From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism



The Language of Fantasy

Quenya, Tsolyáni, Láadan, Klingon, Kesh, Na’vi, Dothraki … this is not a magic spell, nor a litany from some ancient prayer book, but just a few just a few of the invented languages that have made it into print or onto the screen. The age of the constructed language is here. As fantasy, in books, television, and film, has become more and more mainstream, the idea that every proper fantasy world deserves its own language—or maybe several!—has taken hold.

Nowadays, invented languages are ubiquitous. Organizations like the Language Creation Society and resources like FrathWiki and the Conlanger Bulletin Board serve to pool the talents of those who are interested in creating their own language. At the same time, many film franchises have made the concept of the invented, fictional language commonplace: Marc Okrand’s Klingon was popularized through the Star Trek film and TV franchise, and Paul Frommer’s Na’vi was invented for the movie Avatar.

Fantasy attracts via its presentation of worlds which are familiar enough to orient readers, yet alien enough to continually surprise them. The strangeness of the fantasy world can be expressed through art, music, costume, architecture, artifacts, and magic. But the easiest way, using the written word, makes the reader aware of the strangeness of the world through language: the names by which people and places and unusual things are known, the phrases and poetry by which an alien consciousness expresses itself. Nothing says otherness so clearly as a foreign language.


The Most Basic Fantasy Languages

Already in 1726, Jonathan Swift, satirizing the traveler’s tale in Gulliver’s Travels, appreciated the ability of a fictitious foreign language to give verisimilitude to his imaginary kingdom of Lilliput. When Gulliver hears the words hekinah degul and tolgo phonac, he is at once quite sure that he is outside of the safe, ordinary, intelligible world.

Swift’s invention is, by modern standards, slipshod and unimaginative; his words contain no sounds that do not occur in English, and most of his quoted phrases are untranslated. There is little to indicate anything resembling a consistent morphology or grammar in the Lilliputian language, almost every word being a random, independent invention unrelated to all other words. But despite Swift’s naivety of language construction we can perceive in his work an understanding that endowing a fictional nation with its own language is the quickest way to invest it with a plausible foreignness.

The language, of course, need not be a real one, or even have any resemblance to any real-world language (though such resemblances are almost impossible to avoid). Lord Dunsany, the Irish writer of fantasy short stories, succeeded in evoking an atmosphere of oriental decadence with the names Thuba Mleen and Utnar Véhi, even though the names do not resemble any language actually spoken in the Middle East, now or in the past, and do not mean anything in and of themselves.


A Greater Level of Detail

An author, and fans of the author’s work, can find a lot of satisfaction in a language that is created to a much greater level of detail. Unlike fictional buildings and books and armor and other artifacts, which are only suggested to the imagination by a description on the page, a fully-realized language can actually exist in the real world. By learning and using the created language, or as much of it as exists, a reader can participate in the fiction, bridging the gap between imagination and reality.

In a more elaborate fantasy world, a language may be much more than a background detail that brings credibility. It may be the vehicle of magic and mystery by which core truths about the structure of the world are conveyed. This notion of the power and sanctity of words has often surfaced in fantasy. Thus, in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, the Elvish languages serve as a medium for magic, and in Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea books, the Old Speech of the dragons both defines and creates the world. In the Earthsea world, magic is an innate skill, but can only be channeled through study of language. The knowledge of the true name of an object, the name used in Old Speech, gives the speaker power over that object. A rock, tolk in the Old Speech, when so named can be nothing else, even if it has been enchanted to resemble something else; to change its being, its name must also be changed, which can be done only by wizards. The more exactly and specifically a thing or a person can be named, the greater the power a wizard can have over it, and therefore people in Earthsea guard their True Names carefully. This echoes Christian mythology, which holds that the knowledge of the name of a demon gives the possessor the power to command it. The idea of names as power and language as magic is an old one.

The nineteenth century saw great advances in the scientific study of language, and toward the end of that century, those improvements were translated into projects for the creation of full-fledged languages which would bear the imprint of their creators’ personal likes and dislikes. The first such attempts had the goal of creating “international languages,” which would either supplement or even supersede the multiplicity of languages in the world, allowing all people to communicate regardless of nationality. Schleyer’s Volapük and Zamenhof’s Esperanto were among the earliest examples of this type.

