Tag Archives: invented languages

Some people have re-imagined English as Anglish, with no words derived from French or Latin

Tom Rowsell examines a replica of an Anglo-Saxon helmet

Tom Rowsell examines a replica of an Anglo-Saxon helmet


Here’s a guest post from Tom Rowsell.

It’s common knowledge that languages are fluid things which merge into one another and evolve to become new languages. But the way they change isn’t necessarily natural or arbitrary. The changes that occur to languages are often the result of wars, genocides, mass migrations, political meddling and religious taboos. The point of any language is to make oneself understood and this fact has meant that geography maintains the distinct character of different languages so that they remain intelligible to those inhabiting a certain area.

Linguistic purism is usually about preserving a language and protecting it from being corrupted by the introduction of foreign words. But Anglish is a bit different from other types of linguistic purism because it isn’t intended to preserve the English language as it is spoken now, nor as it has ever been spoken. Instead Anglish is a form of English stripped clean of the last 1000 years of non-Germanic influence, while also being brought up to date in terms of modern syntax, grammar and spelling.

So words like love, which is derived from the Old English word lufian, remain as they are in Anglish, while words like horticulture, the first part of which is derived from the Latin hortus meaning garden, have to be altered. The Anglish translation of horticulture is wortcraft, which is a compound of wort, meaning plant, and craft, meaning work.

Anglish speakers are a fringe movement of linguistic purists who want to streamline the English language and rid it of words of un-Anglo-Saxon origin. They don’t speak Old English as it was, because they keep the modern versions of words derived from Old English ones, but they replace words derived from French or Latin with what they consider to be the most appropriate Germanic English equivalents.

Anglish speakers haven’t had to invent an entire language as such, because most of the normal English words we use in daily conversation are of Old English origin. But although spoken English is primarily Germanic, the vast majority of words in the English language are of non Germanic origin, and this is where Anglish purists have had to be inventive. The words they have created are quite charming but confusing at times. Fortunately the Anglish Moot have provided an online Anglish Wordbook (wordbook is Anglish for dictionary) to help you learn the lingo.

In many cases you can guess what is meant because Anglish is quite intuitive. “Expand” is replaced by swell while “edit” is replaced by bework. The Anglish movement has roots way back in the late 1800s when Elias Molee advocated an English purged of its Romance components. He made his case in two books; “Pure Saxon English” and “Plea for an American Language, or Germanic-English”. He proposed a language similar to Anglish called Tutonish, which was intended to be a “union tongue” for all the Germanic-language speaking peoples, with a schematised English syntax and a largely German- and Scandinavian-based vocabulary.

In 1989 Poul Anderson wrote a short text about atomic theory in a version of English free from Romance elements. The text entitled “Uncleftish Beholding” is seen as the blueprint for the modern Anglish movement and what it can achieve. These opening paragraphs give you a feel for how Anderson made scientific speech seem more accessible and almost folksy.

    “For most of its being, mankind did not know what things are made
    of, but could only guess. With the growth of worldken, we began
    to learn, and today we have a beholding of stuff and work that
    watching bears out, both in the workstead and in daily life.
    The underlying kinds of stuff are the *firststuffs*, which link
    together in sundry ways to give rise to the rest. Formerly we
    knew of ninety-two firststuffs, from waterstuff, the lightest and
    barest, to ymirstuff, the heaviest. Now we have made more, such
    as aegirstuff and helstuff.”

The compound words like ymirstuff and aegirstuff reference figures from Nordic mythology, like the primordial giant of creation Ymir and the God of the sea Aegir, in order to describe the base elements of the universe in a Germanic context. Anderson also borrowed from German words to create “waterstuff” and “sourstuff”, coming from Wasserstoff (hydrogen) and Sauerstoff (oxygen).

It is unlikely that the Anglish dialect being created by linguistic enthusiasts will ever become widespread, but it is not without value. One thing about Anglish words is that they are more consistent and easier to understand if you have never heard them before. This is a great lesson for journalists, poets and authors struggling with vocabulary. Language is after all, a means of making oneself understood. If we endeavour to express the more complicated concepts of life and science with the most basic Anglo-Saxon language possible, then we may find the language is not only easier to understand but also sounds better.

