Monday, April 16, 2012

Conlangers: Creators of New Languages

What is a conlanger? A conlanger is a person who creates new languages. A number of authors (especially fantasy writers) and linguists are conlangers. Conlangers make up languages for many different reasons. It can be for a story, novel, or script they themselves are writing. Conlangers can be hired to write a new language or improve on an existing one for a movie, television show or even a video game. Others may come up with a new language as a hobby or for reasons only known to them.

Creation of new languages is no longer done in playgrounds or dorm rooms. New languages used to stay only in journals, in word processing documents or in websites. Now, there is a market for creating new languages – television and the movies. Of course a number of authors in the past have created languages for use in their books. Think J.R.R. Tolkien, George Orwell, Frank Herbert and more. But today, more and more new languages are created for science fiction and fantasy movies.

Constructed languages now are not merely a collection of words and phrases. Conlangers come up with their own phonology, a complete set of rules for grammar and syntax, an extensive vocabulary (sometimes with an accompanying etymology), and a written alphabet. Some created languages tend to be similar to well-established languages in the way they are spoken or written while others are just out of this world.

In the movies and on television shows, there are alien like characters who sound like they are speaking gibberish but are actually talking in a language that has been well thought of and well planned by a conlanger. From Tarzan to the Klingons, from the blue humanoids in Avatar to the elves of Lord of the Rings, characters in science fiction and fantasy films and TV shows speak constructed languages that have spawned websites featuring fan-made dictionaries. At fan-parties, attendees come in costume and speak in the tongue of their beloved characters. It's not only fun for them but it is their way of paying tribute to their favorite sci-fi or fantasy films and TV shows.


Edgar Rice Burroughs created Mangani, the language learned by Tarzan from his ape family. This ape language has been described as a set of monosyllabic gutturals supplemented by various gestures and signs. Grunts and growls are a big part of this ape language. Compared to other made-up languages, Mangani is not as extensive. It is only made up of a few words and no grammar rules to really speak of yet it still has a fan base.

“Mangani” is made up of two words. “Man” means great while “gani” means ape.
There is a belief that Mangani is close to the Swahili language. But because Burroughs’ setting for Tarzan is the African west coast and Swahili is more widespread in the eastern coast of the continent, this theory may not be true. Some say the Mangani is more closely related to the Kongo language. In 1964, an Ape-English dictionary was included in the Tarzan of the Apes book by Whitman.

Various types of primates share the Mangani language according to Burroughs’ books. Monkeys, Indonesian orangutans, man-like primates and other primates understand Mangani in the novels. Even other non-primates seem to have some level of understanding of the Mangani language.

The popular all-purpose word used by Tarzan is “umgawa.” Although Tarzan fans have heard this word so many times, it is not part of the Ape-English dictionary from the book. It is believed to be a Swahili word that the scriptwriters added on their own. What does “umgawa” mean? A lot of things! Its definition actually depends on the speaker. Tarzan in the film used it to mean “get down,” “stop,” “danger,” “go away,” and many more.

Examples of Mangani words in the Burroughs books are:

Mangani – great ape
Tarzan – white-skin
Tarmangani – great white apes (usually white-skinned humans)
Gomangani – great black apes (usually dark-skinned humans)
Nala - up
tand-nala  - down

Tolkien's languages

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien or J.R.R. Tolkien was a master storyteller. Tolkien was a poet and a philologist (a linguist who studies language as it pertains to either literature or culture or even both). He wrote fantasy stories with well-developed themes, characters and storylines. Tolkien's The Silmarillion, The Hobbit, and The Lord of the Rings books were only once popular with the more highbrow readers. But since the explosion of The Lord of the Rings movies, video games and merchandise, more and more people are getting to know about the world Tolkien created.

Tolkien was a prolific conlanger. Over 20 constructed languages were attributed to the great writer some of which he used for Middle-earth, the fictional universe of his fantasy novels. Tolkien once said that his stories were created for the languages he made and not the other way around. 

Tolkien's Elvish language is made up of around 15 languages and dialects spoken by the elves. Sindarin, Quenya, Avarin and Eldarin are just a few that fall under this made up language group. Hobbits spoke Westron, as did the Men in the Third Age. Khuzdul was the language of Tolkien's dwarves, who also used Iglishmêk, a form of sign language. The ancient trees, called Ents, spoke Entish while Sauron and his minions used Black Speech.

The Lord of the Rings trilogy movies and the upcoming Hobbits is just the tip of Tolkien's world. There is so much to explore about Tolkien's fantasy world. He created places, stories and characters in order to tell the story of his constructed languages. One cannot argue that Tolkien was a gifted writer and a master conlanger.


In the novel 1984, George Orwell created his own fictional language that he called Newspeak. The language is English based but simpler in grammar and vocabulary. The powers-that-be in the novel, referred to as the Party, uses Newspeak to control its people. The state removes all words and phrases related to freedom, rebellion and other related thinking. Citizens are controlled through Newspeak. The Party continually simplified the Oldspeak (basic English) to create Newspeak. Apparently for the Party, the less words, the better they can control the populace.


