The Process of Inventing Fictional Languages
By Lacy Harness
This article will examine the history of invented languages, describe the process by which fictional languages are created, and discuss the difficulties and rewards of working with producers and directors to create a language for a TV show or movie. The number of people who invent languages for fun has grown dramatically in the past couple decades, and this article will sift through the different types of languages that exist and how they have come to be. The author will add an original contribution by using the process laid out in the article to create an outline of an original fictional language.
History of Language Invention
“The urge to tinker with language is probably inextricable from the capacity to think about language (Istvan Csicsery-Ronay Jr. 546).” Many people have seen the TV show Game of Thrones, or seen the movie Avatar. What most don’t realize that these shows, and many others, have entire fictional languages created just for use in the show. There is in fact, a growing community of people who create languages either for fun or as their job. This community shares ideas, and develops new and more complex concepts as it grows. Over time, a process has been laid out for how to best go about creating a language and can be adjusted depending on the type of language someone wants to create. The idea of creating a whole language just for fiction is older than most people think.
J.R.R. Tolkien is most often credited as being the first person to invent whole, complex, languages purely for fun. In fact, “Tolkien was a language creator before he penned his major works” (Peterson 10). Tolkien invented several languages, the most commonly known of which is probably Elvish, and made them related to each other, and showed how they changed over time. He was a passionate linguist and went above and beyond what many modern language inventors accomplish. His languages can be found in his Lord of the Rings trilogy as well as his other works. However, Tolkien was fascinated by linguistics throughout his life and it’s often said that he created Middle Earth just so his languages could have somewhere to “live.”
Before Tolkien, there were people who made up languages for purposes other than fiction. As author Arika Okrent explains in her book, A Visit to Esperantoland, a common goal of early language creators was to invent a language that would be easy for everyone to learn, with the end goal of being a world language. Esperanto is one of the more famous examples of this. Esperanto, created by Ludwik Zamenhof in 1887, was meant to be a language that everyone could learn. The creator considered it his “gift to the world” and hoped his language would be used to ease trade and communication, leading to a more peaceful world. Several other people have attempted to make similar world languages, but they’ve had only limited success so far. Most people seem disinterested in the idea of a universal language, or simply unwilling to learn it, or in disagreement about which language should be used. Due to this, most language creators today are doing it purely for fiction.
Prior to the widespread use of the internet, anyone who wanted to make a language was pretty much stuck sitting alone, writing out their ideas and rarely sharing them. Once online communities formed, however groups of language inventers could suddenly talk to each other and share ideas. These communities eventually started to refer to their made-up languages as “conlangs” and what they were doing as “conlanging” (Peterson). They found this word by taking the first syllable of constructed and the first syllable of language and stitching them together.
It was at this point that people began to make it clear that there was a difference between a conlang and gibberish. A conlang had rules and grammar just like a real language; the words and sentences followed recognizable patterns. Anyone could bash their hands against a keyboard and decide that that was their new made up word, but to be an actual conlanger required one to study language and make a real plan. As pointed out by Ria Cheyne, many writers make up a few words, or even just mention that a group of characters speak a language that does not exist in the real world, without creating a working language to go with their writing. This is not a conlang. There’s nothing wrong with only implying that a group speaks another language, many works of fiction don’t need full languages for their story. For instance, in The Time Machine H.G. Wells mentions that the Eloi people the main character meets have their own language, bus never describes the language or uses any words from it. This isn’t a bad thing, since the Eloi language isn’t important to the story, but it would be incorrect to refer to the Eloi language as a conlang.
The Creation Process
So, where does one start if they want to make a conlang? Unsurprisingly, a good place to start is by researching basic linguistics. It’s important, especially if someone speaks only one language, to examine the differences between many languages. It’s easy for someone to think that they could simply replace a bunch of English words with different sounds and use them exactly the way they would be used in English. However, that wouldn’t really be a conlang as much as a code of English. Different languages have different sentence structure and grammar. Some languages have words or phrases that don’t appear in other languages. Just making up new words for English underutilizes the great diversity of language.
