Cracking the Cipher—Series Conspectus
Constructed Languages & Fictional Cultures
A trained linguist and sci-fi/fantasy enthusiast guides us through an examination of the various languages and surrounding cultural effects of numerous ‘constructed’ societies throughout speculative fiction, from Dothraki to Klingon, with a side of Fus Roh Da!
Welcome to Cracking the Cipher, our appreciative look at constructed languages in pop culture! I’m your host, Geneva Woodmansee, and we’ll be unpacking the many contributions by content creators and linguists in designing and developing languages for use in genre fiction. Whether it’s fantasy and science-fiction novels, films, television, or other forms of relevant media, these constructed languages have provided untold levels of immersive depth for those us that so adore this content, providing further avenues for enjoyment and participation, even academic scholarship.
An exploratory survey of these fictional cultures and their depth on the landscape of pop culture, cinema, and literature is not to be undertaken lightly. There are considerable challenges in understanding what it means to construct a language, often completely from scratch. In fact, in the teeming lore of all nerd and geekdom, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by or gloss over the diverse assortment of constructed dialects. Sometimes these are fleshed out enough to be linguistically broken down (such as Star Trek’s Klingon and Tolkien’s Elvish languages), and sometimes they’re almost nothing more than a passing thought, simply adding depth to a story [ 1 ][ 2 ]. We’ll explore many of these, but if you see one missing or want to hear more about one specifically, let us know!
The Scope of This Article Series
Before we begin, there is something that we must make clear: the number of constructed languages we could discuss is seemingly innumerable. It’s taken significant pondering—and hard choices—to winnow down the countless array to just a handful. Even now, there will be volumes left unsaid about each entry that we’ll discuss over the course of this survey. Occasionally we’ve found that while there may be thorough contextual background to glance at, there’s very little linguistic background to pull from or the sample sizes were so small that they could only lead to conjecture, and scope-creep on this series. Thus, the research led us to prioritize different entries.
That being said, I’m confident that those chosen for discussion represent a vibrant and illustrative cross-section of genres, fandoms, and media. Here’s a taste of what’s to come.
Star Wars, Dune, and Darkover
From the beginning of the series we are introduced on screen to C-3PO, making his first appearance at the start of Episode IV. As a protocol droid, he claims to be fluent in “over 6 billion forms of communication” [ 3 ]. How’s that for our exponential language balloon? In his role as translator throughout the films, “Threepio” exposes us to a host of languages—Bocce (a trade language), Huttese, Shyriiwook, Ewokese, Ithorian, Geonosian, Tusken, Jawaese, Ryl, Rodian, and Hapan, plus the many droid communication systems, such as binary. And that’s just a few; at least fifty different languages can be identified in the Star Wars universe [ 4 ]!
Meanwhile, there are several tongues used in Frank Herbert’s Dune universe. Though fewer in number than those found in Star Wars, the languages of Dune generally have more substance. This is because author used real Earth languages as the basis for these constructs, toying with them and altering nuances to help portray the millennia that had passed since they might have been the forms of speech we know and recognize today [ 5 ]. Among these languages are Galach, Chakobsa, and Fremen.
Finally, the languages of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover series are less commonly known than many of the others in fandom, but they’re among my personal favorites. I’ve always been a fan of her writing, and to say that these works are expansive is an understatement. The lore of Darkover in particular provides a good, solid base for the languages that she created [ 6 ]. As in most other literature, after it has been established that they’re speaking in another language, the text usually appears in the language of the reader, but we are given enough glimpses of the actual language for us to gather at least some consistent information.
Atlantis: The Lost Empire, Game of Thrones, and James Cameron’s Avatar
Created for one of Walt Disney Studios’ most criminally underrated animated films, Atlantean was made with the idea that, given the supposed timeline of Atlantis, it was essentially the “Tower of Babel” language—the root dialect or mother language: “the language from which all languages descend” [ 7 ]. The idea was that, because of the Mother Crystal (Matag Yob), the power source that provided for and preserved the Atlantean people, the language would be unchanged from that time (approximately 100,000 BC). That, unlike most languages which curve and split with the passage of generations and migration, the Mother Crystal preserved the Atlantean language as it was then. With that in mind, creator Mark Okrand took Proto-Indo-European (as well as bits and pieces of Chinese and Hebrew) and applied different attributes of languages from all over the world to reach a language that, in theory, could be the source to any modern language [ 8 ]. Noting the great diversity in language today, that seems like a long shot, but that’s what they were aiming to simulate.
