Linguistics and Pop Culture

Old Musical, Old Language, New Experience

Hello LINGUIST Listers,

On the topic of language maintenance and revitalization efforts that we have been discussing during our 2019 LINGUIST List Fund Drive, let’s look at an exciting development in the world of musical theater.

The critically-acclaimed Broadway classic “Fiddler on the Roof” premiered off-Broadway entirely in the Yiddish language for the first time earlier this year. This newly re-imagined version of the musical pays greater homage to its roots; the original musical was based on Yiddish novels written by Sholem Aleichem around the turn of the twentieth century. Theater-goers reported an exciting authenticity watching the production in the language that Tevye and his village-mates would have been speaking in the early 1900s.

The Yiddish language has undergone seriously decline in recent decades but the creators of the new version hope that having such an iconic musical entirely in Yiddish will encourage an improved image for the language. Much of the Yiddish-speaking population now resides in the New York City area. With the production of “Fiddler of the Roof” happening nearby, it is hoped that increased exposure will strengthen the language’s vitality in the region and encourage the rising generation to respect their heritage.

Whether this will be the case will have to be seen but overall it is an enthralling project for Yiddish-speakers, “Fiddler” fans, and proponents of minority languages everywhere.

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Language, Revitalization, and Documentation… in the Movies!

Dear LINGUIST List Readers,

Hello again! Last year we wrote about language in pop culture, the movies, and other media, and this year we are writing about language documentation and revitalization in honor of our theme of renewal for the 2019 Fund Drive. I… I don’t have a lot of experience in this area of field linguistics, if I’m going to be honest. (My fieldwork courses start next semester, okay?)

Anyway so I’m going to talk about… language in the movies again! This time, language revitalization and documentation in the movies!

 

Are all Lang Doc efforts in film somehow involve aliens instead of human languages? (This is still a great movie, btw, Whorfianism aside.)

And the minute I started thinking about this blog post, it occurred to me that language documentation and revitalization are not really well-represented topics in most pop culture, film, and other media. The example that came to mind first was 2017’s Arrival, in which linguist Louise Banks performs a variation of Ken Pike’s monolingual demonstration in her efforts to bridge the language gap between humans and aliens. But surely we as a culture have more to say about our own human language gaps, right? As linguists, you are all aware of how fast the world’s languages are becoming endangered, in part as a consequence of increased globalization and the influence of a small handful of dominant cross-cultural linguae francae. So why isn’t this global phenomenon–crisis even–getting more attention?

 

By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=21656942

In the movies, most instances of “language documentation” occur when explorers or even colonizers encounter indigenous peoples, and it’s more an instance of the explorers learning the language than an instance of someone trying to write it down to ensure its survival. A quick trip down Google lane yields, of course, The Linguists, a documentary about two linguists traveling to various homes of endangered languages and trying to find native speakers, sometimes when there are as few as nine or ten living speakers.

 

 

However, things are looking up for endangered languages in film–by now you may have heard of a Canadian movie that was made entirely in an endangered language, a film that aims to be a preservation effort for its language-subject. It’s language documentation/revitalization as art. Which is pretty cool.

The movie is called SGaawaay K’uuna, (‘Edge of the Knife’) and it is performed in Haida, a language spoken fluently by just twenty speakers, the Haida people of British Columbia. According to the article linked above, Haida is a language isolate.

Actor Tyler York in SGaawaay K’uuna. Photograph: Niijang Xyaalas Productions.

Director Gwaai Edenshaw says he is unwilling to accept Haida as somehow unavoidably moribund–and in my experience, many linguists agree. It’s not over for any endangered or sleeping language. Personally, it seems to me like creating Haida art, Haida film, is one of the best ways to vitalize interest in the preservation of Haida against the overwhelming odds of globalization. Read about the film in the link above–we think it’s something linguists the world over would love to see! It premiers in the UK in April.

But don’t let the use of Haida come off like a gimmick–check out the trailer to see how gorgeous the cinematography is (those sweeping landscape shots!) and what a strong sense of mood and place the film seems to have… and to hear some spoken Haida.

