Create Your Own Language, for Credit

Feb 6, 2016

Photo credit: Ron Barrett

By Ashley Winchester

1. What do you say to embarrass a polar bear?

2. How might an underwater society write?

3. Can a creature without teeth say “tooth”?

4. How many verbs for “to pray” does an angel need?

These are some of the questions students have pondered in “Invented Languages” at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Tex., as they create languages of their own.

The tongue spoken by the nomadic Dothraki warriors of HBO’s hit series “Game of Thrones” has entered the pop-culture lexicon, and so sparked new interest in constructed languages, or conlangs. “Thanks to the popularity of ‘G.O.T.,’ ‘Avatar,’ etc., more people the world over know what language creation is,” says David J. Peterson, the linguist behind spoken Dothraki and alien-speak on the Syfy network’s “Defiance.”

At schools like S.F.A., Wellesley College in Massachusetts and Truman State in Missouri, students take apart the words, sounds, writing and patterns of such conlangs as Dothraki, Na’vi (“Avatar”), Elvish (“Lord of the Rings”) and Klingon (“Star Trek”) to get a sense of how languages evolve to meet the needs of their speakers. Coursework marries the principles of linguistics with the creativity of speculative fiction genres and pop culture.

So how do you create a language?

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9 comments on “Create Your Own Language, for Credit

  • If I were inventing an international language, I would get rid of the th, r, l, w and z sounds. They cause national speakers too much trouble. I would also get rid of words like a and the. Indonesian does fine without them. I would get rid of tenses, and replace them with adverbs you can place anywhere in the sentence. I would make it phonetic with no double letters. I would get rid of separate forms for direct and indirect object. I would get rid the possessive and replace it by a pronoun. I would design the words so that no two words differed by only one phoneme. There would be no homonyms. Words would have only one meaning or family of meaninings

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  • I would get rid of all words. Who needs them?
    Seriously, I am a conservative when it comes to language. Don’t fix what isn’t broken. Keep the homonyms. Keep it all. Keep it as rich and varied as possible.
    (Encourage kids not to say “like” so much. Encourage people not to misuse language. Misuse is a problem, a real one.)
    England would not be what it is today without Shakespeare. Ireland would not be what it is without Joyce, etc. Cultures are defined by their language, and their writers. Culture, to a large extent, is language.
    And “without culture we are all totalitarian beasts,” as Mailer said.
    We are in need of a neuter pronoun, hairybreeks.

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  • @ Dan – thought you were serious at first, because on one level I agree…

    Music, notes on a staff, the mathematics of it, personally engage; words, however, are a must for your play ; )

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  • @ Bonnie

    Bonnie, I am very interested in what you have to say.— I am very interested in language, and in the idea of music as language, and in the subject of the similarities and differences between musical language and verbal language.
    Words are getting a bit in the way of my play. Does that come as a surprise, and how’d you know I was writing a play? You’re interesting, and funny: I remember one time, you said I didn’t like Krauss. I had made one passing negative reference to him months prior to that. Steel trap I guess.
    Could you please elaborate a bit on what you said above? It was all too brief.

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  • P.S. Twenty minutes have gone by since I read your comment. Question: was I just insulted? You can be honest. I can take it, but wouldn’t mind some constructive criticism as well (if that is indeed the case). Verbose? Wordy? Pretentious? I can be. (Not very often though.)
    No one will ever accuse you of grandiloquence. Brevity is the soul of…brevity.

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  • P.P.S. Speaking of language, and words versus no words, did you ever see that Twilight Zone episode called The Silence?
    “Colonel Archie Taylor, a gruff aristocrat, has difficulty enjoying his men’s club because of the constant chatter of fellow member Jamie Tennyson. […] In an effort to shut Tennyson up, Taylor proposes a wager: he bets $500,000 that Tennyson cannot remain silent for one year. If Tennyson accepts the wager, he will be enclosed in the club’s game room, in which a small glass-walled apartment has been erected.”
    Very truly yours,
    Dan the genius who doesn’t know if he’s been insulted.

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  • @ Dan

    Mensa Muse, ’twas no insult, rest assured. Happy to elaborate via ‘mind-meld’ and coffee, you supply the words ; )

    Yes, poor Tennyson, took a huge leap of faith for a fistful of dollars (can’t remember author, but I did read the piece about money you suggested).

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