(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: