This is a little bit of a weird topic for a blog with the tagline “a blog about language in the ‘real world’,” but today I’m going to talk about constructed languages. I was inspired by a post about Parseltongue (from the Harry Potter series) from Gretchen McCulloch’s wonderful blog, All Things Linguistic. She reblogged it from someone else, but I wanted to advertise both of them here because a) Gretchen’s blog is very interesting; and b) she gave me a lot of great advice for starting this blog.
I haven’t seen the Harry Potter movies for a while, so I only remember Parseltongue being some vague hissing, but it was developed very carefully as a “real” constructed language, taking into account real snake physiology. For example, snake lips aren’t as pliable as human lips, so sounds like “b” and “w” are hard to make, as well as vowels like “o” like “boat” and “u” like “boot”.
I like constructed languages for a couple of reasons. First of all, I think it’s really great that people can be so creative with linguistics. Constructed languages provide a very public venue for non-linguists to appreciate linguistics. It also gives me a bit of faith in humanity, specifically human integrity; because really they could be speaking nonsense (a la the Great Dictator) and 95% of people wouldn’t care. But more often than not, they put the effort in to make a linguistically possible language, even for Parseltongue.
Following this theme of constructed languages, I will now discuss two of the most well-known constructed languages: Elvish and Klingon. Entire books have been written about them (like this and this), but I’m going to focus on some of the major points.
J.R.R. Tolkien was actually an academic linguist, mainly studying the history of the English language. However, he is far more well-known for writing The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings series. One of the reasons Tolkien wrote these books was to use the languages he had constructed. He wrote in a letter in 1956 saying that Esperanto and other constructed languages “are dead, far deader than ancient unused languages, because their authors never invented any Esperanto legends.” While you could certainly make the argument that these constructed languages have not fared any better than Esperanto, they do have a very dedicated following among certain niche groups. The Elvish Language Fellowship (E.L.F.), for example, publishes two print journals about the subject.
As a historical linguist (a linguist who studies the history and long-term changes in language), J.R.R. Tolkien was extremely detailed in developing the way that the Elvish languages evolved. So much so that when I was an undergraduate, the historical linguistics research group I was in dedicated an entire meeting to sound change in Elvish. In fact, Elvish is not a single language, but an entire family of languages, like the Romance languages. In general, when people talk about “Elvish,” they are talking about Quenya.
Quenya’s sounds were based mainly on Latin. The words are put together in a style linguists call “agglutinative,” which means that smaller particles of words form larger words. English is not a great example for an agglutinative language, but it does act like one occassionally. For example, the word “unbelievable,” has three separate parts: “un-believe-able.” The parts between the dashes are called “morphemes,” and in agglutinative languages nouns, verbs and other parts of speech are morphemes which form one long word, often containing a whole sentence. The agglutinative structure of Quenya is based on the agglutinative structures of Finnish.
The writing system (Tengwar) is more like the Semitic systems where the consonant is written out and the vowel is a symbol above the larger consonant letter. So for example, in English a word like “book” would be written “bk” with an accent symbolizing the “oo” vowel. The general shape of the letter is different depending on where it is pronounced in the mouth.
Klingon first appeared in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, where there were four lines of Klingon. However, the full version of the language did not appear until the next film, for which director Leonard Nimoy commissioned Mark Okrand to create a full language. Mark Okrand has a PhD in Linguistics from UC Berkeley, where he worked on Native American languages. You can see Dr. Okrand discuss it himself in this video.
In some ways, things were already decided for the author. Klingon names and some short sentences had to be part of the language because they were used in previous films. Aside from these restrictions, Okrand deliberately designed Klingon to seem “alien”. He created a sound inventory with relatively uncommon sounds like retroflexes (used in Indian languages) and uvulars (used in Arabic). He also chose an unusual word-order: object-verb-subject. In English, this would become “them like I”. In most languages, subjects come before the object (closer to “I like them” or “I them like”).”
He also made prefixes for some pronouns (modelled after some languages in the Himalayas) that contained information about both the object and the subject. For example, “vI”+verb means that I do something to you. If you want to say you perform that same verb to me, it would be “qa”+verb.
There are many, many resources on the internet for these languages, and hundreds of others, on the internet; I encourage you to explore them!