(The title means, technically, “what do you want?” – it’s Klingon for ‘hello’.)
This might be a little familiar to you…
Ash nazg durbatulûk, ash nazg gimbatul,
Ash nazg thrakatulûk agh burzum-ishi krimpatul.
No? Are you sure?
Are you really, really sure?
One ring to rule them all, one ring to find them,
One ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.
That is the inscription on the One Ring – the artifact at the center of Lord of the Rings. We all know it in English, but the original poem – and the actual inscription on the ring itself – are in a language called ‘Black Speech’, one of Tolkein’s many, and I mean many-
-constructed languages. Tolkein actually made the languages, first, then wrote his famed novels to show them off. In many ways, he is the grandfather of contemporary language-making…but, it’s a hobby (or in his words, ‘a secret vice’) that predates him by centuries.
Realistically, it probably goes back a LONG time, but the first recorded conlang we have evidence of is the Lingua Ignota (Latin for ‘unknown language) – and it dates back all the way to the 12th century. Created by the Abbess of Rupertsberg, Hildegard of Bingen, it was a ‘divinely inspired’ language used for mystical purposes. It had grammar, vocabulary, and even a 23-letter writing system called the litterae ignotae.
The next significant instance of conlanging we have is from the 15th century, and it’s the Voynich Manupscript.
…or at least we think it’s conlanging – seeing as it’s never been translated, we don’t actually have any idea of what it says. A book full of mystical maps, mysterious astronomical charts, and unknown plants and animals, no one knows what the book was even supposed to be used for.
For centuries, these languages were ‘created’ more by divine inspiration rather than intent or purpose. They were languages presumed to come from higher powers and used to communicate as such, with the most well-known instance being the Celestial Alphabet.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, though, conlanging took a sharp turn from the religious to the philosophical. We all have enough frustrations with our own, native languages to understand how frustratingly irregular – and sometimes downright nonsensical – they can be. It became a trend among intellectuals to try to create a ‘perfect’ language, especially philosophically, with the entire universe and everything in it neatly accounted for. These were very technical, very elaborate, and very unusable languages. John Wilkin tried to, quite literally, classify the universe:
That turned out about as well as you’d expect.
Conlanging started to veer towards the forms we know today sometime around the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This was a time of great global conflict and international upheaval. Unbeknownst to the world, the violent stage for WWI was being set up, with entire nations coming and going by the decade. Interest drifted towards an international auxiliary language – the idea being that a universal language could be the pathway to peace.
In comes Ludwik Lazarus Zamenhof – or as most people know him today, Dr. Esperanto, named after the language of his creation.
Esperanto is a language combining elements of over a dozen other languages. While it earned him much mockery and intellectual shame at first, Esperanto has since grown tremendously in popularity – to the point that despite it being an entirely artificial language, today there are 2nd and even 3rd generation native speakers, people who learned Esperanto as their first language.
Part of the language’s popularity is that it’s highly derivational – most of the vocabulary comes from a few root words with extensive prefixes and suffixes to give them meaning.
It even appears in popular culture – the language of ‘Blue’ in the acclaimed comic series Saga is actually Esperanto.
That leads into the most well-known form of conlanging seen today: popular culture. Apart from Tolkein, the next most well-known fake languages come from Star Trek.
Most of them are largely writing systems, like Ferengi-
-or Vulcan, which has several writing systems and some phrases, as well as fan-developed language, but no canon/official grammar or extensive vocabulary beyond phrases uttered on-screen:
The most well-known language, though, is Klingon:
With its own writing system, unique phonology, developed grammar, and extensive vocabulary, it is well and truly a language. It’s so popular, there is even a Klingon Language Institute.
Yes, you can actually get certification in Klingon fluency.
Get fluent enough, and you can read the entirety of Hamlet in Klingon!
(Why Hamlet? I don’t know.)
But Star Trek, and more importantly its languages, are a bit old-school in terms of fake languages in the media. Reading this, more people will probably be familiar with the Dothraki language in Game of Thrones:
Other made-up languages you’ve probably heard are Na’Vi from Avatar and the Dark Elves’ Language from Thor: The Dark World.
Even I’ve made a language! Several, in fact.
Click on my ‘Conlangs’ tab up top, and you can even see the start of my own little foray into Conlanging. My current project is Tengarsa, a Celtic-based language for nomadic, magical tribes in a fictional universe I may actually one day write a book for. With six different writing systems (each with elaborate histories and uses), as well as extensive vocabulary and grammar, it is probably my most well-developed colang to date (which is saying something, since I’ve been conlanging since I was 8 years old).
And those vertical writing systems are bidirectional, meaning they can be vertical as you see above – or horizontal, like this:
It also has its own number system, a Base-12 numeral system (as opposed to the decimal/Base 10 system we use today):
However niche and obscure it seems, today conlanging is a thriving community – the Facebook groups alone often have thousands of members, and those are rather on the edge of the conlanging community.
And yes, there is a community. They even have a flag with the Tower of Babel on it:
This poem was written in June 2010, and ironically enough it started in an English class while we were covering poetry.
“Let the muse be not defied!”
The poor and sulking Artist cried
“Rest not the hands, the heart, the head
Lest the work be dead!”
“But you need to sleep, to drink, to eat!”
Cried the loved ones in defeat
“Or else you shall waste away
You must find work, today, today!”
“That daily grind will kill my soul!
That isn’t meant for my life’s role
Just go away and leave me be!”
The Artist cried despairingly
“We do this out of care for you!”
The loved ones said, sincere and true
“Just let us take care of you a bit
You’ll come back later when well and fit”
“Go with you, I will not!
Else my passion, it will rot!
Oh, what lies do you know of art?
To think that I’ll just pause my heart?
I shall rather waste away to death
Than be so tortured with every breath
By a life of mediocrity
Oh please, oh please, can’t you see?
I prefer to starve down to my bones
To pass away with silent moans
Than to live a pre-fab life
Even if it’s free of strife
I may never be famous or great
Or even be better than average-rate
But then my heart will beat so strong
Even if it does not beat for long”
“That pounding you feel will end so soon
Your life will end in a faded tune!”
All the loved ones strongly said
Fearing to find their dear one dead
“Then so be it!” The Artist shouted
“If there is no other way about it!
My life will end sans pomp and shine
But that last song shall still be mine”
“But do you not fear ending life without wealth
In some cold, sterile room all by yourself
Having no hand to hold but your own?
Do you not fear of dying alone?”
“Ha!” The Artist cried in conclusion
And in the face of their confusion
“And tell me, how different will that be
From dying with a sea of strangers ‘side me?
For that’s what would happen if I should take flight
And join you in your lives of plastic delight
I don’t need your false joys and petty woes
Saturated, all of them, in purple prose”
The loved one sighed and left in silence
Leaving their artist to all that nonsense
The artist bade them take their leave
Sighing in irony, watching them grieve
For the feeling was mutual, and the Artist mourned
Their boring lives, so pretentiously adorned
Filled with pretty promises of power and things
In gilded cages and under clipped wings
Crippled by compliance, lost and tame
He won’t get stuck in their rat-race game
For the Artist had looked in his loved ones’ eyes
And could see them drowning in all their lies
For while the Artist lived oft’ in poverty
It was a life of contented honesty
And though the others lived rich from corporate war
The Artist knew they were the world’s true poor