Using Linguistics to Make Up Languages
Part of the Linguistics For Dummies Cheat Sheet
There are about 6,000 human languages currently spoken. You would think that would be enough, but some brave souls feel the need to make up new languages from scratch. These constructed languages are sometimes called conlang and are especially popular in fantasy and science fiction writing and moviemaking.
How does linguistics fit into this? Well, language inventors need to know the principles of linguistic analysis to build such languages. Here are some of the more famous ones:
Esperanto was invented in the late 1800s by Ludwig Zamenhof to foster harmony between people of different countries. It’s the most widely spoken constructed language in the world and is used in more than 100 countries. Esperanto is based on western Indo-European languages — the sound system is mostly Slavic, the vocabulary is mostly Romance and Germanic. It’s been used as a background language in the movies Gattaca and Red Dwarf, it features in a conversation in Blade: Trinity, and is even used as the main language in the horror movie Incubus.
Klingon is the language of the Klingons, used in the Star Trek movie series. The Klingon language was developed by Marc Okrand, a linguist who previously worked with Native American languages. Klingon has a complete grammar and vocabulary — books have been translated into Klingon, and you can select Klingon as your language of choice in Google.
Nadsat is a fictional language variety used by teenagers in the novel A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess. It’s a form of Russian-influenced English — the name of the language comes from the Russian suffix -nadstat’ which is the equivalent of English ‘teen’. For example, Nadsat viddy ‘to see’ comes from the Russian vidyet ‘to see’ and Nadsat zoobies ‘teeth’ comes from the Russian zubi ‘teeth’.
Newspeak is a form of English used in the novel 1984 by George Orwell. It’s a deliberately simplified language that has no negative words (good is a Newspeak word but not bad), reduces everything to a simple dichotomy between goodthink and ungoodthink, and has a deliberately small vocabulary and short syllables with a staccato rhythm.
Examples of Newspeak words are ungood for ‘bad’, plusgood for ‘great’, doubleplusgood for ‘excellent’, doublethink for ‘accepting as correct two mutually contradictory beliefs’, and Ingsoc for ‘English socialism’. (Some aspects of Newspeak are modeled on Esperanto.)