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Mythopoeic Society

a non-profit organization devoted to the study of J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Charles Williams, the Inklings, and the genres of myth and fantasy


From Elvish to Klingon: Exploring Invented Languages

From Elvish to Klingon: Exploring Invented Languages. Michael Adams, ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. vi + 294pp. ISBN 9780192807090. $19.95.

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Reviewed by Harley J. Sims

[This review originally appeared in Mythlore 117/118.]

After decades primarily in fandom, the formal study of invented languages has found something of a milestone here. From Elvish to Klingon has a top-shelf scholarly publisher (OUP), as well as an academic editor previously published in the area of fictive linguistics. Many of its contributors are well-known within the areas of their contributions, and all are comfortable with basic linguistic terminology, concepts, and ideas. From Elvish to Klingon is, despite its folklorish book jacket and promotional plug, a scholarly publication, more so than Arika Okrent’s In the Land of Invented Languages, from which it seems to take its inspiration. It is much more generally accessible than Umberto Eco’s Search for the Perfect Language, but, unlike Okrent’s book, it is not something that a general audience would thoroughly enjoy. Though not abstruse, its attention to—and occasional emphasis on—the technical details of its subject languages requires of its audience a certain amount of learned passion, or at least patience.

The result is a mixed bag. While it is encouraging to see invented languages being afforded this level of treatment, it is always a risk of importation that they be subjected to institutional stances and modes of understanding. More often than not with material from the popular domain, these attitudes are expressed through carelessness for precise details (as when Adams declares that, “[i]n The Lord of the Rings, the Elves are about to return to Valinor from their exile in Middle-earth” [6]), and indifference toward grass-roots cultures and loyalties (see the consideration below of Chapter 8, “Revitalized Languages as Invented Languages”). In this collection, invented languages of the eponymous variety have been subsumed into an extremely broad class of linguistic manipulation, which includes everything from poetic wordplay to official language control. Some readers will no doubt find this disappointing, but the book does include several individual contributions and features that are very worthwhile.

Michael Adams of Indiana University is the editor and not, in fact, the author, of this book (as the cover and title page represent him). He does, however, provide the first chapter, contribute to the fifth, and compile a five-to-eight-page appendix for each of the eight chapters as a whole. In Chapter 1, “The Spectrum of Invention,” Adams addresses the conceptual range of the collection, which is far spottier than the title suggests. The parameters of the title, Elvish and Klingon, imply a survey of conlangs (constructed languages) invented for fictional worlds, of which there are a great many out there (for a basic survey, see Rogers). What we have here instead are essentially a chapter each for Elvish and Klingon, one chapter for the conlangs of video-game worlds, and a chapter each for five other kinds of linguistic creativity. Because Adams’s introduction seeks to sew all these activities together, it consumes a great deal of space making very broad stitches. Some of these involve assumptions about language which would not be tolerated in serious linguistic circles:

Language, the kind in which we speak and write every day, began as a biological and social phenomenon in prehistory. From that hypothetical point forward, almost all of the world’s languages have developed from the proto-language. (1-2)

Adams borrows from Okrent (who borrows from Eco) the thesis that language invention is in many ways about recovering the ‘perfect’ language of Adam, and is premised upon dissatisfaction with existing language. This needs to be better developed if it is to be made so habitual. With fictional-world conlangs, for example, the artistic dimension is foremost; these languages suggest their speakers’ experience within and perspective on a fictional sense of reality, something natural languages can only ever do in translation (there is a reason Tolkien expressed a wish he could have written The Lord of the Rings in Elvish [Tolkien 219]). Failure to conceptualize adequately the difference between the fictive and the fictional likely represents the most grievous critical flaw in the way the collection approaches its material.

Chapter 2, “Confounding Babel: International Auxiliary Languages,” is one of the collection’s most rewarding pieces. Written by Arden Smith, it is professional and well-researched, and manages to survey almost four centuries of IAL (International Auxiliary Language) schemes without becoming dry. He locates the origins of IAL movements in the seventeenth century and classifies their products according to an established schema of a priori (John Wilkins’s Philosophical Language), a posteriori (Esperanto), and mixed systems (Volapük) (20). It should be recognized that, although longstanding, such a division is imperfect in that no language can truly be “invented from scratch,” as the a priori examples are alleged or intended to be (20). The inventions of real people, they must always be grounded in or inspired by some sort of model or experience, whether Chinese writing—whose influence Smith explores—or the particular systems of philosophical thought they were intended to facilitate in the earliest examples. The attention to Volapük is appreciated, the coverage of Esperanto multifaceted and sympathetic. Especially admirable is Arden’s use of publications by Esperanto organizations and institutions themselves. There is some heavy reliance on certain secondary sources, particularly Edmund Privat; this may have been unavoidable, however.