The film premiers in the UK in April, but I wasn’t able to determine a premier date for viewers from other parts of the world during my brief Google tour. Nonetheless, I’m going to keep my eye out for showings in my area, and I think all linguists should find a way to support the production of more Haida-language media by finding out where they can see SGaawaay K’uuna!

Thanks again for reading our blog, and for all your support of the LINGUIST List throughout the years! As you know, the 2019 Fund Drive is under way and we have reached just 20% of our goal! We rely on you, our readers and supporters, to keep this service available to the global linguistics community, so if you can, please consider donating here!

Thanks so much for all the support over the last 29(!) years–

The LL Team

Universally Translating in Space

“The Babel fish is small, yellow, leech-like – and probably the oddest thing in the universe. It feeds on brain wave energy, absorbing all unconscious frequencies and then excreting telepathically a matrix formed from the conscious frequencies and nerve signals picked up from the speech centres of the brain, the practical upshot of which is that if you stick one in your ear, you can instantly understand anything said to you in any form of language: the speech you hear decodes the brain wave matrix.”

The anatomy of a Babel fish

In other words, the Babel fish from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy translates the subconscious of the speaker into language the listener understands. It’s just one example of a universal translator in science fiction, where they’re often used by writers to get around the languages and dialect part of world building, but it’s personally one of my favorites. Unlike a mysterious box, device, or computer program, such as those used in Star Trek or Men in Black, which translates from speech to speech, the Babel fish doesn’t try to be realistic by today’s standards and thereby avoids many of the problems that make real time translators so difficult, if not impossible.

It didn’t take long after computers came into existence that researchers began trying to use them for machine translation. “This will be easy!”, they thought, conceptualizing simple word to word translation systems, and not realizing the maze of a problem they were getting themselves into. We have made a lot of progress in the decades since then, and some machine translators, such as google’s, can produce some passable translations between certain languages. (To the students reading this, they still won’t trick your language teacher, so don’t try.) Even so, there is a long way to go between where we are and universal translators, especially real time ones. Besides the typical major problems in MT such as idioms, word order, sparsity of data, and dealing with morphology in general, real time translators will have to process information they don’t have yet. Differences in sentence structure and word order between languages mean that a delay in speech to speech translation is inevitable, which makes realistic translators in movies/tv feel a bit too clunky.

This is why I’m such a fan of the Babel fish, and the Tardis’ translation matrix from Doctor Who for that matter, which also uses a type of telepathic field. They get around a lot of the issues we run into in MT simply by taking advantage of worldbuilding. Does it take some suspension of disbelief to accept a telepathic fish you stick in your ear which excretes translated speech? Sure, but it fits right in with the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’s universe and style, and instead of being just close enough to the truth to be irritating, it’s just crazy enough to think, hey, that just might work!

Thanks for reading! The Linguist List depends on donations from readers like you to continue providing resources and updates in the world of linguistics as well as to help fund the graduate students who run it. Please consider donating to our Fund Drive so that we can continue posting content for you.

Thanks again!

Your Linguist List team

Linguistics and Pop-Culture: Atlantis: The Lost Empire

Hello LINGUIST List readers and subscribers!

Following this year’s Fund Drive theme we’re going to take a look at the movie Atlantis: The Lost Empire, an animated Disney movie from 2001. This movie was one of my all time favorites as a child, I even had a Barbie of the main character. In this movie Milo James Thatch, voiced by Micheal J. Fox, is a linguist and cartographer at the Smithsonian Institute. He believes that he can find The Shepherd’s Journal, which is an ancient manuscript that contains directions to Atlantis. It is safe to say that this movie is likely the first time I ever heard of linguistics and maybe watching this movie as much as I did primed me to be a linguist. Atlantis: The Lost Empire was briefly mentioned by our editor Sarah Robinson in her awesome ConLangs series here on our blog because this movie contains a ConLang: Atlantean.

