7 fictional languages from literature and film that you can learn
Want to converse with the likes of rabbits, elves or blue-skinned folk from another planet? You've come to the right place.
Fri, Feb 07, 2014 at 01:46 PM
If the princess of House Targaryen can learn Dothraki, so can you. (That's a little "Game of Thones" wisdom for you.) (Photo: HBO)
While whispering "Yer zheanae sekke" into the ear of the foxy specimen that you just saddled up next to at the bar may not work magic on your newfound friend, it’s not a bad idea to have a basic knowledge of salutations, curses and come-ons in a made-up language. You never really know whom you’re going to meet and, at the very least, whipping out your knowledge of Dothraki makes for an excellent party trick.
We’ve rounded up seven of the most intriguing — and extensive — languages that have been specifically constructed for fictional works of literature and film (and most often, both). For pop-culture obsessed polyglots, it’s common knowledge that devising an entire, complex language for a book, movie or TV show doesn’t involve just stringing together a bunch of nonsense words that roll melodically off the tongue, but a serious linguistic undertaking often carried out by trained scholars, philologists and language creators. It’s kind of a big deal.
Which makes mastering these fictional tongues and dialects also a big deal. Some of these languages, which like the aforementioned Dothraki from “Game of Thrones,” are still growing and evolving thanks to the tireless work of fans and academics (and cable networks). And no, there is not a Rosetta Stone for Klingon (yet).
Have you ever picked up a few words in a fictional language? Ever taken a stab at becoming bilingual by learning Sindarian? Or is there just a fictional language that you find particularly beautiful? A book of film that you feel uses a made-up tongue in an effective manner?
Do tell us all about it in the comments section (English would be great but if you feel like showing off, feel free to use the constructed language of your liking).
Klingon ('Star Trek')
• nuqDaq 'oH puchpa''e': Where is the bathroom?
• jIyajbe': I don’t understand
If you’ve ever suspected that diehard “Star Trek” fanatics speak their own language, you’re right. Some particularly fans, devoted to a species of snaggletoothed extraterrestrial warriors with serious forehead action going on, actually do.
Described by the Klingon Language Institute (KLI) as being “one of the rare times when a trained linguist has been called upon to create a language for aliens,” Klingon (tlhIngan Hol) was developed in the 1980s by Marc Okrand at the request of Paramount Pictures for the “Star Trek” film franchise. In the years since, Klingon has expanded — and been embraced in the non-Trekkie universe — considerably: Dictionaries have been published, “Hamlet” has been translated, “A Christmas Carol” has been staged and the guttural alien tongue has been spoken on, go figure, “The Big Bang Theory” and numerous other TV shows and films. One decidedly gung-ho KLI member, d’Armond Speers, even attempted to raise his child bilingually in English and Klingon. His child eventually rejected Klingon — probably because the other kids at preschool weren’t too keen on discussing the hijacking of intergalactic warcraft in the Warrior’s Tongue. Or something like that.
Although fully fluent Klingon speakers like Speers are far and few between, if you do happen to encounter one in line at Starbucks, riding the Las Vegas Monorail or sitting next to you at the DMV, just refrain from muttering the phrase Hab SoSlI' Quch. That’s just asking for trouble.
Nadsat ('A Clockwork Orange')
• Neezhnies: Underpants
• Moloko: Milk
Given that donning a black derby hat, combat boots, white codpiece and fake eyelashes (one eye only!) is a perennially popular costume choice for cineaste Halloween revelers, you should probably learn to truly talk the walk before you, accompanied by your best droogs, step out the door as 15-year-old Beethoven-loving antihero Alex DeLarge from “A Clockwork Orange.”
Appearing in both British novelist Anthony Burgess’ dystopian morality tale of teenage delinquency and Stanley Kubrick’s horror show film adaptation that stunned audiences in 1972, Nadsat (translation: “teenage”) isn’t a proper language per se. Rather, it’s a Russian-influenced English argot — a term used to describe verbal shorthand or slang used amongst a small group of people — created by Burgess who, among other things, was a polyglot and trained linguist (he also invented the Neanderthal language spoken/grunted in the 1981 caveman flick, “Quest for Fire.”)
