– Vic Reeves, Shooting Stars
There are an estimeted 900 constructed languages (or ‘conlangs’) in existence, most of which are spoken fluently by nobody at all. The construction of artificial languages is an obssession of many people, a ‘A Secret Vice‘ in the words of J. R. R. Tolkien.
The history of conlangs is explored in Arika Okrent‘s hugely entertaining In the Land of Invented Languages: Esperanto rock Stars, Klingon Poets, Loglan Lovers, and the Mad Dreamers Who Tried to Build a Perfect Language (2009) and From Elvish to Klingon: Exploring Invented Languages edited by Michael Adams, both of which I have reviewed on my blog.
However, as we’ll see, these categories and subcategories have a considerable overlap.
The earliest documented invented language was constructed by Hildegard von Bingen (Saint Hildegard, or Sibyl of the Rhine), a 12th Century Garman nun, composer and polymath. Hildegard was a remarkable figure who left behind between 70 and 80 musical compositions, some of which are collected as Symphonia armoniae celestium revelationum; several plays including the morality play, Ordo Virtutum (Play of the Virtues); three books of divine visions, Scivias (Know the Way, 1151), Liber vitae meritorum (Book of Life’s Merits) and De operatione Dei (Of God’s Activities, or Liber divinorum operum, Book of Divine Works); the natural science books Physica and Causae et Curae; and Lingua Ignota per simplicem hominem Hildegardem prolata, a book about her Latinate language Lingua Ignota (or ”unknown language”) originally thought to be a universal language but now understood to have been intended for mystical purposes.
Lingua Ignota is an a priori language with a recorded glossary of 1011 words, a gramatical structure similar to Latin, and a 23 letter alphabet, the litterae ignotae. The glossary is arranged hierarchically, naturally headed by terms for God and the angels (she was, after all, Abbess of Rupertsberg), then human beings and their family relationships, followed by body-parts, illnesses, religious and worldly ranks, craftsmen, days, months, clothing, household implements, plants, and birds and insects. There are no terms for mammals other than bats (ranked among the birds), and the ‘Argumzio’, a type of gryphon, also categorised among the birds.
Constructed languages, particularly philosophical languages, really took off in the 17th Century with most intellectual figures of the time taking an interest. Many were fascinated by the Chinese writing system; they believed that Chinese characters represented things and ideas rather than words, as evidenced by the fact that other Eastern languages such as Japanese and Korean used Chinese characters despite pronouncing the words quite differently. Europe had already adopted a similar universal system for mathematics – Arabic and Hindi numerals and mathematical and astrological symbols which came West with the Enlightenment – and there seemed no reason language could not adopt a similar, universal, logical and unambiguous system. Francis Bacon (1561–1626) termed such a hypothetical language type ‘real character’
Among the earliest pioneers of a priori languages was Francis Lodowyck (1619–1694), a successful merchant of Dutch origin living in London who saw a universal language as an invaluable aid to international trade. Lodowyck’s work includes the fantastically titled A Common Writing: Whereby two, although not understanding one the others Language, yet by the helpe thereof, may communicate their minds one to another. Composed by a Well-willer to Learning. Printed for the Author, MDCXLVII (1647) and The Ground-Work, Or Foundation Laid, (or so intended) For the Framing of a New Perfect Language: And an Vniversall or Common Writing. And presented to the consideration of the Learned, By a Well-willer to Learning (1652).
A Common Writing (1647) proposes a ‘real character’ in which basic ideas – or ‘Radixes’ – are represented by individual symbols from which derivatives are created by the addition of diacritical marks; for instance, the symbol or radix meaning ‘to drink’ (resembling a backwards 6) can be transformed into ‘the drinker’, ‘drink’, ‘the drinking’, ‘drunkard’, ‘drunkenness’ or ‘drinking-house’ depending on the addition of hook-like appellations. The Ground-Work (1652) used a similar system of Radixes and derivatives but this time the radical characters were based on the digits 1-9 and zero; the Radixes were therefore numerical references to numbered entries in a lexicon which the reader would then have to look up.
German philosopher and mathematician Gottfried Leibniz (1646-1716) was another European intellectual concerned with a universal language. His algebraic ‘characteristica universalis‘ was concieved as a universal symbolic language, or ‘algebra of thought’, capable of expressing all conceptual (scientific, mathematical and metaphysical) thought. This language would operate on a framework of rules for symbolic manipulation that he called a ‘calculus ratiocinator‘.
