By: Cheryl Lu, Social Media Coordinator
Late last year, with the airing of The Mandalorian, Tusken Sign Language was introduced to the public. Accompanied by the unbearable cuteness of ‘Baby Yoda’ and the attention it brought to the Deaf community’s contributions to the film industry, the series and Tusken Sign Language trended online, adding a new member to the family of fictional languages.
Fictional languages, familiar to fans of sci-fi and fantasy genres, have a history that goes back to the early to mid-last century. Constructed by linguists, these languages are invented for novels, TV series and films to give greater personalities to the characters, provide fully immersive and enriched reading and watching experiences, and make the stories seem more “real.” Many of them were developed based on characteristics of real-life languages with full sets of the alphabet, grammar, vocabulary and rules of pronunciation, and the studies, whether on a linguistic or a language-learning level, have never stopped.
It’s believed that the world’s first mature fictional languages were created for the Lord of the Rings trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien. Quenya, an agglutinative language spoken by the Elves, is one of them. Inspired by multiple European languages, Quenya is a mostly Finnish-sounding language with some Italian and Spanish vibes and has grammar deriving from Finnish, Latin and Greek – the ones known for their rich culture and ancient histories. As a fully developed language, Quenya has its own writing systems, and the most widely used one is Tengwar, a curvy script that uses combinations of consonants, vowels and diphthongs for its spelling.
Another one of the earliest well-known fictional languages is Klingon, invented for Star Trek, and was later popularized again by its comical usage in The Big Bang Theory. Different from Quenya’s medieval looking scripts and European sounding pronunciation, Klingon looks and sounds completely alien. The language was created by intentionally breaking linguistic rules and using consonant combinations that don’t appear in natural human language patterns. In general, Klingon leaves a “guttural” sounding impression and has a choppy flow. As the world’s most developed constructed language, Klingon has been taken rather seriously worldwide and has fluent speaker communities.
Unlike the two languages above that one can learn to speak, Parseltongue, the language of snakes, is a fictional language that has never been fully constructed officially, although there have been websites that claim to be able to translate or teach Parseltongue. The concept of the language appeared in the books of the Harry Potter series without much detail other than that it has a hissing sound, which was later truthfully presented in the movie series. In the books’ settings, the ability to speak Parseltongue is innate and can’t be acquired or learned; and the stories about speaking it in the movie settings are also full of hearsay, adding more mystery to it.
In addition, coming from a fantasy series, Valyrian, on the other hand, is a fictional language that’s more than systematically put together. Rather than being just a single language, Valyrian represents a whole language family with different variations and dialects across the two continents in the world of Game of Thrones, with High Valyrian being the standard spoken by royalty, aristocrats, scholars and priests. Written with a “pseudo-medieval Latin alphabet,” High Valyrian sounds “liquid” and has a grammar inspired by gendered languages commonly seen in Europe – only, different from the three genders in German and two in French, High Valyrian has four of them: lunar, solar, aquatic and terrestrial.
Embracing multilingualism, Game of Thrones also introduced another fictional language: Dothraki. Spoken by the nomadic people who live on horses, the language has harsh pronunciations and sounds significantly different from High Valyrian. The inspiration of Dothraki came from the languages of many cultures with similar nomadic lifestyles in Asia, East Europe and North America.
Being the most recent and a very special one, Tusken Sign Language in The Mandalorian was created by deaf actor Troy Kotsur. The language features characteristics appropriate for the Tusken Raiders’ culture and environment, with inspirations from American Sign Language. This newly introduced constructed language and its representation of the Deaf community has engaged more people to learn sign languages, and the Tusken Raider Sign Language group on Facebook has been active ever since.
From the hearing to the Deaf community, earth to the outer space, human to animal languages, fictional language has been expanding its territory and inflating audiences’ enthusiasm in linguistics and language learning. There have been articles on creating them, papers on why people learn them, and machine translators converting them online. In the last few years alone, online courses teaching fictional languages have become more and more popular (especially now during the pandemic lockdowns), and it won’t be surprising to see more of them emerging in the future!