This movie starts out with Atlantean dialogue with English subtitles, the scene is the destruction of the city and what the citizens do to preserve what they can of Atlantis resulting in it being hidden from the rest of the world. After the opening scene we see Milo, who while at work dwells in the boiler room (I feel like this is par for the course for a linguist, yeah?), describing a translation error of an Old Norse text. Milo is criticized for his research on Atlantean and is not taken seriously, which leads to him being hired to go on an expedition to find the city of Atlantis. The person who hires Milo exclaims that the crew is complete except that they need an expert in gibberish, aka Atlantean. Does this feel familiar anyone?

Here we see Milo, in his boiler room office, correcting his translation error about where The Shepherd’s Journal is located from ‘Ireland’ to ‘Iceland’. It turns out that it was located in Iceland.

Atlantean script is prevalent throughout the movie. Until the expedition crew gets to Atlantis, the script is mainly seen in The Shepherd’s Journal, which was found by the expedition crew on a previous expedition. Upon arriving in Atlantis, Milo discovers that Atlanteans can speak multiple languages and he hypothesizes that Atlantean must be based on a root dialect like The Tower of Babel. Milo explains the grammatical system of Atlantean by saying:

…if you deconstruct Latin, you overlaid it with some Sumerian, throw in a dash of Thessalonian you’d be getting close to their grammatical structure.”

Here is Milo Thatch studiously looking over The Shepherd’s Journal.

 

It turns out that Milo is the only one who can read Atlantean because the knowledge of how to read Atlantean was lost in The Great Flood that ruined city. Milo helps the main Atlantean character Kida, voiced by Cree Summer, translate ancient Atlantean murals throughout the city to help return Atlantis to its former glory. Not only can Milo read and translate Atlantean, on the fly I might add, but he can also speak it. When speaking with Kida in Atlantean he asks how is accent is, which I’m sure every linguist reading this has done with a native speaker. The addition of this small detail was very much appreciated. For those interested, she said Milo’s accent was “boorish, provincial, and you speak it through your nose”.

The Atlantean language developed for this movie was created by Marc Okrand, who is also responsible for the creation of Klingon. Okrand created Atlantean by including a large inventory of Indo-European words and Atlantean can be described as being highly agglutinative. Inspiration for Atlantean was drwn from Sumerian and North American languages. Atlantean is based on historical reconstructions and is inspired by the fantasy of Atlantis: The Lost Empire. There are two main fictional principles surrounding the creation of the Atlantean language: Atlantean is intended to be a “Tower of Babel language”/”root dialect” of all languages, and Atlantean has existed without change since before 100,000 B.C., which is the First or Second age of Atlantis.

The writing system for Atlantean was created by John Emerson with the help of Marc Okrand and draws its inspiration from ancient alphabetical scripts, Semitic being the main inspiration. There is no capitalization or punctuation in Atlantean, and the character for ‘a’ was created with the intention of being a map of the city. Atlantean is also written using the boustrophedon writing system, so lines are written and read left to right for the first line, and then right to left for the following line, and then back to left to right, etc.

Here is the Atlantean alphabet with some IPA and their numerals.

Since Milo, mentioned the grammatical system of Atlantean I will also mention it briefly. The word order in Atlantean is strictly SOV. Adjectives and nouns that are of genitive case follow the nouns that they modify. Postpositions are the only type of adpositions present in Atlantean. Modal verbs follow the verbs they modify and also take on all personal and aspectual suffixes. In contrast, adverbs come before the verbs they modify. An interrogative particle is also utilized in Atlantean; however, the formation of questions does not affect the word order.

All-in-all, Milo can be chalked up to being considered one of the movie linguist archetypes. He seemed to be more of a translator than a linguist, but the film is still delightful and there were some additions, like the question of the accent that were appreciated as a linguist. Some of the things about Atlantean mentioned in this movie, like that the language has existed without change since 100,000 B.C. is very unrealistic even if this society has existed in isolation since 100,000 B.C. If you haven’t seen Atlantis: The Lost Empire I highly recommend it.

Here at The LINGUIST List we are dedicated to providing you, our readers and subscribers, with knowledge of all things linguistic. This year’s fund drive theme is geared towards discussing how our field is portrayed in media and pop-culture. Thanks to our donors and users we are able to continue to providing you all with information on all things linguistic. Please consider donating here to ensure that we can continue to provide this service to all of you. Thank you!

