You Talkin’ To Me?

by limebirddennis

No, this isn’t an article about that seminal movie of 1976, “Taxi Driver”, but a look at the wonderful worlds of ‘constructed languages’.

Just this week, on Twitter, I was forwarded a link to a fantastic resource, Mark Rosenfelder’s “Language Construction Kit” which is very detailed and probably only of use to a serious language geek. Unfortunately for me, it came too late! It did, however, spur me to think about constructed languages and why authors feel the need to go to the trouble of devising them (particularly in the science fiction and fantasy genres). I will not be able to even mention the majority of the literary constructions that have appeared in print or on TV and in the movies; and so I will just touch upon some that have featured in my reading/viewing.

The 20th Century saw the creation of numerous fictional languages (this at a time when it is estimated that 417 real-world languages are on the verge of extinction!). It is said that Edgar Rice Burroughs’s “A Princess of Mars” (1911) was the first novel of the last century to feature a constructed language with Sola, the daughter of Tars Tarkas, teaching John Carter the Barsoomian language. To be honest, when I first read the books in my early teens, that fact didn’t jump out and hit me, but I do plan to go back and take another look (now that I have a number of the Mars books on my Kindle!). I’m interested to see if the language features at all in this year’s feature film treatment of the story.

At around the time that Burroughs was doing his thing, perhaps the most famous of the language creators was also hard at work creating languages, albeit with a more academic approach. J R R Tolkien began devising the Elvish language of Quenya in about 1910, re-structuring the grammar four times and changing its name numerous times until Quenya was complete. I say complete, it was enough to construct poems and short phrases, but not enough for a conversation. The vocabulary was limited and has been built upon by writers of poetry and prose since the 1960s and, of course, for the Lord of the Rings movies. By my count, Tolkien constructed at least 32 languages for the peoples of Middle-earth, with the family of Elvish languages worked on in the most detail (and for 63 years of his life!).

The next language constructor I want to name-check couldn’t be more different to the academic Tolkein. It may surprise you that James Doohan, the actor who played Scotty, devised the basic Klingon language for the dialogue heard in “Star Trek – The Motion Picture” (the full language was then developed by Marc Okrand). Although I have all 204 live action DVDs set in the Star Trek universe, and I love language, I have to admit that I speak very few words of Klingon! (Although I did wish my stepson Qapla’ (success) before his exams…) From its humble roots in 1979, Klingon has grown into a full language (one can see an opera “u” and a play “Klingon Christmas Carol”). According to the 2006 edition of Guinness World Records, Klingon is the most spoken fictional language by the number of speakers.

Constructed languages add an aura of authenticity to a story, they allow us to believe that the characters come from a real culture with a real history. Most authors do not go to the extremes that Tolkein did; in most cases it is enough to suggest the whole language. It is now almost ‘de rigueur’ to include some smatterings of a new language in science fiction movies and TV, be that “Atlantis: The Lost Empire” (with the Atlantean language also being developed by Marc Okrand) to Goa’uld in Stargate SG-1. The sound of the language can also be important; Klingon could be nothing else but guttural; and, which alien race sounds scarier – The Metalunans (from 1955’s “This Island Earth”) or The Goa’uld (from the various Stargate incarnations)?

I’d like to finish with a look at how a language can be constructed; using CraxAnthan. “CraxAnthan?” I hear you say, “Never heard of it!” That’s not surprising, as my novel Talatu has not yet been published!

One of the key plot points of the novel is the that the aliens have racial memory going back to the first of their kind; as such, they see ‘history’ and ‘culture’ as just two aspects of ‘story’. Therefore, in constructing the language, the majority of culturally significant words are based on the root word for story ‘CraxAn’. In the glossary below, 12 out of 37 words contain ‘Crax’ in some form or another. The novel is told in the first person by a human teenager and so I didn’t need to develop a full language, just the words needed to describe the things that she experiences and the alien concepts that she learns. I did give some thought to the structure of the language though. The JanchuaCrax take many hours to tell their stories (rather like Tolkien’s Ents) and part of the reason is due to their unbelievably long names (which trace an individual’s genealogy back to the origin). This led me to construct words in a compound way (rather like the German language where, for example, one prefix ‘zer’ refers to the destruction of things, and can be used in a number of ways – zerreißen (to tear apart), zerbrechen (to break apart), zerschneiden (to cut apart).

