What, in the name of Jean-Luc Picard, are conlanguages?!”

A conlanguage, contrary to ethnic languages, is not the result of a natural cultural development, but rather deliberately designed.

As you may have noticed, Ludejo is organising a fundraiser for Translators Without Borders (TWB). This year’s theme is ‘With Great Power’ (WGPforTWB), a reference to superheroes, comic books and graphic novels (you know, the ‘with great power comes great responsibility’ story, the famous Spiderman quote and the personal mantra of almost every superhero in the Marvel universe).

In light of this theme I decided to look into the role of language in popular comic books and television series which feature superheroes and supernatural characters, and the first thing I noticed was the tremendous amount of conlanguages that has sprouted from the imagination of the makers of these books and series. Now, you might think ‘what the … are conlanguages? Is this some new hype I don’t know about?’ Actually, no, quite the contrary. In fact, conlanguages aren’t new at all: according to David J. Peterson, author of ‘The Art of Language Invention: From Horse Lords to Dark Elves, the Words behind World Building’ (2015), conlanging was already a ‘thing’ more than a thousand years ago:“Though it might seem like language creation is a recent phenomenon, with the success of shows like Game of Thrones and films like Avatar, the conscious construction of language is probably as old as language itself.” (Peterson, 7) The first example of conlanging Peterson mentions in his book  is Hildegard von Bingen’s Lingua Ignota (which is Latin for ‘unknown language’). More well-known is Esperanto, a language invented in 1887 by ‘Doctor Esperanto’ Ludwik Lejzer Zamenhof (1859-1917). 

But before I move on, let me explain a bit more about conlanguages (seems like the more practical thing to do here). A conlanguage (also called ‘constructed language’, ‘planned language’ or ‘invented language’), contrary to ethnic languages, is not the result of a natural cultural development, but rather deliberately designed. The reasons for designing a conlanguage vary: some conlanguages were created to serve as a non-political language in order to stimulate communication between people from different cultural backgrounds (like Esperanto). Others were designed for artistic purposes, functioning as supporting elements of imaginary worlds (like Na’vi, the language of Pandora).

Right, now that that’s clear, let’s take a closer look at some of the more current developments regarding conlanguages. After Esperanto, it wasn’t until the late 20th century that the subject of conlanguages started to get more attention. This revival was known as the ‘artlang movement’ (Peterson, 9). One of the most well-known examples of a writer who occupied himself with artlang was J.R.R. Tolkien (1892-1973), author of ‘The Hobbit’ and the ‘The Lord of the Rings’ trilogy. However, Tolkien’s linguistic contributions are somewhat overshadowed by the success of his books. Which isn’t a big surprise, given the huge success of his literary masterpieces, but still, he deserves more credit for his contributions to the field of conlanging.

Let’s jump from books to film: until the late 20th century there weren’t many noteworthy examples of conlanging to be seen (or rather, to be heard) on the big screen. However, that changed when the popular television series  ‘Land of the Lost’ aired in 1974, a show which featured ‘Paku,’ a conlanguage developed by Victoria Fromkin. Fromkin, a linguist who worked at UCLA, was the first person in history to be hired specifically to develop a new language (how cool is that?!).

Let’s take another leap, this time a leap in time, for nowadays conlanguages are a frequent element in films, series and books. Just think about Na’vi in James Cameron’s film Avatar (2009) and the Valyrian languages from the popular series Game of Thrones. Also, did you know that there’s even a toy with its own, made-up language? Remember Furby, the fuzzy and brightly coloured owl-hamster hybrid? This electronic must-have from the ‘90s had its very own language: Furbish. Still, given that this funny little creature was programmed to ‘learn’ English as well, Furbish never really got the same status as other conlanguages (which we don’t mind at all).

Do you need help translating texts from or to Na’vi? Sorry, but I’m afraid we’ll have to disappoint you (we can do a lot at Ludejo, and we like exploring new possibilities, but we have to draw a line somewhere). Still, we can help you with many other language-related services. Ludejo provides copywriting, technical documentation, voice-overs, (SEO)translation services,the production of audio-visual content and subtitles. We have an experienced team of linguists, copywriters, content creators and engineers to suit your needs. For more information, just visit our website. Also, have a look at our Instagram to check out our ‘With Great Power’ fundraiser for Translators Without Borders (it’s going to be awesome). 

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