If you’re a science fiction or fantasy fan, chances are you’ve heard a language constructed by David J. Peterson. He created both Dothraki and Valyrian for HBO’s Game Of Thrones, as well as written or spoken languages for Thor: The Dark World, SyFy’s Defiance and Dominion, and The CW’s The 100 and Star-Crossed. And in becoming the most recognizable name in the conlang (constructed language) community, he’s been instrumental in raising not just awareness of constructed languages, but their quality as well. By now, viewers expect their alien or foreign tongues to sound like they have syntax and grammar. No longer would a scene like this one from Return of the Jedi—Princess Leia/bounty hunter Boushh speaking fictional language Ubese to Jabba—pass muster.
Peterson has already written a guide to Dothraki, but his new book has even larger ambitions. The Art of Language Invention, out tomorrow, is a combination knowledge base and history lesson for those interested in constructing languages. It’s a distillation of the knowledge Peterson gained from the original email listserv that popularized the term “conlang,” blended with some of what he studied as a linguistics Ph.D. student at UC San Diego. But while it’s presented as an introduction for anyone interested in learning more about conlangs, it’s still incredibly dense. Unless you’ve taken a fair amount of linguistics, or are innately familiar with phonetic inventories and symbols, there’s a high barrier to entry for the average pop culture fan curious about how Dothraki came to be. The best parts of the book come at the end of the four main sections, where Peterson presents case studies on issues he face in creating languages for Game Of Thrones and Defiance, and how the knowledge he gained from the online community and his university training assisted in construction.
So rather than trying to explicate the book for you, we talked to Peterson himself—focusing on the community at large and its changing place in popular culture. Not surprisingly, he’s got some bold ideas for how the conlang community is dealing with being under a spotlight, and how innovative language creation can aid humanity’s future. Here are the most important things we learned from him.
There’s a Difference Between Learning and Creating a Language
Peterson has studied nearly 20 languages, from Spanish to Swahili and from Esperanto to Middle Egyptian to American Sign Language. But there’s a different between learning to speak a language, and building one from scratch that sounds like it has evolved over time. “Learning a language is definitely not the same thing as creating a language,” he says. “I know that intuitively because I feel way more comfortable picking up and speaking Arabic than I do Dothraki, even though I would say I know Dothraki better.”
Viewers Expect More
That scene from Jedi where Leia speaks Ubese is something of a touchstone in Peterson’s memory. “From the point of view of a language creator, I wouldn’t even call that language creation,” he says of Star Wars. “You’re making the sounds to make up the dialogue. It’s gotta have some thought that went into how the thing works.” However, Peterson points out “that doesn’t mean the fan community can’t step up and fill in the blanks,” as he does in the book’s introduction, exerting herculean effort to find a reason that Jedi scene that so enraptured him as a child could be an entire language. Nowadays, pop culture consumers want “authenticity behind [the language], not just the sound of it.”
He Wants the Conlang Community to Expand Beyond Pop Culture.
The popularity of shows like Game Of Thrones and the Marvel films have raised the profile of constructed languages (and their creators) considerably. But Peterson doesn’t want the community to appeal only to science fiction and fantasy fans looking to immerse themselves more fully in created worlds. He has a bigger vision for conlangs. “The next step is finding people who aren’t working on television shows, who aren’t working on films,” he says, and to get them to engage with constructed language “even though it’s not attached to a franchise.” That way they can build a bigger connection between the earlier conlang community and the people who are invested in pop culture properties.
Some Conlangers Want to Keep Their Hobby Arcane
Peterson recognizes there are “definitely some negative aspects” to the growth in conlang popularity. He cites linguistic pioneer J.R.R. Tolkein’s The Lord Of The Rings as an example of the community’s instinct toward self-protection. “There were some people who reacted negatively [when LOTR was published] because they knew conlang would start to get more attention, and they didn’t want that,” he says. Until recently, the community has been a supportive niche for people with a very specific interest. But as television shows and films with created languages continue to pop up in more places, it’s no longer as heavily guarded.
His Book Aims to Codify Conlang Knowledge For Posterity
Constructed languages have existed for centuries, but the advent of the internet brought with it the listserv that created a true community of peers. Since then, the community has grown hugely—but as the internet has changed, a new generation of conlangers on various social networks has become more spread out and unaware of each other. “I’ve met dozens of conlangers on Tumblr, all new, all young, who have no idea that each other exist,” he says, “because they’re with the mass kind of shouting into the wind.” None of them know about the old conlang listserv, and now it’s an antiquated form of digital communication, so “they don’t want to bother with that.” Peterson worries about redundancies that would arise from the lack of connection. “They’re inheriting a kingdom they really don’t know the history of, and know nothing about,” he says. They’re reinventing every single wheel we already perfected.” The Art Of Language Invention is a way of bridging the gap between the old and new conlangers by becoming a codex of sorts, preserving knowledge of constructed language much in the same way ancient languages have been preserved throughout history.
Conlangers Could Help Us Communicate With Aliens
Most fascinatingly, Peterson theorizes how a larger conlang community could help humanity expand its understanding of the potential for written and spoken communication. Doing so might just assist us in the event Earth makes contact with an alien species. (And in some ways it ties back to Peterson’s thought experiment attempting to make sense of Ubese in Star Wars.) “Someday in the future we may encounter aliens, and they may have a communication system that doesn’t even qualify as a language to us, that we wouldn’t think of as language,” he says. But the more we’ve seen, the more we know about, the more we postulate, the better we are going to be able to tackle something like that. Whereas if we’re all speaking English at that point in time, and have kind of forgotten all the other language, we’re really going to be fucked.”