Photograph: PressBy Jessica Glenza
Once ridiculed for their nerdy pursuits, the inventors of ‘conlangs’ are coming out – and linguistic enthusiasts are joining them
For most language-learning software companies, Spanish is bread and butter.
But at least one company is obliging fans’ desire to be subsumed into the world of Game of Thrones. Living Language has released a comprehensive course on Dothraki, an invented tongue belonging to the show’s nomadic, horseback warriors sometimes called the “blood riders”.
The interest in invented languages, like Klingon and Elvish, appears a fanciful, if fruitless, pursuit to most. But to those who spend their time engineering aesthetic languages, recent interest has been nothing short of a coming-out party.
Even Apple is providing for invented languages. Apple’s top software engineer, Craig Federighi, touted the Klingon keyboard available for iOS 8 at Thursday’s product launch.
“More and more people are willing to publicly talk about this hobby,” said Christophe Grandsire-Koevoets, president of the Language Creation Society, via email. “Do not forget that up until a few years ago, language creation was viewed with suspicion or at best was ridiculed as a useless hobby, and many older [language inventors] (myself included) didn’t dare ‘come out’ as language creators due to the fear of being ridiculed.”
Even the grandfather of constructed languages, or “conlangs”, guarded his activities. JRR Tolkien, author of the Lord of the Rings trilogy and creator of Middle-earth languages such as Entish and Goldogrin, kept secret his penchant for language creation until a 1931 speech he called A Secret Vice.
“I might have called my paper a plea for a new art, or a new game, if occasional and painful confidences had not given me grave cause to suspect that the vice, though secret, is common; and the art (or game), if new at all, has at least been discovered by a good many other people independently,” wrote Tolkien.
Language creators and linguists say that viewers’ increasingly discerning taste in authentic-sounding conlangs allowed creators of such languages to find each other and flourish.
For the first time, a conlang inventor has a full-time job. HBO hired the creator of Dothraki, David J Peterson, to write dialogue for its characters after a contest on the LCS website. The society was founded by Peterson in 2007. Its president believes he is the only person in the world to invent languages full-time.
Now, a conlang sub-Reddit is “bristling” with activity, LCS created a jobs board and there is an active Tumblr community. Mainstream linguists are beginning to take an interest in the activities of the still somewhat marginalized community.
“These fictional languages are having a moment,” said Arika Okrent, author of In the Land of Invented Languages, linguist and editor of the Week. “A lot of it has to do with the care that’s gone into the world creation. You can’t just have a show without some historical land or plant some group of people without fully imagining how they live, what their metaphors are, who they are.”
Swarthmore College linguist Nathan Sanders, who teaches a course on conlangs, said that especially among science fiction and fantasy readers, “random jumbles of letters and apostrophes”, are no longer acceptable.
And anecdotally, conlangs produced for artistic purposes, such as Na’vi (Avatar), and Ku (The Interpreter) are being invented for an increasingly large number of productions, and appear to have grown in prominence since the late 2000s.
Whether we should view these inventions as art or as a tool, like most do for everyday language, remains debated. Some linguists find the creation of new languages frustrating in light of the accelerating extinction of endangered languages. More than 80% of the world’s (at least) 5,000 languages could disappear over the next century, some linguists estimate.
“I would say at first glance it looks like it’s sort of in competition, people flocking to these silly [languages],” said Okrent. “Conlangs are, people who do this as a hobby are, very well versed in the features of a lot of these dying language, or exotic languages, because they love those features and want them to continue and exist.”