Linguistics is a highly multidisciplinary field – one that is not only relevant to both the academic and language industry, but also to the entertainment industry. Believe it or not, there actually is an area where the language and entertainment industry collaborates heavily in. That is in the creation of constructed languages.
Constructed languages, or simply conlangs, as evident by the term, is devising a new language. Conlangs is a sophisticated art that just can’t be made from plain gibberish. Those with backgrounds in linguistics, even for those working in translation services, are the ideal smiths of conlangs due to their professional understanding of translation, vocabulary, grammar, syntax, and other technicalities in language comprehension.
Conlangs are prevalent in literature and popular culture in the realm of films, television, and even video games. Video game developers that are looking for original conlangs are entering a niche but critical area of linguistics in which the benchmark is extremely high.
A well-known example of conlangs is Dothraki and High Valyrian, spoken in the Game of Thrones television series. As such, this article will be using Dothraki and High Valyrian as references to help video game developers understand the processes involved in creating conlangs.
Knowing The History Behind Constructed Languages
Even though this article is about Game of Thrones, you can’t have any discussion about conlangs without mentioning J.R.R. Tolkien. He is the granddaddy of all conlangs. David J. Peterson, the creator of Dothraki and High Valyrian, credits Tolkien as his influence as much as any conlang creator. Mind you that conlangs existed way before Tolkien. But what Tolkien did was set the benchmark for conlangs in the literary and creative genre.
As a prominent linguist, Tolkien studied, Latin, Old English, and Greek. His background knowledge in archaic languages gave him the necessary foundation to craft Elvish, Dwarvish, Rohirric, and Orc languages used in Middle Earth. Tolkien’s conlangs were part of his overarching dream of creative an immersive lore of Middle Earth. Being a linguist certainly helps in conlang creation. In fact, many creators of constructed languages have a background in linguistics.
Peterson has a B.A in English, B.A in Linguistics, and a Masters in Linguistics. He experimented and constructed a few conlangs before being hired by HBO. Other notable creators of conlangs with a background in linguistics include Paul Frommer. He has a PhD in Linguistics and is the creator of Na’vi, the conlang used in James Cameron’s 3-D blockbuster Avatar. Marc Okrand, the creator of Klingon, a conlang used in the Star-Trek series, also has a PhD in Linguistics.
George R.R Martin wasn’t actually the creator of Dothraki and High Valyrian. Rather, his novels only featured snippets of phrases and words. However, it was sufficient enough to add a degree of immersion in his novels. Peterson was hired by HBO to expand Dothraki and High Valyrian into something that can be used extensively for television as a means of further enchanting the viewers with a realistic world, complete with speakers that had tongues they could call their own.
Developing A Working Language System
A believable conlang needs its own working prescriptive rules as one would expect of a real world language. These include a rich vocabulary, defined grammar, and consistent syntax. This is not only to add authenticity to the language, but it also serves as a foundation for further development in the future. For example, the foundation behind Dothraki and High Valyrian is so well-developed that it is enough to study and practice it in Duolingo. This is the mark of the intricate planning that Peterson put into developing the two conlangs.
Another crucial element to a working language system is how it sounds. It should not only sound consistent to its defined rules but it should also sound appropriate to its native speakers. Listen to Khal Drago speaking Dothraki. It sounds uvular and brutish – highly fitting for the Dothraki’s warlike society.
High Valyrian sounds like an archaic language akin to Latin. In fact, George R.R. Martin himself admitted that Valyria is his version of the Roman Empire. High Valyrian has an aura of civility and high culture; a language used by nobles, statesmen, and scholars.
Breathing Life Into Constructed Languages
Good conlangs don’t start and end with the technical features of a language. Languages are a product of human culture and each language variation was a result of hundreds to thousands of years of human history. Languages are always evolving and is continuously molded by its speakers. Thus, a good conlang must exhibit organic characteristics. We touched upon this earlier that conlangs should sound appropriate to its native speaker. Conlang creators add more depth to this notion by ensuring that the conlang is appropriate to the cultural and social context of its speakers.
To put it in a simpler perspective, Dothraki not only sounds appropriate to the native Dothraki but it is a conlang that is suited for the Dothraki’s warlike and nomadic society. For example, the Dothraki have multiple variations of the word horse. This is due to their absolute reverence of horses and its irreplaceable utility to the Dothraki’s nomadic lifestyle. Also, the Dothraki’s warlike society means that they have no direct translation to affectionate words such as thank you or I love you. Instead, the Dothraki have their own substitute to phrases to convey gratitude and their own understanding of love.
As for High Valyrian, I mentioned earlier that George R.R. Martin’s inspiration of Valyria was the Roman Empire, and Valyrian is his version of Latin. Thus High Valyrian is highly appropriate for a society that exhibits characteristics of an advanced civilization of culture and sophistication.
To add even further depth is to create regional variations of conlangs. Real world languages have their own regional vernaculars and dialects. It is not only as a result of geography and culture, but also class divisions and a collective society’s unique set of experiences that led to their own linguistic variation. Peterson created multiple variations of Valyrian, the most well-documented and practiced being High Valyrian. The other variation is, unsurprisingly, Low Valyrian.
Low Valyrian is not actually a standardized language like High Valyrian, but is rather a collection of dialects practiced in the Free Cities of western Essos. Since the doom of Valyria, there wasn’t any central authority to support a standardized linguistic system. Thus the cities that practiced Valyrian in Essos developed their own variation. All in all, there is a lot of work that goes into adding an authentic sense of history, culture, and dynamism in creating not only convincing but practical conlangs.
Video Games With Conlangs
If you’ve placed video games in the decade, then chances are you might have or at the very least, heard of the Sims. The Sims is a life simulation where you can create characters, or in this case, Sims, and build their own houses and establish their own career. The developers even created a conlang known as Simlish. When you hear it, it sounds exactly like gibberish and nonsensical sounds. As a matter of fact, it actually is. Simlish is not a working a language with no established language system. However, it sufficiently serves the purposes of the game by adding immersion to The Sims universe.
An example in which a video game really pulled it off in terms of conlangs is Far Cry Primal. The linguists hired for the game created not one but three languages. What made their job particularly difficult was that they were tasked to create a prehistoric language – one that could have been used by our early homo sapien ancestors during the late Mesolithic to early Neolithic period. Staying true to the tenets of conlang development, they utilized Proto-Indo-European as their real-world foundation and with some linguistic witchcraft, molded it into working languages appropriate for the different factions present in the game.
For quality conlang creation, video game developers need to consult with experienced linguists and even anthropologists. But is it all worth the hassle after knowing how much work that goes into creating conlangs? It depends on the objectives of the video game developers and what kind of virtual environment that their players to experience. Be that as it may, conlangs add an elevated degree of realism and richness to the game’s universe.
Keep in mind that conlang creators, be it Tolkien or Peterson, spent years of experimentation. A video game developer has deadlines and of course, cannot afford to replicate that kind of process. Nevertheless, see to it that whatever language system you make, consistency is the most important thing to keep in mind.