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Television Entertainment

The Man Who Invents Languages For a Living 90

An anonymous reader writes: David J. Peterson is fluent in eight languages: English, Spanish, French, German, Russian, Esperanto, Arabic and American Sign Language, but it is the languages he's created that gives him notoriety. He created Dothraki, Giant, and High Valyrian for Game of Thrones, Shiväisith for Thor: The Dark World, and four different languages for the TV show Defiance. Peterson recently sat down with NPR to talk about inventing languages for a living, and offers some advice on how to make your own.
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The Man Who Invents Languages For a Living

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  • (This is Esperanto, by the way)
  • by Anonymous Coward

    Inventing language facilitates communication, inventing another language hinders it.

    • Speaking a language facilitates communication. Inventing it hinders it.

      I don't mean that new languages shouldn't develop, but most attempts to produce a language on demand fail because they don't answer a need. When circumstances force together two groups of people speaking two different languages, a pidgin or creole language evolves, generally from attempts by one group to speak the words of the other language using the grammar of their native language. The new language isn't invented as an academic exer

    • by Boronx ( 228853 )

      Not if the language is a fake one for giants to speak on TV.

  • Do ro to ko so bo, mo fo.

  • by Sique ( 173459 ) on Monday September 28, 2015 @05:47AM (#50611629) Homepage
    In the comments below the interview, there were several comments along the line that Hollywood should not pay someone to invent a new language, but rather revive one of the many languages on the verge of extinction. One answer of one commenter was that exactly those people who invent languages for fun and for a living are also exactly those linguists who preserve those languages destined for extinction.

    I would add a second thought: First, it doesn't make sense to have an invented place speak a real language in lieu of an invented one. It just creates a confusing context. Lets say the people of the eastern regions in Game of Thrones would speak a language like the Mansi language [wikipedia.org]. It would somehow place Westernesse into the Ural mountains as Mansi is spoken east of the Ural. People from West Siberia, who might not speak Mansi, but recognize the sound of it would always be somehow reminded of their home land instead of being immersed in a phantasy world, and the Mansi people then would then wonder if the people of Westeros should somehow be identified with the Russians, and why there is no Khanty language (a neighboring language both locally and linguistically) in the series.

    Chosing a language always sets a context, and if you want to control the context, you can't chose languages at will.

    • by Anonymous Coward on Monday September 28, 2015 @05:57AM (#50611649)

      It's also much easier to invent a language than to revive one. The first just takes one person, the latter a whole community.

      • ...And an entirely different skillset to catalogue and archive. New langauges - you can just invent phonolgies, morphologies and grammars. Existing ones require years of research and field recording.

        Case in point; one of my friends invents langauges (he's rather well-known in the conlanging community). He's invented several languages in the the past few years. Another friend of mine is a comparative linguist. He's spent the better part of a decade documenting variations in spoken Vietnamese in the area

    • by Intrepid imaginaut ( 1970940 ) on Monday September 28, 2015 @06:22AM (#50611683)

      Plus it runs the risk of making entertainment political, and way too many things have been made political which never should have been lately.

      • by Anonymous Coward

        Plus it runs the risk of making entertainment political, and way too many things have been made political which never should have been lately.

        Lately is disputable.
        Hollywood-produced entertainment have been made political for at least 50 years, probably more but I am a bit too young to be familiar with the political agenda earlier.
        Letting the baddies talk some obscure almost dead language will not make it significantly more political than having them speak with a German/Russian/Arabic accent or whoever is the bad guys of the time.

    • by T.E.D. ( 34228 ) on Monday September 28, 2015 @07:44AM (#50611871)

      Chosing a language always sets a context, and if you want to control the context, you can't chose languages at will.

      But this already happens anyway. Ever notice how the imperials in Star Wars tend to speak British English? Dialects are used to indicate social differences in English Language SF/Fantasy movies and shows all the time. Its done with the apparent race of actors as well. Even if all your actors for all the races in your shows are the same (usually white), that's a statement with some implied context. If the races of the actors are mixed seemingly randomly with the "races" in the source work, that's a statement with some implied context too. You simply cannot get away from it.

      I see no problem with extending this to entire human languages, as long as the languages are properly used (the words actually say what they purport to say, or something sensible for the context if subtitles aren't used).

      • What you can't get away from entirely, you may still wish to minimize.
        • by T.E.D. ( 34228 )
          My whole point is that you *can't* minimize it. Its there in full force, no matter what you do. So if you don't think about it and work with it, you are just asking for trouble. Like Lucas making a buffoonish character with a made up language that sounded to a lot of ears Afro-Caribbean. He likely got into trouble here precisely because he thought making up a language somehow completely immunized him against people seeing cultural context (or it creeping into his fake language). It doesn't.
    • by Somebody Is Using My ( 985418 ) on Monday September 28, 2015 @09:15AM (#50612305) Homepage

      It doesn't make sense to have an invented place speak a real language in lieu of an invented one. It just creates a confusing context.

      Worse, it opens the studios open up to criticisms and accusations of bias. Imagine if they used an ancient dialect of Persian as the language of the Evil Wizard and his minions.; the uproar - both in the Middle East and the Western world - would be amazing (it works in reverse too; have the GOOD guys speak the language and they are accused of pandering or an anti-American bias). Either way, it's probably going to cost them some sales.

      Made-up languages have the advantage of being neutral; nobody cares if the Orcs speak a butchered version of Sindarin except the geeks... and they'll just pay to see the movie three or four more times so they can gather evidence for their arguments ;-)

      • nobody cares if the Orcs speak a butchered version of Sindarin except the geeks... and they'll just pay to see the movie three or four more times so they can gather evidence for their arguments ;-)

        The elves might be pissed off at that.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      Chosing a language always sets a context, and if you want to control the context, you can't chose languages at will.

      Sure, but that doesn't mean you have to resort to conlangs. Yes, existing languages carry connotations with them - but this is something that can be embraced, not shunned. For instance, Game of Thrones already uses the connotations that come along with regional accents. Notice how the North uses accents from the north of England, while the "posher" areas use RP? Or how they use Spanish

      • by Sique ( 173459 )
        It works in this case, because everyone knows what you are modelling: You are using the english language analog to the language of Westeros, which makes sense for english listeners, because they already associate a scotch accent with "north", and a spanish accent with "south". As the whole series is in english anyway, this works. With this choice, you can control the context, because what you are suggesting with the variation of the accent is equivalent to the setting in the fantasy world.

        But using a dyin

    • by tlhIngan ( 30335 )

      I would add a second thought: First, it doesn't make sense to have an invented place speak a real language in lieu of an invented one. It just creates a confusing context. Lets say the people of the eastern regions in Game of Thrones would speak a language like the Mansi language. It would somehow place Westernesse into the Ural mountains as Mansi is spoken east of the Ural. People from West Siberia, who might not speak Mansi, but recognize the sound of it would always be somehow reminded of their home land

  • by comrade1 ( 748430 ) on Monday September 28, 2015 @06:13AM (#50611671)
    Watching Vikings I was surprised when I heard old English (sounds a lot like German) and old French. I don't know enough about Scandinavian languages to know if they're speaking an old Scandinavian dialectic. Now when I watch GoT and they start up in one of their made-up languages I just cringe. It sounds fake and is usually delivered stiffly. Vikings has made GoT painful to watch for me.
    • by T.E.D. ( 34228 ) on Monday September 28, 2015 @08:35AM (#50612097)

      don't know enough about Scandinavian languages to know if they're speaking an old Scandinavian dialectic.

      I haven't seen the show, but the most historically sensible thing for Vikings to be speaking would be Old Norse [wikipedia.org]. According to some folks on Reddit [reddit.com], that is in fact what they are speaking.

      Its not very closely related to English, outside of the fact that they are both Germanic, and their common ancestor language was only 700 years or so in the past at that point.

      • by T.E.D. ( 34228 )

        ...oh. But reading through that thread, there were some English in the show speaking Old English.

        I'm with you on your main point too. There's just no comparison between some made up noise and a real organic human language.

        It kind of reminds me of the movie Congo. I remember seeing breathless articles interviewing a guy about how he created the way guys in gorilla suits pretended to get angry and attack people. It looked nothing like actual angry gorillas, which we aren't exactly bereft of data on. Once

        • Yeah, and I'm sure the real gorillas weren't too happy with the movie either.

          • by T.E.D. ( 34228 )

            Yeah, and I'm sure the real gorillas weren't too happy with the movie either.

            Well, since the "simulated primate choreographer" apparently had no clue what an angry gorilla looks like, he won't ever know the difference.

      • Of all the languages in use today, Icelandic is probably what comes closest to old norse, seeing as it was the vikings that settled Iceland and they've lived a very isolated life there since. In england they mingled with the english, in germany they mingled with the germans, and in scandinavia they mingled with eachother, so the language evolved in many different directions. That being said there's still a word here or there that is understandable.
        • Icelandic definitely comes closest. It has changed remarkably little over the centuries. It has been said that Icelandic is to Old Norse, as Modern English is to Shakespearean English. Thus Icelanders can read Old Norse texts with a little practice.
          • Icelandic definitely comes closest. It has changed remarkably little over the centuries. It has been said that Icelandic is to Old Norse, as Modern English is to Shakespearean English. Thus Icelanders can read Old Norse texts with a little practice.

            If you are a native English speaker you can read Shakespeare with no practice at all. It's the fact that it's poetry that makes it seem "hard" to many people. They'd struggle equally with Walt Whitman.

            • I think Shakespeare would have found your argument very nice [etymonline.com]. Shakespeare wrote in (Early) Modern English and thus is not terribly hard to understand, but still the language has changed since his time and in some subtle ways too. I think you also overestimate the grasp of more archaic forms of English by the average English speaker. Erroneous usage from a cursory search [google.com]:

              "Here thou haveth two tokens .. Enjoy thine stay!" source [united-gamers.net]

              "Aye, I knowst 'bout the History .. I wast intrested to know .. Thank thou, Mada

      • There is significant evidence [h-net.org] that Old English and Old Norse were to a certain extent mutually intelligible. Unfortunately, a number of scenes in Vikings fall flat on their face if you are aware of this.