Tom Rowsell is a professional writer and the director of “From Runes to Ruins”, a documentary film about Anglo-Saxon history. He is currently employed by the translation and interpreting company, EmpowerLingua.


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Beyond Elvish

Forget Klingon, Na’vi and Dothraki—languages created for the screen. These are languages paid for by producers, created by linguists.

J.R.R. Tolkien’s book The Hobbit is getting the three-part Hollywood treatment. The return of the Elvish languages to the big screen is a reminder of just how inventive fiction writers have been over the years in dreaming up new tongues. Think of Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange, with its thuggish Russian-inflected slang called Nadsat (a girl is a devochka, a friend a droog).

This urge to create new words starts at a young age. Children often make up words before they have a proper command of their native tongues.

“We enjoy exercising the way we produce sounds,” says Indiana University’s Michael Adams, editor of From Elvish to Klingon: Exploring Invented Languages.

Adams says he likes to play with the sounds of language, ”in the car or the shower or wherever I am…in the way that I suppose a poet has to think about sound and language.”

Tolkien needed to do a lot of that. A trained philologist, he did it for years before creating his fantasy world.

He worked on his fantasy languages during the First World War. It helped to pass the time, says Adams: “He did a lot of language invention and some of the prehistory of the language of Elvish is from those days in the trenches.”

The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings came decades later. By then, Tolkien had imagined an entire history of his imagined languages.

“He would even leave unexplained thing in the languages he was working on,” says Adams. “Any real language you were reconstructing would have unexplained things in it too. So he was trying to mimic behavior of natural language very closely.”

That degree of detail may be unrivaled among novelists, although Michael Adams does have someone up his sleeve. More about that in a moment.

First, consider what most language creators do in their novels: they set up thought experiments.

In her science fiction novel, The Dispossessed, Ursula K. Le Guin created the Pravic language. Or rather, she created a breakaway society of anarchists who themselves created Pravic.

This group of anarchists “want to remove from the language anything that implies ownership,” says Le Guin.

Any kind of private possession. Your name doesn’t belong to you—it is assigned to you, after someone else with that name dies and the name can be recycled.

That’s reflected in Pravic too: the language has no possessive pronouns.

That was the thought experiment. Could words shape thought, could a language make people behave a certain way? It’s a linguistic hypothesis much poo-pooed by academic linguists, not that it worries Le Guin.

embassytownChina Miéville’s recent novel Embassytown contains another thought experiment, which owes a debt to Gulliver’s Travels. Miéville creates a language for a group of aliens called the Ariekei.

It’s a language that mimics language of the garden of Eden, where the word is the thing. In other words, there’s no difference between an apple, and the word for an apple.

The Ariekei can’t lie. “If they want to use figurative speech at all they have to construct a situation which they can then refer to,” says Miéville.

“If you wanted say ‘oh I feel like an angry lion today’ you would have to get a lion and make it angry. Otherwise you couldn’t say it because it didn’t exist.”

Miéville came away from his thought experiment with the view that if human language marks a fall from grace, it’s quite a good fall. It allows us to use metaphor, as well as to lie.

Back now to the writer who may have out-Tolkiened Tolkien. French author Frédéric Werst has published something approximating a novel called Ward. It’s about a group of people called The Ward who speak a language called Wardwesân. The entire work is written in that language, with a parallel French translation.

Michael Adams says Werst is the first novelist he knows of “who’s tried to do a literary work from start to finish in a language never before known in the world.”

Tolkien never went that far, though he did tell his publisher that wished he could have included more of his fictional languages in his novels. Restraint, in that case, was probably wise.

Tolkien remains an inspiration to others. He wrote about inventing languages in an essay called The Secret Vice. “It’s a charming essay,” says novelist Ursula K. Le Guin.

le guin“He’s thought of the fact that there just are a bunch of us who love to invent languages as well as to learn them,” Le Guin says. “A lot of kids do a certain amount of it and some people carry it on all their lives. It’s like kids who draw maps of imaginary islands. Some of us go on doing it until we’re 80.”

A two-volume selection of Le Guin’s short stories, The Unreal and the Real, has just been published. It’s been a treat for me to read the stories. Growing up in Britain, I was only exposed to Le Guin’s novels.

For more in the pod about invented languages, there is this interview with Arika Okrent, author of In the Land of Invented Languages, and this podcast on the Game of Thrones language, Dothraki.



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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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