Word Nerdery: Constructed Languages and Fiction Writing – The Epitome of Nerdery

Surely, there is nothing quite so marvellously nerdy as learning a fictional language, or creating a fictional language and then shouting it to the world. Think of those brave Star Trek cosplayers who know Klingon or Romulan, or the Tolkien fans who can speak in the various dialects of Elvish. These are people who embrace a fictional world so fully that they even learn its languages. I am one of them, and I am stupidly pleased with my nerdery.

Of course, my nerdery is more to do with the fact that I analyse and deconstruct (and then reconstruct) languages of all sorts than the fact that I belong to any particular fandom. Don’t get me wrong, I am quite fond of Star Trek and Middle Earth, and various many other fictional worlds, but I have spent too much time reading and exploring so many worlds that language is my true constant. Basically, I like words. And constructed words are, to my mind, ridiculously fun.

(It should be noted that I wrote my undergraduate thesis on the presence and function of constructed languages in science fiction, so I may be biased.)

Even if you are not wildly keen on the vivid expression of being a nerd as one learning Klingon might entail, constructed languages are actually quite fascinating in of themselves. They often serve a more involved purpose in the expression of a (fictional) culture or world than do most natural languages. Their rules are often regular and less nuanced than natural languages, but that does not necessarily make them more complex. They, as much as the actual prose of a book, tell a story.

But what is a constructed language—or conlang, as it is most commonly known?

Natural languages are those that we speak and read and write everyday. English, German, Russian, Chinese, etc. are all natural languages; they are languages that have native speakers born into their midst. They are not borne of just one person, but an entire people. They evolve over time and can be learned, in full, without too much difficulty. (Though, to be fair, English is one of those languages that often baffles in its complexity, and it doesn’t even have as many grammatical cases as Finnish.)

Conlangs, on the other hand, are created with specific forms and vocabulary in mind, often by one person or a handful of people. There are no native speakers to these languages, and even if one attempts to learn them, they are often not complete. Quenya, one of Tolkien’s dialects of Elvish, is an example of such a language. It is more complete than, say, Newspeak (from George Orwell’s 1984), but still does not evolve over time to adapt to new technology and situations. Its creator is dead, and while the fandom can take the language and do what they like, it’s not considered official, or canon, and is therefore not widely applicable.

Most conlangs are created within the realm of science fiction or fantasy stories of various forms, to either give to a different culture, or to illustrate a part of the world that needs highlighting. For example, in !984, Newspeak is meant to highlight the struggle of the people to have individual thought, to dissent, and instead force them into Groupthink. 

(Oddly enough, Groupthink has become a fairly common phrase in offices and academic institutions, as a means of getting people to work together and think along the same lines to promote teamwork. Somehow, it seems fitting that the users of Groupthink don’t see the irony in borrowing this word from Orwell’s dystopian novel. But I digress.)

Klingon is an example of a conlang that has become well-known to the world at large, and has evolved beyond some of the normal parameters of typical conlangs. It originally had only a few words and phrases, but was expanded upon as the Star Trek series grew, with input from fans. The ultimate direction of this language’s growth lay in the hands of its creators, but there was wide input. It is even so popular now that you can learn it on Duolingo. I have done this (though I am barely a beginner) and found the course to be quite entertaining and complete. Klingon exists partly as a means to provide the Klingons with their own language, and thereby make Star Trek a little more realistic (generally speaking), but also as a means to illustrate the harsh, warrior-based culture of its people. It exists to illustrate a world, a culture, a people, rather than exist as a pivotal part of the story.

Other languages, such as the one presented in Babel-17 by Samuel R. Delaney, are not meant to be learned and spoken by people. They present a plot point, a grounds upon which the story is built and explored. They are either not complete, have no specific vocabulary, or aren’t even meant for humans at all. The whole purpose of the language is to illustrate a point in the story; the whole story hinges on this language, in fact.

Some other places that conlangs can be found include: the Game of Thrones television series, the Defiance television series, most all of the Star Trek franchises, the Star Wars franchises, the Lord of the Rings, and Hobbit books by J.R.R. Tolkien, A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess, 1984 by George Orwell, the Out of the Silent Planet trilogy by C.S. Lewis, and many, many others. Some are in popular media, some are obscure and vague. Some are pure entertainment, others are critical to plot. 

Why, though—apart from those of us who are perhaps a bit too keen on words—would anyone want to bother with creating a conlang? After all, learning natural languages is already a lot of work. There are so many pieces of language that have to be constructed: vocabulary, grammar, tense, gender, etc. It’s, frankly, a lot of work.

There is one particular case study of a conlang that took on a life of its own and became the closest thing to a natural language that can be, which I think may clarify the issue. That, of course, is Esperanto. 

Esperanto was created in 1887 by L.L. Zamenhof. It was intended to be an international auxiliary language; that is, it was meant to be a language that everyone could learn and communicate with easily, in order to provide a way for peaceful negotiations and business relations across the world. It has fairly straightforward rules of grammar, and many of the words have base forms that are similar to romance languages—Spanish, French, Italian—and are therefore recognisable. There have been several other attempts at an international auxiliary language, but Esperanto was the most popular. Alas, it never caught on in the way that Zamenhof hoped, but it did become very popular over the years. It has evolved to adapt to new technologies and situations, and there are people around the world today that speak Esperanto fluently. It is rumoured that there are even native speakers of Esperanto, though I don’t know if that can be verified. 

Esperanto, therefore, is a conlang that was not created for the purpose of storytelling—indeed, not all of them are—but which still remains quite popular today. It may never achieve its goal of being an IAL, and thereby providing a language that international audiences can learn and speak with ease, but it has grown and evolved and is a very close thing to a natural language.

In truth, creating a conlang is a lot of work. Most of the time, it’s done just for fun, to add an element of interest to a story or world. Sometimes, it grows and takes on a fandom of its own, such as with Quenya and Klingon. Other times, it is for personal use, or doesn’t even have any words. I, personally, have created Eloaech (eh-low-aye-ek) for use in my cyberpunk dystopian novel, Speaker of Words. There are perhaps a hundred words outside of the novel that I have made, and there is a relatively broad grammar, but it is by no means a complete language. It was made to serve a purpose in my novel, little more. I had massive amounts of fun creating it, though, and frankly I think that is all that’s required.

Language doesn’t always have to be a massive undertaking. Sometimes, it’s just fun. In the case of conlangs, most of the time you don’t even have to understand what is being said. So just let the words wash over you and enjoy them for what they are: expressions of joyous nerdery.