Stories with invented languages, aka conlang

Article | Issue: Jun 2023

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.

Take the author V E Schwab. In her ‘Shades of Magic’ series, she created four parallel Londons and each of them have different languages. When writing Red London (Arnes), Schwab drew from the linguistic patterns of Turkish to create the flowing, lyrical Arnesian, and the guttural and glottal inferences of Scandinavian directly influenced the Maktahn of White London. Schwab’s Arnesian glossary contains only up to 150 verbs, nouns and proper nouns, but this is enough to give Arnes a deeper and more solid history.

One of my favourite conlangs in literature comes from Richard Adam’s novel, Watership Down. Starring a colony of sentient rabbits, these animals have a richly developed history and speak ‘Lapine’ to each other. Lapine does not share words with any human language, Adams stated that he pieced together this ‘motley collection of substantives, adjectives and verbs’ whenever he needed a word for something unique to rabbit behaviour. For instance, the act of going above ground to feed became the verb ‘silflay’. What I find most creative about Lapine is that it includes onomatopoeic words: ‘tractor’ became ‘hrududu’ which emulates the heavy sound of tractor treads.

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.

Similarly, in his iconic sci-fi space opera, Dune, Frank Herbert uses Arabic words to construct the Fremen language, the native tongue of the planet Arrakis. Such as the word Arrakis itself, which is derived from the Arabic word for ‘dancer’ (Raqs with the preposition ‘the’ to make Ar-rakis. Frank Herbert even adopted Arabic and Islamic spiritual concepts to supplement his world building, using the term ‘Mahdi’ (a term for a messianic figurehead in Islamic religion) to apply to the prophesied main character Paul Atreides.

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.

And what about the books that engaging with the story on the same level. But if the author appropriates an existing language, don’t just scatter fictionalised phrases among the prose, but are actively written in a foreign pseudo-language? My mind instantly goes to Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange. This speculative dystopia is narrated in ‘nadsat’, a combination of Cockney-rhyming slang and Russian phrases. ‘Well, viddy well oh my brothers, as that choodessny Anthony Burgess wrote a horrorshow slew of slovo’s that zvook like chepooka but test your yahzick and gulliver.’*

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.

My two favourite examples are the ‘Sloosha’s Hollow’ section of David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas and M R Carey’s ‘Rampart’ trilogy. Both stories play around with language, giving the protagonists a completely unique way of speaking by changing spellings, dropping commas, including archaic phrases and curious slang. As with Nadsat, you have to work to piece together what each character is saying by inference. It’s a fascinating way of considering what elements of human speech might stick around after decades of cataclysmic events.

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.


Author: J R R Tolkien

Category: Classic fiction (pre c 1945), Fantasy

Book Format: Multiple-component retail product, slip-cased

Publisher: HarperCollins GB

ISBN: 9780007488360

RRP: $39.99

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