Solresol was a musical a priori language devised by French schoolteacher François Sudre in 1817. It is constructed from the seven notes of the musical scale, considered by most Europeans of the time to be universal; these are represented by the solfège syllables do, re, mi, fa, sol, la and si most people will recognise from the song ”Do-Re-Mi” from the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical The Sound of Music (1959).
Musical language had already been speculated about in Francis Godwin‘s proto-sf novel The Man in the Moone: or A Discourse of a Voyage Thither (published in 1638 under the pseudonym ‘Domingo Gonsales’: see my essays on The Origins of Science Fiction and Science Fiction and Linguistics); it also features in the later Hungarian fantasy novels Utazás Faremidóba Voyage to Faremido, 1916) and Capillária (1921) by Frigyes Karinthy.
The most successful auxiliary language is Esperanto. Esperanto was created by Ludwig Lazarus Zamenhof in 1887. Unlike Solresol and Volapük, Esperanto is an a posteriori language created from pre-existing elements.
Zamenhof was from Białystok in Poland, then part of the Russian Empire, and was raised to speak both Russian, his father’s tongue, and Yiddish, his mother’s. Bialystok was an ethnically diverse town with a Yiddish speaking Jewish majority, and substantial numbers of Poles, Germans, and Belarusians. Zamenohof’s father was a teacher of German and Zamenhof, not surprisingly, developed an interest in languages, learning French, Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and English, plus some Italian, Spanish and Lithuanian.
Like Schleyer, his motivation for creating an auxiliary language was Utopian. His first attempt at creating an auxiliary language was Lingwe uniwersala was almost finished. He published Lingvo internacia: Antaŭparolo kaj plena lernolibro (International language: Foreword and complete textbook) in 1887 under the pseudonym “Doktoro Esperanto” (”Doctor Hopeful”) as to create an auxiliary language even then was to risk ridicule, which would have damaged his professional standing as an ophthalmologist.
Esperanto has a 28 letter written alphabet consisting of a b c ĉ d e f g ĝ h ĥ i j ĵ k l m n o p r s ŝ t u ŭ v z. Most of these letters are pronounced as in English, with the exceptions of c (a voiceless alveolar affricate), ĉ (voiceless palato-alveolar affricate), ĝ (voiced palato-alveolar affricate), x (voiceless velar fricative), ĵ (voiced palato-alveolar fricative), ŝ (voiceless palato-alveolar fricative) and ŭ (semivowel).
Zamenhof also created the philosophy of Homaranismo (Esperanto for “Humanitarianism” or “Humanitism”), which he originally called ‘Hillelism’ as it was based largely on the teachings of Hillel the Elder, a 1st Centuri Rabi. The foundation was the ‘Golden Rule‘: One should treat others as one would like others to treat oneself. As with Esperanto Zamenhof’s philosophy was intended to bridge the cultural gaps between different people, and this was closely linked to his philosophy of language, as can be seen from the opening statements of his Declaration of Homaranismo:
- I am a human being, and I believe that there are only human ideals and ideals linked to the country of origin; every ideal which brings hatred among peoples and entails the power of one ethnicity over another I believe it to be human egoism, which sooner or later must disappear and to which disappearance I must contribute according to my possibilities.
- I believe that all peoples are equally part of humankind, and I value every person only according to his personal values and actions, and not according to his/her origin. Every offense or persecutions of people because they belong to a different ethnicity, with a different language or religion, I regard it as a barbarity.
- I believe that every country does not belong to a particular group of people, but equally to every people who live in it, regardless of their language or religion; the mixing of the country’s interests with those of one or another group of people, language or religion I regard it as reminiscence of barbarian times, when there was only the right of fist and sword.
- I believe that in his/her own family life each person has the natural and indisputable right to speak whatever language or dialect he/she wants and to confess whatever religion he/she wants; nevertheless, when communicating with people from other origins he/she must, when it is possible, aim to use a neutral language and to live according to neutral religious principles. Every attempt of a person to impose his/her language or religion to other people when it is not absolutely necessary, I regard it as a barbarity
Esperanto is spoken by between 10,000 to 2,000,000 people in 115 countries worldwide. ‘Native speakers’ included the father of economist George Soros who changed the family name from Schwartz to Soros in 1936 out of fear of the increased anti-semitism which accompanied the rise of fascism. ‘Soros’ is Esperanto for “will soar”.
