If you’re like me, and you delight in the weird and wonderful ways of communication that show up in speculative fiction, then sit right down over here and shout at me in Klingon because we are definitely going to be friends.
Fictional languages, or “conlangs” (constructed languages) show up at various rates of silliness and complexity in sci-fi and fantasy. Sometimes it’s just for flavor, and you get a few obviously not-real words tossed around to indicate that we’re not in Kansas anymore. Rarely you get a whole actual language that you could become fluent in and occasionally use as a party trick to impress others. These languages are defined as “artistic”, presumably because we’re just making stuff up for fun as opposed to creating a language with a specific purpose, like Esperanto.
Here are my favorites, and I’m giving them all awards.
The 1000% Overkill Award: Sindarin (etc etc)
J. R. R. Tolkien was an English professor, the progenitor of modern fantasy, and a MASSIVE language nerd. He started work on the Elvish languages that would eventually become part of Lord of the Rings when he was a teenager, and he worked on them until his death. The total count was fifteen languages and dialects, with the history and evolution from a proto-language into more modern forms. Lord of the Rings, the Silmarillion, and all his various books were effectively back story and mythology for them all.
Now, Tolkien never actually made his languages complete enough for conversation. If you know how fandom works, though, you’ll know that minor details like “the author never actually specified this thing” are mere inconveniences at best, and so fans of the Lord of the Rings have been trying to write in various Elvish languages since the 1970s. The most well known are Quenya and Sindarin, and yes, you can learn to chat like Legolas if you feel like it.
You gotta give it to Tolkien for being crazy enough to spawn an entirely new genre of literature solely to support his obsession with language. I don’t know if we’ll ever see anything quite so extra ever again. And so Quenya, Sindarin, and all their various relatives earn the 1000% Overkill Award.
Useful phrase: “Venenya vilyanirwanen ná quanta as angolingwi”My hovercraft is full of eels
The Requires Gravel Award: Klingon
No list of fictional languages would be complete without a mention of Klingon, that weird guttural mashup of back-of-the-throat gargling that first appeared in Star Trek: The Motion Picture in 1979. The first sounds of Klingon were invented by James Doohan (yeah, the guy who played Scotty!) and producer Jon Povill for the movie, then formalized in The Klingon Dictionary by linguist Marc Okrand in 1985.
Klingon was designed from the start to be weird and alien, and hoo boy did they ever succeed. Actually speaking it isn’t for the faint of heart, or for people who can’t roll their R’s or make the sound of a cat hacking up a hairball on command. It’s user-unfriendly on purpose, which is part of its charm–and also makes it very satisfying to swear.
Klingon gets the Requires Gravel Award for obvious reasons. (I recommend any kind of small diameter landscaping gravel if you feel like telling your friends to fire torpedos over coffee.) As a bonus, you can now learn Klingon on Duolingo!
Useful phrase: “San Diego jI’ovlaHbe’ chuqDaj’e'”I left my bat’leth in San Diego
The That’s a Thing? Award: Lìʼfya leNaʼvi
Bet you didn’t know this one: the language spoken by the Na’vi in the 2009 film Avatar is a real, functional language, invented by linguistics professor Paul Frommer for the film. It was designed specifically to be pleasing to listen to for humans, and easily pronounceable by humans, as opposed to the gargly weirdness of Klingon.
This is all James Cameron’s doing, of course, as he doesn’t understand the meaning of the word ‘restraint’ and Avatar had an astronomical budget. Tossing six months of a linguistic professor’s time at making his own special language was just part of the process. Paul Frommer went on to publish the grammar and expand its lexicon, and what we’ve got now is a quite usable, unusual alien language that you can start learning today.
Avatar is probably the highest grossing movie with the worst writing in the world, but hey, at least we got something worthwhile out of its world-building (as well as a bunch of advancements in CGI technology). So Lìʼfya leNaʼvi gets the That’s a Thing? Award.
Useful phrase: “Ke lu kawtu a nulnivew oe pohu tireapivängkxo äo Utral Aymokriyä.”There’s nobody I’d rather commune with under the Tree of Voices.
The What If Award: Láadan
I want to add this one, if only so that other people can also make the face that I made on reading about it a while back. That face can best be described as the face you make when you see a Möbius strip for the first time, and your brain just slightly breaks as you try to figure out how it works.
Láadan is a language invented by linguist and sci-fi author Suzette Haden Elgin in 1982 for her Native Tongue series. As far as I can tell, the creation of Láadan was one of those “hold my beer” moments, where Elgin just decided to toss everything about linguistics out the window and and ask, what if there was a language where you could state clearly how you felt about what you’re saying? The point of it, according to Elgin, was to counter male-centered constraints on the speech of women by making it possible to be clear about what you mean as well as what you said, and so Láadan has a number of extra words to define things like truthfulness and intention which are built-in to every sentence.
Whether or not you agree with Elgin’s raging feminism, it’s hard to deny that Láadan itself is incredibly ambitious and completely unlike any other fictional language. It’s an amazing example of what’s possible if you just ignore all convention and, indeed, speculate wildly about what could be possible for human communication. Láadan earns the What If Award and then some.
Useful phrase: “Báa ril yil letha rahíya zhedam nil hith?”Does my butt look big in this?
The Most Ridiculous Award: Huttese
If you want to invent some authentic-sounding nonsense, you’re probably going to come up with something that resembles Huttese. It’s the gibberish that frequently comes up in Star Wars, and is famously spoken by Jabba the Hutt.
Huttese isn’t a real functional language. It was originally developed by sound designer Ben Burtt and loosely based on Quechua, which is a real language spoken in the Andes. (This probably does Quechua a disservice seeing as it IS a real language dating back to the Incan Empire, and spoken by millions of indigenous people in South America.) Huttese is just a random collection of funny-sounding phrases; it doesn’t have much of a grammar or any kind of formal structure, because it’s just whatever it had to be to give the Star Wars universe some flavor.
That said, what a flavor! Huttese is the perfect kind of silliness that fits into the completely over-the-top space opera of Star Wars. It sounds like kids babbling and it’s really fun to use for insulting someone. Huttese easily wins the Most Ridiculous Award.
Useful phrase: “Do mama ree porko, cheekta lacka bu Jabba Hutt!”Yo mama so fat, she could eat Jabba the Hutt!
I hope you’ve enjoyed this little journey into the realms of linguistic nonsense. Remember, you haven’t experienced Hamlet unless you’ve seen it in the original Klingon, and calling someone ‘bantha poodoo’ is a great way to end an argument.
QAPLA’! CLAIRE OUT!