College of Liberal Arts | Spring 2021

Creating new languages

Daenerys Targaryen
Daenerys Targaryen spoke multiple fictional languages in HBO's 'Game of Thrones.' (Game of Thrones available on HBO and HBO Now)

When Daenerys Targaryen speaks Valyrian or Dothraki on “Game of Thrones,” she might be a made-up character in a fantasy world, but she’s speaking languages that are very real.

Such created languages are both fictional and functional, following a longstanding trend in the entertainment industry where linguists develop actual languages that add authenticity to the speakers’ words.

Inspired in no small part by the popularity of “Game of Thrones,” “Star Trek,” “Avatar,” and J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings” and “The Hobbit,” Purdue’s English department now offers a course that uses linguistic creations from fictional works as a teaching device. Students in associate professor Elaine Francis’ Inventing Languages (ENGL 215) course were asked to design languages of their own, complete with grammar, sound and writing systems, and a dictionary.

“One of my colleagues, Professor Shaun Hughes, is a Tolkien scholar, and he had the idea of creating a course around invented languages, because the Elvish languages are really big in “Lord of the Rings” and that series,” Francis said.

“He had also had heard about it as kind of a fun course that other universities were starting to offer. So we looked into it, and I did some research and found a bunch of colleagues in other universities that had similar courses. I talked to some of them about it, and it went from there.”

Francis said invented languages – including Na’vi (from “Avatar”) and the tried-and-true Klingon (from “Star Trek”) – are common in various forms of entertainment, from books, to TV, to film. Meanwhile, languages such as modern Hebrew, Loglan, and Esperanto were created for more practical purposes.

“We started out reading some book chapters that go over the history of invented languages, like what were some of the motivations?” Francis said. “Not all of them are for fiction. Some languages were created for international communication, like Esperanto, for example. Some of them were for creating a more perfect language that wouldn’t have any ambiguity – Loglan was like that. There are a bunch of reasons.

“I think the most successful case of an invented language is modern Hebrew. It was constructed on the basis of texts from earlier forms of Hebrew, so that the Jewish people in Israel, who had migrated from different places, could have a common language. It actually took off and was successful. Now there are about 5 million native speakers of modern Hebrew, whereas there weren’t for a long time.”

Francis said that the project-based course found favor among its 20 students.

“I think the students are (embracing it),” she said, adding that the course will be taught again in spring 2020. “Some of them are more keen on it than others, but they’re all getting into the idea you can make your personal language and can make it unique and you can draw various unfamiliar features from real human languages and kind of put them together in a new way. I think they’re pretty enthusiastic about it.”

Leah Criss, a freshman from West Lafayette, Indiana, majoring in English in a global context and linguistics, had previously worked on her own language, but had not made much headway before she learned of Francis’ class.

“It sounds simple, but then it gets monumentally complicated,” said Criss, who created the language Kynthyar for a world that splits into five sections, each with its own lexicon. “For me, this course would have been more difficult if I had not had some linguistics background, but it’s still pretty doable because you get a lot of help as you go through it.”

Self-professed Tolkien junkie Helen Coats said she thoroughly enjoyed the class and agreed that inventing a language was an extensive endeavor.

“It’s excellent – I love the class, and Dr. Francis is a great teacher,” said Coats, a junior from Rock Hill, South Carolina, majoring in English and minoring in French. “The nitty-gritty aspects of the language – how morphology works and how allophone works … and things like that are so complex. I knew that going in, but it’s amazing all the elements that come together to form a language and your understanding of that. It takes a lot of time to understand how the concepts work and how to apply them to your own work.”

Like her fellow students, Coats invented a language out of thin air. She calls it Mynʐdavo, or “Time Language.” Her inspiration for Mynʐdavo relates to her background in Indo-European language study.

“A lot of my language is based grammatically more on French because I’m more familiar with that, but I also don’t want it to be a French copy,” she said. “So I also take things from other languages like English, French, and Latin that all have nominative alignments in terms of how cases work.

“I also decided to borrow from Hindi and other languages and use an ergative absolutive alignment, which is very different and messes with grammar, and helps it not be a French or an Indo-European language copy. It has its own flavor.”

Criss has studied German for six years, French for two years, and started familiarizing herself with Chinese this year. She said her invented language includes aspects of what she has studied before.

“French doesn’t necessarily turn up, but German is an influence on my sound system,” she said. “I took Chinese because I like the grammar of Chinese, so some of that made its way in. It’s kind of a combination of English, German, and Chinese.”

“I would say that most of the students – the ones who are doing fictional worlds – have come up with something really different from other authors, so I’m sure they’ve read about these other fictional worlds, but they seem to be doing it in their own creative way,” said Francis, who also required students to concoct a backstory for their language.

In-class collaboration was key for Criss and Coats. In addition, Coats said an important source for her project was the book “The Art of Language Invention” by linguistics expert David Peterson, creator of languages for “Game of Thrones” and other TV programs and movies.

“We look at each other’s progress in terms of lexicons and collections of vocabulary,” Coats said. “It’s really nice there are people with different levels of experience in linguistics and some who have more experience than me. Those people have been helpful to me if I do something I think sounds cool, but they explain to me why it might not actually develop like that for various reasons. It’s very helpful.”

Francis, director of Purdue’s Experimental Linguistics Lab, laughed when asked if she invented a language of her own in the spring.

“What I’ve been working on is a big set of notes on language typology, which is the study of how languages around the world differ from each other and how they’re similar,” she said. “That’s what I’ve been teaching the students – about the whole range of variation of the world’s languages and how they might make use of that in creating their own language.

“The short answer is, ‘No, I have not invented my own language yet,’ but I’ve been trying to put together a lot of materials for the students to draw on. Next time I teach it, I’ll spend less time preparing all the materials and will have more time to do something. Maybe when I teach it again next year, I’ll be able to do that.”