Fictional Languages & Their Origin Story
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While most familiar languages have evolved naturally over long periods of time, people interested in the art of language have put their talents to good use by developing their own languages, for a variety of different reasons. These individuals are known as conlangers, and their creations, conlangs (for “constructed languages”).
Regardless of the context, whether for a film, book, television show, or personal use, good conlangers need to keep in mind:
- the speakers of their language (human or non-human),
- the language’s format of transmission (spoken, written, or signed),
- how the various parts of the body are used to express the language,
- and how to make words build on each other organically.
The conlangs in this article are well-known examples of conlangers doing their jobs so effectively that their creations enter popular use.
Check out these fictional languages and their origins.
This blog is for entertainment purposes only. Interpro Translation Solutions, the author of this blog, and our linguists don’t claim to be an expert in any of these fictional languages.
The Klingon language, also known as Klingonese, is a conlang used in the Star Trek universe.
It originated on the fictional planet Qo'noS, the home of the Klingon species. Created by linguist Marc Okrand, Klingon was first introduced in the movie Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) and gained significant attention in subsequent Star Trek films and television series.
The goal with Klingon was to create a believable and coherent language for the warlike Klingon characters, while making it sound unlike any human language. The task began with expanding a few lines of guttural sounds spoken by actors in the original Star Trek series to an organized linguistic system. Drawing inspiration from the existing sounds and phrases, Okrand meticulously crafted the Klingon language, giving it a distinct grammatical structure, vocabulary, and pronunciation.
Over time, the Klingon language has evolved into a fully functional constructed language with its own grammar rules, syntax, and vocabulary, becoming one of the most well-known fictional languages in popular culture. It is considered a real language, complete with books and resources for enthusiasts to learn and speak it. There are around 100 fluent speakers of Klingon, and there are even Klingon translations of Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.
Interpro Translation Solutions does not offer Klingon translation services…yet!
Pig Latin is a playful word game often used by children to create a secret or coded version of English words. To convert a word into Pig Latin, follow these simple rules:
- Take the first consonant or consonant cluster of the word and move it to the end of the word. If the word starts with a vowel, you keep it as it is.
- Add "ay" to the new end of the word.
- "Pig" becomes "igpay."
- "Latin" becomes "atinlay."
The origins of Pig Latin are unclear, but it has been a popular game among English-speaking children for generations. It serves as a fun way to communicate secret messages among friends and has appeared in various forms of media, including books, movies, and TV shows.
As it is not a true language, it lacks complex grammar or vocabulary rules, making it more of an entertaining diversion than a fully-functional communication system.
To truly develop a conlang, speakers should move beyond simply substituting words for others in the same sentence structure, and take a holistic approach to viewing the fictional culture whose language they are creating.
Dothraki and Valyrian
Developed by linguist David J. Peterson for the TV series Game of Thrones, and based on the few words and phrases already provided by author George R.R. Martin in the books on which the show was based, Dothraki is the language spoken by the nomadic Dothraki people in the fictional world most famous for the characters of Westeros.
The Dothraki language has no written characters, but has still found an audience. It was first made famous in its fluent portrayal on the lips of actor Jason Momoa who, surprisingly, only has a background in English. Peterson won a competition among conlangers for the opportunity to design the language, and based it on Estonian, Inuktitut, Turkish, Russian, and Swahili.
Also consider Valyrian, another language crafted by David J. Peterson for Game of Thrones.
Valyrian has multiple forms and is spoken by the characters descended from the former empire of Valyria (analogous to our own Rome). Like other languages discussed here, in its world, Valyrian has been splintered among different locales and thus is beginning to be split into entirely different languages. This language draws inspiration from older Earth languages like Latin.
This serpentine communication, famously expressed by Harry Potter and Lord Voldemort in J.K. Rowling’s iconic book series, is an example of how human/non-human differences impact the use of sounds.
Since snakes have neither lips nor vocal folds, they cannot convey words the way humans do, which creates a somewhat difficult language barrier. It’s tricky to classify Parseltongue as a language, as it is more a series of sounds than anything written, but it is certainly distinctive. Elements of this conlang are similar to Arabic, as well as Niger Congo dialects.
Interestingly, in French, “Parseltongue” is translated fourchelangue, or “forked tongue.” Can you guess in which language J.K. Rowling majored?
In J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle-earth legendarium, he developed multiple Elvish languages, including Sindarin and Quenya.
