From Elvish to Klingon: Exploring Invented Languages

I’m just finishing a one week vacation. While I was on vacation, I did some reading. I read “From Elvish to Klingon: Exploring Invented Languages” by Michael Adams. He had some very interesting things to say about various invented languages. Newspeak, used in the book 1984, brought up the subject of the Sapir-Whorf theory. The theory has to do with the concept of changing human thoughts, and therefore actions, by carefully crafting language to eliminate or at least significantly reduce certain ideas. George Orwell had an appendix end of his book that discussed the framework of that language. This was a subject he found interesting and wrote about more than once.

Nadsat, from A Clockwork Orange, was also discussed in detail. Apparently, this language had eastern bloc roots. Ironically, the author really had not intended to highlight the glorified violence but merely to use it as a method of discussing how societies are affected by language. The movie, adapted from his book, went with the violence and completely changed the message. I also learned that there was an additional chapter omitted from the American release of the book . I had not known that.

There were quite a few references to Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series and the languages that he invented. Tolkien’s languages are quite extensive and have very interesting histories. He did not just invent languages for his books he invented histories discussed their evolution and created a linguists fantasy world.

Klingon was also discussed, but I believe the book In the Land of Invented Languages, by Arika Okrent covered that language much more effectively. Her book was even referenced in this one a few times.

The subject of revitalized languages was discussed. The quick overview of the recreation of the Hebrew language was a fascinating read. The incredible lengths that they went to to standardize the language was interesting to me. The attempt to systematically eliminate Yiddish as much as possible was interesting decision. On one hand, they needed to have a standardized new Hebrew language. On the other hand, they needed to eliminate any competitors to that standardization. To put it another way, to revitalize the Hebrew language they had to attack the language used by those with Jewish heritage. Looking at revitalized languages, the only way revitalization succeeds is if there is a standardization and its standardization comes a cost. Even more interesting, the fact that there were so many things and concepts that have come into existence since the time of the historical language on which the modern day Hebrew language is based on, required the addition of quite a few new words. Put more simply, the modern day Hebrew language is only distantly related to the original, at best!

The subject of endangered languages also came up. There was discussion about the various reasons that native speakers of dying languages do not appreciate the attempts to revitalize and save their language heritages. The fact that those attempting to save the languages often create a new language was a fascinating insight. The Irish language has been going through this process for a while. Those learning the language in educational institutions are not learning the language spoken by those who learned the language in a day-to-day manner.

Those trying to save a dying language have two choices. They can either revitalize the language by creating a new one vaguely related on the original language or they can let that language die. Lets be blunt, languages die for a reason. Granted, history demands that we keep as much information about the languages as possible, but that does not require saving the language.

The politics behind some of the revitalization efforts was also discussed. Where someone is trying to revitalize a language, they are also attempting to create a group. That group is seen as politically useful, or the revitalization effort would probably not occur. One of the languages he touched on was the Hawaiian language. Based on what I have read from other articles about that effort, the politics behind the revitalization of the Hawaiian language could fill an encyclopedia.

The subject of languages used in computer games was also discussed. This was an entirely new area for me. Games that try to create languages must attempt to serve many conflicting goals. It’s worth reading the book just to see how messy this issue is.