also worked on Syfy’s Defiance, in which humans and aliens coexist in postapocalyptic Missouri—an artist who will put words into the mouths of the characters, words which are part of a fully functioning language.

You might ask, “How long has this been a job, and may I have it?” Fortunately, The Art of Language Invention answers this question, for it is both a textbook for the amateur conlanger—a guide to inventing your own language spoken by aliens or squid or submarine antelope or whatever—and a brief history of conlanging itself. And the story of conlanging is, as with so many other bodies of knowledge, the story of old-fashioned research inflated to surreal proportions by the internet’s bellows. Yes, you can be a professional conlanger, but the competition is stiff.

Read more: The New Republic

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

fourteen − 1 =