Author: Sarah Robinson

We’re Almost Halfway There!

Hello everyone–following yesterday’s Day Without Linguist List event, we have reached 48% of our Fund Drive Goal. We’re so grateful to those who are there to support us. Returning to the light of day, we’re pleased to update the challenges standings–check out where your subfield or university is now!

Syntax has more than $1000 lead, with a total of $3285. We’re grateful to the syntacticians of the world!
Sociolinguistics now comes in second, with a total of $2230, overcoming Comp Ling at last!
Computational Linguistics is now in third with $2075 in donations–can they regain their top spot?

University of Washington is in first with $1665 from 27 donors.
Stanford University is in second with $1370 from 20 donors.
Indiana University (our host institution!) is in third with $1360 from 13 donors–and only $10 behind Stanford!
In the Universities Challenge, it’s also those below the top three who deserve recognition right now, as the bulk of the donations come from the dozens of institutions where only one or two donors have contributed only $10 or $20 each. There’s so many more universities and institutions on the contributor list today than there was when we started, and so many of them have a total donation amount that’s not high enough to put them in the top three, but it’s them who made the huge impact over the Day Without LL. Congratulations to you all, and thank you!

North America is still in first with 205 donors.
Europe is at almost half of that with 102 donors.
Asia is in third with 19 donors.

the USA comes in first with 186 donors.
Germany comes in second with 27 donors.
Canada comes in third with 19 donors–can they hold on to the spot?
And a new country is approaching the top 3 now–the UK has just surpassed Austria, with a total of 16 donors!
Additionally the following countries are represented by 1 donor: Trinidad and Tobago, Finland, South Africa, United Arab Emirates, Egypt, Iceland, South Korea, Kazakhstan, Ukraine, Chile, Macau, and New Zealand–our global supporters deserve more recognition, and we are so pleased to be part of the global linguistics community.

Check out the full challenges standings here!

Thanks again to all of our wonderful supporters–keeping up the LINGUIST List is very costly, and without your help, we wouldn’t be able to do it.
–The LL Team

Fund Drive Challenges: Where does your University Stand?

Dear Linguists and Subscribers:

It’s time for the regular challenges update!

In the Subfield Challange:
Syntax has cut itself a pretty wide lead with a total of $2485!
Computational Linguistics comes in second for now, with $2095.
Sociolinguistics brings up the third with $1660.
(And on a side note–Historical Linguistics is finally catching up with Semantics for 4th place. Hello my fellow historical linguists!)

In the University Challenge:
University of Washington has again surpassed Stanford University! With a total of $1665 from 27 donors, Washington is aiming to beat Stanford.
Stanford University is in second place with $1370 from 20 donors.
And in third place, our own host institution, Indiana University! $1340 from 11 donors places IU in the running!

In the Region Challenge:
North American leads with 159 donors!
Europe remains in second with 63 donors, but seems to be steadily catching up.
Asia is in third with 12 donors.

In the Country Challenge:
The US remains in the front–for now!–with 147 donors.
Germany remains in second with 21 donors.
And Canada has outstripped Austria at last with a total of 12 donors! Go Canada!

LINGUIST List has just passed 37% of our Fund Drive goal, thanks to all of you. We still have a ways to go, but we have made really good progress this last week. We appreciate you!
–The LL Team

Syntax is in the lead in the Subfield Challenge!

Hello there LINGUIST List subscribers! Today we have another update on the Fund Drive challenges. Check out the standings below to see where your university, subfield, or region is!

Syntax has shot to the lead, surpassing Computational Linguistics at last! Syntax now stands in first with $1905 in donations.
Computational Linguistics, longtime frontrunner, is now in second place with $1775. Can they take their position back from Syntax?
Sociolinguistics remains in third with $1300 in donations, putting it $180 ahead of Semantics.

Things are pretty calm in the University challenge… for now. Stanford University remains in the lead with $1370 from 20 donors, but University of Washington, last year’s winner, is not far behind.
University of Washington is currently in second with $1285 from 15 donors… creeping up on Stanford. Will they be able to repeat last year’s win?
Arizona State University is in third with $500 from 1 donor.

North America continues to improve its lead, with a total of 122 donors.
Europe has steadily approached, but not fast enough to catch up–yet–with a total of 49 European donors.
Asia comes third with 11 total donors.