In this milieu J. R. R. Tolkien, a scientific scholar of languages and a mythmaker, began to write stories where the names of places and characters were drawn from his languages Qenya and Goldogrin. As the legends grew into what became the Silmarillion, the languages grew as well, influenced by the needs of the fictional setting, and eventually became the mature languages Quenya and Sindarin, the languages of two elf clans.

It was not until The Lord of the Rings was published in 1954-5 that the public had any idea of the scope of Tolkien’s invention. Behind the galaxy of invented nomenclature which readers found (and sometimes stumbled upon), there was a remarkably subtle and detailed construction, not just of a single language, but of an entire language family, with its own self-consistent internal history. Primitive Quendian, its more developed descendant, Common Eldarin, and its various descendants including Quenya, Telerin, Sindarin, Ossiriandic, and Silvan share a great deal of basic vocabulary that originates from Quendian roots, but the pronunciation of words varies in predictable ways from language to language, as does the grammar. Thus the words for “silver” and “elves” in Quenya are tyelpë and eldar, but in Telerin they are telepë and elloi, and in Sindarin they are celeb and edhil. The historical development of each of these languages can now be traced with great precision.

Quenya was the earliest elf language in the Lord of the Rings mythos, and also the earliest elf language thought up by J. R. R. Tolkien. He began constructing it from 1910-1920, decades before the book was published. It, like the Earthsea language, began by the elves finding power and identity in the naming of things. Over time, it developed multiple dialects, practiced by each of the elf clans. By the time of the Lord of the Rings, it was considered by the characters of the book, to be the old and formal language, used by the elves who had gone from the earth to their haven. Sindarin was more like kitchen-elvish. It was created by Tolkien in 1944, although it was heavily influenced by a “gnomish” language that he had been developing for years before. Beleriandic Sindarin, a dialect, used by peripatetic groups of elves, was a common tongue for all elf-groups to use in order to be understood. It was the practical, middle-earth, traveling language shared by some humans and wizards.

Not all authors are so completist in their language development. George R.R. Martin, the author of the Game of Thrones series created a world in which there were many languages, including Dothraki and Valyrian. He famously told fans: “I have something like eight words of Valyrian. When I need a ninth, I’ll make one up.” Dothraki was fleshed out by David Peterson of the Language Creation Society for the television adaptation of A Game of Thrones. Peterson was chosen by the producers after a competition hosted by the LCS between several different experienced language creators. Dothraki itself is still a work in progress; the available corpus is still quite small, with fewer than 500 words known so far, but it is to be expected that, as the series unfolds, it will become more complex and detailed.


Turning Fans Into Detectives

On the other hand, Tolkien’s languages retained a certain amount of sketchiness. Quenya, the most elaborate of the languages, has a vocabulary perhaps a tenth of the size of that of the most speakers’ everyday language. Some aspects of its grammar were never explained in writing, or were described in contradictory ways; anyone who wishes to write Quenya nowadays must engage in some guesswork and extrapolation, and avoid some constructions for which the Quenya equivalent is unknown.

That does not mean that Quenya is not a “real language,” but it does mean that—like many ancient languages only attested by a limiting corpus of crumbling monuments and clay tablets—it is incompletely and imperfectly known.

Most fantasy languages operate under the same limitations. Even when the inventor has taken the trouble to compose a basic grammar and a substantial lexicon for the benefit of those who wish to use the language the language is rarely so fully developed as to be completely useful for all the purposes of a natural language. However, if the goal is not so much to enable an entirely new mode of communication (as with Esperanto) but to give a flavor of an alien culture—from another time, place, world or dimension—they are often quite successful.

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David Salo

David SaloDavid Salo is a linguist, whose primary professional interest is Tocharian, an extinct Indo-European Language. In 1998 he was one of the founders of a mailing list focused on these languages, and in 2004 he published A Gateway to Sindarin: A Grammar of an Elvish Language from J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. He helped flesh out the languages in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, as well as writing some Elvish lyrics for songs.