Conlang: Fictional Languages and Online Communities

12 minutes to read
Article
Beau Swierstra
15/10/2020

"Valar Morghulis." You might have heard this conlang sentence if you have watched Game of Thrones, but do you know what it means? How do you pronounce it?  And who invented it? "Valar Morghulis" is a phrase in High Valyrian which is a constructed language, or a conlang. Constructed languages are becoming more widespread these days due to popular series such as Game of Thrones. Can they be defined as languages? What do we actually know about them? And how did they get an online life?  

Nowadays, you can learn hundreds of languages on apps like Duolingo, but did you know that you can learn constructed languages on that app as well? Another commonly used word for conlang is a fictional language. It is a made-up language used for a fantasy world or for another purpose. They are mainly constructed for a fictional setting, like the High Valyrian and Dothraki languages in Game of Thrones, Klingon in Star Trek or Quenya in the books of Tolkien. 

Game of Thrones is one of the most popular series of the last decade. Is there a link between the large Game of Thrones fan base and the increasing popularity of constructed languages? Before Game of Thrones, there were already some existing constructed languages used in books and TV shows. But it was only after the Game of Thrones hype, that lots of people became familiar with conlang phrases such as "Valar Morghulis." You can also say that Game of Thrones is taking advantage of an era in which light communities are very common (for a discussion on light communities, see, van Turnhout 2020). People from all over the world are discussing constructed languages which enhances the use of them in the real-life world. 

What is a conlang?

A constructed language (or conlang) is a language created by humans, but not in the natural way of languages such as English or Russian. Those languages evolved naturally and can be traced back to one Proto-Indo-European language (Adelman, 2014). Conlangs are created for particular reasons. We can also call them artificial languages but fans and speakers mostly use the term conlang. There are different kinds of conlangs. We can distinguish ‘a priori’ languages, which are not based on an existing language, but are completely made up from scratch. ‘A posteriori’ languages, on the other hand, use grammar or words from already existing languages. A big difference between the two sorts of languages is that an ‘a posteriori’ language is more based on cultural ways of language use, whereas an ‘a priori’ language uses basic grammar which has no (or few) exceptions (Adelman, 2014).

A TED talk by John McWhorter that explains conlangs:

 

Another category of conlangs are International Auxiliary Languages (IAL) or in short, auxlangs. An auxlang is most likely created to simplify the communication between speakers of different languages (Adelman, 2014). From 1880 until the Second World War a lot of such languages were created, a famous example of which is Esperanto. The creator, Dr Ludwig Lazarus Zamenhof created this Latin-like language hoping it would unify people all over the world. During the Second World War, organizations such as the Red Cross used this language, but it never gained international approval. Nonetheless, there are currwently already two generations of native speakers of Esperanto, meaning that those people learned the language immediately after they were born. We can’t say that of Dothraki (yet).

Esperanto is a bit different from other conlangs, because it was meant o be used in the real world. In that way, its purpose is different from Tolkien's Quenya, which he created purely for his books, or from Dothraki which was created especially for the Game of Thrones series. Esperanto can also be seen as a more ‘natural’ language for the following three reasons:

  1. When learning Esperanto, you depend on the existing community, as there are not many books or dictionaries about it; ;
  2. Although Esperanto is made as an easy to learn language, with easy grammar and rules, since it was invented it has already undergone some changes; 
  3. As said before, Esperanto already has some native speakers (Lindstedt, 2006). 

Language is an important factor in being connected to a story world.

Dothraki, High Valyrian and Klingon are other examples of constructed languages. They were not created to unify speakers of different languages but rather, with a fictional world in mind. Just as Tolkien did with the languages in his books about Middle Earth. Tolkien's most famous language is Quenya, also known as Elvish. He was a philologist and spoke a lot of languages besides his native English. He created Quenya (and more conlangs) as a hobby. But he believed that in order for a language to really exist or work, it has to have a mythology. It has been suggested that this is why he started writing Lord of the Rings. These conlangs are also called artlangs. They’re created primarily for entertainment purposes and for novels/films.

Language is an important factor in being connected to a story world. Tolkien’s Quenya has a long fictional history. By creating old and new versions of Quenya, Tolkien already created a story (Overbeeke, 2014). Not only that, by encountering a fictional language in a novel or film, the audience will immediately know that the diegetic world is a fictional one.

