A specifically chosen word is powerful enough to influence a reader’s whole experience. But what about language? How can a foreign, or completely unknown word, change a book? RACHEL DENHAM-WHITE discusses one of her favourite literary world-building techniques of all time: stories with invented languages, aka conlang.
You might already know some famous conlangs from TV and film, such as Klingon (‘Star Trek’), Dothraki, Valyrian (‘Game of Thrones’), or Na’Vi (‘Avatar’). In literature, probably the most iconic conlangs come from the imagination of J R R Tolkien.
Tolkien didn’t just invent a few words of Elvish, during his lifetime he went above and beyond to create up to 15 different dialects. These include Sindarin, the Elvish spoken language, and the noble dialect Quenya, which is used for poetry and songs. Sindarin is a fully constructed language with a vocabulary and unique alphabet, you can even learn it in a classroom today. As a professor at Oxford, Tolkien drew from his knowledge of Old English and the Germanic languages to create snippets of Dwarvish (known as Khuzdul), Entish, and Black Speech, the language of Sauron and the Orcs of Mordor. J R R Tolkien basically created fantasy novels as we know them today, and these conlangs helped bring his Middle Earth to life in the minds of readers.
So many amazing writers have followed in Tolkien’s footsteps, but it is quite a feat to imagine a whole new language. The common compromise is to write a small vocabulary inspired by real world influences, to blend the familiar to create something new.
Leigh Bardugo, creator of the iconic ‘Grishaverse’ series, took a different approach when constructing her fictional worlds. The language of Kerch, spoken in the Amsterdam-inspired Ketterdam, is just straight Dutch. However, she uses it sparingly throughout the book, blending ‘Kerch’ words with English speech. This gives the subtle inference that Ketterdam might be an alternate version of a real-life Amsterdam, in a world that exists alongside our own. The effect is magical.
However, there are always issues to consider when using a real language. If the author invents a nonsensical collection of sounds to pass as a dialect, then every reader can start then how does this reflect on that specific culture? Here, the writer is always in danger of falling into stereotyping. Does the use of Arabic instantly make the Fremen alien and exotic to the non-native speaking reader?
However, an author must always draw inspiration from somewhere, and Herbert creates a unique alternative through his use of ‘fictive words’. This is a science-fiction concept for words that anticipate languages from a future or parallel universe. Many of his terms derive from, but do not directly translate to Arabic, he alters the language with different spellings, inferences and emphasis’. These similar-but-different patterns of speech suggest that the language has slowly changed from Arabic to Fremen over time, and as Dune is meant to take place 20 000 years in mankind’s future, this slow linguistical evolution adds a touch of reality to a dense fantastical story.
Reading A Clockwork Orange without a Nadsat dictionary is akin to piecing together Anna Karenina in its original Russian. But it is an experience like no other. Anthony Burgess intended his book to be an ‘exercise in linguistical programming’. You’re meant to treat the language like an ongoing puzzle, forcing you to adapt to the story in a similar way to Alex’s anti-violence conditioning.
As this book was written in a time of increasing youth counterculture, the language distinctly separates the main character from the standard English of an omnipresent bureaucratic state. Alex may be a teenage sociopath, but Nadsat becomes his method of resistance in a dystopian world, showcasing the power that words can hold.
My favourite type of conlang is what I call the ‘future’ conlang. These are stories that are set in the far future, where the English language has evolved and adapted to sound completely unrecognisable to our modern ears.
If that’s enough to give you (as Zachary would say in Cloud Atlas) a ‘hungrysome curio’ then I can’t recommend these books enough.
So, the next time you are reading a fantastical story or sci-fi epic and you come across an unknown word, just think to yourself, ‘How has the author used language?’ The results may surprise you.
*Translation: Well, look closely my friends, as that wonderful Anthony Burgess wrote an incredible slew of words that look like nonsense, but really test your eyeballs and brainbox.