Tag Archives: Arika Okrent

Invented Languages from Hollywood to Bollywood

[Note from Patrick Cox: Hollywood and Bollywood compete (sort of) in language invention in this week’s podcast. Below is Saul Gonzalez’s post on an HBO-commissioned language]

Dothraki is a language spoken by fierce, fictional warriors in a far-off land. The language was invented closer to home by David J. Peterson, whose is neither fierce nor fictional. He lives in a studio apartment in Southern California.

Peterson is a U.C. Berkeley-trained linguist, He created Dothraki for HBO’s fantasy drama Game of Thrones. He works in the rarefied field of constructed languages. He and most people like him don’t just study languages. They make up new ones from scratch.

Peterson has invented a dozen languages, with names like Kamakawi and Njaama. He was creating his languages in relative obscurity when he heard that Hollywood had a gig for someone with this talents. HBO was looking for a someone to develop the language of Dothraki for Game of Thrones, adapted from the popular book series.

Peterson got the job. Starting with the books, which had a handful of Dothraki phrases, he went to work on a 300-page grammar and dictionary for the language.

The Dothraki portrayed in the books are “a natural, horse-riding, semi-barbarous people,” says Peterson. “They are nomadic…They hunt and they raid.”

Peterson says the TV series producers were looking for a language that embodied that aesthetic—something that would sound gruff but authentic.

People have been making up languages for centuries, often for philosophical or religious reasons. Probably the best known is Esperanto. It was invented in the 19th century with the idea that if everyone on the planet spoke the same language, they would all get along.

Later, Hollywood got into the created language act. Perhaps the most famous example is the invention of Klingon for the Star Trek movies. Klingon has since taken on a life of its own, with a small but dedicated group of speakers who have added hundreds of words and phrases to its vocabulary.

Na’vi is a more sophisticated language, with a wealth of grammatical rules. It was created for the movie Avatar by Paul Frommer of the University of Southern California. But because Dothraki was invented for a television series that could run for many seasons, it may end up having the widest vocabulary of any Hollywood language so far.

Peterson gave me a survival lesson in Dothraki. “If you want to greet some respectfully, you say Mathchumararoon.”

And then there are insults. Everyone, including TV producers, wants to know how say them. In Dothraki, the word ifak means a ‘walker’. “The Dothraki are a horse riding people,” says Peterson. “They respect people who ride horses. So, if someone is a walker they are not worthy of attention.”

Peterson concedes that there is a “rather vocal” minority of language inventors who believe there should be no created languages in movies and TV. They see language creation as a “private activity, something special to them. And the more people who know about it they less special it is.” But Peterson says most language inventors support his work for Hollywood.

And he’s doing more. His next project is to create two languages for a upcoming TV series for Syfy (formerly the Sci-Fi Channel).

Patrick Cox adds:

Bollywood’s contribution to language invention may be more modest. We don’t know too much yet about the language christened Gaalaguzi that is reportedly spoken in the upcoming movie Joker. Although invented for a movie in which aliens feature, it’s humans who speak it. These humans live in a remote, unmapped village. With India’s hundreds of minority languages, many of them spoken in remote villages, why invent a new one? Perhaps for legal reasons—or so that no-one can accuse the actors of mangling a beloved local tongue.

Related previous podcast episodes:

Interview with Arika Okrent, author of In the Land of Invented Languages: Esperanto Rock Stars, Klingon Poets, Loglan Lovers and the Mad Dreamers Who Tried to Build a Perfect Language.

The past, present and future of Esperanto.

A screening of Avatar in the Amazon to speakers of real endangered languages.



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Paging Dr. Esperanto, and what not to say in Ireland’s parliament

December 15 is the most important day in the calendar for people who speak Esperanto. It is Zamenhof Day, named after the man who dreamed up the idea of a language that the entire planet would one day speak. L.L. Zamenhof (that’s him in center of the photo, the one staring at the camera) was born 150 years ago.  Though his dream was never realized, Esperanto is still spoken — in fact it’s undergoing something of a revival in the internet age. We consider the failure and success of Esperanto, first in a piece I reported for the Big Show on December 15, and then in an interview with Princeton English professor Esther Schor, who’s writing a book on Esperanto. In the piece, you’ll hear from Arika Okrent, author of the fabulous In the Land of Invented Languages. To listen to an extended interview with Okrent on Esperanto, Klingon, Blissymbolics and other made-up languages from July 2009, go here. Also in the piece, listen out for a clip from the 1965 Esperanto language movie Incubus, starring the incomparable William Shatner. Shatner delivers his Esperanto lines in that same jig-jaggy way as he does English on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise. Other BBC stories on Esperanto are here and here.

After our Esperanto extravaganza, we consider why the Irish parliament bans words such as guttersnipe and brat, but permits certain swearwords. We know this because Irish MP Paul Gogarty recently dropped the F-bomb — and not in a particularly jocular manner — in the Dáil. We get the back story of why certain words — another is yahoo — cannot be uttered in the Irish parliament from Harry McGee of the Irish Times. A document called Salient Rulings of the House lists all manner of old-fashioned expressions as no-nos in debate. The f-word is not among them.

Finally, a follow-up to a previous podcast in which Carol Hills and I talked about baby names that don’t translate well into certain foreign languages.  After that , a Norwegian pod-listener wrote in with some alarming news: if your name is Mark, expect to be teased in Norway. And under no crcumstances name your child Musa. It’s apparently a popular name in Turkey. In Norwegian it refers, coarsely, to female genitalia.

Listen in iTunes or here.

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Esperanto, Klingon, Blissymbolics and 900 others: why we invent languages

book-coverThis week, a converation with Arika Okrent, author of In the Land of Invented Languages: Esperanto Rock Stars, Klingon Poets, Loglan Lovers and the Mad Dreamers Who Tried to Build a Perfect Language.

Okrent has a linguistics background: she has a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago. But her interest far exceeds the merely  scientific. She  submerges herself, Orwell-style, into the geeky subcultures of invented language societies. Okrent holds a first-level certification in Klingon.That required cramming 500 words of this made-for-the-movies language during a Klingon convention that she went to. And this was no ordinary convention: attending it meant sitting next to sci-fi-monster-bedecked people who  insisted on ordering meals at restaurants in Klingon. And what words! Just try speed-memorizing terms like Qatlh, ngeD and wlgh. Those words mean difficult, easy and genius. The Klingon word for hangover is ‘uH.

Okrent tells many stories of people who dreamed up languages that would replace our own bastard tongues. In that sense Klingon is a small sub-set: its function was at least originally limited to a fictional universe; it was never intended to be used in the real world. Not so Esperanto, the most reknowned of the “real” artificial languages. Most invented languages are unmitigated failures, consigned to obscurity almost as soon as they are born. Esperanto is a rare exception —  it’s both a failure and a success.  It’s a failure because it didn’t meet the outrageously lofty objective of its author  Ludwik Zamenhof: to become a universally spoken global language. But Esperanto also succeeded because over time, it has become a living language.  It’s still around today, more than 120 years after its conception, and it has even evolved with usage.

Klingon and Esperanto are just two of dozens of languages Okrent discusses, from John Wilkins‘ 17th century Philosophical Language to Blissymbolics and Láadan, a couple of 20th century attempts to fix the supposed evils and omissions of natural languages.

The vast majority of invented languages from Lingua Ignota (c.1150) to Dritok (2007) languish in near-total obscurity. But they tell us much about how we think, how we do not think, and how we love to blame language for our own shortcomings.


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