Tolkien speaking Quenya:

 

Examples of conlangs

As discussed above, there are multiple types of conlangs with different purposes. Let’s take a closer look at the artlangs that were mentioned before. The first example is the Quenya language. As mentioned, this language was invented by the author and scholar J.R.R. Tolkien. Quenya is a fantasy language that is used by the Elves in the Lord of the Rings books. This language was strongly influenced by the grammar and vocabulary of the Finnish language with some similarities to Greek and Latin. Firstly, Quenya was developed as a written text and afterwards the language had to be adapted for the Lord of the Rings movies. David Salo translated all dialogue into the many languages featured in the films. In some cases, Salo had to develop an entire grammar and sound system (Destruel, 2016).

Another constructed artlang is Klingon. It was developed by Marc Okrand for the Star Trek TV shows and films. Unlike Quenya, Klingon was created in oral form first. Because it initially only made a brief appearance, the actors were simply told to make incoherent grunts and sounds when “speaking Klingon”. When the production of the third movie started, the Klingon language was to be featured more prominently. Okrand created a dictionary and grammar based on a few official words that had been created throughout the years. He said that he deliberately designed it to sound “alien”, using rare phonemes as well as typologically uncommon features (Okrand, 1992). In figure 1, you can see the typography of the Klingon language.

Figure 1. Klingon language script

The third example of constructed languages are Valyrian and Dothraki. These languages were created for George R.R. Martin’s novel series A Song of Ice and Fire and its the television adaptation, Game of Thrones. Valyrian is basically a family of languages, stemming from High Valyrian, a language spoken in the ancient Valyrian Freehold. The Dothraki language is spoken by the nomadic people in the fictional world. HBO selected creator David. J. Peterson to develop the spoken version of the two languages. He developed over 4000 Dothraki words and about 2000 Valyrian words. Peterson drew inspiration from George R.R. Martin’s description of the language and from other languages such as Estonian, Inuktitut, Turkish, Swahili and Russian (Dothraki, 2010). In addition, the languages were developed within two criteria. Firstly, the Dothraki and Valyrian language had to match with the uses which were already set out in the books. And secondly, the languages had to be easy to learn by the actors of the series.

A video explaining different kinds of conlangs: 

 

What’s the current online development of conlangs? 

The phenomenon of the online world brought conlangs to another level. We are all aware of the fact that via worldwide connections, everything nowadays is sent around the world in the blink of an eye. Meeting new people online, chatting on forums, browsing different sources are all tools that make spreading conlangs easy. This is why online conlang communities are on the rise. Fans of conlangs share information through forums, like ‘The CBB’ (CCBForum, n.d.) or ‘Linguaholic’ (Linguistanerd, 2018). On these kinds of forums, conlang fans share new languages that they discover, discuss existing conlangs, and, of course, are free to share everything about their passion for these fictional languages. These forums, and other online tools, make it easy for people from all over the world to connect, and share their passion for conlangs. 

The popularity of Game of Thrones helped conlangs like Klingon to become more popular.

Back in the days when there was no internet, people couldn’t connect with each other as fast as they can today. Klingon, famous from the Star Trek movies, first appeared in the episode “Errand of Mercy” (The Organians Prophecy, The Klingons and The Federation Will Become Friends, 2019), which was broadcasted in 1967 (Fandom, n.d.). Imagine, you are watching this Star Trek episode when it was first aired, and you hear the actors speak a language that you have never heard before: a conlang. If you were watching with someone, you could turn to him or her and be amazed together. But it stops there. Imagine the same situation take place today, in 2020. Someone who ‘discovers’ a new conlang while watching a TV show, is probably already glued to their phone, ready to start or to join a conversation about this language. 

The popularity of Game of Thrones helped conlangs like Klingon to become more popular. The popularity came with a whole new group of fans of conlangs, ready to search through history and find out more about existing conlangs. Conlangs have been developed to such an extent that some invented languages can even be found on Duolingo, another online development of conlangs. Next to learning regular languages such as English, you now can learn for example Elvish (from Lord of the Rings).

Among which online communities are conlangs used?

These constructed languages, such as Quenya, Valyrian/Dothraki and Klingon were initially used for novels and films. Nowadays, with the rise of the internet, people can actually learn a constructed language from their favourite novel or movie. Therefore, conlangs have grown in popularity, people can easily find other conlang users and online platforms to expand their vocabulary (Prisco, 2019).

