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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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podcast #44: Haruki Murakami’s fans, confessions of a kanji-holic, and kwassa kwassa

This week, we check out a claim that with the aid of a supercomputer, it’s possible to predict which words will become extinct in a few centuries.  The word “dirty” apparently doesn’t have much staying power.  Nor do “guts” and “throw”.  If the computer says so. Me, I’d prefer to see the back of “alcopop.”

southNext is a report on the extraordinarily devoted fans of Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami. I was inspired to report this story a few years ago when I tried– and failed — to get into an auditorium at MIT where Murakami was appearing. After chatting with other people in the queue, I realized that Murakami commands a massive, and massively diverse fan-base. So, I waited until one of his next all-too-rare appearances, in Berkeley, CA, where he sold out a 2,000-seat hall. After recording a few interviews in the foyer, I was stripped of my recording gear and camera, and told that I could collect them at the end of the evening. (A student at the MIT event got into trouble he snapped a picture of the writer at the MIT event. ) I didn’t have a problem with any of  this – I’d got my interviews and anyway, my story was about Murakami’s followers, not the man himself. And – strange as it may sound coming from a US-based journalist — I respect his desire to control and limit his public image.

murakami1 foreign3Murakami writes in a non-literary Japanese style, as author of Japan-America Roland Kelts told me. He also throws in so many English words that some older Japanese have trouble understanding his prose.  It’s also rare that in a Murakami story you come across a situation or a person that you could characterize (or perhaps micharacterize) as quintessentially Japanese.  His stories speak to people all over the world, in more than 30 languages.

That’s followed by a conversion with blogger Eve Kushner. She’s a devoted fan of those Japanese characters known as kanji (and, as it happens, she’s also a devoted fan of Murakami).

Finally, Vampire Weekend‘s Ezra Koenig on his favorite phrase out of Africa: kwassa kwassa. It’s Africanized French.

Listen in iTunes or here.

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