Just as many hands were involved in making an animated film like Atlantis, many constructed languages are the product of more than one person, a necessary means to an end to provide a slightly more colorful edge to a story. As an example, the fully fleshed out creation that is Game of Thrones’ Dothraki today owes its quality to many hands. Author George R.R. Martin is responsible for the original creation of the story and world from which the language stems, while HBO and its audience gains a measure of credit for creating a show that garnered such popularity and fandom. Finally, the Language Creation Society also holds some bragging rights for creating a platform to connect language artists with those seeking them. Ultimately, however, linguist David J. Peterson did the grunt work for really taking the time to imagine what the language could be [ 9 ].
Speaking of the potentiality of constructed languages, in 2005 James Cameron was working on developing the script for Avatar and decided he needed a fully developed and consistent language for his alien characters to speak. To get a feel for what this language should sound like, Cameron created 30 words of what would eventually form the base of the Na’vi language. These original words were somewhat Polynesian sounding and had the basic feel he was looking for. However, in order to develop a full language, Cameron would need the help of a linguist, so his production company Lightstorm Entertainment contacted the Linguistics department at the University of Southern California [ 10 ]. This eventually led to Cameron bringing Paul Frommer (who has a PhD in linguistics) onto the project and, working together, they created the language.
J.R.R. Tolkien’s works, The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim, and Star Trek
Khuzdul—the ancient language of the Dwarves—one of those many languages that famed author J.R.R. Tolkien poured his soul into when weaving together Middle-Earth. While it may not have received as much of the same love and attention that Tolkien’s Elvish languages did, it is still quite interesting in its own right. When Tolkien created Khuzdul, he based the language around the Semitic languages (Amharic, Arabic, Aramaic, Hebrew, Maltese, and Tigrinya), and in particular on Hebrew [ 11 ]. And he likewise made comparisons between the Dwarvish people and the Jews, noting that they were both “at once natives and aliens in their habitations, speaking the languages of the country, but with an accent due to their own private tongue” [ 12 ]. However, though a base for the language was created, with some structure and form, very little original vocabulary was created with which to deconstruct. David Salo, a linguist, was hired to assist in some further development of Tolkien’s languages for The Lord of the Rings films and The Hobbit [ 13 ]. From his work developed a more complete version of Khuzdul, now known as Neo-Khuzdul.
The fanbase for The Elder Scrolls series naturally has a lot of overlap with the LotR fanbase to be sure. TES: Skyrim is appropriately Nordic in its approach to adventure, yet interestingly, for a language that’s so well known, there isn’t a lot of straightforward information available about the process used to develop Dovahzul, or Dragonspeak, outside of a few interviews with the creative team for the game. What is known is that Emil Pagliarulo, one of the senior designers and writers for Skyrim, is the man most directly responsible [ 14 ]. Unlike the creators of many of other constructed languages, Pagliarulo and his team aren’t linguistic experts. However, I think you’ll find that they still did an admirable job. It seems that one of the biggest challenges was that it not only had to be functional (and cool sounding) as a language, but also had to not be so alien and unwieldy that it was impossible for game designers to make use of. In the end the language had quite a number of design criteria it had to meet. It was used in songs and stories for the lore of the game, which required it to rhyme both in Dhovazul and English. It had to function as an actual language, but it also had the central gameplay mechanic of the game being built around it. In an interview with Game Informer, Emil Pagliarulo said of this challenge, “The more rules we wanted to keep track of, and the more complex it became, we knew the more complicated it would be for the designers to use, and the more mistakes we would make. So we really tried to keep it much more simple” [ 15 ].
From the frozen north to brutal battles fought by another war-like race, the construction of Klingon for Star Trek is an example of a show’s fans really taking control. Original creator Mark Okrand (of Atlantis fame) did a good enough job on the base construction of the language, and it appeared on screen frequently enough that those with interest saw the full potential for what it could be [ 1 ]. Klingon evolved as enthusiasts crafted resources such as dictionaries and language courses. Various classic works have been translated into it, including assorted works of Shakespeare. A Klingon opera was even created in 2010 in the Netherlands [ 16 ]. In fandom’s ultimate die-hard fashion, one couple has even attempted to raise their son bilingual in Klingon [ 17 ]!
