What's your favorite part of big-budget fantasy epics? The swords? The magic? The ... made-up languages their characters speak? If you inexplicably cheered for that last one, you might have a bright future as a conlanger -- a person who invents fictional languages for movies and TV shows. We're just as nerdy as you, so we sat down with David Peterson, the creator of Dothraki and Valyrian on Game Of Thrones, and Dr. Paul Frommer, the creator of Na'vi in James Cameron's Avatar, and learned that ...
6There's No Career In Constructing Languages
For decades, Hollywood was perfectly happy with aliens and fantasy characters speaking perfect English, mostly with a British accent. But slowly we nerds began to demand more, and now any serious production with lasers/dragons/laser-dragons has to feature its own fictional language. How many people can invent a language out of nothing? The amount of work that takes sounds insane - they must make a small fortune.
A very, very small fortune.
"There's a greater demand for professional language creation services in Hollywood than there's ever been," Peterson explains, "but that still means there's about five jobs a year out there. Furthermore, if you are contacted, you're not just negotiating for your pay; you're defending the job itself. At a certain price point (a point which varies so wildly it can't even be estimated), the producers will decide it's simply not worth it to have a created language at all. You're [essentially] competing against them saying, 'Let's just have them speak English.'"
Competing with human laziness doesn't often end well. Also not helping is the fact that Hollywood deals only in extremes: They only want to hire either the most experienced conlangers or complete amateurs.
"When producers need someone to create a language," Peterson says, "they first look for people they've heard of, but language creators are absolutely unheard of -- unless they've worked on a major production like Avatar or Game Of Thrones. A new job, then, will either go to someone who's already done a huge job (or several), or it will go to someone handy -- likely no one who's ever before considered creating a language ..."
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Hint: Only one of those two will wind up reading a book written in their own language.
And that person will probably not be aware that you can charge more than a six-pack for the job. Sometimes it works out for the best, like for Dr. Frommer, who'd never created a language before Avatar, and yet did a spectacular job with Na'vi. Then again, he has a background in linguistics. You give the task to some random janitor or something and you might wind up with 700 words for "mop."
5Creating A Language Is Full Of Hidden Pitfalls
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"Perhaps the most challenging aspect of all is not letting your own native language -- in my case, English -- unconsciously influence the decisions you make about the language you're constructing," Dr. Frommer says. And not solely because English is a bastard language raised by 20 different abusive parents.
"Suppose you come up with a word for 'long,'" he explains. "Does it only refer to physical length, or can it be used for temporal length as well (as English does when we say 'a long time'? Maybe it doubles as the word for 'tall.' Those answers aren't obvious; you need to determine such things if people are going to use the language accurately."
That's why, in Na'vi, the word for physical length is "ngim," while "for a long time" is "txankrr." That's an important distinction, which also helps raise awareness of the horrific vowel shortage on Pandora.
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In Avatar 2, the humans introduce the "I before E" rule and cause a decades-long global riot.
Say you want to convert "Stay away from that control panel!" to a new language. You come up with: "Blarg koy dor men kep ban!" It was easy -- you just replaced every English word with some gibberish. There's your first mistake: copying English syntax. (Now blarg in the corner and think about what you've done.)
"A new conlanger will do that sentence and believe that they now have a word that's equivalent to the English word 'control,' like in 'control your temper,'" Peterson explains. "They won't have considered that a different language might use a different lexeme entirely for the concept of maintaining one's emotions."
Meanwhile, the Dothraki control their emotions by holding both their tongue and others'.
"Inexperienced conlangers also reproduce irregularities of English, such as, for example, making the singular and plural forms of 'fish' identical-e.g. 'kam' = 'fish' (singular) and 'kam' = 'fish' (plural). In some languages there isn't even a word that means what 'tree' means in English; there are only words for specific trees (ash, oak, elm, pine, etc.)," Peterson says.
For example, in Na'vi there is no word for "waterfall" -- just five different words for falling and running water, because they have so much of that on Pandora. (And yet they don't have a word for "mind control.")
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Don't go chasin' ... that.