A Brief Guide to Fictional Languages in Literature


This week, we were treated to a great article on the creation of the Dothraki language, as it is spoken in the HBO adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones. Inspired by this new insight into the culture of Khal Drogo, we decided to take the opportunity to look into some other interesting fictional languages, from complete universes with many dialects to what amounts to English augmented by very creative slang. Before you rise up in righteous fury, this is only a guide to languages either solely or originally conceived of in books, so nerd-favorites Na’vi and Klingon are excluded — but you’ve already heard too much about them anyway. Click through to read our brief guide to fictional languages in literature, and let us know if we’ve missed any of your favorites in the comments.

Dothraki, A Game of Thrones

Though there is no word for “book” in the language of the nomadic Dothraki warriors, there are, of course, more than fourteen different words for “horse.” Or so has decreed David J. Peterson, the 30-year-old who expanded on the snippets of Dothraki in George R.R. Martin’s acclaimed fantasy series to create a full, speakable language for HBO’s adaptation. To do this, he first ruled out words that wouldn’t exist (not only “book” but “toilet” missed the cut — yikes), then formed “native and basic” words before building the grammar rules, starting with the “18 noun classes in Swahili and the negative verb forms in Estonian… He [then] scribbled sample sentences and added suffixes and prefixes to expand the vocabulary.” Eventually, Peterson hopes to grow the language to at least 10,000 words, which will definitely please the already-blossoming group of fans who’d like to be able to communicate with their favorite horse-lord. If you’re one of them, go here to begin your studies.

Essential Phrase: “Vezh fin saja rhaesheseres vo zigereo adoroon shiqethi!”

Translation: “The stallion that mounts the earth has no need for iron chairs!”

Quenya, Sindarin, Entish, etc, The Lord of the Rings

The languages of Middle Earth are perhaps the most famous fictional languages in all of literature — if only because of how many and extensively imagined they are. Tolkien was fascinated by language, first and foremost, and created many in his lifetime. “The invention of languages,” he once wrote, “is the foundation. The ‘stories’ were made rather to provide a world for the languages than the reverse.” Indeed, there at least five different Elvish languages alone, the most common of which (at least in the Third Age, when the books are set) being Sindarin. This tongue was derived from others of Tolkien’s invented tongues, but based more in grammar and sound on Welsh, with many Celtic-like consonant mutations and complex verb formations. You can find a very complete guide here.

Essential Phrase: “Lasto beth nin, tolo dan na ngalad.”

Translation: “Hear my voice, come back to the light.”

Newspeak, Nineteen Eighty-Four

In Orwell’s dystopian novel, Newspeak is a highly simplified derivative of English that seeks to remove any possibility of rebellion by eliminating the words that would allow the populace to conceive of it. All negatives are deemed redundant, which makes everyone pretty much sound like children, and words are divided into three categories based on the necessity of their usage. There is no word for “science.” Newspeak was based on Basic English, a simplified version of English invented by Charles Kay Ogden as an “international auxiliary language,” that Orwell first championed, but ultimately rejected. Orwell included an extensive guide to Newspeak in an appendix to the novel, which you can read here.

Essential Phrase: “Oldthinkers unbellyfeel Ingsoc.”

Translation: “Those whose ideas were formed before the Revolution cannot have a full emotional understanding of the principles of English Socialism” (almost).

Nadsat, A Clockwork Orange

Not strictly a complete fictional language, Nadsat is an argot used by the teenage thugs in Anthony Burgess’s classic novel. In addition to being an accomplished author, Burgess was a linguist and translator, and used these skills to create an Anglo-Russian register with a few Cockney rhyming principles mixed in for good measure. The slang’s moniker itself is the same as the Russian suffix “-teen.” Find a full glossary here.

Essential Phrase: “But where I itty now, O my brothers, is all on my oddy knocky, where you cannot go. Tomorrow is all like sweet flowers and the turning vonny earth and the stars and the old Luna up there… And all that cal.”

Translation: “But where I go now, O my brothers, is all on my own, where you cannot go. Tomorrow is like all sweet flowers and the turning smelly earth and the stars and the old moon up there… And all that crap.”

Mangani, Tarzan

The name of the language of the apes in Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Tarzan novels is the same as the languages word for the apes themselves, a compound of the words for “great” (man) and “ape” (gani). Mangani includes hand signs in conjunction with verbal signals, and while is universally described as having some “guttural aspect,” it is actually rather extensive and most words are specifically articulated. Check out a compendium of information on the language, including dictionaries and essays on grammar usage, here.

Essential Phrase: “Ka-goda?”

Translation: “Do you surrender?”

Syldavian, King Ottokar’s Sceptre , etc.

We don’t know about you, but when we were growing up we were pretty convinced that Syldavia, which figures in several of Tintin’s adventures was an actual small country in the Balkans. It is not, sadly, and therefore, Syldavian is a fictional language, apparently based on Marols, a dialect of Dutch spoken in Brussels. Though orthographically similar to Slavic languages, most of its grammar and vocabulary are Germanic, with several words based on French slang. For a complete study of the language, start here.

Essential Phrase: “Eih bennek, eih blavek.” (the Syldavian national motto)

Translation: “Here I am, here I stay.”

T-speak, A Visit From the Goon Squad

Though closer to today’s actual digital language than we’d like to admit, we can happily say that the handset-to-handset jargon used in Jennifer Egan’s novel is still at least a few days ahead of us (she doesn’t actually name the language in the novel, but the verb is “to T,” as in “I’m going to T you now,” so we extrapolated). Egan imagines characters that get tired of actual speech, resorting to texting each other while in the same room, everything as abbreviated as possible, with capital letters used to designate long vowels and double letters eliminated. With barely comprehensible missives like “up gOs th bldg… nxt 2 myn. no mOr Ar/lyt,” you may just feel the need to curl up in bed clutching your English degree and weep for the future. Or was that just us?

Essential Phrase: “u herd th nUs?”

Translation: “You heard the news?”

R’lyehian, “The Call of Cthulhu

Though H.P. Lovecraft never named the alien language that permeated his works, his fans have decided on R’lyehian (or sometimes Cthuvian), which is good enough for us. The alien language does not differentiate between parts of speech, pronouns are optional, and verbs, since the Old Ones do not experience linear time, may only be present or not-present. Find a complete guide to the language here.

Essential Phrase: “ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn.”

Translation: “In his house at R’lyeh dead Cthulhu lies dreaming.”