Want to build a language from scratch? Start with the question who will speak it, and why

It’s well known that JRR Tolkien wrote the Lord of the Rings cycle to create people to speak the languages he had invented. But, in the television age, artificially created or invented languages – we call them conlangs – have been gaining increasing attention with the popularity of television series such as Star Trek and Game of Thrones, and films such as Avatar.

Fantasy and science fiction are the ideal vehicles for conlangs. Marc Okrand, an American linguist whose core research area is Native American languages, invented Klingon for Star Trek, while Paul Frommer of the University of Southern California created the Na’vi language for Avatar.

The fantasy series Game of Thrones involved several languages, including Dothraki and Valyrian, which were created by David J Peterson, a conlanger who has invented languages for several other shows. Most recently, fantasy thriller The City and The City which featured the language Illitan, created by Alison Long of Keele University in the UK.

I teach how to construct languages and one question my students usually ask is: “How do I make a perfect language?” I need to warn that it’s impossible to make a language perfect – or even complete. Rather, an invented language is more likely to be appropriate for the context – convincing and developed just enough to work in the desired environment. But here are a few things to bear in mind.

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