TRANSLATION Imaginary Languages

Have you ever thought of inventing your own language? If you write fantasy or science fiction, the idea may have crossed your mind. Julie Sullivan writes about invented languages in books. 
The function of invented languages is what the French call dépaysement a sense of being pulled out of your own world into a different one. These small doses of the weird can be a fun way to add a shiver of excitement or a thrill of the strange to your story. 
Tolkien's invented language and alphabet Quenya

As a child, I came across the idea of an imaginary language in Lord of the Rings, which I read when I was twelve (and I wrote to J.R.R. Tolkien and he wrote back a couple of times! But that's another story). Tolkien was a linguist and didn't begin with Middle Earth — he actually started off by inventing its languages, then created a world where they would belong. 
I loved the idea of a new language, and filled a notebook with Tolkien runes and made-up words. The only one I can remember today is ellosovadne, which I thought sounded beautiful, but I couldn't decide what it should mean. I drew maps of imaginary countries, trying to make the names sound as un-English as possible, although it turns out to be very hard to escape the influence of your native language.
The 12th-century imaginary alphabet of Lingua Ignota 

This urge to make up a new language is a very old one. One of the first recorded imaginary languages was described by Hildegard of Bingen, an abbess on the Rhine in the 1100s. She called it a lingua ignota, or unknown language, with a strange vocabulary full of z's and a grammar that resembled Latin's. A boy is zainz, a human being is inimois. This imaginary language, like Tolkien's, had its own alphabet. Later, Thomas More's Utopia (published in 1516) also features an invented language, and Jonathan Swift added words of the Lilliputian and Yahoo languages to Gulliver's Travels (1726).
Gulliver in Lilliput
In the film world, it has become more common to use an invented language to acknowledge the strangeness of a world foreign to the hero or heroine. Star Trek uses Klingon, which has become a fully fleshed-out language and is even on Google Translate. In the movie Arrival, based on a story by Ted Chiang, a linguist gradually realises that anyone who understands the aliens' pictoral language will see past, present and future at the same time.
A visualization of the imaginary language in Arrival

While the fictional languages of Star Wars have been criticized as crude and not realistic, films recently have made more of an effort to be authentic. In 1974, a linguist from UCLA made history as the first person to create a language for the screen, the Paku language of the television series Land of the Lost (the man who played the cave boy Cha-Ka still has his Paku dictionary). Dothraki, the language of the horse lords in Game of Thrones, and Valyrian, the classical language of that world, are real constructed languages with their own grammar. The writer, George R.R. Martin, had invented only a few words of his languages, but the series producers had a competition among 'conlangers' — people who construct languages for fun — and hired the winner, David Peterson, a linguist, to create more extensive versions. Peterson and his collaborators have since created more than a dozen other languages for film, television and video games, including for Shadow and Bone, based on the YA fantasy by Leigh Bardugo. The movie Avatar features Na'vi, a language spoken by the indigenous inhabitants of the moon Pandora, which was constructed by a professor with a Ph.D in linguistics. Alienese is the foreign language in Futurama.
The word for 'success' in Klingon: qapla'
One funny thing about these constructed languages is that their inventors become so fond of them that they keep on expanding them, and they can end up having a life of their own, like Esperanto, a language invented to promote world peace, which now has several hundred native speakers. During World War I, while he was in serving in the trenches, Tolkien overheard a fellow officer dreamily talking to himself about adding a subjunctive tense to his made-up language. No doubt it helped him take his mind away from the horrors of war. Today, there is a large community of 'conlangers' on Reddit (r/conlangs, r/conscripts, r/worldbuilding, r/neography,  among others).

Gallifreyan, the language of the Time Lords in Doctor Who

In Diana Wynne-Jones' 'travel guide' Tough Guide to Fantasyland (1996), highly recommended if you want to avoid clichés while writing any kind of fantasy, she writes about fictional languages:
Most Tours arrange for all inhabitants to speak the same Language or else for most people to know the Common Tongue, even if they speak some other tongue to their families. The exception to this is the OTHER CONTINENT, where the Tourist will have to master a little of the Language. On some Tours, the Management will arrange for a convenient translation SPELL to be cast just as the Tourist is entering the world...The Language of Spells is usually highly obscure. Sometimes it is the same as the Old Tongue, sometimes not. The Old Tongue is what the really important SCROLLS will be written in (possibly in HIEROGLYPHS or RUNES), and you will need a translator for that. There is only one of it. Evidently the former inhabitants spoke only the one Language. This seems to make it very potent...occasionally, when a Tourist is truly beleaguered... the Old Tongue has a way of suddenly making itself known. Then the Tourist will find her/himself suddenly crying out strange words....
The cover of Du Iz Tak, by Carson Ellis. The entire book uses an imaginary language, but children have no problem understanding it.
Children's authors, of course, have often invented languages. The imaginary eastern European lanugage Syldavian is spoken in two Tintin books. Ursula Nordstrom (who edited Charlotte's Web, Where the Wild Things Are, Little House on the Prairie, Goodnight Moon, and Harriet the Spy, among others) wrote a book called The Secret Language in which two unhappy little girls at boarding school make up a private language (leebossa means 'great'). Lapine is the rabbit-language of Watership Down, and J.K. Rowling invented Parseltongue

Riddley Walker, as imagined by Quentin Blake for the cover of the book

Most often, imaginary languages are found in books about alien worlds or futuristic settings. The language does not always come completely out of the blue. In Riddley Walker, by Russell Hoban, the young hero speaks a warped version of English as he travels through a dystopian England after a nuclear holocaust. The book begins: 'On my naming day when I come 12 I gone front spear and kilt a wyld boar...' The narrator of Cat's Cradle, by Kurt Vonnegut, travels to a Caribbean island where people speak a creole based on English. 'Twinkle twinkle little star' becomes 'Tsvent-kiul, tsvent-kiul, lett-pool store'. The famous time-travel story by Ray Bradbury, 'A Sound of Thunder', ends with the main character returning to modern times, but because he has accidentally stepped on a butterfly in the far-distant past, the sign on the wall of the agency now reads: 
The difference in the language sends a chill up your spine. Everything has changed.

If you are just adding a word or two of an exotic made-up language to your story, you don't need to think about it much. But if you want your language to be more extensive, or to feature as part of the plot, you might find these tips useful.


Julie Sullivan is a translator and SCWBI volunteer.

No comments:

We love comments and really appreciate the time it takes to leave one.
Interesting and pithy reactions to a post are brilliant but we also LOVE it when people just say they've read and enjoyed.
We've made it easy to comment by losing the 'are you human?' test, which means we get a lot of spam. Fortunately, Blogger recognises these, so most, if not all, anonymous comments are deleted without reading.

Words & Pictures is the Online Magazine of SCBWI British Isles. Powered by Blogger.