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Language is a hugely fundamental part of our everyday lives, and the only time we’re made aware of it is when we’re confronted with a language that we don’t know. That’s when you realise language is such a vital tool for communication. It also influences the way we view and relate to others, our surroundings, and even ourselves. Therefore, it stands to reason that when we create a new language, we’re creating a whole new world.
At this year’s Huayi – Chinese Festival of the Arts, audiences can enter the world of The Drought Goddess · Dream of the World, a contemporary theatre production created by Taiwanese company La Cie Maxmind. The world of The Drought Goddess is one of deities, spirits and mortals, but it’s also one that sounds different. What audiences will hear onstage is a unique language created just for the production, fashioned from the combination of several Chinese dialects.
A language designed for a specific purpose like a theatre production is known as a constructed language, or conlang for short. Conlangs are distinguished from so-called ‘natural’ languages in that the former are designed, as opposed to the latter which arise and evolve over time.
Although experiments with language can be traced far back into antiquity, the first conlang in recorded history is widely attributed to a 12th-century German abbess named Hildegard of Bingen who, as a result of divine inspiration, composed a list of 23 letters and over a thousand words called the lingua ignota (Latin for “unknown language”).
Fast forward over nine centuries and creating conlangs, or conlanging, is well and truly alive in both professional and amateur settings. Conlangers, the people who create conlangs, regularly gather online and in-person to discuss and explore the intricacies of language creation. The oldest known group is the Conlang Listserv, founded in 1991. The Language Creation Society, established in 2007, hosts conlanging resources on its website, and organises a biennial international conference.
The wondrous worlds of science fiction and fantasy works just would not be complete without strange, alien languages to fire up our imaginations. What would the Game of Thrones television series be without Dothraki, The Sims computer games without Simlish, or even George Orwell’s dystopian classic 1984 without newspeak? Across literature, television, film, games, and the performing arts, there are many examples of acclaimed, enduring, and even sophisticated conlangs developed for fictional settings. Klingon, the language spoken by the alien warrior race in the Star Trek series, is perhaps the best example of such a conlang.
Although the Star Trek franchise originated in 1966, the Klingon language wasn’t developed till 1984, when linguist Marc Okrand was commissioned to imagine and devise how the Klingons would speak in the third Star Trek film. Utilising a background in the study of Native American languages, Okrand built a complex and complete language system that sounded convincingly otherworldly. Author of In the Land of Invented Languages Arika Okrent describes Klingon as “an ungodly combination of Hindi, Arabic Tlingit, and Yiddish and works like a mix of Japanese, Turkish, and Mohawk.”
Soon after the release of the film, an official Klingon dictionary was published. Since then, famous works of literature like William Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Sun Tzu’s The Art of War have been translated into Klingon. In 2010, an entire opera in Klingon titled ‘uʼ (meaning ‘universe’) premiered in the Netherlands. And in 2018, the language learning app Duolingo even introduced a free course on Klingon!
Even though Klingon is a stellar example of how a conlang can grow to live a life beyond its intended purpose, its creation was primarily to fulfill an artistic vision. As Okrent writes, “Klingon is the solution to an artistic problem, not a linguistic one. Okrand set out to create a believable language for a fictional culture, a language about which fans could say, ‘If Klingon existed, there is no question this is what they would speak,’ a language with the mysterious quality of having just the right feel.”
So, how do we go about creating a conlang that feels just right? Considering the wide range of sounds a human is capable of producing, the possibilities are seemingly endless. But here’s a possible starting point: Who is going to be speaking the conlang? And in what setting?
Conlangers may be brought into a creative project later in its development, and that may be a blessing in disguise. At that stage, the conlanger will have guidelines and constraints to work within, which will both spark and challenge their creativity. They will be designing for a world and characters that have already been conceptualised. Take for example, the blue-skinned Na’vi people who live on the alien moon Pandora in the Avatar film series.
When writer-director James Cameron hired linguist Paul Frommer to create the Na’vi language in the mid-2000s, he had already been developing the film for at least a decade. In addition to considering existing character and environmental designs, and story and plot points, Cameron wanted Frommer to include a list of 30 Polynesian-inspired words that the former had already created. Cameron also wanted the Na’vi language, overall, to sound alien, yet feasible for humans to learn to speak it.
Along with Cameron’s brief, Frommer took further inspiration from the Māori language of New Zealand in creating the language spoken by the inhabitants of Pandora. At present, the Na’vi language has about 2,745 words, according to the Na’vi online dictionary.
There were other elements in the Avatar world for Frommer to take note of as well, such as the character design of the Na’vi people. Frommer developed an octal numeral system for the Na’vi language because the Na’vi people had eight fingers (four digits on two hands) instead of 10 like humans. For example, what humans would think of as 10 in base-10 counting translates to eight-two, or vomún, in the base-eight counting system of the Na’vi language.
Frommer also incorporated the Pandoran environment into the idioms of the Na’vi language. In an article in The Atlantic, he gives the example na loreyu ’awnampi, which means “like a touched helicoradian” in the Na’vi language, referring to a native Pandoran plant that recoils when touched, likening this to exhibiting shy behaviour.
But that’s not the only way to conlang. Sometimes, a fictional language is devised first, even before there’s anyone to speak it.
For natural languages, it goes without saying that people came before languages. Hence, with regards to conlanging as part of world-building, it can appear counterintuitive to construct the language before the characters and the world they live in. But it has been done before, and by one of the most well-known conlangers in modern history.
J. R. R. Tolkien is the author of the epic novel series The Lord of the Rings. The series, which includes three volumes published in the 1950s and a prequel titled The Hobbit (1937), is considered one of the best-selling literary works of all time. In the 21st century, the books have been adapted into a hugely successful film and television franchise.
Born in 1928, Tolkien turned out to be quite the polyglot in his youth, learning many languages, including Latin, Greek, French and German. By his adolescence, he had already created several conlangs, some of which he continued working on in later years to develop their depth and complexity. But that wasn’t enough for Tolkien—his conlangs needed speakers.
Fuelled by that desire, Tolkien crafted the rich and wonderful world that would come to be Middle Earth, with its many and varied inhabitants speaking a staggering 15 Elvish dialects. Two of these were highly developed—Quenya, which was heavily influenced by the Finnish language, and Sindarin, inspired by Welsh phonology. Today, you can learn how to speak Quenya and Sindarin.
Quenya and Sindarin, and even Klingon and Na’vi, are classed as a priori languages, conlangs that are not based on any real world languages. A priori languages may be inspired by existing natural languages, but by and large, they are built from the ground up. But, yes, conlangs can be created a posteriori too, or put together from existing parts.
Conlanging can be accomplished by combining two or more existing natural languages together. The primary purpose of doing so would be to create a common language that would be familiar and easy for speakers of the various component languages to pick up. Esperanto is a widely regarded example of a conlang intended to be a shared international language, whose vocabulary and grammar drew from European languages like English, French, Latin and Polish.
Mixing different languages is also the route that playwright-director Lee Yi-Hsui took when creating the divine language of the gods in The Drought Goddess. Lee’s conlang mixes words from several Chinese dialects, including Hokkien, Hakka and Cantonese, and its syntax takes cues from both ancient and modern-day Chinese languages. Despite using existing languages, this production’s conlang wasn’t just designed to sound familiar, but unfamiliar as well.
In The Drought Goddess, audiences follow the journey of Hanba, the eponymous goddess who is forced to wander through the mortal realm. Because she only brings death and destruction, she is shunned wherever she ventures. One reviewer commented that the language in The Drought Goddess sounded recognisable yet strange to Chinese-speaking audiences—the production’s language-scape made them feel like they’re a part of Hanba’s world and yet also a bystander, paralleling Hanba’s dislocation and ostracisation.
However, not all Frankenstein-esque language experiments end in success. In the 1950s, Malaya (or what is present-day Malaysia and Singapore) was on the cusp of independence from British colonial rule. At the University of Malaya, a group of undergraduate poets were imagining what the voice of a new, multicultural Malayan society would sound like, and their response was to create a syncretic, common language from the mixing of English, Malay and Chinese. They called their new conlang Engmalchin.
One of the students, Wang Gungwu, would go on to publish an anthology of 12 poems, entitled Pulse, in 1950 as an initial attempt at creating a Malayan poetic voice with Engmalchin. One of Wang’s poems often cited as an example of Engmalchin is titled Ahmad, about a Malay man living in Kampong Batu. Scholar Brandon Liew describes the poem as “a prime example of self-conscious code-switching typical of culturally plural interaction and an unmistakably local subject matter, arranged in a vestigial English form”.
However, Engmalchin never truly caught on. The 1955 issue of the University of Malaya student literary magazine New Cauldron admits to the failure of the language experiment: “We have assessed previous undergraduate attempts at the creation of an artificial language by an arbitrary mixture of phrases drawn from the existing languages spoken in Malaya. We regret to say that this language, Engmalchin, as its advocates termed it, is a failure if only because of its self-conscious artificiality and the failure of its ‘sires’ to understand that language can never be created by edict.”
But that is the nature of experimentation, of art, and of conlanging—some efforts end up in failure, while others unexpectedly succeed.
Language creation is an artform. It involves a great deal of imagination, especially to visualise who would be speaking one’s would-be conlang, and under what circumstances. A conlang quite literally breathes life into characters and worlds, giving them the means by which to express emotions and live out their lives.
David Peterson, author of The Art of Language Invention and conlanger of the Dothraki language for Game of Thrones, impassionedly writes, “I’ll tell you from personal experience that conlanging feels like an art to the conlanger. When I was a kid, all I did was draw. In high school, I picked up fiction, and then all I did was write. Finally in college I began conlanging, and all I did was conlang."
“For each stage, the drive—the motivation—was exactly the same: creation and expression. Inspiration comes from wherever it comes from and hits you, and then you’re conlanging.”