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All Words Are Made Up

The title of this post (and the panel I’m participating in for Arisia 2019) come from a random exchange between Thor and Drax in last year’s “Infinity War” movie. It’s what Thor replies when to Drax when the always literal-minded hero doubts the existence of Niðavellir its forge. It’s a funny throw-away line and the title of this post because I think there’s always been a bit of defensiveness on my part when I add some invented vocabulary to a story of mine.

Nidavellir from Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
The art and craft of inventing new languages has a surprisingly long history. A 12th century nun by the Saint Hildegard is credited with one of the first (sadly incompletely recorded) constructed language. There was also a period during the Enlightenment when the creation of ‘philosophical languages,’ meant to resolve age-old problems and reshape society, were the vogue. Gottfried Leibniz, for example, tried to a create a language that was logically self-consistent. The task proved too much for him, but that drive to bring the people of the world together through languages (instead of dividing them) which lead to progressive language experiments such as Esperanto.

Of course no survey of conlanging would be complete without a discussion of JRR Tolkien and David Peterson. Tolkien because his genius for languages ushered in an era of more naturalistic, living conlangs. I greatly admire David Peterson for the work he did fleshing out George R.R. Martin’s languages from the Song of Ice and Fire.

Even at this late date, it’s impressive to look over Tolkien’s achievement. The various languages created for the Lord of the Rings feel real - possibly because Tolkien created such a rich history and cultural context for Sindarin and his Dwarfish language. The languages don’t feel random, they feel lived-in and alive.

I found it interesting that Peterson, when given the task of creating plausible languages for the Dothracki and High Valyrian, quickly discovered that Martin had not followed Tolkien’s example in creating languages for the people of his world. For some reason, even when reading the books, I had assumed that Martin had done extensive work on the languages underpinning his imaginations. To find that is not so doesn’t really detract from the books, but it does add a lot to Peterson’s achievement.

It also made me wonder something - how much work on conlanging really needs to be done for your average fantasy novel? Do you have to be a linguist to get much benefit out of the process or can even a little bit of conlanging improve a speculative work?

This is not simply an academic question for me because my current long form work (let’s not call it a novel - at least not yet) involved the creation of three separate conlangs for the setting. One was based - very loosely - on Welsh, another on classical Japanese, and another inspired by aspects of the Yolgnu language of Northern Australia but with much of the lexicon invented whole-cloth. I’ve found the experience incredibly rewarding and fun - but also, a lot of work. Although that part of my pre-writing is largely done at this point, I nevertheless wonder if it was worth it. Will anyone really come to appreciate the work put into these languages when I don’t (and never did) intend to write much of the work in untranslated original conlangs.

All I can offer is one example of what conlanging provided my work. Very early on, I knew that the mythical beings of the sun and moon had strange names in the indigenous language I invented. Using reverse etymology, it became clear that the sun was derived from the phrase ‘head-scorcher’ and the moon from the phrase ‘branch-hewer.’ This seemed to me to be a very aggressive way to describe the sun and moon and a bit odd.

I had a choice at this point. On one hand I could’ve simply hand-waved a different etymology or gone with them. Figuring the point of conlanging was to allow happy accidents I began to conceive the sun and moon in this setting as something very different - weapons left over from some primeval, cosmic war. That idea later spun in many other fruitful directions.

So is conlanging worth it? I can’t say but I will suggest that conlanging provides a depth and wonder to speculation that can be missing if you confine yourself to one language and its words.


Unknown said…
I understand that this is a post about the fundamentality of language and its riles being made up. but maybe you should have still edited it.
"It’s what Thor replies when to Drax when the always literal-minded hero doubts the existence of Niðavellir its forge."

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