Monday, March 22, 2010

Wow! Great article on invented languages

My friend Dave Malinowski put me onto this terrific article, where two experts on invented languages answer questions about the topic. The experts are Paul Frommer, inventor of Avatar's Na'vi language, and Arika Okrent, author of "In the Land of Invented Languages." Check it out!


  1. It was interesting, I guess. Lot's of good general info for newbies.

  2. Atsiko, I'm assuming that some of my visitors are new to the process (if not the idea) of inventing languages. It's nice to see an article like this from high-profile people whose names can easily be recognized. I like to see more attention drawn to languages, and to the issues behind creating languages. Mind you, there's always more to be said!

  3. Arika's book is a terrific read.

    Don't forget Esperanto tho'

    We need an international language, for the future, as well. Also

    A glimpse of the Esperanto language can be seen at :)

  4. Brian, thanks for your comment on the article. I encourage you to write your own blog post on the topic of Esperanto, since you're clearly so passionate about it.

  5. I explored language as a biological and cultural phenomenon in the context of SF/F in To Seek Out New Life: The Biology of Star Trek. An excerpt relevant to artificial languages is below.

    As a multilingual cultural half-breed, I also wanted to take this opportunity to tell you how insightful I find your articles.



    From Chapter 8, Rosetta Stones and Black Monoliths:

    "Languages like Esperanto are one layer deep; worse yet, they are a patchwork of vocabulary, which makes them look as inviting as a Borg with a full load of prostheses. Language, beyond its physical manifestation, evolves out of shared experience. It does not perform well in a cultural vacuum.

    This may explain the unexpected success of artificial languages which are quite complex. Good examples are J. R. R. Tolkien's invented languages for the various races in The Lord of the Rings and its associated stories (Old Earth Numenorian, Elvish, Dwarvish) and Marc Okrand's tlhIngan-Hol, the language of the Klingons. Artificial they may be, but those who take trouble to learn these languages enter cultures with their own history, politics, customs and quirks.

    The Klingon language, because of the inordinate allure of a warrior culture to the couch space explorers that make up most of the Star Trek audience, has taken off spectacularly. Currently it boasts at least one Language Institute and several translations of the classics. Shakespeare, from whom Star Trek has borrowed heavily in other ways (plots, script lines), figures prominently in the Klingon canon.

    When spoken, especially by someone with the vocal apparatus of Michael Dorn who plays Lieutenant Worf, Klingon sounds like a combination of Arabic and German -- awash in gutturals and glottal stops. Exotic all right, but only to people who know nothing but English. Klingon falls into the group of the staccato, mostly monosyllabic languages like English and Chinese, that seem poised to inherit this planet during its next historical cycle.

    I got a kick out of reading in Wired magazine that Klingon sentence construction (object-verb-subject) is unique and never encountered on Earth. I wrote to them that, actually, such word order is commonplace even among our familiar Indo-European group -- Greek, Russian, German. Most Indo-European and Semitic languages are inflected, which leaves much freedom to syntax. I pointed out that, in fact, Klingon syntax and grammar are rather similar to that found in British Border ballads and in Elizabethan rhetoric, perhaps not a bad choice for swashbuckling barbarians. The Wired people are good sports -- they published my letter.

    Nevertheless, if you go through The Klingon Dictionary you discover that Klingon is closer to a pidgin language. Such languages develop at trading posts, whose inhabitants tend to be polyglot or in areas that don't have a shared language. Such a language has developed in Papua New Guinea which, because of its isolating mountainous ranges, is home to one third of Earth's 6,000 languages.

    The Klingon language finally betrays its artificial origins by the fact that its vocabulary does not reflect the concerns of the people that speak it. People who live in the Arctic circle have many words for snow, though I think the reputed one hundred for Inuit is an exaggeration. Those who live in deserts have multiple words for sand and sandstorm -- a select sample comes up in Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient. People culturally concerned with honor tend to have several nuanced words for it. Greek has three, Japanese half a dozen. Not so tlhIngan-Hol: every third or fourth word out of the Klingons' mouth is "honor" and "battle" -- but The Klingon Dictionary shows a single word for each.

    Klingon has gained enough status that American Star Trek watchers will put up with subtitles -- a considerable sacrifice for the culture that invented dubbing and TV remote controls. That marks the far extent of the Star Trek fans' concession to multilingualism."

  6. I enjoyed the article thoroughly. It made me want to get cracking on Calindria again and figuring out the language/cultural world of Chirrith. Thank you for sharing, Juliette. I swear, you're the only blog that keeps me fuelled with a good dose of language, culture, and why I should have fun actually creating them.