Have any of you constructed a language? How did you go about it? Or have you considered creating a language and decided that it was just too much work? Whatever your experience, I would love to hear from you.

For those of you who may be interested, below is a glossary of CraxAnthan words, so that you can follow the way that many words build upon each other.

And so, for now, I will finish with a call to the CraxAnthaKo to grant you success as you write CraxAng of you own!

Glossary

ArTaxAk – A four winged ‘bird of prey’. (Called Wingcrushers by Talatu.)
CraxAng – A story.
CraxAngOng – The Story Lodge of the JanchuaCrax.
CraxAntha – The planet Onyx.
CraxAnthaChan – The High Council of the JanchuaCrax.
CraxAnthaKo – The Worldbrain of the planet Onyx. (Equivalent to Gaia.)
CraxAnthaKoYan – The Voice of the Worldbrain.
CraxAnthan – The language of the JanchuaCrax.
DekRa – Scavengers that live on the scales of the JanchuaCrax. (Bodybugs)
FonKat – Large insects that swarm in the spring. (DiveBugs)
IngLat – A small rodent similar to an earth rabbit but with scales.
JanCar – A meeting.
JanCarToo – One of the tropical seas of Onyx. (The Sea of Meeting).
JanCarCraxAng – Annual story meeting.
JanCarCraxAngSar – The meeting place of stories.
JanchuaCrax – The sentient race of Onyx (Monarchs).
JanchuaLong – The non-sentient host of the JanchuaCrax (Cowraffes).
JanCraxAr – A single JanchuaCrax in need of pairing.
JanCraxTanYo – A merged pair of JanchuaCrax.
MeGorn – Mossgrass.
Ong – A building, a dwelling, a lodge.
OngLang – A ‘teepee’ constructed from a SrangRat tree covered with ScreeYon felt.
ReeYoSar – The ‘grass sea’ or plains.
RuUaLoUa – A JanchuaCrax, first encountered close to base camp.
RuUaMoKa – One half of the joining of RuUaLoUa and TeKaMoKa.
ScreeYon – An algae-like plant that grows in thick mats, when collected and dried it forms a type of felt.
SePaYoTi – The original partner of RuUaLoUa.
Shakk – Flint.
ShingLok – Small mouse-like creatures that live in burrows deep beneath the grass sea.
SrangRat – A maypole like tree with vines that produce a custard fruit.
TanYo – A partner, one half of a JanchuaCrax pairing.
TanYoCranLa – The merging ceremony of the JanchuaCrax.
TeKaLoUa – One half of the joining of RuUaLoUa and TeKaMoKa.
TeKaMoKa – A single JanchuaCrax (JanCraxAr) who joins with RuUaLoUa.
ThranKaloRak – A large predator that fills the lion niche of the CraxAnthan ecosystem.
TranKo – A Legless ‘grasshopper’ that feeds on the SrangRat fruit.
YangTo – The gourd tree of the plains.

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27 Responses to “You Talkin’ To Me?”

  1. Interesting post. Thanks for the link–I am going to try this…

  2. Great Limebird debut LimebirdDennis and a big welcome to the team! 🙂 I’m so impressed that you’ve created your own language, I would love to do something like that. I studied Linguistics at university so this kind of thing really interests me. I think it definitely helps if you have a background in languages, do you speak many?

