Constructing a Language: A Look at Invented Tongues

white plastic beads with black letters placed randomly

Many of the 2010 Best Picture Oscar nominees had something in common: a focus on language. Much of The Hurt Locker (the winner) is spoken in Arabic; some of District 9, in Afrikaans. The plot of Inglourious Basterds hinges on characters’ ability (or inability) to understand multiple languages. Up gives dogs the ability to speak, and both District 9 and Avatar feature made-up languages. District 9’s is essentially gibberish, but Na’vi, the language spoken in Avatar, is different. It’s “real.” It has grammar, syntax, and a vocabulary of about 1,000 words. But only one person in the world can speak the language: Paul Frommer, the man who made it up.

Probably the most widely known language maker is L.L. Zamenhof. You may not recognize the name, but you’ve probably heard of his creation: Esperanto.

Zamenhof grew up in Bialystok in the mid-1800s—then a Russian town, today a part of Poland. He considered Bialystok to be divided by language: its citizens spoke Polish, German, Yiddish, or Russian, but few were fluent in more than one. Life was unwaveringly tense. As he put it, “The diversity of languages is the first, or at least the most influential, basis for the separation of the human family into groups of enemies.”

And so, Zamenhof decided to undo what Babel had done. In 1887, he published the first Esperanto grammar book.

He’d created a sort of Slavic-Romance mix, with highly regular spelling and grammar. Zamenhof intended his language to be unambiguous and very easy to learn, and it is. An institute in Germany conducted a study of French high school language-learners and determined they took to Esperanto the quickest, in about 150 hours. By comparison, it took the high schoolers 1,000 hours to get comfortable in Italian, 1,500 hours for English, and 2,000 for German.

Today, Esperanto is spoken as a second language by hundreds of thousands—some estimate millions—of people, in over 100 countries. It has the added distinction of having about 2,000 native speakers, taught from birth.

Prior to Esperanto—which more or less changed the ballgame—plenty of other creative people engineered languages of their own. Notables included Thomas Urquhart (translator of Rabelais) and Gottfried Leibniz (philosopher and co-inventor of calculus). Urquhart’s was a bust; so was Leibniz’s, but he had the luck to accidentally establish the field of binary numbers in the process.

John Wilkins—creator of the metric system, first secretary of the Royal Society, and all-around genius—created his own, known as Real Character. The symbols come from no existing language (they look totally alien at first), the words can be any length and made up as needed, and the spelling is taxonomic. This means that a word’s spelling acts like the classification scheme you know from biology class (kingdom, phylum, class, order…)—a word’s first two letters put it in a broad category (called a genus), and each subsequent letter narrows the idea. So if de means “element,” deb might mean fire, deba the flame itself, and so on. Real Character was intended to be a universal language of the sciences. Understandably, it did not catch on.

Today, constructed languages exist all over the world, most of them spoken by small but highly active populations of hobbyists, linguists, and occasionally native speakers. (Click here for an incomplete but mind-blowing list.) Esperanto is probably the most successful. UNESCO recognizes it as an official tongue. It has its own flag. It’s even been featured in a few movies: before he was Captain Kirk, William Shatner starred in a movie done entirely in Esperanto. But lately, a popular trend in constructed languages has been to specially make them for movies. Like Na’vi.

In 2006, Paul Frommer, a professor of communications at USC, was approached by James Cameron to create a language—a realistic but exotic-sounding language—for the blue humanoid aliens in Avatar. Cameron gave Frommer a list of few dozen “example” words, words he’d made up that captured the sound he wanted for the alien language. To Frommer they sounded Polynesian. From them, he created a full, systematic language for the Na’vi, complete with a 27-letter alphabet, noun inflections, verb conjugations, a defined grammar, and a 1,000-word lexicon. He also taught the cast how to speak it, though none of the actors became remotely fluent. Currently, only Frommer is. He has plans to release a Na’vi dictionary.

Movies and books have seen the creation of some of the wildest and most unique languages of the 20th century. J.R.R. Tolkien, a linguist by trade, created more than a dozen written and spoken languages for The Hobbit and his Lord of the Rings trilogy. Most are runic or Scandinavian in one way or another, and several can be heard in the movie trilogy. Another language created for the movies—but, unlike Tolkien’s, essentially used and forgotten—is Mondoshawan, created for The Fifth Element. Actress Milla Jovovich speaks it throughout the picture; she and director (and now, ex-husband) Luc Besson created it together, even writing letters to each other in it.

And there’s Klingon, that constantly cited example of alien-speak. Created for Star Trek III: The Search for Spock by linguist Marc Okrand, it was deliberately designed to sound abrasive and guttural. The language uses almost all consonants, much like some Native American dialects. Complicating the use of Klingon—and yes, many use it, and about a dozen are fluent in it—is its grammar: most words are war- or technology-related, making it difficult to discuss the weather or to ask where the bathroom is. Other complex rules—backwards sentence formation, no adjectives, no verb for “to be,” and few color-words—make translating from Klingon a task for the stout-hearted.

That goes double for translating to Klingon. But for the truly hard-core speaker, several literary masterpieces have been translated into the language. The most notable is Hamlet, which was translated into warrior-speak after Star Trek VI depicted a Klingon (actor Christopher Plummer) periodically rattling off Shakespeare. He recites it in English, but the in-joke is that he is translating from “the original Klingon.”

How does the Bard sound in the original Klingon? Hamlet’s immortal dilemma, “To be, or not to be—that is the question,” becomes the somewhat rockier “taH pagh taHbe’—DaH mu’tlheghvam vIqelnIS!”

Click here to see our top five invented tongues.

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