Sincerely,

– The LL Team

(Sources: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atlantis%3A_The_Lost_Empirehttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Atlantean_language)

Sociolinguistics in Space: Firefly

Dear LINGUIST List Readers,

It’s time for more Linguistics in pop culture! Today I’ll be talking a bit about the show Firefly and the language used in it. Firefly takes place about 500 years in the future, when humanity has colonized another star system with hundreds of planets and moons, many terraformed for human habitation. The show follows a mixed crew from several walks of life in a small smuggling ship as they take whatever jobs they can get to keep flying. It’s a fantastic, unique blend of western and sci-fi which does a great job of focusing on the characters and world instead of just being another flashy fight scene riddled action show. If you like flashy fight scenes, don’t worry, it does have them. Firefly is a beloved cult classic for sci-fi enthusiasts and it is well worth your time (and your linguistic interest!)

Image result for firefly show

The crew of the firefly class ship Serenity

Spoiler Alert: While I won’t be talking about main plot points, there will be some spoilers

 

There are a couple linguistic things I want to talk about in Firefly. First up is the use of Mandarin Chinese in the show. Over the course of the series we often see the characters using Chinese to swear or insult others. While these are the most common uses, others do come up, such as pet names or terms of endearment. In the context of this airing on TV, it’s pretty obvious that Joss Whedon, the creator of the show, used this as a way to get around censorship. Other nonsense words, such as gorram, were also added for the same purpose. Within the universe, however, there is a bit more to dig into. Firefly establishes that the two superpowers which sent colony ships to the new star system from “Earth that was” were the US and China. In addition, most people are bilingual in English and Chinese as a consequence, though everyone still use English the vast majority of the time on the planets visited in the show.

Related image

Jayne with his favorite hat

What I find really interesting about this setting is how Whedon actually pays some attention to the impacts culture and history have on language. It is, of course, too much to expect that a show emulates 500 years of language change in its speech, especially considering that it would be almost unintelligible by that point anyway. But I appreciate that Firefly does more than just have a bunch of sci-fi sounding tool names and phrases. The inclusion of small Chinese phrases, whether insults, swears, or pet names, indicates thought given to the linguistic aspect of the universe beyond giving another species their own language.

 

The other major aspect of the language in Firefly I want to talk about is the dialectical difference between Core world speakers and border planet and Rim speakers. People from the Core world tend to speak very grammatically and formally. Dr. Simon Tam, Inara, and Shepherd Book are good examples of this, all being raised on Core worlds. Inara, being born on a primarily Chinese planet, would be a second language speaker of English, but taught by other Core world speakers. Speakers from the Rim and the border planets, however, use a stigmatized dialect similar to that of stereotypical American Frontier speech. The entire culture of the frontier worlds is based on the wild west, and this less formal dialect is where Chinese and slang terms for spaceflight invented for the show tend to be used. Some notable features of this dialect are -ly dropping, g dropping, double negatives, and ain’t. Several examples taken from the show can be found here

Image result for firefly kaylee

Kaylee, the mechanic: “Machines just got workings, and they talk to me.”

While the costuming and set design make a very clear distinction between the richer Core worlds and the poorer border planets, the differences in language add a lot of authenticity to the universe. Dialectical differences are used all the time to make judgments about people, whether consciously or unconsciously, and the addition of the elaborate dialects, phrases, and jargon to Firefly enabled us to relate to and understand the characters much better. It was, in my opinion, an absolutely crucial element of world building. Were everyone speaking the same dialect, the characters would have felt much more flat and uninteresting. Anecdotally, Firefly serves as a great example of how important linguistics is to the development of a show which cannot be left out, especially in sci-fi or fantasy worlds.

Thanks for listening to my ramblings on one of my favorite shows. If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend it, despite it having been cut far too short by Fox.

The LINGUIST List staff is passionate about investigating the ways that linguistics interacts with human culture and media. We rely on funding from readers like you to continue hosting a wide range of academic tools and resources useful to linguists like you. Please consider donating to our Fund Drive to support not only the continuation of these resources, but also the students who maintain them, and the mission of the global linguistics community.

