If humans could live as long as some of J. R. R. Tolkien’s famous fantasy characters, the author himself would have turned 120-years-old today (3rd January 2012).
Instead, we’re celebrating the birthday of one of Britain’s most beloved authors by exploring one of the most remarkable aspects of his imagination: the ability to invent whole new languages that elevated his fiction from story-telling, to the creation of entire new worlds.
Reflecting on the way in which Tolkien developed the languages of Middle Earth in extensive notes that existed outside his fiction, author Michael Adams writes in his excellent recent book From Elvish to Klingon that “it is clear that Tolkien invested at least as much of his expertise, ingenuity, imagination, and time in constructing his languages as he did in devising his narratives.”
For Tolkien, a philologist by trade, giving his characters their own tongue wasn’t simply a narrative device but the starting point for his fiction. It was a life-long commitment that helped him give The Lord Of The Rings and his other works their unique, immersive atmosphere - and the sense that they had truly arrived from an alternative reality.
The most famous of these languages is Elvish, which since first appearing his famous novel The Hobbit in 1937 has gone to influence decades of geek culture from fantasy novelists like Christopher Paolini to modern role-playing games such as Dungeons & Dragons and Dragon Age.
But even if he may be the most comprehensive, Tolkien has been far from the only author to create new language with his novels.
John Updike many not have meant it literally when he said “a novel of real ambition must invent its own language”, but nevertheless, here are ten like Tolkien who gave it a good shot...
Elvish – The Hobbit (1937), The Lord Of The Rings (1954-55), The Silmarillion (1977) by J. R. R. Tolkien
An umbrella term for seven separate languages Tolkien constructed for the tribes of Elves that appear in his novels, the best known Elvish languages are the Sarati, the Tengwar, and the Cirth. Tolkien didn’t just imagine the languages themselves but invented entire etymologies for them. Much of the phonetics and grammar of Tolkien’s Elvish were derived from Finnish and Welsh. Since the publication of his novels, fans have contributed many words and phrases of their own, turning Elvish into a fully-function language in its own right.
Newspeak – 1984 (1949) by George Orwell
As Michael Adams points out in From Elvish to Klingon, George Orwell uses fewer than forty different examples of Newspeak in the entirety of 1984. But that hasn’t stopped it becoming a byword for reductive or manipulative political jargon, or any effort to enforce intellectual poverty through language in the modern age. In its simplest terms Newspeak is about paring-down Oldspeak (English) to an absolute minimum of words and phrases, therefore limiting the range of thought of those who speak it. Throughout the novel we realise the inhabitants of Oceania are being forced to undergo a sort of language acquisition in reverse. For Orwell, this is the first tool of oppression.
Nadsat – A Clockwork Orange (1962) by Anthony Burgess
How often, in adult life, do we listen to a group of teenagers or children interacting and feel convinced they’re talking another language altogether? In A Clockwork Orange - Burgess’s tale of a gang of nihilistic, violent young men - that language is Nadsat, a collection of Russian-inspired slang words that serve to make the reader feel at first isolated from its characters and then, once they’re immersed in it, unsettlingly collusive.
Chakobsa – Dune (1965) by Frank Herbert
Regularly cited as the most widely-read science fiction novel in history, Herbert’s Dune spawned a saga as well as invented a new language. Spoken by a group of people called the Fremen who live on a desert planet called Arrakis, Chakobsa (sometimes just referred to as ‘Fremen’) was derived from Arabic. Fans showed an immediate appetite for Herbert’s invention, as the book won the Hugo Award in 1966 and convinced the author to pen five sequels.
Qwghlmian – Cryptonomicon (1999), The Baroque Cycle series (2003-2004) by Neal Stephenson
If you thought learning French or Latin at school was difficult, try getting your chops around Qwghlmian. Invented by American writer Neal Stephenson, it has 16 consonants and no vowels and although being almost unpronounceable, it is ideal for expressing binary information and sat well with the The Baroque Cycle’s preoccupations with numismatics and cryptology. It simply doesn’t get any geekier than this – something Stephenson, with his warlock beard, is no doubt rightly proud of.
Zaum – Zangezi (approx 1915) by Aleksei Kruchenykh (and the Russian Futurists)
It’s not just novelists who have gotten in on the act of making up their own languages. Back in 1913 one of the most radical poets of the Russian Futurist movement Aleksei Kruchenykh coined the term ‘zaum’ - a composite of the prefix за meaning "beyond” and the noun ум meaning "the mind”. It referred to the linguistic experiments he was conducting that he believed freed its speakers from the confines of traditional language, and formed a large part of his drama Zangezi which he says was written in the “language of the gods and the birds”. Use of Zaum peaking during World War I and influenced later styles including Avant-garde, Pop Art and surrealism.