District 9 and Defiance
Klingon is hardly the only sci-fi language we’ll be discussing, though. In 2009, a little-known filmmaker from South Africa burst onto the scene with a film that took audiences by storm. District 9, Neil Blonkamp’s science-fiction tale, told the story of what life in Johannesburg would be like if the malfunctioning spaceship of a race of aliens, vastly different from humans in every form, marooned these travelers for an entire generation. The result is a deliberately orchestrated allegorical tale, meant to echo the oppression of the racially-motivated Apartheid of South Africa—and the constructed language of the film’s alien race supported that allegory in a simple yet effective way [ 18 ].
Speaking of complex allegories and multiple languages in science fiction, Defiance is a special case. An ambitious undertaking that involved the creation of not one or two but seven distinct and interrelated languages for the alien species presented over its three-season run, Defiance made use of the aforementioned Mr. Peterson (yes, the very same tapped for A Game of Thrones) to create a living, breathing, and immersive world that followed logical rules of grammar and syntax [ 19 ]. To that end, we’ll be devoting one article to each of Defiance’s languages, given the exhaustive, meticulous work Peterson did on each of these constructs.
The Methodology at Use
Science fiction, fantasy, and other genre media are often fraught with hidden (or not-so-hidden) meaning. Allegory and metaphor are often employed to great effect as social commentary, with the fantastical settings of these stories acting as insulation against criticism or societal backlash. Many of the works we’ll discuss over the course of this article series deal with representations of social issues, and in many ways the constructed languages of these works can work to reinforce this social commentary in subtle or overt ways.
As no discussion of a work can be attempted without at least acknowledging these instances of social commentary, it’s important to note that a discussion of the constructed languages used in such works must also at least reference these issues as well. To that end, the methodology used in the creation of this article series may, at times, focus exclusively on scholarly examinations of constructed languages from a linguistic viewpoint; at others, the implications of design choices for a race that has certain characteristics, such as being enslaved as a servitor race by another, will be discussed at length as well.
This may make you uncomfortable. It may also make you see the characters or content of your favorite novel, television show, or film series in a completely different way—one that you might not have even considered previously. This is, in fact, a good thing, as one of the universal messages of almost every piece of genre work is that broadening your horizons, opening your mind to new ideas, and experiencing new, otherwise “alien” points of view. That is emblematic of the purpose, the ideal to strive for, in “speculative” fiction. The hope is that this discourse ignites a spark; that questing spirit inside you, to seek out new and undiscovered worlds of thought, as much as it entertains you and provides insight into the process of creating an entire language from scratch.
Next Up: A Long Time Ago, In a Galaxy Far, Far Away…
That being said, our next installment begins our in-depth look into constructed languages by tackling one of the biggest and most well-developed science-fiction properties of all time: the Star Wars universe. From its humble beginnings as a gleam in the eye of George Lucas to the cultural behemoth it has become over the course of 40 years and counting, Star Wars contains volumes of content when it comes to constructed languages.
Indeed, not only do we have three film trilogies’ worth of examples of the countless languages spoken in the Star Wars universe, there are countless novels, comic books, television shows, and spin-off films that have all provided differing degrees of data to be peruse. When it comes to understanding Huttese, Shyriiwook, Ubese, and the other constructed languages used in a galaxy far, far away, we’ve certainly got our work cut out for us!
- “Tolkien is not the first, but certainly is the most famous to invent his own languages for a fictional universe. For The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, his ‘Quenya’ draws heavily upon welsh and Old English.” Source: https://www.shutterstock.com/image-photo/dozza-italy-22-sep-2018-elvish-1190782210
- “What might the pidgin slang be in a cosmopolitan spaceport like Star Wars’ Nar Shaddaa, with multiple species and cultures cohabitating?” Source: https://vulkk.com/2020/04/30/swtor-nar-shaddaa-bonus-series-missions-guide/
Geneva Woodmansee was raised in the Midwest where she studied linguistics, world dance, and TESOL; she currently works in project management. A lifelong fan of science fiction, fantasy and media, Geneva spends time exploring the great outdoors whenever she’s not working, reading, or gaming. As a Contributing Editor to both The Living Multiverse, and The Unconventional, we are proud to share Cracking the Cipher, her series on fantasy linguistics and constructed languages.
