Interview: On Fictional Languages and They Should Pay Us For This

eragon-eye

“Valar morghulis.” This phrase may be familiar to you, if you have watched a season or four of the television series Game of Thrones or read a book in the A Song of Ice and Fire series. It is a phrase from a language called ‘High Valyrian’, and it is translated as “all men must die”. High Valyrian is a language that is not actually spoken by any native speakers, and the possible speakers, if existing, are probably fans of the series. It is one of the many planned languages in this world, human-made and often used in a book- or television series, as well as films and games. In another category of planned languages, you will find languages such as Esperanto, meant as a second language for all human inhabitants of planet Earth, so everybody can understand each other.

When diving into the obscure corners of the study guide of the University of Amsterdam, you may find ‘Introductie tot de Interlinguistiek’ (officially), or in English: ‘Introduction to Interlinguistics’. This subject, taught by Dr. Gobbo, an Esperanto-expert, focuses on these planned languages.

I sat down with Emma Konijn and Sophie Brouwer, two English students, who took this course and, for a final assignment, expanded an existing fictional language together with fellow student Susannah Dijkstra.

Can you tell us something about the fictional language you expanded?

Emma (E): For the group assignment of this course we had to develop and expand a fictional language, from a book, that had not been developed very far. Ours was from The Inheritance Cycle, also known as the Eragon books, written by Christopher Paolini. The language featured in there is ‘the Ancient Language’. We only had some original material and we had to build the language from there.

Sophie (S): Writing a dictionary, and a grammar…

E: Put down phonetics and phonology.

 

I indeed saw that you described the phonology (the pronunciation of the language). Did you have any pointers for that, or did you have to make that up?

E: Yes, Susannah worked on the phonology.

S: We wanted it to sound Scandinavian.

E: The lexicon of the Ancient Language is derived from Old Norse, so we wanted that sound in there.

S: It really sounds different from English. It has some sort of mythical sound, and we wanted to preserve that.

E: Christopher Paolini is an American, and on sound clips you can hear that he pronounces the words from this language with an American English pronunciation. The pronunciation we wanted is more rhotic, and the vowels are clearer than in English, which is typical for Scandinavian languages.

But I guess you can say that we made that up ourselves, as we had little material about that to start with.

S: Paolini is not really consistent in his pronunciation, either.

E: That was mainly our problem, his inconsistency with, well, nearly anything.

 

Ha, that was one of my questions: Did you find any inconsistencies that made your project more difficult?

E: Yes, loads! For example, in every language, there are specific markers for a negation, a question or a confirmation. In the original material, there weren’t any questions, so we had to make up a new system for questions.

S: That was not the difficult part, ‘the Ancient Language’ many consists of English grammar and words from Old Norse.

E: We had two sentences that were negated, but there was no consistency in that.

S: We had that problem with sub-clauses as well.

E: Whenever we stumbled upon an inconsistency, we tried to figure out how to make this consistent. Because other people will have to apply these grammar rules, and we can’t make it random. So we started from English and we decided that other inconsistent examples from the books could be the exceptions, such as idiomatic phrases. Most of the original material that we had consisted of spells, that is imperatives, or sentences used in formal ceremonies. You can easily say that a sentence is an expression that is frozen in time and never went through language change. So then, if we had two of these expressions, we decided which sentence was constructed best, and that is the one that became the rule, and the other would be the exception.

S: There were especially a lot of exceptions in plurals.

E: Paolini gave a few notes in his original material, he made one rule for plurals, but he then did not apply that rule himself. But we wanted to use those, in the ‘future’ of the development of the language, as it is Paolini’s language.

S: Then we did add rules, or ‘complicated’ the rules, especially with verb tenses.

E: In the end, it was all about making decisions.

S: So we drew a lot from Paolini’s rules, and the grammar rules came from English, and for the rest, we used a lot of Old Norse, and other Scandinavian languages as well, such as Icelandic. For numbers, for instance, as there were no numerals in the books. We had to invent all of that, sometimes ourselves, or we used Old English if we ran out of other options.