        Also the pronunciation of Old English in the show is rather poor. You would think they would have consulted someone on it but it is obvious that they did not considering the repeated mispronounciation of the vowel 'æ' and 'g' before front vowels. I give them some credit for trying though.
        • by T.E.D. ( 34228 )

          There is significant evidence [h-net.org] that Old English and Old Norse were to a certain extent mutually intelligible.

          The link is interesting, but that's not the mainstream linguistic opinion. If the two were mutually-intelligible, then they shouldn't exist yet at all. They are made up terms defining supposedly mutually-unintelligible languages. IOW: this was an argument that those two languages didn't exist yet, and they were speaking different dialects of "Proto-Germanic". It is arguing that the language families of West Germanic and North Germanic had not yet split into separate languages.

          • The book cites several other sources that are in agreement with its thesis (but claims they are not comprehensive enough). Care to cite the "mainstream linguistic opinion" that they were not mutually intelligible? The link I provided was from a cursory search. I read another book arguing for mutual intelligibility but I have forgotten what it was (this was some 10 years ago). I found it very informative at the time as I wouldn't have guessed at the premise that Anglo-Saxons and "vikings" (not just raiders b
            • by T.E.D. ( 34228 )

              There is more to language names than the content and structure of language. Danish, Swedish, and Norwegian are still mutually intelligible,

              Those are modern languages, which are a whole different kettle of fish. I can't speak to those particular ones (I haven't looked into them much). However, many countries (or even country-aspirant areas) have elevated their local dialects to "languages" for reasons of self-identity rather than logic. The linguistic definition of a separate languages is that they are mutually-unintelligible, and if linguistics is unimpeded by nationalism, (as it mostly is with ancient reconstructed languages like "Old English

            • There is more to language names than the content and structure of language. Danish, Swedish, and Norwegian are still mutually intelligible, yet I think the speakers of those languages would take strong issue with someone wanting to lump each language under one name simply because they are mutually intelligible. Political boundaries, culture, even religion can call for a different name for a language.

              Which made someone quip "A language is a dialect with an army and a navy [wikipedia.org]."

              As a Swede working in Norway our two "languages" are much closer than either of us would care to admit. There are almost dialects of Swedish with a larger difference, and the differences within Norwegian are larger still.

              So it's really a case of "army and navy". Any serious linguist ought really to consider them dialects. Spoken Danish is a different and getting more so, but if you can get them to "spit out the porridge" the underlyin

  • Project: EAL (Evolutionary Assembly Language) - The language is still in development, so there is currently no software to download or run - earlier versions were written, but changed very drastically. EAL is not a language necessarily designed for humans - we have plenty of those. This is a language partly designed to be artificially generated by a processing environment, guided by a users' specifications.

    Consider a scenario: you have lots of data to convert, but not good logical explanation of exact
  • > Dothraki

    Isn't that the Game of Thrones language? So like Eskimos and Norwegians supposedly have dozens of words for different kinds of snow, I presume Dothraki has dozens of different words describing the size, texture, hue, and contracture state of the female areola?

  • noH QapmeH wo' Qaw'lu'chugh yay chavbe'lu', 'ej wo' choqmeH may' DoHlu'chugh lujbe'lu'
  • From the list of languages I suspect that the ones he design are built largely around Indo-European (all of the languages are from that family, except Arabic), which is a little disappointing. It was the same even in LotR - you would hope a linguist would be better placed than most to look around in to world of languages, of which there are apparently some 7000+, and find some inspiration.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      Actually, the Indo-European foundation was reportedly intentional. Tolkien was trying to create a mythos for the British Isles, so he leaned heavily on the historical languages of the region.

    • Finnish (Uralic), Semitic, and Indo-European aren't enough for you?

  • He did an awesome job with the Hodor language.

    Or in Hodor: Hodor hodor, hodor hodor hodor. Hodor? Hodor!

  • ... he didn't major in CS.

  • by braindrainbahrain ( 874202 ) on Monday September 28, 2015 @12:31PM (#50613639)
    ... if you are interested in made up or artificial languages: "In the Land of Invented Languages: Adventures in Linguistic Creativity, Madness, and Genius" by Akira Okrent.

    Author's Website [inthelando...guages.com]

  • Ah yippie yi yu
    Ah yippie yi yeah
    Ah yippie yi yu ah

    I was asked by one of my young cousins to translate this music video https://www.youtube.com/watch?... [youtube.com] into Italian when I was over there nearly 20 years ago. I had to explain that some of it was just meaningless sounds. Can imagine that it would make an interesting question in a linguistics exam to write it down phonetically. I am curious to know if it is a known feature in singing, or if it was just invented.

  • what the purpose of creating a new language? In some countries people already have huge difficulty speaking the original language, let alone learning a new language
    • Why paint new artworks when you can restore old ones?

      Why write new music when you can just play the lesser-known works of Telemann?

      Why write new software when you can just maintain Visicalc?

Almost anything derogatory you could say about today's software design would be accurate. -- K.E. Iverson

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