Getting a full grasp on this unique teen vocabulary from the future — a “subliminal penetration,” if you will — just by viewing Kubrick’s vision of “A Clockwork Orange” may be an awful lot for the old gulliver to process … make sure you also carefully study Burgess’ novella and/or have a solid Nadsat dictionary close at hand.
• Atokirina: Seeds of a great tree
• Tawtute: Human
It has been established that director of really expensive movies/deep-sea explorer/walnut farmer James “King of the World” Cameron is, well, just a little bit bananas. It would make total sense than that Cameron enlisted an accomplished linguistics expert to construct a complex language that’s spoken by the blue-skinned ingenious humanoids populating the unobtainium-rich moon of Pandora (the fifth moon of the planet Polyphemus in the Alpha Centauri star system, in case you need clarification) in 2009’s heavy-handed sci-fi epic, “Avatar.”
The linguistics expert in question, Dr. Paul Frommer of the University of Southern California, created the Na’vi language over several months, basing it on several words with roots in Polynesian languages (Maori was a primary influence) that were concocted by Cameron in the early pre-production stages of the film. Frommer also coached “Avatar” actors on set with the pronunciation of their Na’vi dialogue. Obviously, this proved to be a touch more complicated than adapting a bad Cockney accent. Zoe Saldana, who played alien love interest Neytiri in the film, tells the Los Angeles Times: “Oh, it was so hard and I was really concerned about it. I didn’t think I could get through it. I’m not good with languages. All the actors, we worked together. It was the only way.”
The Na’vi language continues to grow and evolve (don’t forget there are sequels in the works!) with Frommer charting the progress on his own personal blog and “Avatar” fans brushing up on their own Na’vi grammar and phonetic skills at the Learn Na’vi website.
Lapine ('Watership Down')
• Pfeffa: Cat
• Vair: Defecate
If you ever get the urge to cause a stir at your local petting zoo, simply loiter around and communicate verbally with the resident rabbits in their fictional native tongue, Lapine — a Welsh-inspired language constructed by British author Richard Adams for his allegorical adventure novel-with-a-twist “Watership Down” (that famous twist being all of the characters in the book are anthropomorphized bunnies). When performing public rabbit-speak, chances are you’ll get a twitch of the nose instead of a friendly Frithaes! from the fluffball that you’re attempting to converse with. However, it’s a guarantee you’ll also be on the receiving end of some confused looks from the non-Lapine speakers around you.
While Adams’ original Lapine isn’t nearly as developed as other fictional languages such as Klingon, it has been studied and expanded upon by academics and fans of his award-winning 1972 bestseller, which itself has been adapted into an animated film in 1978 (remember Art Garfunkel’s hit, “Bright Eyes”?) and a 39-episode British television series from 1999-2001. The book, of course, also continues to be a high school lit class staple years after its publication. And for further education, this fan website seems to be the place to brush up on your colloquial Lapine. Have at it.
• Joycamp: forced labor camp
• Ungood: bad
George’s Orwell’s perfectly dreary dystopian novel “1984” is famous for its themes of government tyranny, censorship and rampant surveillance (Big Brother is watching, y’all). But perhaps the most haunting element of the 1949 classic is Newspeak — a language created by Orwell that’s essentially English but minus antonyms and synonyms, words with negative connotations, and words that would even suggest the slightest bit of self-expression. Basically, it’s robo-talk for the systematically repressed.
Explains Orwell in the appendix of his novel: “The purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of IngSoc [English Socialism], but to make all other modes of thought impossible. It was intended that when Newspeak had been adopted once and for all and Oldspeak forgotten, a heretical thought — that is, a thought diverging from the principles of IngSoc — should be literally unthinkable at least so far as thought is dependent on words. Its vocabulary was so constructed as to give exact and often very subtle expression to every meaning that a Party member could properly wish to express, while excluding all other meaning and also the possibility of arriving at them by indirect methods. This was done partly be the invention of new words, but chiefly by eliminating undesirable words and stripping such words as remained of unorthodox meaning, and so far as possible of all secondary meaning whatever.”