Although not widely used in the real world it has proven popular with science fiction authors like Harry Harrison; it is spoken in his Deathworld series (1960) and in The Stainless Steel Rat (1961) and its sequels.
Esperanto is often used to signify a non-specific ‘exotic’ in film and television. Shop signs in Fritz Lang‘s Metropolis (1927) and the Charlie Chaplin film The Great Dictator (1940) appear in Esperanto; Lang’s later film, The Thousand Eyes of Dr. Mabuse (1960) was based on the Esperanto novel novel Mr. Tot Aĉetas Mil Okulojn (1931) by Polish author Jean Forge (though the film itself was in German). The Bing Crosby and Bob Hope vehicle Road to Singapore (1940) features a song with Esperanto lyrics sung by natives of the fictional East Indies island ‘Kaigoon’.
More recently, Esperanto can be heard in the announcements over the public address system in Andrew Niccol‘s Gattaca (1997) and both heard and seen in David Goyer‘s Blade: Trinity (2004). Elements of Esperanto also form part of Kryptonian language in the animated movie Superman/Batman: Apocalypse (2010).
Esperanto also appears on bilingual signs aboard the Red Dwarf in the first two series of the long-running BBC science fiction comedy: levels are signposted “Level/Nivelo [###]” and the cinema is signed “Cinema/Kinejo”. Arnold Rimmer can be seen unsuccessfully trying to learn the language in ”Kryten”, the seventh episode of the second season; Dave Lister appears to speak it fluently.
Basis English is a controlled language with a limited vocabulary.
Basic English was championed for its clarity and simplicity by Whinston Churchill and, initially, by George Orwell, Orwell later became concerned about the propoganda and social engineering abilities of controlled languages, however, and parodied Basic English as Newspeak in his dystopian novel Nineteen Eight-Four (1949).
Newspeak itself was parodied by Anthony Burgess the Workers’ English of his Orwell pastiche 1985 (1978). I’ll return to the link between dystopia and linguistic control in my essay Science Fiction & Linguistics.
Loglan phrases appear in Brown’s utopian sf novel The Troika Incident (1970)
Lojban is a community-based englelang derived from Logban.
Láadan is a feminist language created by linguist and science fiction author Suzette Haden Elgin and is designed to express concepts and distinctions important to women. It appears in her science fiction novels Native Tongue (1984), The Judas Rose (1987) and Earthsong (1993).
Fictional engelangs are also a common theme of science fiction, though these languages more properly fall into the category of ‘artlangs‘.
Artlangs – the Secret Vice
Ardalambion: The Languages of Middle Earth
Artlangs include the many languages and dialects spoken in J. R. R. Tolkien‘s The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and other works set in Middle Earth; the various Elvish languages alone include the proto-language Primitive Quendian, Common Eldarin, Quenya, Goldogrin, Telerin, Sindarin, Ilkorin, Nandorin and Avarin.
The Black Speech is an artificial language created and imposed by Sauron and has been described as Orc Esperanto or Sauron Newspeak.
Science Fiction Literature
Science fiction employs constructed languages not marely for their beauty but to explore philosophical and linguistic concerns – usually, but not always, to explore the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. I’ll explore many of these in greater detail in my essay Science Fiction & Linguistics.
Which translates (via Latin) into:
The commander Utopus made me, who was once not an island, into an island.
I alone of all nations, without philosophy,
have portrayed for mortals the philosophical city.
Freely I impart my benefits; not unwillingly I accept whatever is better.
The Languages of Pao
Babel-17 features in the novel Babel-17 (1966) of the same name by New Wave author Samuel R Delany. The language features the absence of a pronoun or any other construction for the diectic shifter ‘I‘.
Frank Herbert‘s Dune series feature Galach, a ”hybrid Inglo-Slavic” language ”with strong traces of cultural-specialization terms adopted during the long chain of human migrations” which is described in detail in Willis E. McNelly‘s The Dune Encyclopedia (1984).
Ursula Le Guin‘s invented Pravic, an anarchist language with no possessives for her ‘Ambiguous Utopia’ Annares in The Dispossesssed (1972) but gives few examples of actual words; in contrast the Kesh of her epic ‘Archaeology of the Future’ Always Coming Home (1985).
Always Coming Home (1985) by Ursula Le Guin contains a glossary of of the language of the Kesh, future inhabitants of California.