A popular example of such a platform is Duolingo, which is a free language app where people can learn languages, including conlangs. An example is one of the languages from Game of Thrones, High Valyrian, which currently has 1.2 million active learners, or learners who have used the app within the last 12 months (Higgins-Dunn, 2019). At the moment, there are 824 words of High Valyrian that users can learn from the Duolingo app, and the number of words continuously grows.

These conlangs are not only used in novels, films or language apps, but also on internet forums, blogs and social media, such as Facebook. There are several Facebook groups with members who are interested in a certain constructed language. Within these groups, the majority of conversations and messages consist of questions about the language or how to translate a certain sentence into a fictional language and vice-versa.

Figure 2. Facebook message to fellow members

An example is the Facebook group Learn Klingon, which is a public group with 2.176 members. As you can see on the screenshot above (figure 2) someone is asking advice from fellow members to translate a fictional sentence. The same applies to online forums where everyone can learn more about the specific language and people can ask each other questions about particular conlangs. An example is the Dothraki online forum where people can learn more about the Valyrian and Dothraki languages.

Another online platform which provides multiple videos regarding constructed languages is YouTube. Some videos explain how the language was invented. And other videos function as tutorial lessons to teach people how to write and speak a constructed language. Overall, learning a fictional language may have little practical value, but it offers a way for people to connect with their passions and interact with like-minded people (Prisco, 2019).

Conlangs and their online and offline lives

It looks like conlangs are becoming increasingly popular these days. The internet has played a big role in forming conlang communities and it has even brought Klingon back into our lives. This is also the primary reason why Esperanto is still spoken today. On social media people create fan pages or fan accounts where they can practice conlangs every day. Also, with the popularity of shows such as Game of Thrones and films like The Hobbit, conlangs have become more mainstream. It’s also important to keep in mind that conlangs can be created for different reasons, but they mainly exist to make a story world feel more ‘real’. 

Due to a massive fanbase, the development of online tools to spread the languages around the world, and the popularity of fictional movies and series, conlangs will only become bigger.

So, can conlangs be defined as languages? It is made clear that everyone involved in a fan community of conlangs treats them as real languages. And thereby, they fully live their own lives on- and offline due to their great popularity. Nowadays, there is so much information to be found about conlangs that they must be seriously considered as real languages. Due to a massive fanbase, the development of online tools to spread the languages around the world, and the popularity of fictional movies and series, conlangs will only become bigger. There will probably be new conlangs in the future, but for now, let’s just say "Valar Morghulis." Do you already know what it means?

References

Adelman, M. (2014). Constructed Languages and Copyright: a Brief History and Proposal for Divorce. Harvard Journal of Law & Technology 27/2, pp.543-562

CCBForum. (n.d.). Retrieved March 21, 2020, from CCBForum.

Destruel, M. (2016). Reality in Fantasy: Linguistic Analysis of Fictional Languages. Doctoral Dissertation. Boston College University Libraries. Retrieved from eScholarship@BC.

Dothraki. (2010, April 12). Official HBO Press Release. Retrieved from Dothraki Conlang. [link was functional at the time of submission]

Fandom. (n.d.). Errand of Mercy. Retrieved March 21, 2020, from Memory-alpha.

Higgins-Dunn, N. (2019, April 14). If You Are a ‘Game of Thrones’ Fan, This App Will Teach You How to Speak in High Valyrian. Retrieved from CNBC.

Lindstedt, J. (2006). Native Esperanto as a Test Case for Natural Language. SKY Journal of Linguistics, 19, pp.47-55.

Linguistanerd. (2018, June 10). Welcome to the Conlang Community!. Retrieved March 21, 2020, from Linguaholic.

Okrand, M. (1992). The Klingon Dictionary. New York: Pocket Books, Simon & Schuster, Inc. 1992

Overbeeke, A. (2014, December, 24). Fictional Languages in Film and Television. University of Amsterdam

Prisco, J. (2019, May 20). The 'Game of Thrones' Language that 1.2M People are Learning. Retrieved from CNN.

The Organians Prophecy The Klingons and The Federation Will Become Friends. (2019, November 19). Retrieved March 21, 2020, from YouTube.

van Turnhout, L. (2020). The Dutch Goth Scene: From Übergoths to 'Light' Goths. Retrieved 21 September 2020, from Diggit Magazine.