- Courses on constructed languages — “conlangs” — are offered at numerous universities.
- Students study how languages such as Elvish and Valyrian are formed and create their own language.
- These courses have grown in popularity thanks to shows such as “Game of Thrones” and “Lord of the Rings.”
- Understanding conlang principles can help students learn more established languages.
Any diehard Trekkie knows it’s possible to earn a certificate attesting to your mastery of Klingon. But did you know you can study constructed languages — “conlangs,” as they’re called — at several universities?
That’s right: Bona fide scholars nationwide (and even in Canada) are teaching students about Klingon, Elvish, Dothraki, Valyrian, and Na’vi, examining how made-up languages featured in movies such as “Avatar” and “The Lord of the Rings” and in shows such as “Game of Thrones” are created.
What may seem like a frivolous pursuit actually has a serious purpose — to demonstrate how real languages work, which can help us learn them.
What Is a Conlang?
Although conlangs have gained popularity recently thanks to Hollywood, they’ve actually existed for some time — long before “Star Trek” gave rise to Klingon.
The term “conlang” was coined by Danish linguist Otto Jespersen in 1928. But the term itself was predated by perhaps the most famous and enduring conlang, Esperanto, created by Ludwik Lejzer Zamenhof in 1887.
No doubt you’ve heard of Esperanto, but chances are you’ve never heard it spoken. Only about 1,000 people speak Esperanto as their native language, Grant Goodall, professor of linguistics at the University of California, San Diego, told BestColleges. Worldwide, anywhere between 750,000 and 2 million people speak it.
Goodall is one of them. He learned Esperanto at age 13 and has taught it at UC San Diego and San Francisco State University.
“People say, ‘Isn’t that kind of weird that you speak a language that somebody sat down at a desk and invented?'” Goodall said.
And that’s exactly what distinguishes conlangs from “real” languages such as English and Spanish. A conlang exists because someone deliberately created it, while traditional languages evolve and change over time.
A former graduate student of Goodall’s at UC San Diego, David Peterson, is one of those people who has sat down at a desk and invented a language. Many times, in fact.
He’s perhaps the world’s most celebrated conlanger, having developed Dothraki and Valyrian for “Game of Thrones,” along with languages for Syfy’s “Defiance,” Netflix’s “Bright” and “The Witcher,” The CW’s “The 100,” Showtime’s “Penny Dreadful,” and Marvel’s “Thor: The Dark World,” among other shows.
Peterson told BestColleges he became interested in languages as a teenager, learning as many as he could, including Esperanto.
“I’d never heard of somebody creating a language,” he said. “I thought that was really cool.”
As an undergraduate at the University of California, Berkeley, Peterson studied English and linguistics, which, combined with his study of Esperanto, sparked his interest in language creation.
“It was always the thing I was doing to blow off doing the other serious stuff,” he said.
Peterson helped found the Language Creation Society in 2007, a national organization for conlangers who practice conlanging. A group dedicated to neologisms naturally has its own conlingo.
Conlang Courses Offer a Fun Introduction to Linguistics
It turns out many of the professors who teach conlanging aren’t conlangers themselves. They’re just nerds.
Julia Papke calls herself a “big nerd,” in fact. A linguistics professor and graduate program coordinator at The Ohio State University, Papke fell under the spell of conlangs at an early age while reading J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy.
In her course “Klingon, Elvish, Dothraki: The Linguistics of Constructed Languages,” Papke’s students fashion their own languages and translate each other’s work. To prepare herself to teach the course, Papke created a sign language based on the movements of a mantis shrimp from space.
“I’m not just getting students who are Trekkies or ‘Lord of the Rings’ nerds in my class,” Papke told BestColleges. “I’m getting a lot of students who are just interested in linguistics and think it sounds fun.”
That fun factor attracts students to the field of linguistics, where conlangs find a natural home.
At UC San Diego, Goodall’s “The Linguistics of Invented Languages” class has grown from 30 students in 2015 to 90 today through word-of-mouth advertising. Students create a language as a group project, voting on decisions about diction, grammar, syntax, and phonology (the organization of sounds).
“I tell students that in 10 weeks you’ll be writing stories or dialogues in a language that does not yet exist,” Goodall said.
A self-proclaimed “classic nerd” who read Klingon textbooks as a kid, Norvin Richards, a linguistics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, considers his course “Conlangs: How to Construct a Language” a “hook.”
“It’s a way to sneakily get people interested in linguistics …,” Richards told BestColleges. “Having a linguistics course in which the students make their own languages is just a very natural way of introducing people to the bones of the field.”
His course, like Goodall’s, has grown in popularity, now enrolling 70 students. Richards gives them a menu of linguistic options to guide their decisions and lets their creative juices take over.