One can start very simply by determining what different sounds they want in their language, since no language uses all the sounds humans are capable of making, and some sounds tend to appear together in languages. The Art of Language Invention dedicates 64 pages just to all of the different sounds used by humans. After that, it’s easiest to start forming basic rules about grammar and sentence structure. Simple things, like deciding if adjectives come before a noun like in English (the red apple), or after the noun as in Spanish (the apple red). Or what order to place the subject, verb, and object in a sentence.
As one gets through the basics they can move forward to more complicated parts of language like conjugating verbs and nouns. Conjugation is how a word changes to fit the sentence, like changing “cat” to “cats” to show it’s plural, or changing “run” to “ran” to show past tense. Conjugation is mostly done by adding an affix, prefix, or infix to a word that slightly changes it’s meaning like the example above. Keeping in mind that these fixes aren’t random and have their own meanings, adding -ing to a verb shows action, adding -ed shows past tense.
It’s important to remember that words are related to each other, they aren’t random, and each word and word family has a history. If a conlanger makes up a word for ‘sleep’, it would be reasonable to make the words for ‘asleep’, ‘sleeping’, or ‘slept’ sound similar. It might also be reasonable for words like ‘bed’ or ‘dream’ to have a similar root to the word for sleep. A conlanger also must keep in mind that two similar words in one language might not be similar in another. If a conlanger makes up a word for ‘length’ in the context of a length of rope, they might need to come up with a different word for length in the context of a length of time, since not all languages treat an amount of time as being similar to an amount of a physical object.
The meanings of words also change over time, for instance, the word ‘nice’ originally meant ‘foolish.’ This can lead to similar sounding words that seem to mean unrelated things, or two unrelated words that now have a similar meaning. If a conlanger wants to make their language feel more complete, or just dig into the history of their language, shifting words meanings can be a fun way to do it. This takes additional work, but after going through the trouble of designing verb systems and making grammar rules, adding inconsistencies can be considered the fun part of language creation.
Languages also borrow from each other, English speakers often use words that come from other languages, and many English roots are either Greek or Latin. Reflecting this lingual overlap in a conlang takes an enormous amount of work. Many conlangers simply don’t bother doing this, given that no one is likely to notice if they don’t. This is also easier to do if someone is inventing multiple languages for the same universe. If they make only one language, then this process would be more difficult to do and most likely unnecessarily. However, if someone is making multiple languages in the same work it makes sense that if the people speaking those languages are shown to be interreacting there will be overlap in certain words or ideas.
Most of the information in this article is discussing the most common form of conlang; the naturalistic language. A naturalistic language is essentially what it sounds like, a language that mimics real life languages, it follows the rules that real languages follow, it isn’t unnecessarily over complicated, but also has inconsistences and the occasional borrowed word. Naturalistic languages are common because they seek to replicate real life. Especially in published works of fiction, the people building the work want the audience to believe what is happening, so using a natural language helps make the world feel more real.
Despite the popularity of naturalistic languages, it would be a shame to overlook the fact that over forms of invented languages do exist. One such subtype is known as the loglang, short for logical language. A loglang is designed to not have any of the irregularities found in real world languages. Every verb conjugates the same way. There are no exceptions to set rules. The meaning of words and sentences is precise, leaving no ambiguity. One of the most famous loglangs is called Lojban. Lojban was created by a group of dozens of people over a long period of time. In the words of the Lojban official website, “Lojban allows you to communicate concisely without unnecessary or undesired details.” A loglang is different from a universal language because loglangs are generaly made as thought experiments. Someone, or a group of people, make a loglang just to see how it effects their thinking or to prove that they can. Meanwhile, a universal language must have the explicit intention by the creator to a something that everyone on the planet should learn to speak.
Another type of conlang is the humorous language, which imposes some kind of rule or idea not found in natural language, and designs a language around it. For instance, if someone decided to invent a language with no verbs and figure out how people could communicate without the ability to easily describe actions; that would be a humorous language. There are many different humorous languages out there, and most are similar to loglangs in that they are made simply to prove that they can be made. These languages are rarely used in fictional works, because most authors want to have natural sounding languages for their characters to speak.
One more subtype of conlang that can be used in fiction or just for fun is the completely alien language. An “alien” language, by default, can’t resemble any known human language and will often use a mode of communication that would by difficult or impossible for a human to use in daily life. These languages are often used to show how beings from other worlds, literal aliens, might communicate. The recent movie Arrival is about a linguist trying to decode the written language of a species of aliens, and in The Art of Language Invention Peterson describes a language used by a species of aliens who have no mouths so they communicate using their seven tentacles.
There are many other types of conlangs. Due to how complex communication is, nearly anything can be used as a means of communication if someone creative is willing to put in the effort. David Peterson has a YouTube channel where he discusses details of making conlangs. In hos video on musical languages he points out that all you need to form a language is symbols that convey meaning, these symbols can be anything from letters, to sounds, to colors, to types of leaves. There is even wide variety in the number of symbols. Some languages have hundreds of sounds and letters, while binary has only the numbers 0 and 1.
The Professional Process
Once someone understands and has a passion for language creation, most conlangers want to turn their hobby into a paying job. This is still incredibly difficult. While the numbers are growing, there are still only a handful of movies and TV shows made each year that need language creators. Additionally, the small handful of existing professional conlangers get most of the work. David Peterson, author of The Art of Language Invention, had made over a dozen languages for various professional works. He created the languages of Dothraki and Valyrian for Game of Thrones, and Castithan, Irathent, and, Indojisnen for Defiance, among others. In his book, he describes what the process of working on Game of Thrones was like. When he sat down to create Dothraki, he had to understand what the Dothraki were like, what the audience would expect, and how their culture would impact their language. He learned that the Dothraki were harsh, barbarian, horse riders, known for pillaging and violence. So, he wanted the language to sound harsh and intimidating. He also had to be aware of the fact that “the bulk of the fans would be English speakers” (90). He needed the language to match English speaker’s perceptions of what a harsh, intimidation language would sound like. Also, the Dothraki lines in the script had to be written so that the English-speaking actors would know how to pronounce them.
At one point Peterson notes that the executive producers on Game of Thrones weren’t very concerned with making sure there were no errors in the way the fictional languages were spoken. They reasoned that as long as common phrases were consistent, no one would notice mistakes since no real people actually spoke Dothraki. Peterson conceded that they had a point, but he also disagreed. No one spoke Dothraki before the show was made, but that could change. There is a president for fans learning the fictional languages of works they enjoy. After all, “Quenya, Klingon, and P@x’aaokxaa were not intended to be spoken in the primary world” (Sims), and yet they are. If loyal fans dedicated themselves to understanding Dothraki the way they have with Klingon for Star Trek, they will notice mistakes made by the show. Peterson gives the impression that the focus should be on the fans when making decisions about the show’s conlangs.
This wasn’t the only time that writers, producers, and other influenced Peterson’s work on conlangs for Game of Thrones. George R.R. Martin didn’t write a full language for Dothraki or Valyrian, if he had the writers wouldn’t have needed Peterson, but G.R.R.M. had come up with a few words for each, including a few famous phrases and the names of the languages themselves. Peterson needed to include these few existing words in the language he was building. He also used the few available words to try to determine how common certain sounds or word ending would be.
At one point, Peterson worked on a language for the CW’s show Star-Crossed. While working on the show, the producers constantly asked him to change words they didn’t like, or felt were too close to a real-life word. At one point, he needed to come up with a word for a machine used on the show and he came up with the word emren meaning “memory machine” (161). The writers didn’t like the word, and asked to use the word mirzan instead. Now Peterson needed to figure out what exactly mirzan would mean and how it would fit with the spelling system and other rules set up for the language. He couldn’t simply have mirzan mean memory machine because those words already a had related family of words and he would have to change potential dozens of words, and risk the show contradicting itself. So, he had to come up with a whole different word family, and eventually established the mirzan would mean “something that has experienced something firsthand” (162.)
Being a professional conlanger means fielding all the different expectations of everyone involved in the show and creating a comprehensible language that matches the tone of the characters speaking the language. There are many amateur conlangers out there and very few professionals. So, if someone is planning to be a conlanger they are probably going to spend a lot of time only making languages for themselves and networking with other people for the possibility of a project opening up. Or, they can write their own book and develop a language for it.
For a unique contribution to this topic, I’m going to provide an example of how a beginner can start developing their own conlang. To do this I will use the steps I’ve learned from my research to develop my own idea for a conlang. I will start by choosing what sounds will go into my language. To design a sound system, I took all the sounds in the English language and chose not to add any sounds not found in English on the basis that they would be difficult for me to pronounce and incorporate in the time frame of writing this article. So, my ability to separate my language from English would need to involve a smaller sound system or at least fewer letters. I started with vowels. We think of the English language as having five vowels, but because vowels can make more than one sound there are actually 14-16 vowel sounds in standard American English. I chose nine common vowel sounds to use in my language. I also got rid of the letters X and Q because I personally dislike them, as well as getting rid of the letter C because its sounds overlap with S and K making it unnecessary. I eliminated the CH sound as well because it’s very close to the J sound and I didn’t feel that I needed both. I will be treating the sounds made by SH, TH, and ZH as their own letter.
Once I had my sound system worked out, I started making a list of basic rules my language would follow. These were mostly reminders or ideas to myself to help me make sure my language made sense and because every language makes decisions about word order and grammar and to design a language I had to choose which grammar rules I was going to use. These rules included:
- In order to make the language sound unique I designed it to be an abugida instead of an alphabet. An alphabet had one letter pertaining to one sound so a speaker can mix the sounds together in nearly any order to produce words as long as it’s pronounceable. An abugida however is described in Peterson’s The Art of Language Creation as only being broken down into syllables instead of individual sounds. These syllables can follow specific rules that are distinct from letter based writing. For instance, abugidas make it easy to have a vowel heavy language where consonants are rarely next to each other due to being separated by vowels which must be in every syllable. If a syllable can only be one or two sounds, which is what I went with, then nearly every other letter must be a vowel.
- In short, in any word a vowel can stand alone as a syllable, but any consonant must have a vowel attached either before or after it. Due to this, two consonants aren’t usually next to each other in a word, three consonants are never next to each other, and most words end in vowels.
- Adjectives will occur after the verb (e.g. apple red)
- No gendered pronouns
- No gendered verb/noun agreement, only number agreement
- Verb conjugation will be very regular, no irregular verbs unless necessary for pronunciation or to avoid confusion with another word.
- There are no silent letters.
- Each letter makes only one sound. In English, the letter A makes one sound in the word “ape” but a different sound in the word “apple.” In my language these would need to be two different letters.
Once I had some basic rules to help guide where I was going with the language I spent some time playing with English words and strings of sounds and seeing if I could change them around to fit my language’s rules. This is a good way to generate vocabulary, but I learned it helps to have a more solid structure and ideas about conjugations and pluralization before this becomes sufficiently useful. However, I did come up with the name for my language using this method. I took my mother’s maiden name, Swanson, and added vowels I liked until the word had enough. This left me with the word “Sawaonsane.” This is pronounced like “Saw-wa-own-saw-knee.” I will be writing out words the way they are pronounced from now on to avoid confusion.
Much later I decided that the word “Saw-wa-own” meant paradise, and the word “saw-knee” meant language. Therefore, the name of my language literally translates to “paradise language.” When trying to generate vocabulary it can be fun and helpful to take already known words and change them around or spell them backwards. As long as it fits the conlang’s established rules, it makes finding new words easier.
After only being able to come up with a few words I liked using this method I decided I needed to work out a basic verb system and decide how to pluralize words. I decided to have two different forms of plural words in my conlang. The first was used a group of objects working together, like a flock of birds or a group of students working on a project. This form of plural would be denoted by adding the suffix “-see” to the end of a word. The second type of plural would connotate that a group of objects just happened to be near each other, like a pile of rocks or a group of students who were not working on anything. This form of plural would be denoted by adding the suffix “-so” to the end of a word.
The verb system ended up being much more difficult and taking much longer. To form a basic verb system, start with the infinitive form of the verb. This is the most default form of the verb. In English the infinitive verb is usually accompanied by the word “to.” As in, “to sing,” “to do,” etc. In Esperanto, all infinitive verbs end in the letter “I.” From there, a language must decide what will change to allow to listener to know the verb happened in the past, is happening now, might happen, or will happen in the future. There are many ways to conjugate a verb and some languages have more forms of verbs than others, but these are the basics. I decided that verbs would change meaning by changing the suffix of the verb, mostly because this is easy to remember. I decided use the “zh” sound (The last sound in the word beige) and a vowel to denote each type of conjugation. I picked the “zh” sound specifically because it is one of the least common sounds found in English words.
After many changes and reworkings I finally have a basic verb system in place. All infinitive verbs end in “-zhi” (long I sound). Past tense verbs end in “-zhi” (short I sound) and future tense verbs end in “-zho” (long O sound). To show that something might happen, a verb ends in “-zhow.” Lastly, to give a command a verb will end in “-zhe” (long E sound). I still haven’t found a present tense conjugation that I like. In English, present tense is shown by adding the suffix “-ing.” I’ve tried a few different suffixes and I haven’t yet found one I like.
I took my time developing more suffixes and prefixes and playing with various word sounds. Words have roots that can be from older words or older languages, so once I came up with a word for one thing I could also change the word slightly to come up with related words. For instance, in English the word “art” come from the Latin word for “skill” and is where English gets words like artifact, article, and artist. At this point I have developed quite a few words and sentences for my language. Here is a short word and phrase list:
|Saw-wa-own-saw-knee (Written as pronounced)||English (Written in standard English)|
|Shay-raw-me, Low Too…||Hello, I am…|
|Low Moo-Zhi _____ Si-lee-so||I am _____ years old. (Literally: I have _____ year.)|
|?A-row ZHa Day Ta-row?||Where is the restroom?|
Cameron, J. (Director), & Landau, J. (Producer). (2009). Avatar [Motion picture on DVD]. United States: Twentieth Century Fox.
Cheyne, Ria. “Created Languages in Science Fiction.” Science Fiction Studies, vol. 35, no. 3, 2008, pp. 386–403., www.jstor.org/stable/25475175. Accessed 14 Mar. 2017.
Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr. “The Science Fictionalization of Linguistic Invention.” Science Fiction Studies, vol. 40, no. 3, 2013, pp. 546–549., www.jstor.org/stable/10.5621/sciefictstud.40.3.0546. Accessed 14 Mar. 2017.
The Logical Language Group, editor. “What Is Lojban.” Lojban, MediaWiki, 24 May 2015, mw.lojban.org/papri/Lojban. Accessed 13 Apr. 2017.
O’Bannon, R. (Producer). (2013, April 15). Defiance [Television series]. Syfy.
Okrent, Arika. “A Visit to Esperantoland: The Natives Want You to Learn Their Invented Language as a Step toward World Harmony. Who Are These People?” The American Scholar, vol. 75, no. 1, 2006, pp. 93–108., www.jstor.org/stable/41222541. Accessed 14 Mar. 2017.
Peterson, David J. The Art of Language Invention: from Horse-Lords to Dark Elves, the Words behind World-Building. NY, NY, Penguin Books, 2015.
Peterson, David. “The Art of Language Invention, Episode 5: Musical Conlangs.” YouTube. YouTube, 02 Nov. 2015. Web. 27 Apr. 2017.
Star-Crossed [Television series]. (2014, February 17). The CW.
Roddenberry, G. (Creator). (1966, September 8). Star Trek [Television series]. NBC.
Tolkien, J. R. (2012). The Lord of the Rings. New York: Mariner/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Martin, G. R. (2015). A Song of Ice and Fire. New York: Bantam Books.
Sims, Harley J. “In the Land of Invented Languages: Esperanto Rock Stars, Klingon Poets, Loglan Lovers, and the Mad Dreamers who Tried to Build a Perfect Language.” Mythlore, vol. 29, no. 1-2, 2010, p. 176+. Literature Resource Center, go.galegroup.com/ps/i.do?p=LitRC&sw=w&u=bois91825&v=2.1&id=GALE%7CA242509672&it=r&asid=319ce7b5e9592192dd72188e70939f6e. Accessed 14 Mar. 2017.
Villeneuve, D. (Director). (2017). Arrival [Motion picture on DVD]. United States: Paramount Pictures.
Wells, H. (1895). The Time Machine. United Kingdom: William Heinemann.