Mastering the finer grammatical and syntactical points of English is hard even for native speakers (show us a man who can rattle off the rules of lay vs. lie and we’ll show you a man who is obviously consulting Grammar Girl). Now imagine learning a new language whose structure and vocabulary may not stem from any existing source.
Conlangs, or “constructed languages,” are fully functional linguistic systems created by one or more people. Sometimes they’re made up for fun, but other times they’re made up to breathe life into books or films (think J.R.R. Tolkien’s Elvish languages or Avatar’s Na’vi). In his new book, The Art of Language Invention (Penguin, September 29, $17), David J. Peterson—who invented Dothraki and High Valyrian for Game of Thrones, among other conlangs—has created something of a linguistic codex for aspirational conlangers. Before catching him at Book Soup on October 12, get his thoughts on semantics, California slang, and the language he’d invent for L.A.
Tell me in layman’s terms: where do you even begin when it comes to inventing a language? Is it the alphabet then the words then the grammar, or…?
The first place all language creators start is, you have to decide why you’re creating a language. It sounds simple, but it’s very crucial. The purpose of the language is going to end up guiding a lot of the choices you make later on, right down to the lexicon and grammar. It’s a very different thing if you’re creating a language for a fictional group of people than if you were to create a language you wanted to use with your friends every day. Let’s say you’re creating a language for a tribe of hunter-gatherers in the Stone Age. Their lexicon is going look very different—hopefully—than what you and your friends would be using. If you’re creating a language for a fictional people that have a fictional history, then to ignore that history is not as artistically satisfying or authentic. If you were trying to do the best job possible, it’s probably something you’ll want to take into consideration—the culture, the area, the people, their history—all of that is tied in.
After step one is completed, then it’s a bit more freeform. With Dothraki, my first step was clear: I had to honor the work that George R.R. Martin had already done. I had to take down all the words and the phrases as they were written in his books and do my own analysis of it before I started to do any actual work. Different conlangers will start in different spots. I like to start with the sounds because it’s easier to conceptualize what I’m doing when I get to grammar. Other conlngers will use dummy words or English words as they’re playing with different grammatical ideas, and once their grammar is set, then they go back and create a sound system and replace all of the dummy words they’ve created.
I read that you were inspired by Arabic and Spanish sounds when you were creating Dothraki. In terms of coming up with a grammar system for a language, aren’t there only so many structures you can draw from? Are you ever creating a new grammatical structure?
Oh no, it’s definitely possible to create a brand new grammatical structure that doesn’t exist in natural languages. Look at binary—it’s effective, but no human language would evolve to look like that. If you’re trying to create a naturalistic language, your goal is to create something that could potentially have evolved in the system or world that you’ve set up, even if it doesn’t happen to actually exist. If you follow the steps that our languages took, you can see how we got to where we got. That’s how you have to evaluate a naturalistic conlang.
You were born in Long Beach. There have been some linguistic trends to come out of California, like uptalk or even vocal fry. Do any of those ever influence your conlangs?
It depends on the project. I will say that one of the ways Southern Californian speech patterns are influential is that our media is influential. A lot of television and film and actors come from here. If they haven’t been trained out of it or it doesn’t matter for the project, they’ll be speaking with their natural accent. Now, a lot of features that we started tend to filter into other places. Certainly our wonderful usage of “like”—I don’t know if I want to claim that we started it, but I want to feel like we started it. That’s one I had a lot of fun with on the language I created for The 100 on the CW [Grounder language]. That language is just an evolved form of English. The base of it is Virigina, so there are a lot of things I borrowed from the Virginia dialect. But at the same time, you see a lot of stuff that I think originated in Southern California due to media.
Talk to me about vocabulary. How do you think about that?
The part where it gets interesting is not where you come up with names for things. It’s when you start to take these words and see how they relate to other words, or how they get used in different circumstances. So—I don’t know why I always think of the crude ones—but “egg” in English means egg. In Spanish it’s huevo, and it’s used exactly the way we would use it if we were talking about making eggs for breakfast. At the same time, you can say huevos to mean testicles, and you can’t do that in English. Someone might get it from the context, like, “Oh man, that dude’s got eggs,” but it’s just not something you say. Using huevo in a slang type of way is a feature of the word huevo in Spanish. It’s almost like writing fiction. You start to look at the words that you have and start to expand them to cover other semantic domains in ways that perhaps you haven’t thought of before.
There was a language I created for Penny Dreadful [Verbis Diablo]. It was supposed to be literally the Devil’s corruption of language. It wasn’t even supposed to function like a real language—it might be the type of thing where one word is used to refer to something over and over again, and then in some new sentence, the word doesn’t mean that anymore. That doesn’t happen in natural languages. For that language, I’d take a word from Latin and then reverse it phonetically. Or sometimes I would take half of one word from Latin and then take a word from Greek that meant the opposite of whatever it’s referring to, reverse the Greek word and put it in the middle of the Latin word. It wasn’t intended to be naturalistic. It was intended to be kind of nuts.
Was that the hardest language you’ve had to invent?
That one wasn’t too bad. It was just a lot of fun. Honestly, with how many naturalistic languages I’ve been creating recently, that one was a breath of fresh air. I’m trying to think what was the hardest…definitely one of the hardest was the language from Defiance. It’s a polysynthetic language, and part of the frustration that has nothing to do with language at all is cataloging. That type of a language doesn’t lend itself to a traditional dictionary. I would often be frustrated trying to translate because I wouldn’t be able to find the things that I knew I had created. There was just no handy way to keep track of them.
Do you still have to create new words for Dothraki or any other language?
There’s never going to be enough words for any of these languages. But with Dothraki, the grammar is set, and I know it fairly well, so in doing new Dothraki translation, it’s really just a matter of coming up with new words if I don’t have them. Otherwise I know how that one needs to be translated. Other than that, I’m always creating new words for two reasons: one is for fun, but two, it makes translation easier when it comes around next year.
Do people ever come up to you and speak your languages to you?
Oh yeah. It’s cool when people who learn how to say hello and things like that, but there’s this Cosplayer, she has a YouTube video, and she said that she had done a speech in High Valyrian. She was just outstanding. And she wasn’t reading it, and it was long. And her pronunciation was spot on. And frankly she had really good delivery and inflection. Man, she just bowled me over.
If you had to create a language for Los Angeles—maybe a language called Angeleno—what would it be like?
There’s definitely something that would be very unique and specialized if we created our own language, and that’s how we discuss distance. What we would need is an entirely different system that takes into account what freeways you’re taking and at what hour and on what day. You would never describe things in terms of miles anymore. We could come up with a series of deixis markers: Let’s say the first consonant of it would tell you what time of day it was. Then the vowel in the middle would tell you if it’s a weekday holiday or it’s a workday. Then the last one would be some sort of indication of how long it will take you—whether you’re looking at a half hour, an hour, or two hours or longer. So then like, just by telling somebody, “Hey, I’m headed to Santa Monica,” and it’s like, “Oh, Santa Monica is ____,” you have this word in there that has all of that information packed into one very small, one syllable word that will tell you exactly how long it’ll take you to get there.
That should be your next conlang.
There you go.