Thanks once again!

Nils Hjortnaes

Linguistics and Pop Culture: Language, Culture, and Black Panther

Black Panther has been a phenomenon in the box office. Since its release in the middle of February, the movie has been vaulted to the 10th biggest movie in history by ticket sales grossing over $1.28 Billion worldwide. The film’s stunning depiction of the fictional country of Wakanda wouldn’t be the same without the cultural elements introduced. The religion of Wakanda, which borrows heavily from the pantheon of ancient Egypt, the surrounding landscape, and the material culture depicted bring afrofuturism to the silver screen. The linguistic elements of the film are perhaps the most striking part of Wakanda (perhaps we’re biased though).

 

If you’re really worried about Spoilers, don’t keep reading. Key plot points are not divulged but you could maybe piece something together if you tried hard enough.

 

Marvel Studios’ BLACK PANTHER..Black Panther/T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman)..Ph: Film Frame..©Marvel Studios 2018

Continue reading

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 Dothraki.com, 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

How does Linguistics shape a Criminal Investigation?

Dear LINGUIST readers,

This week, following our Fund Drive theme of “Linguistics on the Silver Screen”, we are highlighting another depiction of linguistics in media: the role of linguistic clues in Manhunt: Unabomber. This 2017 Discovery Channel mini-series depicts (a somewhat fictionalized version of) the FBI investigation of the Unabomber, an American domestic terrorist who mailed a series of package bombs to victims across the United States between 1978 and 1995. Due to his care in leaving virtually no forensic evidence, the Unabomber proved to be difficult to identify through traditional forensic methods. Adding to that difficulty, his victims appeared to be selected at random, his mail bombs were sent anonymously in nondescript packages and there was only one known sighting in 17 years.  In his manifesto, the Unabomber said “Some scientific work has no conceivable relation to the welfare of the human race… comparative linguistics, for example” (Industrial Society and its Future, paragraph 88). Ironically, it was linguistics that led to the identification and arrest of the Unabomber, and the story is a truly fascinating one.

If you haven’t seen this series yet, this is your official spoiler warning for the rest of this post! And although the outcome of the case may be historical fact, we recommend watching the series and enjoying the gripping twists and turns in the story of the investigation.

“What if there’s a wudder in there?”

The series begins with the introduction of James Fitzgerald, a real life criminal profiler who contributed to the case. Although some with knowledge of the true events claim “Fitz” is a composite character representing several investigators, he is nonetheless a compelling protagonist. Fresh out of FBI Academy, Fitz is a new criminal profiler chosen to take part in the FBI’s UNABOM investigation. Quickly becoming frustrated with the FBI’s adherence to unlikely profiles based on little evidence, he suggests developing a fresh profile of the killer, one derived from careful reading of the Unabomber’s own letters and manifesto. He thinks the Unabomber is much more intelligent than the FBI had accounted for, and ultimately an ideological terrorist, not a serial killer.

“Is it Corrections, or Errata?”

The first inkling of linguistics as a relevant avenue of investigation comes to Fitz when he is mocked by his teammates for his pronunciation of the word water, or as he says, wudder, with his Philadelphia accent. Fitz has a revelation–what if there’s a wudder in the manifesto, some clue in the language as to the author’s origins? He invites a team of experts in all the topics relevant to the manifesto, including linguist Natalie Rogers. While the other academics contribute little, Rogers politely asks questions about the language in the text: does it say Corrections or Errata? It turns out to be an important distinction: the format of the manifesto matches the accepted format for dissertations written between 1967 and 1972. The first major clue: the Unabomber has a PhD. Rogers then tells Fitz about idiolect, the concept of linguistic variation at an individual level, or as Fitz calls it, a “linguistic fingerprint”. He is immediately taken by the idea, and it begins to shape his team’s investigation going forward.