The standings in the country challenge look steady for now too, with the US in the lead with a total of 116 donors.
Germany comes in second with 15 donors.
Austria comes in third with 9 donors… but many other regions have been climbing the ranks, and soon one of them may take Canada’s spot–the UK is only 2 behind!

Thanks again for participating in our yearly fund drive, and for supporting us all these years–we are approaching 30% of our Fund Drive goal, thanks to all of you! Check out the full standings at
–The LL Team

A History of Pop Culture ConLangs Part III: Dothraki, Valyrian, and How Language Becomes Its World (And People)

Welcome to part III of our series on fictional constructed languages, which is part of this year’s Fund Drive theme, linguistics and pop culture. ConLangs—and we do mean languages constructed for creative fiction, not languages like Esperanto designed for the real world—have contributed to popular culture in rich and varied and sometimes really weird ways. We started with Part I, which briefly covered J.R.R. Tolkien’s Quenya as one of the world’s first prominent creatively constructed language, focusing on the real-world linguistic influences. Part II got a little lengthier in an attempt to examine how creative linguists use phonology to create a range of human-like and non-human-like effects in the creation of “alien” languages for Science Fiction.

Now welcome to Part III, where we’ll try to cover some of the aspects of the world’s newest wave of influential ConLangs, specifically focusing on what we think is probably today’s most popular ConLangs, Dothraki and Valyrian and the role of languages and multilingualism in fictional worlds.

This blog is dark and full of spoilers!

Very minor spoilers from old seasons but STILL.

Still with us? Okay.

Dothraki and Valyrian are the show’s most prominent ConLangs, and both of them are used by one of the series’ main protagonists, Daenerys Targaryen, who has a lot of titles.
George R. R. Martin’s fantasy books do not have a usable language in them, despite the many other ways in which the epic series takes its cues from the works of J.R.R. Tolkien (either by means of inevitable cultural assimilation that happens with such influential works as Lord of the Rings, or by intentional subversion.) A few Dothraki words, like Khal and its feminine variant Khaleesi, did, however, appear in the books and provide the base for linguist David J. Peterson’s development of the language. Peterson not only worked with the existing words and utterances from the books, but developed the language to be easily pronounceable for the actors—it had to sound convincingly foreign to a primarily English-speaking audience, but also sound natural and fluent in the mouths of mostly L1 English speakers. The Language Creation Society, of which Peterson is a member, now has a page devoted to Dothraki.

Daenerys Targaryen is a multilingual, multidimensional character (with really good hair) played by Emelia Clarke

In terms of phonology, the most salient element of a ConLang to the audience, we find some interesting features. Those stops, nasals, and laterals that would be alveolar in English are instead dental—a small adjustment that for most of the audience may invoke the sound of Spanish. Peterson did include very un-English-like phonemes, like a uvular stop, and a velar fricative, and there is both an alveolar stop and a trill (but no English-like rhotic!) This phonological make-up is probably what prompted Peterson himself to describe Dothraki in an interview as evoking both Spanish and Arabic.

Aspirated stops may occur but not contrastively, and there’s geminates of just about every consonant, including geminate fricatives like /xx/ and /θθ/. That one is really smart, in my opinion—typologically rare, (especially as a geminate!) but still no challenge for the actors. Peterson also took phonological rules into account, devising, for example, regular place assimilation among vowels under the influence of neighboring consonants. Honestly, spoken Dothraki just sounds really cool.

It’s also an interesting point of comparison with Klingon—probably both fictional cultures can be said to be based on some of the same literary and pop-cultural tropes, and they manifest in some of the same ways. I’d be willing to bet any fictional language invented by English-speakers for an English-speaking audience intended for use by warlike cultures has velar fricatives in it; I don’t know why and it’s only a casual observation. (Quick! I need a sociolinguist to survey ConLangs phonology for velar fricatives.) Perhaps that sound strikes English speakers as sufficiently foreign and sufficiently “guttural,” (but still sufficiently pronounceable) for use in a language intended to come off as harsh and powerful. But Dothraki is very much a human language and it has a pleasantly even consonant space—no weird, alien gaps like we found in Klingon.

