In many creation stories, language actually exists prior to the creation of the world. The gods often gift speech before life, and in the Book of Genesis, God uses his own speech to create light. Language is not only central to the human experience, many would argue it actually defines it. That’s why I’m so fascinated with so-called “alien” languages. What if we were lucky enough to actually make contact, how would we communicate? What would our language say about us and theirs about them? I’m not the only person to wonder these things, though. There’s a rich tradition in fiction of so-called “alien” or created languages. Maybe I’m stretching a bit, but I’m defining “alien” as any species other than our contemporary human one. This includes the Elves of Rivendell, and the various aliens of Star Trek. Here is a list of my favorite fictional languages:
Na’Vi from James Cameron’s Avatar
Say what you will about the shallow characterization and rampant infantilization of the natives in Jame’s Cameron’s Avatar movie. (Can you tell I’m not actually a fan?) The point is that, production-wise, Cameron poured an insane amount of money and time into developing an alternate universe for this movie. He not only scripted the Na’Vi language, he actually brought in a linguist to help him construct an entire alien lexicon. And it worked. There are Na’Vi enthusiasts right now who not only love to dress up and pretend to be blue psychic aliens, they have embraced the language as well. Supposedly similar to Earth romance languages, Na’Vi is rich and fluid.
Dothraki from Game of Thrones/ A Song of Ice and Fire
George R.R. Martin, in his A Song of Ice and Fire book series, created the nomadic horse-herding Dothraki culture. In the books, unfortunately, Martin didn’t really include many words of the Dothraki language, so there wasn’t much to go on when it came time to film the series. So for the HBO television series, experts were hired to turn those few words into a complete lexicon. Dothraki is terse and rough-sounding, often accompanying speech with gestures. Its roughness is a good reflection of the harsh desert from which these people were supposed to have come. (I’m also fond to the Valyrian language, but it isn’t spoken nearly as much.)
Klingon from Star Trek
Klingon is one of the most well-known fictional languages. It was created by a linguist to be the language of the warrior Klingon race on the television show Star Trek. Several books have have been written about the language, and an organization known as the Klingon Language Institute has a quarterly journal dedicated to it. While Klingon does have its own alphabet, the language is usually converted into English. My first exposure to the Klingon language came at a young age, when I saw a Miss Klingon Beauty Pageant for the first time at a convention. While I didn’t understand the words to the song she was screeching, I was still hooked, and have been a Star Trek fan ever since.
Elvish: JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series
J.R.R. Tolkien was actually an Oxford linguist, long before he was ever a writer. Tolkien brought an incredibly deep pool of knowledge to language creation, as he had long been a scholar of early and middle English dialects. He began creating his Elvish languages before he started on any of his well-known works, such as The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy. There are actually two forms of Elvish commonly learned by fans: Quenya, or high Elvish, and Sindarin, both based loosely on Finnish and Welsh, two languages Tolkien himself studied. And these can be subdivided into different dialects. In addition to the time and effort he put into creating the Elvish languages, he also crafted language for Orcs, Ents, Hobbits, and more. The Lord of the Rings series is probably the most linguistically complicated crated language in the modern world.