E: We had to expand and complete a lot of other sets as well, such as pronouns, and demonstrative pronouns…

S: … the verb ‘to be’. And honorifics.

 

What was most interesting about this assignment?

E: In some way, you’re a god, you get to make all the decisions. It is a lot of fun, especially if the world for which you are making the language already exists. Even though it is a fictional speech community, you can still imagine the ones belonging to that speech community speaking it. Above all, you realize how complicated languages really are.

S: And you are never finished… You keep thinking of things to insert into the language and the rules. At some point, Emma said to me: “Stop – stop thinking about it. We have enough now.”

E: The original plan was to make a small essay of 16 pages, but it turned out to be about 43 pages. It was crazy. We also made a whole dictionary. There were already some lists of the lexicon on the internet, but they were inconsistent as well, and we had to check all that with the books. And then we expanded it and we completed semantic fields such as colours and nature-related things, as there is a lot of nature in the books.

S: We also made up some words for concepts in the books that were not translated to the Ancient Language, such as ‘caretaker’, which is an Elvish concept. You have to keep the culture of the made-up world in mind.

 

Right, some words you wouldn’t add to the language, as the concept of these words simply doesn’t exist. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis.

E: Yeah we didn’t have to invent a word for deodorant or a bike.

S: Even coffee… But they did have something for tea.

E: For example, Klingon, the language in Star Trek, that is still spoken by groups of fans, the Trekkies…

S: Which is the Latin of Hollywood linguistics.

E: … the creators of Klingon still sometimes bring out new sets of words that also have words for modern concepts, such as deodorant.

S: You can only do that when you have an established community, though: when the language is really evolving.

 

Do you have a feeling that you forgot something?

S: Probably.

E: As Sophie said, it never feels complete. But I think we laid down the basic grammar rules.

S: And it is characteristic of a language that it never is finished. It evolves.

 

What was most rewarding about creating and expanding a language?

E: That it got published! Cristopher Paolini posted it on paolini.net

S: Also, it was fun to do in the first place, and Dr. Gobbo was really enthusiastic about it. We received a 10,5 – a 105 % so to say.

E: Paolini was also really, really excited. For us it was just a project that we send to him. We were just wondering what he would think. He could have hated it, too.

S: Like Tolkien.

E: Tolkien never gave out the grammar for his language in Lord of the Rings. He wanted to keep it a secret. But then linguists and fans made grammars, and courses on Elvish came into being.

S: And Tolkien was like: People, what are you doing? There is no system in it. It is pointless.

E: But that is lesson number one. Once you publish your language, and it enters the public sphere, it is no longer your language. Anyone who is interested can now take that language and do with it whatever they want.

S: Which was quite scary, you know, because when it got published, we had to let it go.

E: People could do with ‘our language’ whatever they want. They could develop it further, or critique it – it is no longer up to us.

 

So you will not further develop it yourselves?

E: Well, Paolini asked us – there is more than one fictional language in the Inheritance Cycle – to develop ‘Dwarfish’. With a winky face, like, “I’d like to see you have a try with ‘Dwarfish’”.

S: We thought: let him pay for that!

E: But hey, now we have a picture of Paolini, and the autographed bookmarks and stickers he sent us as a thank-you.

S: We can always sell them.

E: On Ebay. Don’t put that in.

 

Would you advise writers to only insert a fictional language in their books if they’re linguists, or at least have some knowledge on linguistics?

S: Well, you can always insert some words. But if you really want to make the language a part of the world you are creating in your book, and you want to insert sentences in that fictional language, you have to do some research on linguistics.

E: You have to make it systematic, which also makes all of it more convincing. Or you can hire us.

Whoever is interested in reading the full paper on the Complete Grammar of ‘the Ancient Language’, you can find a PDF on Paolini’s website.

Tessel

A huge thank you to Emma and Sophie for their cooperation.

Header image courtesy of archaic.fr

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