The last two sections of the chapter, which look essentially at schemes to simplify and even ‘purify’ certain languages, verge on parts of Chapter 8. If indeed such industries and the mindsets behind them might be considered modern IAL movements, the chapter should have been greatly expanded, as well as better tempered in the light of contemporaneous contexts. For example, in the case of Elias Molee’s turn-of-the-century Germanic inventions—Germanik English, Saxon English, and various forms of ‘Teutonish’—Arden cannot help but underscore a racial—in this sense, racist—dimension (46). Fashionable as this indictment may now be, Molee’s ideas can also be understood as testament to the intoxicating philological discoveries of the period, as well as the various nationalist movements that continue to drive language protection the world over. The works and interests of William Morris, J.R.R. Tolkien, and a great many others are part of its legacy, and it is certainly not difficult in the modern day to find those who believe the Old English language was ruined—at least, aesthetically—by the invasion of the French-speaking Normans. Though Edward Said once declared that philology itself is racist in motivation, language has no blood. The tongue, as it were, is not made of flesh.

Chapter 3, “Invented Vocabularies: The Cases of Newspeak and Nadsat,” is by Howard Jackson, and looks at the treatment of language and lexicons in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four and Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange. Because both novels are canonical twentieth-century classics and their significance is so well established, the material may at first seem stale. Furthermore, Newspeak and Nadsat are not conlangs in the traditional sense. The chapter is nevertheless commendable for looking at the novels’ invented vocabularies within the light of their sociopolitical themes, both literary and historical, rather than simply analyzing their use within their own fictional contexts. The essay is very clearly structured, particularly with the treatment of Newspeak, which is twice as long as that of Nadsat. Vocabulary reduction in Nineteen Eighty-four, which is about reducing the range of thought, is considered in the light of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis of linguistic relativity, which works well (61). Invented-language scholarship must take care nonetheless not to dwell on Benjamin Lee Whorf and Edward Sapir much further (for examples, see Okrent 203-7, Rosenfelder 153, Rogers 30), lest it create axioms of understanding. Eco is more ambivalent (330-1), and there are many other linguistic schools and theories that stand to enrich this area of study. In all, the chapter turns out to be a pleasant and illuminating part of the collection, not least because it never allows its formal focus (“the power and possible misuses of language” [72]) to compromise its qualities as a survey.

Though it looks at more than Elvish, Chapter 4, “Tolkien’s Invented Languages,” provides one of the two eponymous chapters of the book. Written by E.S.C. Weiner and Jeremy Marshall (two of the co-authors of The Ring of Words: Tolkien and the “Oxford English Dictionary”), it endeavors “to consider Tolkien’s remarkable work of language invention both as a feature of his published works and as a creative activity in itself” (76). It is a wide-sweeping survey, divided into sixteen sections ranging among literary and technical (phonetic, grammatical, etc.) details of the languages, as well as biographical and other historical influences on their development. Quenya, Sindarin, Khuzdul, Adûnaic, Gnomish/Goldogrin/Noldorin, Black Speech, and most others—including many old and dialectal forms—are here. Touched upon to various extents are the appearances and uses of these languages across Tolkien’s legendarium (including the History of Middle-earth series and other works), their relationship with Tolkien’s own linguistic tastes and beliefs, their etymological depth and genetic evolution, their correspondence (intentional and unintentional) to natural languages, their sources, their modification over time, their mythopoeic motivation, and Tolkien’s achievements as a language inventor.

