Qapla’! Creating a universe through words

Constructed alien languages add a beautiful depth to genre works.

Created languages have, naturally, been a long part of science fiction and fantasy. From the harsh, guttural intonations of Klingon through to the mellifluous, lyrical sound of the Na’vi tongue, it’s hard to find a major genre property that hasn’t been touched in some way by invented vernacular. Even if it’s just a few words used for profanity that won’t cause the network censors to have a minor breakdown.

An interesting news piece emerged today on io9, reporting that the Game Of Thrones miniseries, based on George RR Martin’s novels, has hired a linguist to create a language named ‘Dothraki’ for the characters to use. The description there is far beyond our understanding of grammar to sufficiently parse here, but instead, here’s the next best thing – a brief list of other shows with their own curious patois.


Conceived by James Doohan during the filming of the original series of Star Trek, and later expanded on and developed by Mark Okrand, Klingon is still the most famous language of fiction. It’s even advanced to the point where those skilled in its use can carry on conversations with each other, although it’s still limited in many ways from a natural language.


To add authenticity to his gratuitously developed world of Pandora in Avatar, Cameron hired University of Southern Carolina linguist Paul Frommer to create a dictionary of around 1,000 words for his blue-skinned Native Pandorians. Given the film’s runaway popularity, we expect to hear more than a few people speaking it at Comic-Con this year.


Although Klingon is the most widely known language created for televisual entertainment, it wasn’t the first. That honour probably belongs to Land Of The Lost, which had Victoria Fromkin of the University Of Los Angeles create a polyglot’s dream in the form of the Pakuni language.


George Orwell’s famous constructed mutation of English in 1984 has become a science-fiction icon in itself, but also transliterated into the real world by being commonly referred to (in Britain, at least) as shorthand for political spin and rhetoric. The term itself was also used in discussions of Soviet phraseology, unsurprisingly.


JRR Tolkien was himself a gifted philologist, so it’s unsurprising that he created a whole pantheon of artificial languages for his fantasy masterwork. These endure to the present day, most recently used in the film adaptations of course, but also studied and propagated by various groups as well.


Iain M Banks gave creating a language a shot with Marain, the fictional tongue spoken by the inhabitants of The Culture. In the context of the plot, its design is meant to be as accessible and comprehensive as possible for hundreds of thousands of races. In practice, you probably couldn’t use it to pen your dissertation.