Dothraki ('Game of Thrones')
• Asshekhqoyi vezhvena!: Happy birthday!
• Yer affesi anni: You make me itch
Is there a creepy dude with a ponytail in your office who mutters yer jalan atthirari anni each and every time you walk past his cubicle? If so, you can go ahead and blame HBO.
Even before HBO had begun filming “Game of Thrones,” a sex-drenched adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s fantasy novels, the network had tapped David J. Peterson of the Language Creation Society to expand the Dothraki tongue from a few words that appear in Martin’s novels into a grammatically complex yet easily learnable and pronounceable language that would be spoken by actors portraying equine-worshipping warriors indigenous to the Dothraki Sea. Currently, there are well over 3,000 words that compose this fabricated language inspired by Turkish, Russian, Estonian, Swahili, Inuktitut and Martin’s initial descriptions in the “A Song of Fire and Ice” books.
Explains Peterson, who also constructed the Valyrian language for the series: “In designing Dothraki, I wanted to remain as faithful as possible to the extant material in George R.R. Martin’s series. Though there isn’t a lot of data, there is evidence of a dominant word order [subject-verb-object], of adjectives appearing after nouns, and of the lack of a copula ['to be']. I’ve remained faithful to these elements, creating a sound aesthetic that will be familiar to readers, while giving the language depth and authenticity. My fondest desire is for fans of the series to look at a word from the Dothraki language and be unable to tell if it came from the books or from me — and for viewers not even to realize it’s a constructed language.”
And as a testament to the wild popularity of “Game of Thrones,” the BBC notes that more people are exposed to the fictional languages of Dothraki and Valyrian on a weekly basis than they are Welsh, Irish Gaelic and Scots Gaelic combined.
Elvish, Middle-earth ('The Lord of the Rings,' 'The Hobbit,' etc.)
• Saesa omentien lle: Pleasure meeting you
• Lle holma ve' edan: You smell like a human
Bear with us … this may get just a bit confusing.
Here’s the deal: There are not one but two primary, widely studied Elvish languages created by “The Lord of the Rings” author J.R.R. Tolkien, who to no surprise, was a fervent philologist by trade. A longtime tenured professor at Oxford University, the British-born polyglot (he was fluent in more than a dozen languages) fancied himself much more a scholar than a writer of fantasy novels and, in turn, built the secondary world of Middle-earth and all of its mythology around a fictional tongue constructed for an immortal race of pointy-eared, ambidextrous beautiful people.
The two major languages in question are the ancient, Finnish-influenced Quenya (high-elven) and the Welsh-influenced Sindarin (Grey-elven). There are other languages that Tolkien constructed for the elven residents of Middle-earth including Nandorin and Telerin but Quenya and Sindarin, the latter being best known as the native tongue of bow-touting, bilingual Mirkwood resident Legolas, are the biggies. And to be perfectly clear, the Dwarves of Middle-earth don’t know a lick of Elvish — they speak in Khuzdul.
We’d be doing these extremely complex languages a great injustice by attempting to explain them any further, so to avoid the risk of your eyes glazing over, here’s a bit of Elvish poetry, in Quenya, recited by Tolkien himself in 1952. It’s called “Namárië” or “Galadriel’s Lament in Lórien.”
Related stories on MNN:
- Could we speak the language of dolphins?
- 'Philosophy and Star Trek': 15 weird college courses
- 8 movies where scenery is the star: 'The Lord of the Rings,' New Zealand
Click for photo credits
Klingons: Terry Robinson/Flickr
'Clockwork Orange': Amazon
'Avatar': Joel Saget/AFP/Getty Images
Rabbit: Carly Lesser & Art Drauglis/Flickr
'1984': Getty Images
'Game of Thrones': Amazon