Animated Video Explores the Invented Languages of Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones & Star Trek

“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 mainmanus, and mano, and in Tolkien’s real­i­ty, a vari­ety of words for peo­ple like kwen­dipen­di, 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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The His­to­ry of the Eng­lish Lan­guage in Ten Ani­mat­ed Min­utes

Speak­ing in Whis­tles: The Whis­tled Lan­guage of Oax­a­ca, Mex­i­co

Down­load Eight Free Lec­tures on The Hob­bit by “The Tolkien Pro­fes­sor,” Corey Olsen

Find Esperan­to Tips in our col­lec­tion of Free Online For­eign Lan­guage Lessons

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 Ange­lesA Los Ange­les Primer. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall.

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  • HilaryChapman says:

    I thought some­one would have com­ment­ed by now on your men­tion of Esperan­to here. I see Esperan­to as a remark­able suc­cess sto­ry and very dif­fer­ent from the oth­er lan­guages you refer to. It has sur­vived wars and rev­o­lu­tions and eco­nom­ic crises and con­tin­ues to attract peo­ple to learn and speak it.nnnUnlike Dothra­ki and Klin­gon, Esperan­to works for prac­ti­cal com­mu­ni­ca­tion! I’ve used it in about sev­en­teen coun­tries over recent years. I rec­om­mend it to any­one, as a waynof mak­ing friend­ly local con­tacts in oth­er coun­tries.

  • Brian_Barker says:

    The com­ments about Esperan­to are yet anoth­er attempt to den­i­grate this inter­na­tion­al language.nnHowever dur­ing a short peri­od of 125 years and despite per­se­cu­tion by both Hitler and Stal­in, Esperan­to is now in the top 100 lan­guages, out of 6,800 world­wide. It is the 22nd most used lan­guage in Wikipedia, ahead of Dan­ish and Ara­bic. It is a lan­guage choice of Google, Skype, Fire­fox, Ubun­tu and Facebook.nnNative Esperan­to speak­ers, (peo­ple who have used the lan­guage from birth), include, World Chess Cham­pi­on Susan Pol­ger, Ulrich Bran­den­berg the new Ger­man Ambas­sador to Rus­sia and Nobel Lau­re­ate Daniel Bovet. Financier George Soros also learnt it as a child.nnThe study course is cur­rent­ly receiv­ing 123,000 hits per month. That can’t be bad :)

  • norse says:

    Pop­u­lar­i­ty does not good make.

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