  3. Thanks so much for turning me on to this guy. I’m ready to start, right after breakfast and a shower!

  4. Constructed languages, or even attempts at dialect are almost guaranteed to turn me off a book. But you might be interested in a new writer who’s very much into them. Her first book is worth looking at, and her blog goes deeply into the construction of the language she’s invented. http://termitewriter.blogspot.com/

  5. I would love to construct my own language. It seems like a lot of work, but a lot of fun. Maybe if I ever needed to… I would get over my lazy streak and do it now.

  6. Thanks Susan. Good luck with Language Construction Kit, let us know how you get on with it!

  7. Thank you for making me so welcome Beth. As with most things, I’m a Jack of all trades and a master of none 🙂 I used to be able to hold a simple conversation in Hausa (when I lived in Nigeria) but would REALLY struggle now. Same for Tok Pisin from when I was in Papua New Guinea.

    The language that I studied the most was Spanish (2 terms of night classes) so I can at least read it, plus, when I was in Guiné Bissau I spoke Portuguese by speaking in Spanish with a Portuguese accent!

    I am picking up a bit of Afrikaans through living in Pretoria (again, I can read it rather than speak it).

    One day I plan to actually sit down and become fluent in a language other than English!

  8. Thanks Judith. I hope you find it useful, let us know how it goes.

  9. I know what you mean Catana, it is not for everybody! Certainly on the dialect issue I think that authors have to be very careful not to be condescending. Thanks for the heads up on termitewriter, I’ll take a look.

  10. Ottabelle, I know what you mean! There are so many projects that I have planned (if I could just get up off my butt!)

  11. Great idea for a post! I’ve actually spent a good deal of time working with languages for my novel-in-process.

    I’d love to have enough mental stamina to create a whole language, but I know better than to think I could do it. I have enough trouble with English, which is the only language I speak.

    That said, I am writing a fantasy novel in which there are quite a few races of creatures, which of course need their own languages. I’ve basically decided on how they should sound and am then using various online dictionaries/translators to get me to real words in languages that are close to the sound I want, then mucking them up a bit. The muck-up is for two purposes. First, so I’m not (mis)using real words. Secondly, so I can create “new concepts” that wouldn’t necessarily be in the original languages I’m pulling from.

    For instance, I needed to name an area of land. I had an English name for the humans to use, but a major character (for a later story) is not human, so his language needed a name for that area (among other things). For no particular reason I can identify, I though his species should have a sort of Dutch/German sound to it, so I looked up words for land features (e.g. lake, forest, meadow, river, hill) in those languages. I used the words I found, along with translations for descriptor words to name these areas. I guess, in effect, I’m translating things like “clear lake” into another language, but I’m also tweaking them to make them into proper names (Glencove/Glenco instead of “glen by a cove”).

    My goal is to have enough of these words figured out before I need them so that I can be consistent (it drives me nuts when an author changes the name of things), and so I can use them (hopefully) without thinking twice. Also, I want to get enough of a base where I feel I can give names to the characters that are consistent with the words I use from their language.

    However, I do not want to have actual conversations or dialogue in these languages. To me, that’s a major damper on a story. It actually drove me nuts when reading Lord of the Rings.

  12. A very interesting comment Shannon.I think that your approach is perfect for producing words (i.e. when you are not putting together a whole language).

    I have used the same approach when writing nanofiction. The twist in the tale may be ‘dust’ and so the protagonist’s name was Pulvere (the plural indefinite of pulvis – latin for dust); or it may be ‘memory’ and so the character’s name was Mälu (Estonian for memory).

  13. Welcome to Limebird, Dennis!

    I am quite impressed with your language. The closest I ever came to inventing my own language was when I was twelve and forming a circle of spies with my friends, and we needed to leave secret, coded notes around the neighborhood.

    I think that inventing your own language is a great idea to enhance a book, and if you included a glossary at the back, readers would be able to attempt translation?

