Before he wrote The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien was a linguist who created an entire family of elvish languages, tracing their evolution from a common antecedent. Today, partially inspired by Tolkien, partly by global language movements like Esperanto, and partly by the world of coding, an entire community of “Conlangers” — people who construct languages for fun — has emerged and flourishes online.
David J. Peterson is one of several conlangers who have taken their skill and passion to Hollywood and TV, in his case creating the Dothraki and Valyrian languages for HBO’s Game of Thrones, several languages for Syfy’s Defiance, and Shiväisith, the language used in Marvel’s Thor: The Dark World. His new book, The Art of Language Invention, out this week, offers tips and a framework for amateur conlangers, as well as background information for the uninitiated. He spoke to Flavorwire about language construction’s utility in art and in life.
Flavorwire: As you’ve been promoting the book, have you seen a growing enthusiasm for conlanging? Are more people getting into it?
David J. Peterson: I think it came in several stages. With Tolkien and the early 20th century, he inspired a new wave of conglangers who were mostly solitary throughout the rest of the 20th century. The Lord of the Rings movies brought it to a larger audience, and then a watershed moment was the Avatar films [with the Na’vi language]. They were so huge and reached people who hadn’t ever heard of other language creators or language. What I’m hoping for with my book is that, for people who hadn’t heard about it otherwise, they can take a look and it will give them some guidelines — if they want some help, if they want to know what other folks had done beforehand, they can find it all in the book.
Tolkien is interesting as a sort of partial godfather of the movement because he didn’t just invent languages but a whole etymology.
Some conlangers in the 2000s came from Tolkien, others came from programming, and some drew inspiration from Lojban or Esperanto. But those who drew from Tolkien , they showed others how they were building etymologies — and by the time you hit the early 2000s people really started to do it in earnest.
Now, for those of us who create naturalistic languages, we do try to create histories for them, though not everyone does it to the same extent. But one of the things I wanted to do in the book was to lay down how to do that. Especially with the evolution of grammar. Wherever your present state is, you decide, “I want to create the language for these people and this time.” So I’m looking at the language and how it’s evolved, and have to think about their history, how the speakers of the language came to be where they are.
Are there certain words you want to start with when constructing a language, like the verb “to be”?
Not all languages have words for “to be”! I usually have a sound system, and I start some dummy words that may not make it into the full language. I tense out the grammar and start with some specific words, like a concrete word for a human, an inanimate object, and for an animal. Then for verbs I use transitive, intransitive, and ditransitive options, so like,”give,” “sleep,” and “hug.” That’s when I start to work on the grammar, and after that I start creating words with more basic words: “pick up,” “sit,” “lie,” “sleep,” and the basic nouns like “man,” “women.” I start there and then move out to the more esoteric words.
When you’re inventing a language for a fictional world — for instance, the Dark Elves in Thor — how do you integrate what’s already there with what you have to invent? I know in the book you mention listing all of George R.R. Martin’s Dothraki words as a starting point.
So with Thor, both the director and I had an idea for what we wanted. If the Asgardians have clear inspirations from Scandinavian languages and Norse language, we were thinking the Dark Elves could be inspired by the Finnic languages.
I looked up anything I could find on the Dark Elves in the comic books and looked up the names I could find for any and all Dark Elves to see if they fit. And they were names like Malekith — they fit! My reaction was,”Yes, I must be on the right track.” In general, I try to incorporate whatever materials already exist — I ask for as much information [as I can get] about the people I’m creating the language for. The more I get, the clearer idea I have.
When you meet fans who speak your languages, how does it feel?
As a language creator, one who really understood the lay of the land back in the early 2000s, it’s really, really wild. The thing that blew me away the most is that one day I got a question from someone who asked if they had a translation right from a language I’d created way before Game of Thrones. It was for a tattoo, and he did get a tattoo from my own language that I had just created for me! I said, “If you ever come to California, I’m buying you lunch.”
I was wondering about tattoos. I, like many Flavorwire readers, am obsessed with elvish tattoos. What’s it like to see people get inked with your languages?
Oh yes, I’ve seen some in person. I don’t have tattoos, but now that I see a bunch with my own languages, I see that some tattoo artists are talented. The ones from Defiance are pretty cool, because that language, it has a unique script. One fan, she got a word from Defiance tattooed across her belly. It was perfectly done, perfectly centered.
What would we lose as viewers if the characters in these films just had funny accents instead of speaking a real language?
You can even leave created languages out of [the conversation] when you think about this. For example, I thought Amadeus was a fantastic movie, but it was jarring to have all these people talk standard American English. I would have loved to see the whole thing done in German even though I don’t speak German fluently, don’t follow it without subtitles — but I love to hear languages in their proper context. I love to hear people having full conversations. I saw another movie called Night Watch, a Russian vampire movie. All of it is in Russian, but they they do these really artistic thing with the subtitles, the subtitles are bleeding off the screen and expanding. It seems like hearing it in Russian with bleeding subtitles is the way you’re supposed to see it — that’s what I want!
You miss so much without the language. It’s an opportunity to convey this culture that is the invention of the writer: what are these people like?
Do you have a favorite language that’s in use today?
Hawaiian’s my favorite. I love all the Polynesian language, but Hawaiian, as far as its sound system, I think it really hits the sweet spot. It’s really found the right balance, which is so beautiful to my ear.
What are some of the uses of conlanging beyond the creative realm? How can we use it as a society?
Language can be used for communication. Take Esperanto. People that don’t share another language, they get together at Esperanto conferences, and sometimes they communicate so well, they have children nine months later! I’ve met people who have Esperanto as their first language for that reason.
One of the byproducts of conlanging is gaining a finer understanding and appreciation of language in general, which is something sorely lacking in a majority of societies — especially those like America, where majority is monolingual. Being bilingual, you have so much more of a different sense for what it means to be a citizen of the world and you know that there’s not one way that a language has to be.
I believe it’s easier to empathize with and understand other people if you think of their language as being a legitimate form of communication, rather than weird or foreign. So if you’re engaging with created languages in any way, and going on to want to learn more Earth languages, well if that’s the gateway, then let’s do it!