Jason Momoa plays Dothraki warlord Khal Drogo (with really good hair,) and reportedly can still speak some Dothraki

Dothraki’s syntax is equally rich and interesting. It’s a highly inflectional language with five cases, including nominative, accusative, genitive, allative, and ablative, as well as three tenses and two different imperatives. (The Dothraki and a very imperative people.)
And there’s an archaic participle. There’s actually a lot of thought put into the diachrony of Dothraki, including archaic spellings that reflect older pronunciations—Dothraki has no bilabial stops (they’ve lenited to labiodental fricatives) but some words, particularly names, are still spelled with Romanize p and b or bh. The regular irregularities produced by diachrony are one of the most persuasive and inventive aspects of fictional languages to me, because it means the creator imagined a history for his language. Like the world it exists in, there’s more to Dothraki than a snapshot of its synchrony. It creates the impression that this world and its languages have existed for a long time before now, not just as stories.

But this has already gotten long! Let’s talk about Valyrian so we can talk about Daenerys so we can talk about the rest!

High Valyrian was also developed by David J. Peterson, and the first thing I learned about it when reading for this blog post was that it has derivative variants. Peterson is no slouch. (Also the variants are mentioned in the books.) Valyrian has plenty of phonological overlap with Dothraki as one would expect, and also, joyously, contact phenomena—Dothraki loanwords have resulted in the introduction of those fantastic Dothraki fricatives /x/ and /θ/ mentioned earlier. The phonological inventory of Valyrian is larger in general than that of Dothraki, with a full series of labials (except /f/, basically), including nasals, a full series of alveolars including contrastive voiced and voiceless trills (cool), all the way back to uvulars and glottals. The vowel system involves six major vowels /i e o a u y/ (Dothraki had four, /i e o a/ not including the allophonic alternations), and contrastive vowel length. Like Dothraki, Valyrian has a well-thought-out diachrony, and the front rounded series /y/ and /y:/ in High Valyrian are no longer pronounced as such in its descendant variants. Like Latin, High Valyrian no longer has native speakers in Essos and Westeros, although Daenerys does call it her “mother tongue,” before ordering her dragons to roast a guy. In Astapori Valyrian (one of the variants), the length contrast in vowels in gone.

Valyrian has four grammatical numbers—singular, plural, paucal, and collective—eight noun classes, and four grammatical genders. According to Peterson, who talks about Valyrian grammar in this exceedingly interesting discussion on, the genders are called vēzenkor qogror “solar class”, hūrenkor qogror “lunar class” tegōñor qogror “terrestrial class” embōñor qogror “aquatic class,” and most animate nouns wind up in the solar or lunar genders while others wind up in the aquatic and terrestrial genders—the names of the genders are prototypical members of each. He described gender as phonologically predictable generally, but also being influenced by the derivational properties of the Bantu languages.

There is an enormous amount more that can be said about the very complex and fascinating structure of Valyrian, and it’s one of the most developed fictional ConLangs we have ever seen. But I really want to get to how these languages interact with the worlds and the people they are used by because that is, after all, what makes language come alive.
Like J.R.R. Tolkien, Peterson designed his languages with a view to the people who would be speaking them, their world, their history, their philosophy. The depth of their complexity and the sense of history and development and change over time is what makes them feel like lived-in languages for real people. Daenerys Targaryen, one of the main protagonists, ends up using both of them, as well as the Westeros common language (English, functionally.) As a member of the ruling class (well, sort of, her family has been ousted at the beginning of the series), Daenerys is educated in Valyrian, but for her, it’s more than that—she’s descended from the rulers of Old Valyria and regards Valyrian as her mother tongue (in season 3, episode 4, an Astapori Valyrian speaking slaver insults her in Valyrian while conducting a deal with her, only to have her declare herself and her lineage, and, as previously mentioned, command her dragons to barbecue him. He deserved it.) She also teaches her dragons to respond to commands like “dracarys!” which means “dragonfire,”  (Or, more pragmatically, “barbecue him!”) pronounced beautifully by Emilia Clarke.

Daenerys’s character arc is paralleled by her achievements in multilingualism. Emilia Clarke had to learn multiple ConLangs for the show

Daenerys identifies with the language of her heritage, which is also the language of her name, and that’s interesting to me. Language plays a part, not only in the plot (as mentioned above) but in the characterization of the people who carry out the plot, and none more than Daenerys. She goes through a lot during the course of her story, not least of which is being married off to the Dothraki Khal Drogo as part of a political move. As her character develops, she learns to cope with the extreme distress and trauma of her life, becomes more and more empowered, and begins acquiring the Dothraki language. While still regarding Valyrian as her language. Her process of acculturation within the Dothraki is a major part of her arc, and is portrayed in the books and TV show alongside her becoming more and more fluent in Dothraki. By the current point in both the show and the books, she’s one of the most powerful political players, most realized and human characters, and fluently multilingual. She’s a perfect example of the way that language can add depth to a fictional character as much as it adds depth to a fictional world.