“Some of my students create a language that, if you presented it to me and said, ‘Here’s a new human language that was just discovered,’ I’d be like, ‘Yeah, that looks like a language,'” he said. “And I have other students who are clearly attempting to create things that are as exotic and strange as they can possibly be.”
At the University of Toronto, conlanging doesn’t entice students to sample linguistics but rather enables advanced majors to demonstrate their breadth of knowledge across the field, says linguistics professor Nathan Sanders.
His course “Linguistic Typology and Constructed Languages” enrolls only 15 upper-level majors, who can “show off what they know about linguistics,” Sanders told BestColleges.
A “science-fiction nerd” who as a kid owned the obligatory Klingon dictionary, Sanders began teaching conlangs at Williams College in 2007 and then at Swarthmore College before exporting his course to Canada.
He claims that while linguistics adheres to formal mathematical rules, a conlangs course offers majors license to flex their creative muscles and “approach linguistics from a completely different perspective.”
“It allows them to … invent and make mistakes and have those mistakes not matter. … Students love that they get to play in linguistics rather than do linguistics,” he said.
Conlanging for Movies and Television
In his paper “Constructed Languages in the Classroom,” Sanders traces the history of conlanging and how it came to be taught at universities. He notes more linguists have been “coming out of the closet as conlangers” and that conlanging is “making its way into serious linguistics.”
Sanders also points out that one of the leading conlang pioneers, J.R.R. Tolkien, was himself a philologist, someone who studies the history of language. A University of Oxford professor, Tolkien took an academic approach to his conlanging and his fictional work.
In fact, while most people might assume Tolkien formed languages to fit the fictional world he created in his novels, the obverse is instead true.
“He wrote ‘Lord of the Rings’ and ‘The Hobbit’ as a way for people to accept his languages,” Sanders explained, “because he knew people wouldn’t take these languages seriously on their own.”
Today, cinematic productions demand that attention to detail and verisimilitude Tolkien infused in his work, notes Richards.
“When people in movies or in television want to have an alien race speaking an alien language, it’s not enough anymore to have them do random syllables,” he said. “You have this feeling that there ought to be a system.”
That’s where experts such as David Peterson come in.
For “Game of Thrones,” he “built out” author George R.R. Martin’s existing lexicon of about 50 words, half of which are names, and produced the fully functional language of Dothraki, which contains 4,000 words, along with Valyrian and High Valyrian.
For other shows and languages, Peterson begins with a blank slate and follows linguistical laws governing concerns such as alphabets and scripts, cases and declensions, gender, agreement, and sentence structure. He also evaluates the physical characteristics of who or what will be speaking or signing. Do these aliens have mouths, for example?
And, at a more practical level, when creating a language for television or movies, it’s important to consider the native tongues of the actors and the sounds they’re used to making.
“It’s going to be sounds they’re mostly familiar with,” Peterson said, “because if you do create something that’s a bit more interesting and they don’t pronounce it, then what was the point?”
That’s precisely the creative process Peterson shared with Berkeley students in 2017 when he taught a six-week summer course titled “The Linguistics of ‘Game of Thrones’ and the Art of Language Invention.”
The course taught students “the artistic side of language creation,” Peterson said. “You’re not just making random choices. These are informed choices.”
Would he embrace the opportunity to teach again?
“I would really love to, absolutely,” he said.
Implications for Learning Established Languages
Peterson says language is humanity’s “best invention” and that “everything we’ve created in civilization is predicated upon it.”
But what can studying invented languages teach us about the process of learning established ones? Would studying how Dothraki was formed help you learn French?
Yes, say linguists.
“You’d be well-adapted to study many different languages … if you took a conlangs course,” Richards said. “It gives people a peek at the plumbing and the electrical system of a language, the things you take for granted when you speak a language that you don’t have to think about consciously but that are all there and are systematic and function in order to do particular things. By thinking about those things consciously, you put yourself in a good position to think about them consciously again when you have to learn a language.”
Papke said the task of producing their own language helps her students appreciate how other languages work.
“I think you come to understand [languages] on a deeper level once you’ve had to grapple with how to create something like that,” she said.
Perhaps one of these students will follow in Peterson’s footsteps with a career in showbiz. Hollywood certainly has shined a spotlight on conlangs and thrust them into pop culture. The new movie “Avatar: The Way of Water” promises to continue this phenomenon.
Academic linguists, meanwhile, are basking in the attention and believe more universities will respond to increasing student demand for conlang courses. Maybe one day we’ll even see conlanging offered as a major.
“There are not very many things we can do in linguistics that are, you know, sexy to the outside public,” Goodall said. “Finally, we have something that’s just intuitively appealing to lots of people who will take this course and be excited by it in a way they never would have with a traditional linguistics course.”