Constructed languages, or ‘conlangs’, are often entirely fictional languages made for television, movies, comic books, and video games.
A great conlang is unique, sets the right mood, is learnable enough for actors and fans, and has a grammar structure and vocabulary complete enough to pass for a real language.
Let’s find out about the best conlangs filmmakers and authors have come up with so far.
Why learn a conlang?
There are over seven thousand languages spoken in the world today, and each of them has its own grammatical structure and sound range. While some languages like Ancient Egyptian or Latin spark the imagination because we can only guess how they sounded, how about learning something entirely new?
People love experiencing a virtual world, and conlangs can be so otherworldly and appealing that they gain a large following. For example, there are now around 2 million Esperanto speakers. But you can also find courses in conlangs from TV and other media, with communities restricting themselves to the conlang only.
So what makes a good conlang? It has to:
- Include elements no other language has.
- Offer a new way of seeing the world through the new language.
- Have an emotional appeal so people will actually want to learn it and listen to it.
- Have a published dictionary with guidelines for fans to expand it.
- Be learnable in terms of grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation.
So without further ado, these are our favorite conlangs:
When James Cameron wrote Avatar, he envisioned the inhabitants of Pandora speaking a language unrelated to anything on Earth. In other words, a linguistic isolate. He invented a list of 30 initial words such as ‘irayo,’ which means ‘thanks’.
But it was Dr. Paul Frommer who made it into a real language with its own grammatical rules and over 2,600 words. It evolved into an exotic style of speech with consonant-vowel structures similar to Māori and Polynesian.
Na’vi includes special ejectives such as ‘tx’ and ‘kx’, with the ‘x’ standing for a kind of glottal stop before the vowel.
This air trapping in the vocal tract is similar to what happens in beatboxing. But there are also specific sounds, such as a ‘prrr’ sound, and extreme consonant clusters such as in ‘kllpxiltu’, meaning ‘territory,’ and the word ‘tskxe’ for ‘rock’.
A few things are unique about Na’vi. For one, in short sentences word order is free. And two, verb conjugation involves infixes. We may recognize these from ‘puh-lease’, ‘fan-freakin’-tastic’, or Homer Simpson’s ‘saxo-ma-phone’.
Whereas English involves adding ‘-ed’ to render it past tense, a verb in Na’vi will have a letter combination inserted in the middle of the word.
The fact that Na’vi is a complete language, has unique elements, and sounds amazing, has launched it to the top of our list. And given that the ‘Avatar’ sequels are coming out, we can only wait to hear how the language has evolved.
Often referred to as ‘Elven-Tongue’ or Elvish, this enchanting language from the Lord of The Rings franchise was the first conlang. J.R.R. Tolkien, a linguist himself, invented it before he even started the novel around 1910 and developed it into a logically sound system.
The soothing Elvish rhymes contain lots of soft g’s as in the German word ‘ich’. Overall, it resembles a mix of Finnish and Old Norse with some Welsh lilts and Irish touches.
Other languages spoken in Middle-Earth, such as Rohirric, Entish, Orcish, and Dwarvish, are mere sketches compared to Sindarin, which has several books written about it.
A group of plundering nomads allied with giants deserve a fearsome language of their own, or so George R.R. Martin thought when he wrote A Song of Ice and Fire.
Along with Valyrian, Dothraki was developed into a full language with 3,163 words by David Peterson for the Game of Thrones series, and it was absolutely believable on the big screen.
Those of us who watched the show remember the moment Viserys Targaryen received his metaphorical golden crown, and the Dothraki’s lingo served perfectly to provide a hint as to what was coming.
The voiceless t’s, plosive q’s, and trilled r’s inspired by a mix of Turkish, Russian, and Inuktitut of the Canadian Inuit reflected perfectly the power of Khal Drogo and his mistress Daenerys.
Here’s a conlang that gives you even more reason to turn on your subtitles. Marc Okrand, who also worked on Vulcan and Romulan, created it for ‘Star Trek III’ in 1984. Ultimately, even Jean-Luc Picard came to speak it.
Klingon is a fully-fledged language with characteristic k’s and g’s pronounced in the back of the throat, which reminds of Arabic. But it also has the Indian ‘d’ with the tongue pulled back, a retroflexed ‘sh’ known from Russian, a Scottish ‘ch’ as in ‘Loch Ness,’ and an unvoiced ‘tl’ sound known from Navajo.
In its sentence structure, the object often comes first – something that Yoda likes to do in Star Wars. And since there is a 191-page dictionary, around 50 fluent speakers, even language teachers and apps, Klingon is one of the more accessible conlangs to acquire.
Trigedasleng, also known as ‘Forest Language’ or ‘Trig’, is a lesser known conlang devised by David Peterson for the Netflix sci-fi series ‘The 100’. And like his languages for GoT, the Trikru clan’s tongue is believable enough to pass for a natural language.
The Sky People are the main protagonists of the show and escape the planet after an apocalyptic nuclear event. To check if Earth is a happy place to live again, they descend from their space station and come into contact with some ‘Grounders’ who divide themselves with a made-up language that sounds most like Creole English or Nigerian Pidgin.
Instead of a rolling or gnawing ‘r’ so typical of the U.S. language, Trig has a ‘tap r’ and the consonants are typically pronounced more forcefully for that dense underground vibe.
But because it has elements of American slang, it is relatable enough for the audience, and the meaning can often be derived from the context of the scene.
The Minions are among the most iconic characters from the Despicable Me franchise. Fans of the films have wondered for years what language these hilarious yellow creatures speak. Without an official name, it’s been dubbed “Minionese” by fans.
In Minionese, words are combined from several languages including English, Spanish, French and Italian. This blend of languages allows the Minions to communicate with one another in a unique way that is both humorous and endearing. Each Minion has his own distinct voice and accent which adds a layer of character to the dialogue.
The Minions are also known to use gibberish words such as “ba-ba”, “la-da” and “poopaye” when speaking Minionese. These phrases have become fan favorites and are often used by fans of the franchise in everyday language.
About the Author
Ralph Zoontjens is a product designer with a master’s degree in Industrial Design from Eindhoven University of Technology. Currently based out of Tilburg, the Netherlands, he specializes in 3D printing and works as a content writer with topics that revolve around design and technology.