Today, ConLanging, casual and professional, is more popular than ever. If you follow Steve the Vagabond and Silly Linguist on social media (and you should, for a good laugh) you will have seen snippets of Atlaans, a Germanic-based ConLang invented as the mother-tongue for an alternate linguistic history of the world (check it out here!) There’s plenty of alternate-history ConLangs, but I have already promised that ConLangs intended for the real world are not my subject here… except if you create an alternate history language that is also part of a work of fiction.


Video games are in on the ConLang game now.
Get it? Game?
I’ll show myself out.

Having already talked at length about books, movies, and TV shows, I think it’s time to bring up the latest world-building venture that involves ConLanging: video games. Far Cry Primal, by Ubisoft, released in 2016 and involves a ConLang called “Wenja,” developed by University of Kentucky assistant professors Andrew and Brenna Byrd, which is spoken by the inhabitants of a prehistoric world from thousands of years ago. Indo-Europeanist Andrew Byrd described Wenja as like Proto-PIE, something that might have been used thousands of years before PIE is hypothesized to have been spoken. Not much is said in the interview about the mechanics of Wenja, except that it had to have been pretty much imagined, and they developed a very robust vocabulary that could easily suffice for a real-world language-user. But the language, according to its creators, didn’t feel alive until Brenna Byrd began teaching it to the actors. Who began using it and practicing it among themselves, and inventing cries and greetings to fit in the game. Andrew and Brenna Byrd managed to find the meeting place between a totally fictional language for a totally fictional world and a hypothetical language that could have existed in the real world, which is amazing on its own. But it wasn’t until it was deployed among real speakers that it was electrified to life.

The lightning is speakers.

What I think is important about ConLangs, specifically fictional ones, and the reason I am so interested in them, is what they represent. ConLangs created to fill the lives and form the expressions of fictional people who live in imagined worlds, are in a way representative of how we imagine our relationship with language in the real world. That gets reflected in the way that fictional languages can become integral both to their worlds and to their speakers’ identities. They come to life in the hands of real speakers, and carry with them a sense of the history that has led the world and its people, even up to individuals like the initially-unassuming Daenerys.

As everyone knows, there’s a lot of trouble in the world. But it’s not all trouble out there, and it’s worth thinking about that today more than ever, creators are invested in talking about what it means to communicate with each other. What it means for peoples and cultures and individuals to cross and recross language boundaries. They are invested in creating rich and diverse worlds full of people who have their own individual and cultural relationships with the very concept of human communication.

And that’s pretty neat.


Well, this has been way longer than we ever intended it to be. There’s too much interesting stuff to talk about with language, and it turned out there were a lot more fictional languages than I ever could have covered!

If you enjoyed this series, please support us here at the LINGUIST List by donating here! This series was written as part of our Fund Drive’s focus on language and linguistics in media and pop culture. We work hard to help provide a space for linguistic resources. Thanks so much for being with us all these years!

–Sarah Robinson, Publications Editor
on behalf of the LINGUIST List team

A History of ConLangs, Part II: How Human is Alien Language? Science Fiction, Klingon, and Language

Part II: How Human is Alien Language? Science Fiction, Klingon, and Language

This year’s Fund Drive theme is linguistics and pop culture, and to that end, we’re running a short 3-part series about Constructed Languages, one of Pop Culture’s most enduring linguistic artifacts. Part I dealt with the early years of creative language construction, focusing mainly on the man who started it all–J.R.R. Tolkien, philologist and mythos-maker. Part II deals with Fantasy’s daring cousin, Science Fiction, and the role played by ConLangs in the creation of science-oriented narrative and philosophy.

From my first college years, when I told people that I was studying linguistics, I always got those inevitable questions. Question One is obviously, “how many languages do you speak?” but of course, the follow-up is always: “what kinds of jobs are there for linguists?” My answers vary, but usually land somewhere near “Linguist IS a job.” Nevertheless, people are often curious if I am interested in working for Hollywood–in training actors in dialectology, or in working on inventing languages for the movies. There’s a reason for that question, and the reason is Klingon.

Klingon is probably the most famous Science Fiction ConLang. It started as a fictional language for the use of aliens in Star Trek, and has become a pop culture phenomenon unlike any other. You can find Klingon on DuoLingo. I kid you not.

