Language is so important to our perception of reality that it can transport us to different worlds. Woven into the details of films and television shows, entire languages have been developed. Without the viewer even realising it, a depth and realism are forged that we immediately buy into; partly because we expect a different language on an alien planet, or in an enchanted forest.
With fictional languages, we’re immediately taken out of our linguistic comfort zones – able to empathise with the characters having the same experience. We’re thrown into a new world that seems visceral and real, because we feel like strangers in our own living rooms. Fictional languages have an extremely powerful effect in film, TV and literature, and their cultural impact has been huge; so much so that you can learn some fictional languages in real life.
This is by no means an exhaustive list – but these are some of the most interesting and complete languages created in the entertainment world that you can learn for yourself.
The Elvish languages of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings were expertly crafted by Tolkien himself. He went as far as developing three distinct scripts for each dialect, of which there were many, starting with Quenya – or High Elvish.
Tolkien developed Quenya while studying language as a philologist – which is why the constructed languages he developed are so rich and detailed. The depth, realism and variety have led Tolkien’s Elvish languages to become areas of study, and you can learn to speak, read and write Elvish.
Klingon is probably the most well known modern fictional language. It’s synonymous with the stereotypes of nerd culture and comic book convention aficionados, and often a point of ridicule. But this constructed language of the Star Trek franchise is as real a language as any other, and some people are able to converse in Klingon. There’s even an official Klingon Language Institute.
It can however be difficult to hold down a realistic conversation in Klingon and there’s only a handful of speakers worldwide. Much of the vocabulary alludes to spacecraft and fictional plot devices from Star Trek, which aren’t a part of everyday life – but even with its limitations, great works have been translated into Klingon. Shakespeare, the Epic of Gilgamesh and A Christmas Carol are all available (and have even been performed) in Klingon.
The creators of animated science fiction show Futurama created alien languages as a joke; they just wanted to see how long it would take for their audience to decipher the alien scripts they’d invented. The “language” is usually just English (sometimes other languages) which has been coded.
Alienese has two forms; a simple substitution cipher (cracked by viewers from clues hidden in the opening titles and throughout episodes) and a complex, mathematical autokey cipher which took years to completely deconstruct. The more complex form of Alienese is used in the show as the official language of the Nibblonians – a race of super-intelligent and adorable aliens with voracious appetites.
Avatar director James Cameron wanted to give his race of beautiful blue aliens a fully developed culture, including language. Linguist Dr Paul Frommer was hired to create a convincing grammatical structure for the Na’vi people – and with the help of Frommer and movie fans, it exploded into a full language, with a vocabulary of over 2,200 words.
It was designed to be easy enough for the writers and actors to learn and pronounce, but have no similarity to any single human language. It’s extremely complex for a constructed language, employing free word order and even noun classes. It is a fully working, learnable language.
The impossibly successful Game of Thrones series has grown an army of loyal fans, hooked on the show’s never-ending shocks and lusty, gruesome storylines. But even before George R. R. Martin’s books were adapted for the screen, writers were seeking a working language for the nomads of the Dothraki Sea.
After a long vetting process, David J. Peterson was selected to create the language. He delivered a lexicon of over 1,700 words before the show began shooting, and the language has grown to contain over 3,100 words, making it one of the most complete and convincing constructed languages ever devised.
A Game of Thrones companion app was released to help fans of the show learn a vocabulary strong enough to hold down a complete conversation.
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