This is a staggering amount of material to address in a single, thirty-six-page chapter—too much, it turns out. For one, a single language could probably have been selected as a case-study—even one language family would have outstripped the available space and format. It should be appreciated, however, that this overreach was almost guaranteed, premised as it is upon a recognition of the material’s seminal importance to the field, and the fact that this chapter in many ways anchors the whole collection. Again, however, there is too much to cover and too many possible ways to cover it; the authors appear to have been simply overwhelmed. Though the chapter begins on a general note, promising to avoid the “painstaking analysis in both print and online articles” of Tolkien’s languages (76), it immediately falls into random parsing and word-sampling:

Few may realize that Gandalf is a name borrowed from Norse legend (Gandalf < Old Norse Gandálfr, from gand ‘staff’ and álfr ‘elf’), but that the rather similar place name Nindalf is an Elvish compound (from Sindarin nîn ‘wet’ and talf ‘flat field’); or that, while the flower names elanor and niphredil are Elvish, simbelmynë ‘evermind’ comprises Old English elements; or that mathom is a ‘real’ word in a way that mithril is not […]. (76-7)

As an usher to what follows, this remains one of the more accessible passages; some of the later, technical considerations are truly numbing, not because they are technical, but because they are unsystematic. Many of the positions the authors choose to elaborate—that, for example, Sindarin grammar displays features similar to Welsh (and all attested Celtic languages, it could have been added), or that Tolkien felt languages to be inherently beautiful or ugly—have been reiterated over the decades. One cannot but feel that an opportunity was forfeited here to do more than provide another introduction, especially when the authors recognize that “many [who study classical and modern languages in depth] were introduced to it through Tolkien’s languages” (91).

Chapter 5, “‘Wild and Whorling Words’: The Invention and Use of Klingon,” is written by Marc Okrand (the inventor/designer of Klingon), editor Michael Adams, Judith Hendriks-Hermans, and Sjaak Kroon. Little scholarly discourse has yet been dedicated to Star Trek, despite its decades of development and limitless imaginative freeplay. While Klingon is the most developed single language, the linguistic dimension of the franchise has grown steadily from the days of the universal translator as a mere stopgap, so much so that Hoshi Sato of the most recent series, Star Trek: Enterprise, is a linguist. A straightforward and engaging chapter, “Wild and Whorling Words” follows the origins, development, and use of the Klingon language (tlhIngan Hol in Klingon itself) inside, and then outside, the Star Trek franchise, detailing its structure and vocabulary, as well as its much-publicized—and often exaggerated—community of real-world users. Like the previous chapter, there is attention to technical detail, but it is focused and much more sparing, relegated for the most part to phonology. The choppy, guttural sounds of Klingon are clearly a—if not the—fundamental part of the language’s design, and like so many other fictional-world languages are intended to represent the cultural nature of its speakers:

To lend the phonology an alien feel, certain common patterns found in human languages were skewed. […] There is no sound in Klingon that does not occur in any number of natural languages, but the particular inventory of sounds in unique to Klingon. (116-7)

It is satisfying at last to read such an unreserved chronicle of Okrand’s imaginative investment in the language to date, including his insights into dialects, hierarchical varieties, and youth slang. It is also interesting to learn that the blade-like Klingon ‘characters’ which appear in the various Star Trek series and films are not actually a functional orthography, but are simply artwork, and cannot be deciphered (126).

The chapter’s coverage and analysis of Klingon-speakers in the real world builds largely on Arika Okrent’s material in In the Land of Invented Languages, which it cites repeatedly. The chapter also spends three pages relaying the results of Hendriks-Hermans’s 1999 Internet survey on their actual number (79, of whom 61 were male) and competency (13.9% “very good,” etc.) (130). This data seems protracted and overemphasized, especially when many specific and quirky examples about the use of the language go unspoken. Okrent’s anecdotes mention several, of course, but another such case can be seen on an episode of BBC’s Planet Word, where one speaker (d’Armond Speers) explains to host Stephen Fry how difficult it was to teach his son Klingon as a ‘native’ language because, while there are words for ‘shuttle-craft’ and ‘phaser,’ there are no extant Klingon words for basic household items. Reportedly, the experiment failed when Speers’s child eventually refused to speak the language, reinforcing to the authors’ conclusion here that the language cannot survive unless its users assume creative control (132).