Through this idea, clues start to reveal themselves: the Unabomber spells some words in unusual ways, which turn out to match an old style guide for the Chicago Tribune, indicating that he probably read that newspaper diligently at some point between 1949 and 1954. He uses outdated and offensive terminology for women and minorities, indicating his age as older than previously thought, probably at least 50. He’s meticulous, a perfectionist; he writes about his sophisticated philosophical ideas in a somewhat academic register. The picture painted by these clues looks quite different from the FBI’s original profile.

However, word choice and spelling aren’t the only tools at Fitz’s disposal. While grabbing dinner with Rogers, she humorously uses a nacho platter as a visual aid for explanation of the linguistic case for the Slavic homeland. She explains that linguists looked not only for the words the daughter languages had, but the ones they didn’t have. This inspires Fitz to look toward discourse analysis of the manifesto, and the concepts and topics not mentioned by the Unabomber.

Linguists can make a visual aid out of anything.

More clues and theories roll in: he doesn’t mention a family, or friends, and is likely very isolated. He doesn’t appear to have a phone, and doesn’t seem to know about computers, pop culture, or modern tech companies. Maybe, Fitz reasons, he’s been isolated for quite some time.

Eventually, the big break in the case does come from language: when the Unabomber demands his manifesto be published on a national scale, Fitz convinces his boss, who convinces Janet Reno, that agreeing to the demand might result in someone recognizing the language in the document. Sure enough, David Kaczynski comes across the manifesto, recognizes the style and content, and is immediately concerned that his brother, Ted Kaczynski, may be the Unabomber. After hearing Fitz’s working profile, David is stunned by the close resemblance. This convinces him to share more evidence and give up his Ted’s location.

Finally, Fitz is able to help the team secure a warrant to search Kaczynski’s cabin, based on the close linguistic resemblance between the killer’s letters and Kaczynski’s letters to his brother. Language proves to be the tool that provides not only investigative leads, but also probable cause.

Where is the Unabomber’s “homeland”?

Although the account presented in Manhunt: Unabomber is fictionalized, this case is well known to be one that brought forensic linguistic analysis into higher regard. The series depicts the real value of author identification, dialectology, discourse analysis, and corpus analysis, as these techniques conspired to create a valuable and accurate criminal profile of the Unabomber.

Furthermore, even within the bounds of fiction, the story depicts a reality many linguists experience daily: the fascinating applications of linguistic analysis, and the frequent, frustrating resistance from those outside the field. Natalie Rogers is mocked by the other academics even when her insight proves useful to the investigation; Fitz is told repeatedly that language isn’t real evidence, and is repeatedly prevented from following what are truly real leads, with real investigative value. As a linguist, it is definitely a pleasure to watch Fitz and Rogers succeed and eventually lead the case to its close–even if, at the end of the story, they still don’t get the credit they deserve.

One qualm that a member of our staff had was how the Philadelphia accent was depicted in the movie. As a Philadelphian herself, she found issue with how the actor pronounced wudder, as well as the lack of common idiosyncrasies present in the Philadelphian dialect. While the film highlighted idiolects and their ability to reveal aspects of a person’s history, Fitz was played by an Australian actor and, at times, his native idiolect came through. Inadvertently, the show once again depicts how one’s own language can reveal more than initially meets the ears.

Have you seen Manhunt: Unabomber? If so, tell us in the comments what you thought! If not, we highly recommend watching the tale unfold for yourself. For more analysis of linguistics in pop culture, check out last week’s post about Arrival. And don’t forget to head over to our Fund Drive homepage to read more about us and donate TODAY. The LINGUIST List needs your help!

Linguistically yours,

Clare Harshey, jobs editor
on behalf of the LINGUIST List Team

EDIT: Although not mentioned in the post above, one clue used to secure the search warrant was the Unabomber’s inversion of the popular idiom: “you can’t eat your cake and have it too”. LINGUIST List reader Anna Finzel reached out to let us know that this is actually an inversion typically used in Nigerian English! Upon investigation, we found that the idiom is inverted in several other languages as well. So it should be noted that forensic linguistics, wielded recklessly, could also have hurt this investigation. In this case, if that clue had been relied on too strongly, it could have led the team to incorrectly narrow the suspect pool to Nigerian English speakers or other immigrant communities. Thanks, Anna, for sharing this important point!