Saturday, May 31, 2014

A Secret Vice

Who makes languages, and why? Haven't we enough in the world already? And, unless one's goal is to raise a community of people to speak it, what purpose could such a thing have?

But there is, nevertheless, a pure delight in language invention. After all, our own minds are structured by language; our memory, our thoughts, and our inmost desires are, in a sense, spoken even if we do not utter them. And happily, in the world of fantasy and speculative fiction, new languages are not only possible but necessary. Among the better ones, we may count Lapine, the language of rabbits invented by Richard Adams in Watership Down (the rabbit word for car, hrududu, is a great one), Nadsat, crafted (mostly from Russian, but also from British schoolboy slang) by Anthony Burgess, Klingon (one of the few that could almost be said to be 'living,' as it has a robust grammar and vocabulary and is actually spoken by fans),  and Enochian, the purported language of angels invented by Edward Kelley and Dr. John Dee in the days of Elizabeth I, and used by them in their magical rituals (and, more recently, by Aleister Crowley). Tolkien's languages are notable for their number and their complexity, but also for one very singular quality: unlike any of the other invented languages I know of, it has an historical taxonomy, that is, it evolved.

So what does Tolkien's own account of his language-inventing habit tell us about himself, the world of The Lord of the Rings, or about other fictional worlds? Have you ever indulged in the "secret vice?" Tried to learn a fictional speech? And should language-making be undertaken by just anyone, or left to the professionals? Your thoughts below.


  1. Well, who has never invented some form of language or code system when they were a child. Whether it was a fantasy or futuristic world or simply playing spy, inventing a language system as a child is a common thing. For example: when I was younger, my invented language was that I was writing in English, but every word was written at a different angle; some words would either be upsides down, to its side, or right side up.
    Tolkien's languages were unique only because his languages "evolved", even if he had only one language, the fact that it evolved was enough to make it stand out.

  2. I feel like since he always loved creating languages, it was only a matter of time before he created a masterpiece language. I also feel like because he cared about it so much it was only natural for him to want to perfect it and to make it seem as real as he could make it. I feel like this explains why he went to great lengths to create his languages and created an entire fantasy world around them. When I was little, my brother and I created alternate meanings for words, and codes so that our parents wouldn't understand what we were saying or planning. It was a lot of fun, but we never created an entire language out of it, we just created the words we needed. Other than that, I have never really tried to learn any fictional language. I do, however, believe that anyone should be able to create a language. Naturally professionals will be far more successful and may have better results, but there is still the element of fun and intrigue in creating your own language, even if no one else knows about it.

  3. An author named Malcolm Gladwell wrote a book called "Outliners" where he mentions something called the "10,000 hours of practice" theory. This theory states that someone has to practice something for roughly 10,000 hours before they become an expert in that field of practice. So maybe Tolkien spend an accumulated time of 10,000 hours of creating languages before he could conceive a more evolved language.