Chapter 6, “Gaming Language and Language Games” by game designer and gaming journalist James Portnow, is one of the collection’s treasures. At once professional, confident, and humorous as only a long-time industry-insider can be, Portnow demonstrates the powerful contribution non-academics can make to scholarship, especially during the infancy of a subject’s study. Despite what some might assume, invented languages of depth are almost nonexistent among the invented worlds of video games, extensive as the geography, history, and other features of those worlds might be. While there are a great many of what Portnow calls “flavour languages” (140), he identifies only three true languages to date: Gargish (of Ultima VI), D’ni (of the Myst series), and Logos (of Tabula Rasa). Other considerations include a “substitution cipher” (Al-Bhed [of the Final Fantasy X franchise], which must be gradually decoded through the discovery of ‘Al-Bhed Primers’) and gibberish (Simlish [of the Sims games]). Two languages of gamers themselves are also considered: Leet (or 1337) which is a sort of “digital calligraphy” where which words are written using ASCII characters, and gamer slang, which is explored primarily by Michael Adams’s appendix to the chapter.

Apart from exploring these examples in depth, Portnow looks at the nature of invented languages in video games. He identifies five features of a good gaming language, summarized in the examination of Logos: “it is well integrated, it is part of game play without being a requirement of game play, it has a well orchestrated learning curve, and the way it’s taught is exciting and fun” (155). It is perhaps because there are so many bases that few games include in-depth languages. Portnow postulates this is also because “games occupy a shorter period of time than other activities (reading books, watching a television series) that include invented languages” (139). This is, however, untrue; the author himself goes on to admit that, with MMOGs (Massive Multiplayer Online Games), “an individual player can easily log thousands of hours during a multi-year engagement with a single game” (151-2). The chapter is nevertheless excellent in that it invites much greater examination of its subject without seeming to neglect it. Such areas to be examined might include the linguistic features of games aside from languages proper (including otherworldly accents in speech [Final Fantasy XII], wholly subtitled narratives [Shadow of the Colossus, The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword], and electronic expansions of franchises with invented languages [Lord of the Rings: War in the North (see Sims)]. Portnow’s conclusion states that “[g]ames stand now where film stood at the turn of the last century, on the verge of making the transition from an entertainment to an art form” (158). With an industry whose products now both outbudget and outsell those of film, the results of this transition will be exciting to witness.

Chapter 7 is titled “‘Oirish’ Inventions: James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, Paul Muldoon,” written by Stephen Watt of Indiana University. It looks at some of the ways in which Joyce, Beckett, and Muldoon, allegedly dissatisfied with both the English and Irish languages, experimented with different forms of literary expression in order to, as Watt argues, “construct a something, […] something enough to mark Irishness in modern and postmodern literature” (162). The term Watt actually uses is “linguistic invention” (166, etc.), and it seems characterized for the most part by neologistic enjambment, usually intended to pun. As with such words as clearobscure (Joyce), collapsion (Beckett), and Acacacacademy (Muldoon), the writers toy with the sounds, forms, and etymological semantics of words in order to grant their words poetic slippage. One of Muldoon’s terms is conglomewriting, which defines the shared style well (179). Watt’s emphasis is understandably on Joyce, particularly Finnegans Wake. His position on the eccentric opus is deferential, arguing not only for the brilliance of its opacity, but also that Joyce—as with Beckett and Muldoon—chose to tailor his expression in such a way because existing language could not adequately express his ideas.

The chapter does not belong in this collection. Its inclusion directly after Portnow’s contribution makes this starkly clear. First of all, and despite both Adams’s and Watt’s attempts to characterize this sort of linguistic gimmickry as a type of invented language, the result is clearly a form of wordplay, and not—save through nonchalance—comparable to the invented linguistic systems for which the book is named and in whose interest it is marketed. If indeed wordplay were to be offered as a consideration here, a chapter on the works of Rabelais would certainly take precedence over Joyce, though countless earlier works in English alone, including Beowulf, are also full of paronomasia, neologistic or otherwise. A more thorough justification for inclusion would nevertheless be required, preferably one emphasizing the rhetorical nature of the technique. Another reason to disqualify this chapter is its style. Whereas the rest of From Elvish to Klingon remains both accessible and specific, “‘Oirish’ Inventions” is neither. Its language, material, and argumentation bespeak a postmodernist academic literary critic content to frolic with his peers in semiotic solvent. Its single reference to Tolkien and Klingon (referred to in that way) is tacked-on (162), as seem its references to Adams’s corresponding appendix on Synthetic Scots (which is vastly more relevant to this book than the chapter itself).