    Such an idea is not for the faint of heart, and for sure your audience would be a specific group of people who are die-hard fantasy lovers, and who would expect such a style I might imagine. Good luck with it–maybe your next post could be written entirely in CraxAnthan! 😉

  14. I’m the person mentioned by Catana in the above posts. I presume all of you know about the Language Creation Society, whose president is David Peterson, the person who devised the Dothraki language for the HBO series “Game of Thrones.” The website is http://conlang.org .
    I personally have been making up imaginary languages since I was a little girl. I’ve always loved words, dictionaries, and lists, and I like to organize things – I suppose that’s why being a catalog librarian suited me. I’m also very interested in the idea of how we’ll learn to communicate with alien species when we make first contact. Not everybody in the universe is going to speak English, the way it’s always portrayed on TV! And if you’re going to write about a serious first contact in fiction, you need a language. So for my novel “The Ternite Queen” (soon to be published) I made up a language for my intelligent giant termites to speak. It’s called Shshi, the same as the people. That language is being examined on my second blog, http://termitespeaker.blogspot.com. Then I wrote another for my Bird people, which is even more complete than my termite language. and includes lots of sounds like chirps, whistles, and warbles.
    I have some language background – two years of high school Spanish, 3 1/2 years of college French, 2 years of college German. I was actually an English major. As a librarian I was exposed to lots of different languages. I had to catalog books in Slavic languages,so I taught myself the Cyrillic alphabet. I cataloged a Swedish Science collection when I worked in a rare book library. I few years ago I spent a few months investigating Hebrew. But I never really used any of those languages in making up one of my own. It does help, though, to be savvy about syntax and about possible variations.
    I just simply start making up words and record them in a vocabulary list, then when I need a sentence, I come up with bits of grammar that fit and keep a record of those (like basic word order, verb forms, whether nouns are declined and have gender, the placement of modifiers in relation to the thing modified, etc.), and then just build off of that till everything gets bigger and more complete. Maybe not the way a professional linguist would do it, but it works for me. And I think it’s tremendous fun – I can get carried away and waste a whole day at it if I’m not careful.

  15. Thanks for the welcome, Kate. I was a bit younger than 12 when I used to leave messages around the streets for my friends, and they were more like trail markers (i.e. gone to town, gone to Mill Rd park etc.).

    As my novel is a Young Adult, and I hope to keep it as accessible to as many people as possible, I have really restricted my vocabulary. Also, communication is telepathic and so I don’t really need to transcribe whole sentences. When Talatu writes her report to her superior she puts in a few words that don’t have English equivalents (and names) but leaves it at that. The only full sentence in a foreign language is actually in Hausa (as Talatu is of Nigerian heritage) and she translates that for us.

    Who knows, I have some ideas for future books set on CraxAntha, so the language may just develop over multiple books…

  16. Hi Lorinda. Thank you very much for the link to the Language Creation Society!

    “Maybe not the way a professional linguist would do it, but it works for me.” I totally agree! Also (and I’m sure that linguists would disagree) I feel that your approach is more natural. How many languages (except perhaps Esperanto) were developed fully formed? At their roots they started simple and grew organically… I would love to hear from a linguist: if an alien received a recording of the English language, with all of its inconsistencies, all of the ‘stolen’ words etc. how would they go about breaking it down so that a ‘Universal Translator’, such as Hoshi Sato’s in Enterprise, could make sense of it?

    Please let us know when “The Termite Queen” is published it sounds very interesting!