Sindarin is perhaps the father of all modern conlangs, and, since Tolkien was himself a linguist, set a high standard for future fictional languages to come. Sindarin draws heavily from some of Tolkien’s favorite languages, Finnish, Old Norse, Welsh, and Irish.
Tolkien’s thousands of words and notes were built upon by dedicated fans, notably David Salo, enabling the completed lines of dialogue spoken in the Peter Jackson movies decades after Tolkien laid down his pen for the last time.
As mentioned in the introduction, languages change over time based on migration, social stimuli, and tastes. Tolkien established this principle in his own world, dividing Sindarin into the dialects of Doriathrin, Falathrin, North Sindarin, and Noldorin Sindarin. Sindarin itself grew from Common Telerin, itself a child of Common Eldarin, which came from Primitive Quendian, the original language of all Elves. The written script of Sindarin also changed from the Cirth to the Tengwar.
Outside of the world of Middle-earth, in a metatextual way, Tolkien also embarked on a linguistic evolution of his own as his tastes and conceptions of languages changed.
Developed by linguist Paul Frommer for the movie Avatar, Na'vi is the language spoken by the humanoid alien inhabitants of the planet Pandora.
Director James Cameron had written around thirty words early in the development of the film, but felt that a full language was needed to flesh out the world he was creating. To make the language easier on the actors to learn, Frommer used only elements found in the English language, but in a unique combination.
If the actors made mistakes, which they often did, these were attributed to the human characters’ tenuous grasp on the conlang or even incorporated by Frommer into the Na’vi language.
Frommer has taken an active role in the further development of his conlang, translating Avatar’s soundtrack lyrics, creating a compendium, and maintaining a blog on which he posts new words or clarifies grammar. Frommer has described the language as having a “Polynesian flavor.”
Created by George Orwell for his dystopian novel 1984, Newspeak is a fictional language designed to restrict freedom of thought and control the minds of the citizens of Oceania.
Unlike the other languages considered in this article, which change because society changes, in Orwell’s world society changes due to the restrictions of language. Put aptly by Orwell, “if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.”
While Newspeak follows most rules of English grammar, words are far simpler, and continue to grow shorter while losing meaning. Newspeak serves as Orwell’s critique of the decline of the English language, which, aside from its lost artistry, represents a decrease in thought as its speakers lose the nuance granted by diversity of language. The population can only speak, as it were, in black and white, as the variety of colors that give language its beauty is thrown out. Newspeak was created as a warning to Orwell’s readers.
The alien tree-like creature, first introduced in Marvel Comics and later made famous by the Guardians of the Galaxy films, speaks the simplest language in this article, composed primarily of three words: “I am Groot” (Groot itself coming from the Dutch word meaning “tall”).
Logically, it seems that Groot’s inflections within sentences convey the meaning of other words and phrases. In fact, the character Thor states that Groot’s language could be taught in a class.
But James Gunn, the director of all three Guardians films, intended for Groot’s language to only be understood by those who connect with Groot over a period of time. Groot’s teammates learn to understand his speech by growing close with him from the first film to the second.
At the end of the third film, Groot finally speaks a phrase the audience can understand, meaning the viewers have finally reached that level of closeness with Groot.
Richard Adams created the Lapine language for his 1972 book Watership Down.
The word “Lapine” comes from the French word for rabbit, lapin, which is appropriate since the novel’s main characters are rabbits. Adams provided several dozen distinct words for the rabbits’ names and objects encountered in their world. The conlang developed slowly and individually; in the words of Adams, “when the rabbits needed a word for something, so did I.”
As a result, some the words resemble the sound they describe, such as hrududu, meaning “motor vehicle,” while others just came from the author’s mind. The conlanger wanted to create a language that sounded “fluffy,” like rabbits themselves. Modern readers have seen the influences of Welsh, Irish, Scottish Gaelic, and even Arabic.
Constructed languages like these add depth and richness to fictional worlds and cultures, enhancing the experience and immersing audiences and readers. In that way, there is a connection between the real and the fictional, as immersion in any culture depends on a knowledge of its language.
Many conlangs have gained substantial followings outside of their original media, with enthusiasts learning and using these languages in fan communities. Though it may blend into the background of our days, language is truly a complex and miraculous phenomenon in all its forms, whether it has taken thousands of years or a decade to develop.