The final and longest contribution is “Revitalized Languages as Invented Languages” by Suzanne Romaine. Romaine has published widely on minority languages, including both the moribund and revitalized varieties. For the most part, the chapter focuses on the industry of revitalization—that is, the stimulation, promotion, and often purification of tongues and dialects that never ceased to be spoken from historical times in some form—and touches upon revival only in the case of Cornish, whose last native speaker is believed to have died in the late-eighteenth century. This distinction is my own; Romaine’s categories are blurry, which turns out to be necessary when it comes to including a consideration of Irish, Welsh, Hebrew, Māori, Hawaiian, and other, natural languages in a book called From Elvish to Klingon. The chapter likely belongs here more than the preceding one, but its case for inclusion is poorly made. If Romaine’s purpose is to show how revitalized languages are both malleable and manipulated, she succeeds. This does not in itself mean they are ‘invented,’ nor that they are different from languages such as English. What is curious is that Romaine admits the latter several times, but she does not go on to consider the repercussions for her thesis.

While this treatment of revitalized languages cannot, like some, be considered “scornful” (see George and Broderick 644), the chapter seems indifferent to the emotions and loyalties at the very heart of its topic. This may be a result of the distance academia often puts between itself and its study material, or it may be that Romaine’s endeavor to align revitalized languages with constructed ones led to some rather careless comparisons. Some are, to put it bluntly, outrageous:

Recognition that language can be used for promoting or changing the social, cultural, and political order leads to conscious intervention and manipulation of the form of the language, its status, and its uses. In this sense, then, the idea of a modern standard Hebrew as the language of a secular Jewish state sprang from the mind of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, no less than Klingon did from the imagination of its inventor Mark Okrand. […] Speaking or narrating in a feminist woman-made language in [Suzette Haden] Elgin’s Native Tongue (1984) becomes a liberating force for women dominated by a patriarchal society in the twenty-third century, just as Irish became and continues to be the language of resistance in the struggle against British rule. (215)

The less said about this, the better. It is nevertheless disturbing that Postmodernism has become such a defining ideology within the liberal arts—and possibly that research has become so bibliocentric—that a linguistic study might compare real and fictional peoples in earnest. By the conclusion of the chapter, the ability of language to hold value is questioned into dismissal simply because it is human beings who must put value there. Though an exponent of the Saussurean status quo, such an attitude represents an irony here, antithetical in many ways to the mindset that would seek to invent, revive, or otherwise revitalize a language.

From Elvish to Klingon includes some good contributions and stimulating insights all around. Each of its papers might stand alone in appropriate journals, and Adams’s supplementary appendices provide engaging afterthoughts. In the end, however, these scattered merits are hard-pressed to redeem the collection thematically. Even should one forgive its title and presentation, the book suffers from overextension. Invaluable space is sacrificed in the attempt to circumscribe its range, while many of the papers themselves seem unsure of their positions therein. Either too much was attempted, or too little. The book is nevertheless one more step toward legitimacy in the study of invented languages, and one hopes the next contribution will not be long in coming.

Works Cited

  • Eco, Umberto. The Search for the Perfect Language. Trans. James Fentress. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1995.
  • George, Ken, and George Broderick. “The Revived Languages: Modern Cornish and Modern Manx.” In The Celtic Languages. Routledge Language Family Descriptions. Edited by Martin J. Ball and James Fife. New York: Routledge, 1993. 644-63.
  • Okrent, Arika. In the Land of Invented Languages. New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2009.
  • Rogers, Stephen D. The Dictionary of Made-Up Languages: From Elvish to Klingon, The Anwa, Reella, Ealray, Yeht (Real) Origins of Invented Lexicons. Avon, MA: Adams Media, 2011.
  • Rosenfelder, Mark. The Language Construction Kit. Chicago: Yonagu Books, 2010.
  • Sims, Harley J. “Exploring the Blind Spots: Snowblind Studios’ The Lord of the Rings: War in the North.” Mallorn (forthcoming).
  • Tolkien, J.R.R. The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. Edited by Humphrey Carpenter. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1981.

From Elvish to Klingon: Exploring Invented Languages. Michael Adams, ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. vi + 294pp. ISBN 9780192807090. $19.95.

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