Klingon is mentioned in the TV Show version of Star Trek, but is not spoken on screen until Star Trek: the motion picture (1979). At the time, Klingon was not a ConLang but essentially alien-sounds without deliberate form. From there it was developed, regularized, and built up until it could be used for actual communication. It was officially described by Marc Okrand in 1985, who designed it starting from the sounds made up by James Doohan (the actor who plays Scotty) for the first lines of Klingon dialogue.

Mark Lenard, who played Klingon Captain of the battlecruiser IKS Amar, pronounced the first Klingon Words on screen–which were made up by James Doohan

Klingon’s most interesting features, in my opinion, are phonological. Because it was designed to sound “alien,” Klingon has many typologically rare and marked features. It had to be possible for a human vocal tract to produce, so it couldn’t reach the Alien heights of Arrival’s incomprehensible alien sounds, which do not notably resemble human language at all, in terms of strangeness to the human ear. Nevertheless a wide range of places of articulation, with unexpected unevenness suffice to make Klingon rather typologically unusual. There is only one sibilant, but there are plenty of voiced and voiceless fricatives and stops–so far, not so strange. (It was designed to sound “guttural,” so there are a collection of “guttural”-sounding fricatives and affricates.) Uvulars include stops and affricates. In terms of uneven phoneme sets, Klingon includes voiceless aspirated alveolar stops like English… but the voiced alternate is retroflex. In Klingon, there is a voiced labiodental fricative, but no voiceless alternate. To my mind, this is a smart strategy–by definition and nature, no speech sound, no matter how typologically marked, is “alien,” and any alien ConLang designed to be spoken by human actors must be composed out of speech sounds. So the creators, namely Marc Okrand, decided to use the phonological paradigm itself alongside the selection of phonemes. The gaps in the phoneme set do more to make the language strange than the presence of typologically marked sounds. The strangeness of Klingon is, so to speak, more in its phonological negative space than its positive space. According to Okrand, this is very much intentional–he used the phonological space to create a sound system that deliberately violates the normal phonological patterns and tendencies of human language.

But hey, I’m no Klingon expert. Let’s let Marc Okrand, who is also responsible for creating Star Trek‘s Vulcan language, tell us about it. Check it out:



Like Tolkien’s Elvish, Klingon became the first of a new genre. Where Tolkien invented fantasy languages deliberate crafted to have the realistic features of human language, to have diachronies and dialects and variants and contact-phenomena, Science Fiction ConLangs are more often created to sound as unlike human language as possible. To that end, a focus on phonology makes sense. Unusual syntactic features or semantic features may be present in your SciFi Conlang, but who’s going to notice them, or find them strange? Klingon has grammar, morphology, syllable structure, and other complexities, but beyond the writing system and phonology, most listeners will never know what makes the language complex. Nevertheless, as evidenced by DuoLingo, the language has a popular following and is one of pop culture’s most widely spoken, widely studied, and well-beloved ConLangs. But it’s far from the only one. I love Star Wars, and it would be a mistake to totally leave out mention of the language use of the Star Wars franchise, such as its constructed script Aurebesh, but Klingon’s far-reaching influence is too important to the history of ConLangs, and truly deserves the space.

Milo James Thatch, Movie Linguist(ish), played by Michael J. Fox. I’m gonna be honest, I don’t remember the plot of this movie, but I do remember loving this guy.

Other SciFi ConLangs include Barsoomian, from 2012’s John Carter of Mars, and Goa’uld, the fictional language of Stargate, SG1. Marc Okrand also developed Atlantian for the Disney movie Atlantis: the Lost Empire, which is not like the other SciFi ConLangs mentioned here in that it was developed for a Science Fiction movie, but to be spoken by human characters, not aliens.

Dr. Daniel Jackson, Movie Linguist, played by Michael Shanks, has the dubious honor of being probably Tumblr’s favorite linguist. Pretty sure he’s the same archetype as Milo Thatch?

The nature of your SciFi language will vary based on your needs. Are your aliens human-like, or are they cosmically impossible beings from beyond perception? How much is the audience meant to identify with them and empathize with them, and is your ConLang meant to act as a barrier or an aide in creating empathy? As previously mentioned, the language at the center of 2017’s Arrival is essentially so alien it cannot be comprehended by humans and the main character Louise Banks must find a way to work around the spoken language (she focuses on the set of circular ideograms which were invented for the movie and which are primarily aesthetic in nature). The creators of the film and its language are welcome to correct me on this, but to my knowledge the ideographic writing system used in the movie is not actually a usable ConLang.

