Watch: How to Create a New Language for Your Film
If you're looking to create the next Dothraki or Shivaisith, this video looks at how some of the most famous fictional movie languages were created.
According to The Economist, the number of people who've heard Dothraki or Valyrian, the two constructed languages (or conlangs) on Game of Thrones, is more than the number of speakers of Welsh, Irish Gaelic, and Scots Gaelic, combined.
From Game of Thrones to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, conlangs are bigger than ever, and audiences have come to expect further attention to detail. Check out this video from Academy Originals for some tips from the minds behind the words of Thor, Avatar, Game of Thrones (and more).
How Does it Sound
"The biggest misconception about language creation is that it's just taking an English dictionary and making up forms for it," says David J. Peterson, the linguist behind Thrones' languages, as well as Thor's Shiväisith, which is reminiscent of the Finnish language. Paul Frommer, who created the Naʼvi from James Cameron's mega-blockbuster Avatar, says he took inspiration from Polynesian languages.
Above all, the biggest questions to ask when thinking about designing a language are who is going to be speaking it, what environment will they be in, and how might that shape the way they sound? Building off of an existing language base can be helpful. When Marc Okrand was coming up with the Klingon language for Star Trek, he knew that he wanted to make the language guttural-sounding, but purposely tried to stay away from known languages, since the Klingons are a cantankerous people and he didn't want anyone accusing him of taking their real-world language for inspiration. Perhaps the most important trait of a successful conlang in a movie? It has to be capable of being learned by the actors.
Though it does vary, the grammatical system in most modern fictional languages is fairly complete; the Na'vi parts of speech are similar to other languages, featuring nouns, verbs, and other parts of speech familiar to existing languages. The three basic elements of a sentence—the subject, the verb and the object (SVO)—are also usually present.
In English, for instance, the subject (I) does something (talk to) the object of the sentence (the people), but in other languages, the order is entirely different (most languages are either, like English, SOV, or SVO; a smaller number are VSO.) When constructing a conlang, the creators try to make it as realistic as possible, insofar as it is possible to create full, intelligible sentences. But, as Peterson says, "Learning a language is definitely not the same thing as creating a language."
Another important point to consider when creating a language is the fact that different languages favor different topics, because vocabulary is inherently dependent upon usage (the most famous example being that there are fifty words for 'snow' in Eskimo, which is actually true.) In the world of conlangs, Dothraki, for instance, doesn't contain the word for 'toilet' though it does contain more than twenty words for 'horse'. And because the Klingon have a war-like culture, their vocabulary is heavily tilted towards words that favor 'war', 'commerce', or 'space-travel', though some of Shakespeare's plays have been translated into the language as well.
For a filmmaker who wants to create a constructed language, the examples are endless, from the Elvish of Tolkien, to A Clockwork Orange's Nadsat, and even languages like Esperanto, which was created for use in the real world as an international language.
While the creation of these languages is usually accomplished by linguists, there's no saying that an enterprising filmmaker can't come up with their own unique film tongue to go up against the greats. If you get lucky, maybe someday there'll be a version of Hamlet in your conlang too.