'Fremen' and 'Dothraki' for beginners: artificial languages ​​invade film and television

Recent studies on cultural diversity on the planet warn that, every two weeks, a language disappears. At the same time, in that time interval a new one seems to emerge in film and television. For a decade, imaginary languages ​​appear by spontaneous generation in audiovisual fiction, linked to genres such as science fiction and fantasy cinema. Movies, series and video games use them to set their alternate realities and give them greater credibility. This is the case in the new adaptation of Dune directed by Denis Villeneuve, where the use of English alternates with invented languages ​​that already appeared in Frank Herbert’s original novel, who was inspired by Arabic, Serbo-Croatian and the Romani language to create the curious idiolects of his book.

Behind Dune is an American linguist, David J. Peterson, who was in charge of devising the language of the Fremen, the desert people to which the characters of Javier Bardem and Zendaya belong. He also invented the secret code used by Rebecca Ferguson and Timothée Chalamet, mother and son in the film, to communicate with each other, and the military chant sung by the Sardaukar, the soldiers of the elite army that protects the emperor. “Using constructed languages ​​gives authenticity to the creation of fictional worlds. They make it sound like places no one has ever visited and help make the movie universe feel more real, ”says Peterson from Los Angeles.

“Using constructed languages ​​gives authenticity to the creation of fictional worlds. They make it sound like places no one has ever visited ”

David J. Peterson, creator of the ‘Dune’ language

When he received the call from Villeneuve, the linguist was already a specialist in the matter, having created the dothraki and the tall valyrio for the saga Game of thrones . Both already appeared in the George RR Martin books that inspired the series, although the author only included thirty single words in them. Peterson’s mission was to create a phonology, a grammar, a syntax, and a lexicon. “I always work in that order,” says the founder of the Language Creation Society, an organization dedicated to promoting constructed languages ​​or conlangs , as they are called in English. . The repercussion of Game of Thrones caused that manuals of Dothraki were published and courses were created to learn the language on the Duolingo platform, as had previously happened with the Klingon , the throaty language of the race of the same name in Star Trek . Since its premiere in 1983, it has spawned a true cult of its fans and spawned a A subculture that ranges from translations of classics like Hamlet to Klingon versions of Eminem’s greatest hits.

Una página del libro 'La comunidad del anillo' en lengua élfica, junto con una réplica del Anillo Único.
A page from the book ‘The Fellowship of the Ring’ in the Elven language, along with a replica of the One Ring.

For Peterson, the intensive use of these languages ​​in recent years is due to the monumental success of Mr. of the rings , whose first installment began with a monologue in English and in the Elvish language: I love to lend aen, have mathon ne nen (“The world has changed, I can feel it in the ag ua ”). “Peter Jackson’s adaptation prominently used the languages ​​invented by Tolkien – such as Quenya , inspired by Finnish, or Sindarin , based on the sound of Gaelic – and managed to publicize the invented languages ​​like no one had done before. When audiences became familiar with them, they became something you expect to see in any high-budget production, “says Peterson. Since its premiere in 2001, others have joined the cause: from parseltongue from Harry Potter to the languages ​​invented for series like The 100 , going through non-science films- fiction, such as the language krakozhia of The terminal , by Steven Spielberg, or the African ku from The interpreter , by Sidney Pollack, to video games like Myst , Far Cry Primal or the latest installment of Assassin’s Creed .

“Ever since the Klingon appeared in the eighties, filmmakers and producers realized that gibberish linguistics no longer worked ”

Paul Frommer, creator of the ‘Avatar’ language

In spite of everything, the most dazzling case could be that of Avatar . James Cameron built an alternate world with the precision of a maniac: each of the plant varieties in the Pandora biosphere had a Latin scientific name and a description of its uses by the locals, even if the plant was seen for a fraction of a second on the screen. In linguistic matters, the director did not skimp on details either. He hired a professor from the University of Southern California, Paul Frommer, to develop the na’vi language, endowed with its own alphabet, and in which they abound the fricatives in kx , px and tx . “Ever since the Klingon appeared in the 1980s, filmmakers and producers realized that linguistic gibberish no longer worked. The viewer expected to hear fully developed languages, with linguistically plausible structures that would stand up to scrutiny, ”Frommer says in an email. Its presence in fiction has been amplified by the digital turn of the last decades. “The Internet not only disseminates information and facilitates debate, it also creates communities and unites people with similar tastes. Around these languages, there has been a powerful combination between the intellectual challenge of learning them and the creation of groups of individuals with similar interests ”, responds Frommer.

Cubierta del manual para aprender 'dothraki' publicado por su creador, el lingüista David J. Peterson.
Cover of the manual for learning ‘Dothraki’ published by its creator, the linguist David J. Peterson. MediaNews Group / Orange County Re (MediaNews Group via Getty Images)

The French linguist Christophe Grandsire, current president of the Language Creation Society and ideologist of invented languages ​​such as astou , the azak , the rheman or the notya , considers that large studies have been limited to respond to the demand of the followers of certain genres. “In science fiction and fantasy, fans want to connect with the material in a more active way and not just consume it: they dress up as their favorite characters , they write stories about the characters [fanfic] and, in some cases, they also want to learn to speak those languages ​​”, he says about languages ​​that could already have a greater impact than Esperanto and other linguistic inventions of the past. “In number of speakers, this is not the case, because the lowest estimates say that 200. 000 people follow speaking Esperanto in the world. But these languages ​​benefit from their exposure through successful films and series, something Esperanto never had, ”says Grandsire. They are not an auxiliary language project, but only recreational.

“They are no longer a simple list of words, because the lexicon is only part of a language, and not necessarily the most interesting one ”

Arika Okrent, linguist and author of ‘In the Land of Invented Languages’

For the American Arika Okrent, author of the essay In the Land of Invented Languages ​​, these languages ​​have become increasingly sophisticated structures. “They are no longer a simple list of words, because the lexicon is only part of a language, and not necessarily the most interesting one,” says the author, who in her book covers the history of more than 900 artificial languages ​​of the last centuries, from the lingua ignoota from Hildegard of Bingen, the twelfth century nun who invented an alphabet to transcribe her mystical hallucinations, to the laadan who the writer Suzette Haden Elgin devised to describe in more detail the female experience of menstruation or pregnancy in her novel Mother tongue (for example, widazhad means “to leave accounts and have a crazy desire to give birth”). Nor did he forget other better known ones, such as the newspeak by George Orwell or the street slang of A Clockwork Orange, whose author, Anthony Burgess, also invented the prehistoric languages ​​of the film In search of fire . To write his book, Okrent spent months wandering around the conventions of Klingon and even drew his speaking title. Why learn a language that has no practical use? “That is like asking a gardener why he grows roses and not potatoes. Humans spend a lot of time doing things that are not practical. People can also get a sense of achievement and aesthetic pleasure through learning a language ”. Even if it belongs only to an imaginary world.

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