When I was 12 I wanted to compile a dictionary of all the made-up alien words I could find. I drew on Ursula Le Guin’s Hainish novels, C. S. Lewis’s Space trilogy, Jack Vance, and others. I thought I could tackle Tolkien, but the complexity of his work was more than my pre-adolescent brain could manage. I tried, but even the alphabets were different! My attention wandered, and the project lapsed.
My interest in invented languages remains, though I’m only a dabbler. I can spit out a greeting in four Star Trek tongues (literally, in the case of Klingon), and I once spent a happy morning in a seminar learning conversational Na’vi from Dr. Paul Frommer, the language’s inventor.
When I started to write about magical beings from other dimensions and whatnot, I wanted them to have their own languages, of course. And I didn’t want to lean into the standard fantasy languages of incantation: Latin, Sanskrit, etc.
I asked myself: Shall I make up entire, functional languages?
God no, is my answer. I haven’t the skill or the time. More to the point, I would get pulled deep, deep into the project and emerge ten years from now with a beard down to my knees and a handful of words coupled to some iffy grammar rules.
Six Invented Languages Before Breakfast
But there’s a compromise between a fully-formed tongue and gibberish, and that is language games.
We’ve all played language games. They’re simple changes to a natural language that result in something that sounds quite exotic if you don’t know the rules. Pig Latin is a common language game among English speakers. The rule of Pig Latin is: move the first letter to the end of the word and add -ay- to the end. Igpay Atinlay.
Language games are meant to obfuscate, and allow people (usually kids) to have secret conversations and take delight in befuddling listeners. They have been used in certain trades to allow private conversations in front of customers. They are found worldwide.
One of my favorites is Ubbi Dubbi, which I learned from watching the PBS kid’s show Zoom. Ubbi Dubbi inserts -ub- before each vowel in a syllable. I recently discovered that my sisters and I speak a variant Ubbi Dubbi for some reason. Our dialect inserts the vowel to come plus -b-. So in standard Ubbi Dubbi, cat is cubat. In ours it’s cabat. I’m sure you’re glad that’s cleared up.
French Elvish, or Frelvish
Why not create some language games to be the magical tongues? The choice of rules greatly influences the sound of the language, giving it an aural character that suits the culture and attitude of the speaker. Take Louchébem, which comes from French. The rules are: move the first consonant to the end of the word, add -em- to the end, and put -l- at the beginning. So cat becomes latcem. String a few words together and the spoken result has a certain soft melody. Lrytem litem lourselfyem. Suitable for some gentle, peaceful beings perhaps.
Louchébem: Move the first consonant to the end of the word, add -em-, and put -l- at the beginning. (There are variants that use other suffixes.)
Want a harsh, aggressive tongue? Kinabayo, or horse language, is a game of Cebuano, spoken in the Philippines. In it, you replace every vowel with (the vowel) + -g- + (the vowel) + -d- + (the vowel). So cat becomes cagadat. The result is thought to sound like a horse galloping. Whagadat dogodo yougoudou thigidink? We could rough it up even more by choosing harder consonants to insert such as -k- and -t-. Cakatat. Dokotog.
Kinabayo: replace every vowel with (the vowel) + -g- + (the vowel) + -d- + (the vowel)
The potential flaw in my plan is that language games work best spoken aloud. If you don’t know a language game’s rules, it can be quite difficult to decipher. In print, the game soon becomes clear. But I want that, actually. I want readers to be in on the game. I want to create magical languages that can be mastered after 30 minutes of practice.
To learn more about language games, see this extensive list and bibliography at linguist.org.
Back To The Real Thing
For more on genuine invented languages see:
- The Art of Language Invention by David Peterson, creator of Dothraki and others.
- In the Land of Invented Languages by Arika Orkent, a fun look at the phenomenon from 900 years ago to today.
- And this cool documentary on the topic, Conlanging.
Image: High Valyrian letter from A Game of Thrones. Language created by David Peterson.