How many fictional languages are there?
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Confession: I’m a linguistics nerd. Far from Tolkien levels, but I will totally judge your sci-fi/fantasy novel on whether you considered languages as part of your world-building. As a book lover, conlangs are my love language – it’s constructed languages. They are complete but fictional languages created as part of world-building in storytelling. You could argue that every language is constructed in a certain way, but there is a difference between the natural evolution of language in society over many years and a constructed language designed just for a damn good book. You might be wondering how many complete fictional (and learnable) languages are there in the world? The answer: more than you think, but less than there should be. It’s not an easy task to create a whole new language for the sake of your book. But I’m here to say that the payoff is always worth it. If a story comes with its own language, then you know the creator has gone the extra mile to create a new, immersive experience.
In the beginning: the mother of conlangs
Every linguistics nerd knows that Tolkien is the master of Conlangs, but he wasn’t the first and he certainly wasn’t the last. The first recorded conlang was Lingua Ignota, a religious language created by Hildegard von Bingen, a 12th-century abbess later known as Saint Hildegard. Von Bingen created the language for mystical purposes, built primarily from his constructed vocabulary of around 1000 nouns, but no specific grammar. Her writing, and indeed her conlang, were used to tell the stories and teachings she claimed to receive from the Divine. Based on her various skills (including music composition, poetry, storytelling, and medical research), it’s no surprise to see von Bingen create her own language to support the divine world in which she could comfortably express. its philosophy and ideals. Thanks to the level of work that went into creating the Lingua Ignota, many conlang scholars, like Sarah Higley in The Unknown Tongue by Hildegard von Bingen, consider von Bingen the Mother of the Conlangs. And I would say, rightly so.
Which came first: language or tradition?
Building a whole new language is not an easy task. It’s much easier to draw maps of lost cities and create intricate family trees littered with scandals. Language, however, is one of the cornerstones of any civilization. Language can show us how a community developed over time, what it considered most important, and how it identified groups and individuals within its community. Language is both history and the evolution of our history. It is more than a list of words for direct translation. It is the contextual nature of speaking these words with reverence and structure.
Tolkien knew exactly how complex and beautiful languages could be. He first studied languages for fun in his youth, creating his first language, Naffarin, inspired by both Latin and Spanish. After returning from World War I, Tolkien studied Anglo-Saxon and linguistics at Oxford University, nurturing his skills and passion for natural languages. He liked the idea so much that he wondered what alternate and fantastical languages would exist if elves had lived among men. The initial result was two complete languages: Quenya and Sindarin, both considered languages of the Elves. Tolkien was so enamored with the idea of these languages that he felt compelled to write stories and lore to go along with them. As Tracey Mumford says, Tolkien “invented words and needed speakers”. There were many more languages used across The Lord of the Rings and the whole series, but only Quenya and Sindarin are complete enough to be “learned” by others.
For more history on Tolkien and his love for languages, check out writer Book Riot Senjuti and his list of fascinating facts here.
Where can I find more Conlangs?
To learn a conlang, there must be a grammatical structure as well as a complete vocabulary list. It is not enough to simply substitute words or letters as a number for a card. A complete and learnable language has a body and a story. There are many fictional languages available in literature (and subsequently on screen), but few of them are developed enough to make them complete and learnable. Languages like Klingon from Star Trek are now on language teaching software and require their own editor in the literary series. Similarly, Dothraki and High Valyrian are used throughout the series A song of ice and fire by George RR Martin. However, to be fair, the biggest promotion for learning Dothraki has been done by Jason Momoa from the TV series, game of thrones.
While the majority of conlangs may seem to come from the pale, stale, masculine end of the pool, there are some nice contributions to be found further afield.
star crest / Sekai no Monsho by Hiroyuki Morioka
This serial novel was originally published in 1996 as a three-volume series, then republished as a manga along with a later anime movie and PlayStation game. The story centers on the Hyde Star System’s president’s son, Jinto. His world is invaded by the Abh Empire and as part of his father’s surrender, Jinto’s family is absorbed into the Abh nobility. He meets the young princess Abh Lafiel, who is supposed to keep an eye on him, but their friendship tends to get them in trouble. Morioka created an entire language known as Baronh, along with its accompanying alphabet, Ath, as used in the Abh Empire. Almost all of the written text featured in the anime is in Baronh with other incomplete languages used sporadically. Like Tolkien, Morioka has a deep love for linguistics and the social structure around language. The Baronh language is influenced by the ancient Japanese language.
Scepter of King Ottokar by Herge
This is the eighth volume of The Adventures of Tintin, the beloved comic book series from Belgian creator Hergé. This particular story was written in 1938 as a satirical commentary on the expansionist policies of Nazi Germany and the annexation of Austria. Tintin and his dog Snowy travel to the fictional Balkan nation of Syldavia and are soon embroiled in a plot to overthrow the monarch, Kin Muskar XII. Considered one of the best in the series, Hergé balanced the commentary with realism creating the fictional nation of Syldavia. However, he recognized that to achieve enough distance for the story to work, he needed to build a complete nation – including a complete, workable language. King Ottokar’s Scepter was the first in the Tintin series to be adapted for the animated series and included the use of conlang, thanks to the support of many fans who helped create the learning material for Syldavian. You can read a full conlang analysis here.
Native language by Suzette Haden Elgin
Before writing the book, Elgin created Laadan conlang, a female-centered language, as a social experiment to test the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. The idea is that the structure of a language can have an impact on the speaker’s view of the world. The language was used in his novel, Native language, the first of a trilogy set in a future dystopian American society where the 19th Amendment (women’s suffrage) was repealed in 1991. The central idea was to empower women by giving them language focused on their opinions, perspectives and strengths. Think of it as the “female gaze” for languages.
Aphorisms of Kherishdar by MCA Hogarth
This short story collection is a deep and immersive dive into the fantasy world created by Hogarth. The stories were originally offered as online serials and have now been published in four book volumes (Aphorisms of Kherishdar is the first), the last two being complete novels. Hogarth created the Ai-Naidar language to emphasize society and community in stories, with particular note on the role of language in society. The stories are fascinating, but I love how Hogarth used language to create the stories from the words.
Stories are just words put together in a way that appeals to our emotions and creativity. Language is the story behind the words, the melody of the lyrics. A constructed and complete fictional language can tell us more about a character than a long story. From culture to heritage, from the environment to the little things that are dear to us, language is the background. For more information on constructed languages, you can find more information and like-minded people at conlangs.com – including a beginner’s guide and tips for building your own conlang!