However, in James Cameron’s Avatar, the alien language is designed for a decidedly human-like alien people, the Na’vi. Suitably, Na’vi is not designed with the same strategy as Klingon. James Cameron himself started the work on Na’vi language early in his conception of the project. However, the bulk of the ConLanging work was done by Paul Frommer of USC Marshall School of Business and Edward Finegan of University of Southern California. Cameron’s initial list of words were reportedly phonologically similar to Polynesian languages, and the linguists worked from there to develop sets of phonologies with different features–among them a tonal system, a system with ejectives, and one with contrasting vowel lengths. Notably, these may sound strange or “exotic” to the English-speaking world, but are nonetheless not like Klingon’s mismatch of alveolars with its retroflex voiced alternate. Tonal systems and length-contrasts are certainly not typologically rare! The phonological choices–and again, phonology is going to be the most or even only salient feature of a ConLang to the majority of the audience–invoke human speech and there is nothing about Na’vi that sounds to my ear especially “otherworldly.” But that’s the point. The language in Avatar is like its people–essentially human, and designed to be empathetic to a human audience. I can’t say for sure whether this was Frommer and Finegan’s goal in the design of Na’vi, but I think it’s fair to say linguistic realism was important. There’s no emphasis on creating a language that sounds impossible to humans, and instead a realistic language is designed–but in the case of language, “realistic” means “human-like.” Language is also meant to be a feature of the movie’s world, (same goes for Klingon), not the primary object of investigation.

Neytiri, alien bilingual, played and motion-captured by Zoë Saldana. The Na’vi were designed to feel realistic and human-like.

And that brings us back to 2017, and our most recent intersection of speculative fiction and language. Arrival won’t get much space here because its language is not a ConLang (as far as I know) in the truest sense, but I would be remiss if I didn’t bring the subject of SciFi and Language to bear upon the inspiration for the Fund Drive theme: the unusually great year for language in the movies that was 2017. (At least something was great about 2017, right?) In Arrival, the goal is the opposite of Klingon or Na’vi–the language of the Heptapods is not usable to humans, and the language barrier is among the chief obstacles of the movie. It’s not human-like, it’s not easy to empathize with, it’s not even pronounceable. The movie makes language, in a strange way, both its primary protagonist and its primary antagonist. Instead of defeating the antagonist, Louise Banks, the movie’s linguist-hero, overcomes her own struggles to understand it, by using the unique approach of a linguist to the subject of language; she both uses language to achieve empathy with the Other and overcomes the barriers of language by understanding it. And that’s pretty cool, if you ask me.

Louise Banks, played by Amy Adams, is probably Hollywood’s most realistic Linguist.

Please feel welcome to add your thoughts–did you ever design a ConLang for SciFi? Tell me about it! Do you know more about the ones under discussion here and want to share your knowledge? Did I leave anything out, or make any errors? Are there any less famous SciFi ConLangs that deserve more attention?

Most importantly, of course, don’t forget to Click Here donate to the LINGUIST List! We’re at just over 20% of our goal. We’re here to facilitate the worldwide conversation between linguists and to provide invaluable resources to the linguistic community. The LINGUIST List not only provides and manages enormous amounts of data and resources for academic linguists, but supports young researchers who otherwise would not be able to fund their studies.

(Speaking of young researchers, keep an eye out for our next featured undergraduate in the Rising Stars series we are running for this year’s Fund Drive, which spotlights remarkable students nominated by you, the subscribers and supporters of LL! Our last spotlighted student was Carlotta Hübener at the University of Hamburg.)

The third and final part of the ConLangs series will deal with the latest wave of ConLangs, including Dothraki and Valyrian. See you next time!

–Sarah Robsinson, Publications Editor
on behalf of the LINGUIST List team

A History of Pop-Culture ConLangs–Sindarin to Today

For this week’s spotlight on pop culture linguistics, we’ve decided to talk about the proud history and modern practice of constructing languages to fill fictional worlds—so don’t look out for Esperanto, or any other language constructed with the intention of filling the real world.

We’ll be handling ConLangs in a three-part series, because, well, we’re passionate about languages, fiction, and the role that language plays in the imaginative lives of people and cultures.