Sociolects & Idiolects
Anthony Burgess‘s A Clockwork Orange (1962) by Stanley Kubrick‘s film version (1972) successfully transfers the idiolect to screen. Nadsat is more properly understood as a sociolect, register or argot, and will be examined in my essay on Slang.
Constructed languages in Film and Television
Where novelists can largely get away with alluding to constructed languages producers of film and television have to create languages that at least sound plausible.
Although it would later be eclipsed by Klingon, the Star Trek franchise’s first conlang was actually Vulcan: the Star Trek: The Original Series episode “Amok Time” (1967) by ‘Golden Age‘ science fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon introduced many concepts which would become central to Star Trek’s representation of Vulcan culture, each with their own Vulcan term: Pon farr, for instance, is the Vulcan condition during which the Vulcan male must either mate or die.
The dialogue for this sequence was actually performed in English and dubbed into Vulcan at a later stage. The Vulcan dialogue was created by actor James Doohan (Enterprise Chief Engineer James Montgomery Scott – “Scotty” to his friends – in the film and TV series), an amateur linguist as well as a talented voice artist (as well as playing Scotty, Doohan provided the voices for Sargon in “Return to Tomorrow“, the M-5 in “The Ultimate Computer“, the voice of Mission Control in “Assignment: Earth” and the Oracle in “For the World Is Hollow and I Have Touched the Sky“; for Star Trek: The Animated Series he recreated Scotty, played the voice of the three-armed, tripedal navigator Arex, and voiced the bulk of the male ‘guest’ characters). Doohan’s Vulcan was created entirely to sound alien but under the restraint that it would have to lipsync with the footage which had already been shot – so it would be interesting to hear what deaf viewers thought of this sequence!
- Dakh orfikkel aushfamaluhr shaukaush fi’aifa mazhiv
- Our ancestors cast out their animal passions on these very sands
- Sha’koshtri korseivel bai’elkhrul-akteibuhl t’Kolinahr
- saving our race through the attainment of Kolinahr.
- Nahp – hif-bi tu throks
- Your thoughts… give them to me
- Kashkau – Spohkh – wuhkuh eh teretuhr
- Our minds are joined, Spock… together, and as one.
- T’Ish hokni’es kwi’shoret
- I sense the consciousness calling to you from space…
- Estuhl terrupik khaf – Spohkh
- Your human blood is touched by it, Spock.
- vravshal srashiv t’Kolinahr
- You have not yet attained Kolinahr.
- T’I kilko-srashiv kitok-wilat
- He must search elsewhere for his answer.
- I’tah tehrai k’etwel
- He shall not find it here.
- Dif-tor heh smusma, Spohkh
- Live long and prosper, Spock.
For Nicholas Meyer‘s Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982), actors Leonard Nimoy (Spock) and Kirstie Alley (Saavik), speek four lines of Vulcan dialogue: as with the Vulcan for the first movie this scene was originally shot in English and redubbed into Vulcan constructed to match the actors’ lip-movements. This time, however, the producers had approached a professional linguist to create the dialogue, and it’s here that Star Trek‘s conlangs really take off!
Marc Okrand is an American linguist who worked with Native American languages; his dissertation was on the grammar of Mutsun, a dialect of Ohlone, an extinct Utian language. He met Producer Harve Bennett while in LA working on the close-captioning system for the 1982 Oscars. His brief involvement with Star Trek II led to a far greater involvement with Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984) and subsequently with Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, the TV series Star Trek: The Next Generation and the 2009 Star Trek film reboot.
Klingons are a militaristic alien race who first appeared in the Star Trek: TOS episode “Errand of Mercy” (1967), a Cold War allegory by Gene L. Coon. Their language is first referenced in the Second Season story ”The Trouble With Tribbles” (1967) by David Gerrold, where it is referred to as ‘Klingonese’: one Klingon boasts that half the quadrant is learning the language – and as we’ll see he might not be so wrong!
There’s no actual Klingon heard in the original series, however, other than character names: it’s not till the opening sequence of Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) that we hear any spoken Klingon. Like the Vulcan dialogue for that movie this dialogue was created by James Doohan, who recorded the Klingon dialogue on tape for actor Mark Lenard to learn.
The first Klingon heard was a few phrases created by for Star Trek: The Next Generation
The Dothraki language was created by Language Creation Society (LCC) member David J. Peterson for the Dothraki people featured in the HBO‘s Game of Thrones, a television adaptation of George R. R. Martin‘s fantasy novel series A Song of Ice and Fire.
