“Is there anything sadder than an Esperantist?” a friend once jokingly asked me. “Two Esperantists” might seem the natural response, but hey, at least they could talk to each other. Speakers of Esperanto, the best-known constructed language, have wound up as the butt of more than a few jokes since the tongue’s inventor Ludwig Lazarus Zamenhof first made his utopian linguistic creation public in 1887, intending it as a tool to unite a fractious, nationalistic mankind. (A noble origin, balanced by such less-noble uses such as that William Shatner horror movie.) Yet Esperanto has actually enjoyed singular success, by the standards of constructed languages. In the five-minute TED Ed lesson above (and the expanded one at TED Ed’s own site), linguist John McWhorter tells us about the invention of other, lesser-known “conlangs,” including Elvish, Klingon, Dothraki, and Na’vi. If you’ve never heard any of those spoken, don’t feel unworthy; maybe you just haven’t sufficiently explored constructed worlds like those in which Game of Thrones, Avatar, Star Trek, and The Lord of the Rings take place.
McWhorter makes a special point of Elvish since, in constructing it for use in The Lord of the Rings’ Middle-Earth, J.R.R . Tolkien made a linguistic effort with little precedent in modern literature. He took the pains, in fact, to construct not just a plausible Elvish language but a plausible set of Elvish languages. “Tolkien charted out ancient and newer versions of Elvish. When the first Elves awoke at Cuiviénen, in their new language the word for people was kwendi, but in the language of one of the groups that moved away, Teleri, over time kwendi became pendi. Just like real languages, conlangs like Elvish split off into many. When the Romans transplanted Latin across Europe, French, Spanish, and Italian were born.” Hence, in our reality, a variety of words for hand like main, manus, and mano, and in Tolkien’s reality, a variety of words for people like kwendi, pendi, and kindi. But Elvish now finds itself surpassed in grammatical complexity and breadth of vocabulary by the likes of Klingon, Dothraki, and Na’vi, whose fans have put as much energy into expanding them as their creators. And those interested in similarly robust “real” conlangs — i.e., those not built for a fictional realm, but for ours — might take a look at Ithkuil, whose creator John Quijada was recently profiled in the New Yorker by Joshua Foer. You’ll also not want to miss this past post on Open Culture where Tolkien Reads Poems from The Fellowship of the Ring, in Elvish and English (1952). Or just listen to the reading below.
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Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on literature, film, cities, Asia, and aesthetics. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall.