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of Christian Thalmann

Language

 

If you tell people about your hobby, and they reply: "Why on Earth would anyone want to do that?", chances are you are a nerd. By that standard, inventing languages is no doubt one of the nerdiest hobbies one can have. But in the past decade, Hollywood has chased Tolkien's "secret vice" out of the shadows and into the spotlight. Now, with Quenya, Sindarin, Klingon, Na'vi, and Dothraki spoken on screen with impunity, the concept of invented languages is finally becoming socially acceptable.


The Art of Language Creation

Some artificial languages are created for idealistic or political purposes (such as Esperanto), or as philosophical or linguistic experiments (such as Lojban). Personally, however, I am most interested in language creation for its own purpose, as a form of artistic expression; in other words: for fun. The art is sometimes referred to as glossopoeia or conlanging, from the portemanteau conlang = constructed language.

JRR Tolkien is best known for his genre-defining fantasy novels; however, his true passion was language creation. He put great care and expertise into the development of his two main elven languages, Quenya and Sindarin, and sketched out further languages for other denizens of Middle-Earth. Most impressively, he drafted an extict proto-language from which Quenya and Sindarin derive via plausible linguistic evolution processes, lending them an organic and naturalistic feel. Tolkien’s fantasy world, and the associated body of fictional history, legends, and tales, merely arose from a need to provide his languages with a rich background in which to grow and mature.


Conlangers of the world, unite!

While Tolkien’s mastery of the art is hard to match, the urge to create languages is not as rare as it might seem. Most conlangers grow up under the impression that they are alone in the world with their exotic obsession, whereas in fact the art merely enjoys very little public awareness. Only in recent years have the fictional languages mentioned above made it to the TV and movie screens, spreading the idea.

Like all art forms, language creation thrives best in a community. The CONLANG-L mailing list is the largest online discussion platform for conlangers, a great place to get feedback, critique, praise, and an opportunity to showcase one’s work among peers.

Newcomers to the art should have a look at the Language Construction Kit, an easy-to-read introduction into the almost limitless possibilities of conlanging. A basic knowledge of linguistics is necessary to avoid simply imitating one’s native language, but that can be acquired easily from the Kit, and by asking the mailing list for advice. The community is very helpful.

I can also recommend the Language Creation Society for additional information. The LCS was hired by the producers of the HBO drama series Game of Thrones (based on GRR Martin’s novel series A Song of Ice and Fire) to create a workable and plausible language for the Dothraki people. LCS member (and president) David J. Peterson won the contract, and had the privilege of seeing his creation used on screen. Athdavrazar! (“Congratulations!”)


My own languages

While I have pursued the creation of languages as an art form and a diverting hobby for years, these efforts are currently on hiatus. Here is a brief overview of my three most developed languages.

  1. Jovian, the language of the fictional country of Jervaine in the alternate history worldbuilding project Ill Bethisad. Comprising the territories of real-world Alsace, Moselle and Black Forest, Jervaine is the direct descendant of the ancient Roman province of Upper Germania; likewise, its language is a direct descendant of Classical Latin, preserved against vulgarisation in the early centuries but then subject to a series of — hopefully —linguistically plausible sound changes under the influence of the neighboring languages, German and French. Its pronunciation is a very complicated matter and an acquired taste, but that's the part I like best about it. Jovian is my most developed language at this point. For a written and spoken sample, check out the Jovian translation of The North Wind and the Sun.

  2. Obrenje, a language from a different communal worldbuilding effort, Pii. Unlike Jovian, it is completely a priori, i.e. unrelated to any real-world language. Its grammar and pronunciation are rather well-behaved, though non-trivial. I only have a written version of the The North Wind and the Sun in Obrenje, but there is a phonetic transcription in X-SAMPA for the linguistically inclined.

  3. Oro Mpaa, the language of a jungle-dwelling pre-technological culture. This was mainly an exercise in foreignness, forcing myself to depart from the comfortable indoeuropean look-and-feel of Jovian and Obrenje and to try my hand at some original grammar ideas. The resulting grammar, which uses serial verbs in place of prepositions and cases and in which there is no fundamental distinction between verbs and adjectives, makes translating very strenuous, but is probably my most original achievement in langmaking. Pronunciation is again rather non-trivial, the way I like it.