By the h’bhor of Vaksis, fantasy languages can be a great way to bring a sense of believable mystery to fictional worlds. Whether Game of Thrones’ guttural Dothraki, The Lord of the Rings’ lilting Elvish, or the garbled throat-clearing of Star Wars’ Wookie-talk, hearing characters speak in made-up tongues helps viewers buy into the idea that they’re watching other, fully-formed cultures on screen.
But, as this video from Slate shows, not all fantasy languages are created equal. Breaking constructed languages (or “conlangs,” which sounds like a made-up term of its own) into three categories, the clip shows what makes a fictional dialect work.
It identifies “gibberish,” “consistent,” and “naturalistic” as sorting criteria, calling out Star Wars’ Huttese and the Kanjiklub gang for the first group. Poor old Jabba, if you pay attention, may use very different sounds to say the same thing (or the same “words” to express different ideas), showing that the beloved movies are just sort of making it up as they go along. The same happens when stars of The Raid show up in The Force Awakens as the Kanjiklub.
The video also mentions that real languages use the same words often in sentence construction. When this does happen, well, you’ve got a “consistent” dialect, friend. In “consistent” languages—the clip uses Klingon as an example—there’s more care taken to model real grammar, but the rules lack the kind of inconsistencies found in real life. (Slate mentions how, in English, the plural of “ox” is “oxen” while “moose” is just “moose” and that meaning can be reversed, like how “bad,” especially for Michael Jackson devotees, sometimes means “good.”)
The best, like Dothraki, are considered “natualistic” because they account for all the weirdness and apparently contradictory aspects of actual human languages. They show that dialects evolve over time, include metaphor, and are basically so unwieldy that only a devoted linguist can really make a “conlang” hold up to scrutiny.
It’s a fascinating watch for all you gh’arvnars out there, perhaps interested in making sure you never write something that alienates the most die-hard fans, determined to use your Nlingnobvusian language at their local Comic-Con gathering.
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