- Luu, Chi. “Why We Love to Learn Klingon: The Art of Constructed Languages.” JSTOR Daily, 26 Jan. 2016, daily.jstor.org/why-we-love-klingon-art-of-constructed-languages.
- “Literary Mysteries: Did Tolkien Really Create Entire Languages for His Books?” MPR News, 31 Mar. 2015, mprnews.org/story/2015/03/31/books-bcst-question-tolkien-languages.
- QuoteTheGuy. “How Many Languages Do You Speak?” YouTube, 28 Jan. 2014, youtube.com/watch?v=H8OI-NVMVa8.
- Lussier, Germain. “Holy Maclunkey, There Are a Lot of Different Languages in Star Wars.” Io9, 14 Nov. 2019, io9.gizmodo.com/holy-maclunkey-there-are-a-lot-of-different-languages-1839873433.
- “CHAKOBSA.” LanguageHat, languagehat.com/chakobsa/ Accessed 17 Mar. 2020.
- Renk, Thorston. “Casta and Cahuenga.” Webhome.phy.duke.edu, webhome.phy.duke.edu/~trenk/darkover/casta.html Accessed 24 Apr. 2022.
- McCulloch, Gretchen. “Do All Languages Derive from a Single Common Ancestor?” Slate Magazine, The Slate Group, slate.com/human-interest/2014/08/origin-of-languages-tower-of-babel-proto-languages-and-the-brothers-grimm.html 21 Aug. 2014.
- Kelley, John. “Atlantis Linguist Creates His Own Undersea Speak.” South Florida Sun-Sentinel, 26 June 2001, sun-sentinel.com/news/fl-xpm-2001-06-26-0106250263-story.html.
- Brennan, William. “The Man Who Invented Dothraki.” The Atlantic, Apr. 2016, theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2016/04/the-man-who-invented-dothraki/471495.
- Scudder, Rebecca. “How the Na’vi Language Was Developed for AVATAR.” Avatar Blog, Six Apart Ltd, 20 Apr. 2010, avatarblog.typepad.com/avatar-blog/2010/04/where-did-the-navi-language-come-from-who-developed-the-navi-language-in-avatar-.html.
- “Did Tolkien Know Hebrew?” Ralph the Sacred River, ralphriver.blogspot.com/2004/12/did-tolkien-know-hebrew.html Accessed 17 Mar. 2020.
- Jewniverse. “The Jews of ‘Lord of the Rings.’” Jewish Telegraphic Agency, 4 Oct. 2011, jta.org/jewniverse/2011/the-jews-of-lord-of-the-rings.
- “David Salo, Linguistic Consultant for The Hobbit, Speaks at Geek Kon.” J.R.R. Tolkien Books and Movies | TheOneRing.NetTM | The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, The Silmarillion, 12 Sept. 2011, theonering.net/torwp/2011/09/11/47992-david-salo-linguistic-consultant-for-the-hobbit-speaks-at-geek-kon.
- Ling3-1103533. “The Creation of Fictional Languages: How and Why?” Dragonish, ling3-1103533.jouwweb.nl/the-creation-of-fictional-languages-how-and-why/dragonish Accessed 17 Mar. 2020.
- “Skyrim’s Dragon Shouts.” Game Informer, 20 Jan. 2011, gameinformer.com/b/features/archive/2011/01/20/skyrim-s-dragon-shouts.aspx.
- Staff, Wired. “Klingon Opera Ramps Up for Earth-Bound Premiere.” WIRED, 11 Sept. 2018, wired.com/2010/08/klingon-opera-ramps-up-for-earth-bound-premiere.
- Bosker, Bianca. “D’Armond Speers: Dad Spoke Only Klingon To Son For Three Years.” Huffington Post, 25 May 2011, huffpost.com/entry/darmond-speers-dad-spoke_n_363477.
- Clark, Joe. “Xenolinguistics of ‘District 9’” Blog.Fawny.Org, 25 Aug. 2009, blog.fawny.org/2009/08/25/d9lingo/.
- “Meet The Man Who Invents Languages For A Living.” NPR, 26 Sept. 2015, npr.org/2015/09/26/443170619/meet-the-man-who-invents-languages-for-a-living?t=1587287523646.