In the fictional universe that is Dune, novelist Frank Herbert created an arid planet called Arrakis inhabited by the Fremen. They are a race of fierce fighters who are able to adapt in the desert-like conditions of the Arrakis. The language of this race is called Fremen language and is similar to Arabic. Aside from the Fremen language, there are other languages in the Dune novels. Chakobsa, Galach, Battle language, Bhotani and Whistling language are among them. The Dune novels spawned a movie and several video games. 


Marc Okrand was the linguist behind the widely popular Klingon language from “Star Trek III: The Search for Spock.” Before this installment of Star Trek, the Klingons spoke American English. Throaty and harsh-sounding are the two common descriptions for the Klingon language. Which, come to think of it, matches the character of the Klingon race. Okrand is first to admit that he does not speak Klingon very well. It is not easy to learn and only a few can say that they are truly fluent in the language. So, if you can speak Klingon, then that's Qapla! (Success!)

Speaking Klingon is serious business. The Klingon Language Institute, formed in 1992, has several ongoing projects. One is the translation of the books of the Bible into Klingon. Another is coming up with a Klingon translation for Shakespeare’s various works. In 1996, the institute published "Hamlet, Price of Denmark (The Restored Klingon Version)." There is an opera in The Netherlands in Klingon. A German Trekkie (Star Trek fan) raps in Klingon plus there is a Klingon version of the widely popular game, Monopoly.


This language, pronounced as tukhh-t’-mah, was created by Matt Pearson, a linguistic professor from Reed College (Portland, Oregon), for the NBC sci-fi series “Dark Skies.” The series centered on UFO conspiracy theory with an alien race referred to as the Hive slowly invading the planet through organized manipulation of events in history.


For the blockbuster movie of 2009, “Avatar,” professor emeritus of clinical management communication Paul R. Frommer from San Diego’s University of California created the language Na’vi. The inhabitants of Pandora in the movie speak this language.

James Cameron, the writer and director of Avatar, created a few new words for the humanoids when he was first developing the script for the movie. But he was not satisfied with just a simple list of words and phrases. Cameron wanted a language that the actors could learn and pronounce yet not sound like other existing human languages. His team eventually met with Frommer and the rest was history. Frommer continued to expand on the Na'vi vocabulary. There are now over 1,500 Na'vi words. He also shared the grammar of Na'vi thus turning the language into a completely learnable one for fans and those interested in learning the constructed language. Frommer maintains a blog centered on Na'vi language.


“M’athchomaroon!” (Hello!) Last year, HBO premiered the successful fantasy series “Game of Thrones.” The series is based on George R.R. Martin’s popular novels “A Song of Ice and Fire” based in Westeros, a fictional land of feuding kingdoms.

Although the books already had a sprinkling of Dothraki terms, the series creators wanted more. They hired the services of David J. Peterson to create the Dothraki language. Peterson is not new to constructing new languages. He is a product of the University of California, where he took up linguistics. Peterson’s Dothraki has more than 3,000 words and it is still growing.

This is not the first time Peterson made up languages before. He has at least 12 other constructed languages. In fact, Peterson is also one of the founders of the Language Creation Society. Established in 2007, it is the very first professional organization for conlangers.

So to Peterson and all the conlangers out there, “Hajas!” (pronounced “hah-DZHAS”) or  “Be strong!” and continue the great work that you are doing.


The newest made up language on the block would probably be Barsoomian. This is the language spoken by the race of aliens living in Barsoom. Where is Barsoom? It is actually a stand-in for Mars as envisioned by the author of the Barsoom novels, Edgar Rice Burroughs. Barsoomian will be introduced to moviegoers via the soon to be released sci-fi movie “John Carter.” The title character is the human who found himself transported to Barsoom. The movie is produced by media giant Disney. In order to make the aliens more believable (and accessible), Disney hired the services of Frommer, the same conlanger who further developed Avatar's Na'vi language.

There are many more constructed languages found in books and movies. Some are simplistic while others are quite developed and a tad complicated. Vampirese is the ancient vampire language from the Blade movies. The slug-looking Hutts from Star Wars speak Huttese, which is based on Quechua, an ancient Incan dialect. In Futurama, there is Alienese.

Fans of these books, movies and television shows take these genres constructed languages seriously. They speak it and write using it. They will argue about pronunciation and grammar with other fans. Because for them, the language that their favorite characters speak is real and tangible. One must remember though that although these new languages are fun and exciting to use, there are hundreds, maybe even thousands, or genuine human languages that are at the brink of extinction. Light should be focused on these endangered human languages. Why? Because the extinction of a language is the extinction of a culture and a way of life.

In today's world, don't be surprised to hear fans expertly speaking the languages spawned by their favorite novel, television series, or movies. Conlangers have made interesting and well constructed new languages that are easy to learn or at least fun to dabble with on one's spare time. But before learning about the language of the humanoids, elves and vampires and aliens, why not learn about existing languages. It's a pity when children and adults alike know more how to speak Klingon rather than French, Italian, Spanish or German.

The people at Day Translations, Inc., World Interpreting, Inc. and Your Spanish Translation are not conlangers but they sure do know languages. They can help you translate or interpret existing human languages, whether for work or personal purposes. Be sure to contact them through their website if you are in need of 100% accurate translation and interpretation services.

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