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conlang

noun [countable]

a constructed language: a language for human communication which has been invented and has not developed naturally

conlanger

noun [countable] informal

a person who invents a constructed language

conlanging

noun [uncountable]

'Peterson also credits Peter Jackson's original trilogy of films with highlighting Tolkien's invented languages … Since those films, Peterson says, conlangs have become a staple and hallmark of superior fantasy and science fiction.'

Stuff.co.nz 27th December 2014

'Marc Okrand, creator of Star Trek's hugely popular Klingon, said he doesn't exactly consider himself a conlanger: "I got into it because I was asked to do it for a movie, not because I had a passion initially for making up languages …"'

Boston Globe 5th April 2014

As the fact that you're reading this possibly demonstrates, English, as the language of international communication, soaks up the limelight, a language in constant, fast-paced development which provokes global debate. It's therefore rather easy to overlook the mindboggling estimation that there are almost 7,000 other languages in the world. It's a jaw-dropping figure, but one that hasn't in fact dissuaded us from creating even more ways of talking to each other. Despite the natural evolution of so many languages, it seems we're still fascinated with making up our own, playing with the building blocks of lexicon, grammar and phonology to create what are now popularly known as conlangs.

despite the natural evolution of so many languages, it seems we're still fascinated with making up our own, playing with the building blocks … to create what are now popularly known as conlangs

The term conlang, derived from a combination of truncated words constructed and language, refers to a language which has not evolved via natural processes of human use and culture, but has been deliberately invented, the work of an individual who has carefully crafted a unique new vocabulary and syntax. For many years, the activity of inventing languages, or conlanging, was often ridiculed as a useless hobby, but has edged into the public radar in the last couple of years, largely because of the burgeoning popularity of TV series such as HBO's Game of Thrones, which features the fictional language Dothraki. Created by linguist David Peterson, Dothraki has a vocabulary of over 3,600 words, 23 consonants and 4 vowels, subject-verb-object word order, two noun classes (animate and inanimate) declined in five cases, and a range of verb inflections reflecting various tenses. Other examples of conlangs in popular culture include JRR Tolkien's Middle-Earth languages in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Na'vi, created by linguistics professor Paul Frommer for the 2009 film Avatar, and of course Klingon, first appearing in the script of a 1979 Star Trek movie and subsequently developed by linguist Marc Okrand into a fully-fledged language. Klingon, whose popularity has translated into a published dictionary and latterly even a dedicated Apple keyboard, is still thought to be one of the most widely spoken conlangs.

Ironically, the trick to creating a successful, authentic-sounding conlang is to emulate the evolution of natural language over hundreds of years, replicating its quirks and idiosyncrasies and acknowledging how society influences the development of the lexicon.

Background – conlang

Though the term conlang is mainly associated with artificial languages in literature and entertainment, it is sometimes used in other contexts too, such as in reference to languages developed for international communication like Esperanto and Interlingua (also often described as 'auxiliary languages'). Conlangs have also been politically-motivated, such as for instance Láadan, created in 1982 by Suzette Haden Elgin as an experimental language intended to express a specifically female perspective. The earliest example of a conlang is thought to be Lingua Ignota (Latin for 'unknown language'), developed by a 12th century nun for writing hymns.

by Kerry Maxwell, author of Brave New Words

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This article was first published on 7th July 2015.

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