Part I: J.R.R. Tolkien and the Invention of Invention

Like many English-L1 linguists, the world of J.R.R. Tolkien was my first introduction to linguistics–and to ConLangs. My father read aloud to me from the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings when I was eight years old, and by the time I was fifteen I was attempting my own first constructed languages. (They were bad.)

Although J.R.R. Tolkien was not the first person to attempt constructing a language—that honor goes to the ancients, who constructed languages not for fictional speakers but for the purposes of philosophy, cross-linguistic communication, and aesthetics—his groundbreaking ConLangs can be credited with beginning the rich new era of 20th and 21st century language-creation. Tolkien was a philologist and a professor, who spent much of his time immersed in the same kinds of texts that linguists and philologists today work with, but his efforts at ConLanging began when he was only a child of 13 or 14 years. Elvish languages—of which there were several—and their accompanying writing systems were among the first things he imagined for his epic world-changing mythos. In fact, one could say he created his mythos to give a world to his languages, to give them native speakers and L2 speakers and pragmatics and conversations, to launch them into life, rather than creating his languages to populate and enrich his world.

His first Elvish language (though not his first ConLang) was called Quenya, which was inspired in the early stages by languages he was familiar with, in particular Finnish.

Galadriel, played by Cate Blanchett in the movies, is a powerful Elvish woman, though not technically a queen, and a speaker of Tolkien’s ConLangs Sindarin and Quenya

He was so taken with Finnish that he immediately implemented features of Finnish grammar and phonology into his ConLang, to the extent that a hundred years after he began his work, I can still remember showing my friends a song in Finnish and having them comment, “that’s beautiful. It sounds like Elvish.”

According to one of his letters—dated 1964 and a large portion of which was published in now out-of-print issue 17 (2007) of Parma Eldalamberon, a fan magazine devoted to Tolkien’s ConLangs which has been involved since 1992 in the project of editing and compiling of Tolkien’s linguistic papers with the permission of his son, Christopher Tolkien—the influence of Finnish was initially considerably more extensive, but later trimmed significantly in what became Late Quenya. Elements he borrowed from Finnish and that remained in Late Quenya included syntax—lack of grammatical gender, and parts of the case system, including what appears to be the inessive case  with the ending -sse (rest in or at), and the inflectional ending -nna (movement toward) and -llo (movement away from), cases which were borrowed from Finnish, though I can’t say whether the actual phonological representation of them came from Finnish too or was invented by Tolkien to fill a grammatical category—and phonological, such as the absence of a voiced stop series, except in NC clusters in which the stop undergoes voicing assimilation toward the voicing setting of the preceding nasal. (Any Finnish speaking readers are welcome to comment on the case endings, which I had a hard time identifying! Are the case endings themselves borrowed, in your opinion? Edit: commenter Edouard Kloczko was happy to confirm that the cases are borrowed–Finnish adessive -lla becomes Quenya -llo, inessive -ssa becomes -sse.)

In another letter, this one found in The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien (2000, edited by Christopher Tolkien), he described Quenya as having many “phonoaesthetic” influences, including Finnish, Latin, and Greek.

(“Phonoaesthetic” is an excellent word and we should keep it.)

The Tengwar is an Elvish script that were influenced by Satari, a script invented by in-universe linguist Rumil

As Tolkien’s ConLangs developed, he developed the world if Middle Earth around them, to accommodate a diachronic vision that included contact-induced language change, diachronic shifting in phonology and semantics. Tolkien even got metascholastic and included a scholarly tradition of philology among the Elves themselves. There were Elvish linguists in his world! Like Rúmil the Elvish philologist who was the invented inventor of one of Tolkien’s invented scripts, Sarati—’later Tengwar’. Tolkien created other scripts like Cirth, Quenyatic, and Gondolinic Runes. There were even families of related languages with shared ancestral roots, and eventually it all led to the world’s first Mythopoeia. The man, the myth-maker, and pop culture’s first ConLanger.

Tune in soon for Part II of our ConLang Series: How Human is Alien Language? Science Fiction, Klingon, and Language

What are your favorite ConLangs, and Conlangers? Are there any you’d like to see us talk about? Have you ever constructed one, or been hired to construct one? Tell us about it in the comments! Send us your favorite examples! And don’t forget to donate to support the LINGUIST List! We are so grateful for your support over the last three decades–you keep us afloat!

–Sarah Robsinson, Publications Editor
on behalf of the LINGUIST List team

An Upset in the Subfield Challenge!

Hello again linguists and supporters! Check out our most recent challenge rankings to find out where your university or subfield stands!

In the Subfield Challenge:
Computation linguistics still remains in the lead for the time being, with $1465!
In second place, Syntax follows closely with $1065.
Sociolinguistics has outstretched Semantics, replacing it in third with $1030 (and coming dangerous close to replacing Syntax too!)
View Full Ranking

In the University Challenge:
Stanford University leads–for the time being–with $1370 from a total of 20 donors!
University of Washington is even closer than before, with $1160 from 11 donors.
Arizona State University with $500 from only 1 donor!
View Full Ranking

Region Challenge:
North American has increased its lead 78 donors, now outstretching Europe by more than double!
Europe comes in second with 35 donors–for now! Can Europe upset North America?
Asia is in third with 8 donors.
We’re so grateful for our donors from all over the world!
View Full Ranking

Country Challenge:
The US remains in the lead with 74 donors!
Germany is in second with 11 donors.
Austria comes up third with 5 donors.
View Full Ranking

We’re grateful for your support and participation. Three cheers to our donors, who’ve been behind us for nearly three decades.
–The LL Team

Fund Drive Challenges Update

Welcome to another week of the LINGUIST List Fund Drive Challenge!

In the Subfield Challenge:
Computation linguistics remains in the lead with $1390!
In second place, Syntax follows closely with $1050.
Semantics comes in third with $865.
The Subfield Challenge is neck-and-neck all down the ranking, by the way–Historical Linguistics can displace Applied Linguistics with only $52, and Phonetics is only $15 behind Psycholinguistics! Check out the complete list below.
View Full Ranking

In the University Challenge:
Stanford University leads–for the time being–with $1350 from a total of 16 donors!
Washington University proudly encroaches with $1085 from 9 donors.
Arizona State University with $500 from only 1 donor!
This challenge is also close, with fourth and fifth place hotly contested–Temple University remains in fourth with $300, and fifth goes to University of California, Santa Barbara–but University of Oslo and The Ohio State University are tied and only $25 behind UC Santa Barbara! Take a look at the full ranking to see where your university stands.
View Full Ranking

Region Challenge:
North American maintains a strong lead with 69 donors–but don’t get too comfortable with that lead!
Europe comes in second with 35 donors.
Asia is in third with 7 donors.
We’re so grateful for our donors from all over the world!
View Full Ranking

Country Challenge:
The US remains in the lead–for now!–with 66 American donors.
Germany is in second with 11 donors.
Austria comes up third with 5 donors.
View Full Ranking

As always, we are grateful to our supporters and followers for everything they have done to support us. Thanks for being there with us for the last 28 years!
–The LL Team

Here’s your update on Fund Drive Challenges!

Hello again Linguists and supporters!
The LINGUIST List Fund Drive challenges have picked up since Tuesday—here’s your update!

Subfield Challenge:
Computational Linguistics shot to the top with $1310 in donations!
Second place: Syntax with $910
Third place: Sociolinguistics with $710
Full subfields ranking

University Challenge:
University of Washington is leading with $1025!
Second place: Stanford University with $565
Third place: Arizona State University with $500
Full university ranking

Region Challenge:
North American takes over the lead with 54 donors!
Second place: Europe (28 donors)
Third place: Asia (6 donors)
Full region ranking

Country Challenge:
The US remains in the lead with 52 donors!
Second place: Germany (10 donors)
Third place: Austria (5 donors)
Full country ranking

Once again, a big thank you from us to all participants for your support! It means the world to us!

Challenges are heating up!

Hello Linguists and supporters!
The LINGUIST List Fund Drive challenges are taking off, and here’s an update on who’s leading the competition!



 Subfield Challenge:
Syntax is in first place with $805 in donations!
Second place: Sociolinguistics with $240
Third place: Applied Linguistics with $195
Full listing


University Challenge:
Arizona State University is leading with $500!
Second place: University of Macau is tied with University of Alaska Anchorage with $150
Third place: Indiana University with $110


Region Challenge:
Europe has started off with a lead with 22 donors
Second place: North America (20 donors)
Third place: Asia (5 donors)


Country Challenge:
The US takes the lead in this one, with 19 American donors
Second place: Germany (10 donors)
Third place: Austria: (4 donors)


From all of us, thanks to all of you for participating in the fund drive challenges, and for supporting us here at the LINGUIST List for another year! We depend on you and appreciate our donors more than we can say.