Babel-17, Iain M Banks, The Book of Dave, Anthony Burgess, A Clockwork Orange, A Clockwork Orange, The Culture Series, Samuel R Delany, The Dispossesssed, Dune, Suzette Haden Elgin, Feminist SF, Harry Harrison, Robert A. Heinlein, Frank Herbert, Russell Hoban, The Languages of Pao, Ursula Le Guin, Mad Max, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Nineteen Eight-Four, 1985, George Orwell, Riddley Walker, Sapir–Whorf hypothesis, Science Fiction & Linguistics, Will Self, The Stainless Steel Rat, Star Trek, Triton, Jack Vance, We, Yevgeny Zamyatin
Adams, Michael (2011) From Elvish to Klingon: Exploring Invented Languages
Arikaokrent.com (Homepage of Arika Okrent)
Avatar (2009) Dir. James Cameron
Banks, Ian M (Undated) ”A Few Notes on Marain”
Brown, James Cooke (1970) The Troika Incident
Burgess, Anthony (1962) A Clockwork Orange
Burgess, Anthony (1978) 1985
Burges, Anthony (1978) ”Clockwork Oranges” in Burgess, Anthony (1978)1985
Burgess, Anthony (1988) ”Introduction” to Burgess, Anthony (1962, 1988 Edition)
Burgess, Anthony (1990) You’ve Had Your Time (Excerpts)
Cowan, John Woldemar (Undated) The Complete Lojban Language (pdf)
Dalgarno, George (1661) Ars signorum (Art of Signs)
Dalgarno, George (1680) Didascalocophus, or the Deaf and Dumb man’s tutor
Delany, Samuel R. (1966) Babel-17
Eco, Umberto (1997) The Search for the Perfect Language
Elgin, Suzette Haden (1984) Native Tongue
Elgin, Suzette Haden (1987) Judas Rose
Elgin, Suzette Haden (1993) Earthsong
Evans, Robert O. (1971) ”Nadsat: The Argot and Its Implications in Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange“ (pdf) in Journal of Modern Literature, Vol. 1, No. 3 (Mar., 1971), pp. 406-410
- Glossopoeia: Early Artlangs
Godwin, Francis (1638) The Man in the Moone: or A Discourse of a Voyage Thither
Harrison, Harry (1960) Deathworld
Harrison, Harry (1961) The Stainless Steel Rat
Heinlein, Robert A. (1966) The Moon is a Harsh Mistress
Heinlein, Robert A. () The Number of the Beast
Herbert, Frank (1965) Dune
Hoban, Russell (1980) Riddley Walker
Jackson, Howard (2011) ”Invented Vocabularies: The Case of Newspeak and Nadsat” in Adams, Michael (ed., 2011)
Karinthy, Frigyes (1916) Voyage to Faremido (Utazás Faremidóba)
Karinthy, Frigyes (1921) Capillária
Le Guin, Ursula (1972) The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia
Le Guin, Ursula (1985) Always Coming Home
Moore, Sir Thomas (1516) Utopia
Na’vi in a Nutshell (pdf)
Ogden, C.K. (1930) Basic English: A General Introduction with Rules and Grammar
Ogden’s Basic English website
Okrand, Marc (1985) The Klingon Dictionary
Okrand, Marc (1997) Klingon for the Galactic Traveler
Okrent, Arika (2009) In the Land of Invented Languages: Esperanto rock Stars, Klingon Poets, Loglan Lovers, and the Mad Dreamers Who Tried to Build a Perfect Language
Orwell, George (1940) ”New Words”, reprinted in Orwell, George (1968) The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell
Orwell, George (1946) ”Politics and the English Language”, reprinted in Orwell, George (1957)
Orwell, George (1949) 1984
Orwell, George (1957) Selected Essays
Pinker, Steven (1994) The Language Instinct: The New Science of Language and Mind
Pinker, Steven (2007) The Stuff of Thought: Language as a Window into Human Nature
Shippey, Tom (1983) The Road to Middle-Earth (Revised and Expanded 2003)
Shippey, Tom (2000) J. R. R. Tolkien: Author of the Century
Stephenson, Neal (2003) Quicksilver
Sudre, François (1866) Langue musicale universelle
Vance, Jack (1958) The Languages of Pao
Wilkins, John (1668) An Essay towards a Real Character, and a Philosophical Language
Zamiatin, Yevgeny (1921) We