nuqneH! This is a common greeting… in Klingon*. What do you mean you don’t speak Klingon?! Even if you don’t speak it, you’ve most likely heard of Star Trek. It’s the language spoken by the Klingon aliens in this fictitious world. Klingon is what we call a “constructed language” (or imaginary, invented, or made-up languages), along with others like Dothraki and Sindarin. And believe it or not, constructed languages, or conlangs, like these are on the rise in the polyglot community!
Where does Constructed Language Come From?
A galaxy far, far away… (thank you, Star Wars). But in all seriousness, linguistics can be broken down into what we call “natural language” (like English, French, and Spanish) and what we call “constructed language.” Some examples of the latter include: Klingon, Sindarin, and Dothraki. Do any of those ring a bell?
They aren’t languages that are attached to a particular country or area of the world, but they are real languages. They were all created, or constructed, by authors or filmmakers for a novel, movie, or TV series (generally in the sci-fi or fantasy genres). Here are some more examples:
- Quenya and Sindarin, two Elvish languages that you’ve surely heard of if you’ve seen or read Lord of the Rings. (Tolkien, the trilogy’s author, had a passion for inventing languages, and also created Orkish, Dwarvish (Khuzdul), and more! Pretty impressive…)
- Klingon, from Star Trek
- Dothraki, from Games of Thrones (or GOT, for the real fans)
- Huttish, from Star Wars
- last but definitely not least, Na’vi from Avatar
All of these languages were made up in order to make a completely fictional universe (in a movie or TV series, for example) seem more realistic, to give it depth, and a certain “credibility.” Some authors don’t just create races or communities of people or creatures, but go as far as to imagine the language they use. While this phenomenon is becoming more and more popular in books, movies, TV shows, and video games, the term constructed language isn’t limited to these contexts. Other artificial languages just for fun, by ordinary people (like Ithkuil, created by John Quijada), or by people called conlangers.
Artificial or Natural Language?
Most languages that appear in movies and books were actually created by or with the help of conlangers. These are linguists, real language experts. Conlangers are able to use their knowledge of existing languages to create something completely new, including a unique alphabet, syntax, grammar, and even conjugation system. So, what difference do we make between constructed language and natural language?
Constructed languages are often developed to respond to a particular need, such as social cohesion, as is the case for Esperanto, or in order to create a particular identity. It can take several years to develop constructed languages – John Quijada spent thirty years working on Ithkuil! Natural languages also evolve over the years, but they do so on their own, and over much longer periods of time.
These languages do not necessarily have a goal, and are rather spontaneous; they are not thought-out using the same processes as constructed languages. People generally say that artificial language sets out its rules before it is put into use, whereas natural languages’ rules develop as it is being used. That said, most natural languages developed from existing languages that underwent significant evolutions and transformations (like how all of the Latin-based languages share the same roots). The main difference is that one language is planned, and the other is not.
But does this mean that languages like Klingon can’t fall under the modern language category? I’m not so sure… We often define modern languages as syntactic constructions that allow people to communicate and identify as a group. If Klingon really is spoken by some 2,500-odd people around the world, who communicate amongst themselves thanks to this made-up language, and who, I assume, consider themselves part of a community of Star Trek fans, how can we say that it isn’t a true modern language?
Yep, there are probably around 2,500 Klingon speakers in the world today. Surprising? Not particularly. It is quite common for fans to want to learn these languages, constructed by their favorite authors, to reinforce their sense of belonging in a community. Speaking Klingon, Dothraki or Sindarin makes you part of a unique community, in the same way that speaking, say, Spanish does!
This growing popularity means that books, websites, online courses, and apps for your phone or tablet to help teach yourself constructed languages are becoming easier and easier to find. And who knows, maybe someday MosaLingua will offer an app to help you learn a constructed language… In the meantime, check out these other resources to get started.
For Star Trek Fans:
- You can buy anything on the Internet, even a Klingon dictionary. However, Klingon is a very complex language, and supposedly quite difficult to learn. This is probably why “only” 2,500 people throughout the world speak it (although there are millions of Star Trek fans).
- Another good place to start is KlingonTeacher’s YouTube channel, for video language lessons.
For GOT Fans:
- Dothraki Companion is an app launched by Dothraki’s creator himself, linguist David J. Peterson. The app includes vocab lists and games to help you practice. That being said, according to Peterson, you can have a conversation in Dothraki… but you won’t be able to use it to communicate about everything. The language only contains about 3,500 words, most of which are related to horses, war, and sex. Needless to say, your discussion topics are somewhat limited!
- On the exhaustive Dothraki Wiki page, you can learn not only this language, but also Valyrian, another Game of Thrones language created by Peterson.
For Lord of the Rings Fans:
- The Internet has numerous resources for learning the various languages of Tolkien’s universe. A good place to start is the Council of Elrond’s guide to the languages of Middle-Earth.
As of now, constructed languages aren’t taught in schools. However, the growing number of resources available on the Internet and on mobile apps make it easy to teach yourself vocabulary, grammar, and other aspects of these artificial languages. Leave us a comment below about the languages you’d like to learn – constructed or natural. 😉
*In case you were wondering, nuqneH actually means “What do you want?” but this is how Klingophones greet one another. I don’t think that greeting would go over too well in English!
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