    • Great! To keep informed on the progress toward publication of “The Termite Queen,” just follow my termitewriter blog and Twitter @TermiteWriter! It’s probably about four weeks off now.
      Personally, I don’t believe in Universal Translators. Have you ever tried using Google’s translation service? I tried it on some online French material I wanted to read and it was just awful. There were all kinds of aberrations – verb numbers didn’t match subjects, etc. Sure, you could get the sense, but the experience was so painful and distracting that I found it much more rewarding to work with my rusty French and a dictionary! And that was between two of the most familiar and common Earth languages!
      I imagine a linguist (Earther or alien) would use decryption techniques to decipher an alien language, using analogies based on known or hypothetical patterns of languages. Once the syntactic structure was worked out, then the linguist could start working out possible meanings. The origin of the word, whether it was introduced from some other language, etc., wouldn’t really matter. Of course, the medium of the language makes a difference. Is it a pheromonal language, like in Bernard Werber’s “Empire of the Ants”? Or is it a “spectrographic” language, such as my termites speak? They send radio transmissions between their brains through their antennae, so the only human record is waveforms on a spectrograph.

  17. Wow! How very creative! I have to agree with Shannon, that I don’t have the wherewithal to create a new language myself, but the link should prove interesting. I can’t wait to check that out.

  18. You’re right Lorinda, I think that xenolinguists will have a pretty hard time. The first thing is recognising that there IS a language there!

  19. It’s horses for courses, Raven. You never know, you may come up with a story idea one day that forces you to do it 😉

  20. The commentary here is really interesting. Reminds me of a particular day in my Latin class. We were reading poetry in Latin. We were assigned to translate a piece and then we were reading it in class. Apparently, the Romans could be as crass as the average teenager on cable TV. However, our dictionaries used more, um… scientific words.

    Not knowing any better (it was the beginning of the course), we all translated a phrase using the word the dictionary gave us. The dictionary was a bit too literal. We all got yelled at for translating literally and totally missing the tone of the work. Apparently, the poet was not calling somebody a “male-genitalia-head.”

    A lot can be lost in translation 🙂

    Also, for those of you not familiar with Jim Butcher’s work (Dresden Files & Codex Alera), he gives different people/creatures expressions to use (often in place of some equivalent of “holy sh*t”). Some examples:

    “stars and stones” & “hell’s bells” (wizard)
    “empty night” (a vampire that feeds off lust, instead of blood)
    “bloody crows” (I think I got that one right, in a world where crows show up around the dead and swarm battlefields)

    I’ve been toying with doing something like this, but haven’t come up with anything yet.

    • Thanks for the comment Shannon.

      I think that the art of translation is very underrated. Many people could mechanically translate a book, but to get the ‘feel’ right must be very difficult!

  21. Re curse-words in conlangs: My Shshi (termite) language has only one curse that I can recall right off, which is tha’sask| and means literally “far-curse” (sasko| being “to curse,” sask’zi| being “curse (noun),” and sask’zei| being “a cursed person.”
    My Bird language (!Ka<ta [the final vowel should have an acute accent)]), which is much more fully developed, has tons of swear words, but not all the characters will display here. I'll approximate a few examples: Khepsá∙di nei’u ("Damn me!" Lit., make miserable upon myself!) <Khekwapó’a go♪ arngk is a vulgar expression meaning "Get real!" or "You're full of baloney," meaning literally "Pop your s***!" Setil vrai’u oví↑ ♫!i ♫psá∙át♪ ai↑~] means "What the hell is that?" Lit., What is that of the damned?" (Hey, it took the musical notes – we'll see if they remain when I post this.) And finally two milder interjections: ki!ai ki!ai, which is an expression of derision or contempt that derives from a word meaning "to snap the claw," a gesture of contempt among giant birds who have clawed arms. And then fi’ú↑ fi’ú↑ fi’ú↑, which is also an expression of ridicule, implying, "Oh, don't you think you're hot stuff, though?"
    This all makes me think I need to do a post on my conlang blog on idiomatic expressions in my languages.

    • I think a full post on your blog would be great!

      So far, the JanchuaCrax do not have curse words. They are telepathic, in tune with their version of Gaia, and are above all that 😉 I think that the fact they are all made up of a mix of the ‘racial memory’ means that they wouldn’t feel the need to curse other JanchuaCrax as it would be like cursing yourself.

      However, lets see if contact with humans ‘contaminates’ them!

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