The Art of Language Invention: From Horse-Lords to Dark Elves, the Words Behind World-Building

The Art of Language Invention: From Horse-Lords to Dark Elves, the Words Behind World-Building by David J. Peterson is a primer for budding language inventors. Peterson is a creator of many conlangs (constructed languages) for movies and television, such as “Game of Thrones”. I come to this book out of linguistic albeit prejudiced curiosity as I have not watched any of the movies or TV shows Peterson has worked on. The majority of the text dealt with the laws of linguistics and rules governing speech formation. Peterson included this as a guide to conlangers (those who construct languages) so that their conlangs would seem sensible and realistic. For example, he talked about the prevalence of language creators to include oral sounds rarely or never heard in English discourse, in an attempt to emphasize the foreignness of their constructed languages. Now there is nothing wrong with using sounds foreign to English in the creation of a new language, yet all too often, Peterson warns, these conlangers create words composed of sounds, or phonemes, that are pronounced in sequence yet are created far away from ease in the oral cavity. No natural language, even a constructed one, would seem logical if one’s tongue and vocal cords had to perform tumbling acrobatics just to utter a couple words. Languages and their sounds evolve to ease pronunciation. Peterson gave many examples of this, such as going to morphing into gonna. Conlangers should not overthink their sound systems by creating a diverse hodgepodge of cacophonous yet adjacent consonant combinations.

With chapters on phonotactics, verbal inflection, lexical evolution and orthography, the book resembled a textbook, and even more so when he dropped the name of the author of my university linguistics text [1], Victoria Fromkin. In the context of created languages, Fromkin is a pioneer, for it was she who created the Paku language used in the 1970’s Saturday morning TV show “Land of the Lost”.

Near the beginning of the book Peterson profiled the development of conlanging, and the evolution of its on-line community. His statement:

“Conlanging is a hobby that, even as late as 2009, no one in the conlanging community believed would amount to anything real. Part of this comes from older conlangers’ personal histories. Parents who found their children creating languages would consider the practice so bizarre that they believed it to be indicative of some sort of mental disorder.”

does not convince me that anything in the past ten years has changed. I myself–even as a self-confessed language nerd–find those that spend their time creating artificial languages to be wasting a colossal amount of their time.

Peterson described his own constructed languages, such as Dothraki and High Valyrian for “Game of Thrones” and Shiväisith for “Thor: The Dark World”, among many others. We learn how they work, how they evolved (sort of like a space-alien “Latin-lite”) and what writing systems are used. Peterson is one of the few people on the planet who is getting paid to develop this otherwise useless hobby borne out of childhood isolation brought on by teasing and bullying. This book will not help others achieve the same level of literary or cinematic success. It will give false hope to those pathetic individuals that they too can make it in Hollywood. I cannot condone the promotion of such a wide-scale futile endeavour as sublimating one’s damaged childhood through the pop-psychiatric solution of inventing useless languages. I am thus on the side of those who look upon conlangers as having, indeed, some sort of mental disorder, where conlangs are an underlying symptom. However this may be, if they can find solace in creating this harmless other world of words, then so be it. They won’t get anywhere with their creations as the world of entertainment is overrun with language constructors already. It’s not as if Hollywood needs anyone other than Peterson. So instead of turning to drugs, overeating, or self-abuse, if a traumatized individual wants to create languages, then go for it.

[1] An Introduction to Language

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