Creating New Languages for Film and TV
In the world of film and television, the story has always taken centre stage. After all, it is from the story that key elements such as plot, setting, characters, and conflict emerge. But what happens when you want to truly immerse the viewer in the story and create a whole new world? That’s when the creation “conlangs”—unique languages built specifically for film and television—come into the picture to further enrich the fantasy.
The creation of languages in the arts is not new. Imaginary languages have long since been used in literature, notably in works of fiction such as Jules Verne’s “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea,” in which Nemo’s crew speak a language that mixes Latin, French, and German. Although originally created and used in books, it is in movies and television that conlangs have gained strength and become powerful tools.
The art of creating a new language
Creating a conlang is a painstaking and precise process that involves not only expert linguists, but also directors and story creators.
Here are some of the key points to keep in mind when creating a conlang:
Cultural research: The first step—and perhaps one of the most important—is to define the cultural environment in which the new language will be set. This helps to establish the appropriate tone, vocabulary, and overall structure of the new language. The conlangs must be attuned to the culture and history of the world in which they will be used.
Phonetics and phonology: Designing the sounds of the language is essential to give it authenticity and coherence.
Grammar: Establishing grammatical rules is crucial for the credibility of a conlang. These rules can be based on the grammar of existing language or rely on a completely new syntax and morphology.
Vocabulary: Develop a set of words that reflect the culture and context of the fictional world, and successfully communicate the messages the creator of the film or series wishes to convey.
Writing system: A conlang writing system can be based on an existing alphabet, such as Cyrillic, a new writing system specific to the language can be developed.
Here are some iconic conlangs that have been created for film and television:
Klingon and Vulcan
These languages were created by Marc Okrand and were first heard in the “Star Trek” movies and series. They are two of the best-known conlangs and have a dedicated fan base. Companies such as Ultralingua Inc. have developed linguistic tools, including dictionaries and phonetic tools, to help people learn these languages. Since 1992 there has even been a “Klingon Language Institute” focusing on the study of this language and its surrounding culture.
Dothraki and Valyrian
Dothraki was created by linguist David J. Peterson, who won a contest organized by the creators of “Game of Thrones” in 2009. The author explains that its grammar is similar to that of Russian. Its guttural phonetics helped to immerse viewers in the vast landscapes of its history. Also created by Peterson for the Game of Thrones universe, Valyrian is based on Latin and Greek, as its creator wanted it to sound and feel like a living language. Both languages can currently be learned, as they have grammar and vocabulary that allow for fluent communication. According to CNN, around 1.2 million people are learning Valyrian.
Created by Paul Frommer for the movie “Avatar” in 2009, this conlang is spoken by the inhabitants of the magical world of Pandora. Na’vi consists of twenty consonants, seven vowels and four diphthongs, which achieves fluency and authenticity that contribute significantly to the cinematic experience. It has Persian influences in its grammar and some of the words in its vocabulary resemble Bahasa Malaysia.
Also known as “Minion Language” or “Banana Language,” this conlang was created by Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud, directors of the movie “Despicable Me,” to give life and personality to the Minions. Although not as complete or complex as other conlangs, it has left a mark on the film industry due to its unusual phonetics. This language relies heavily on onomatopoeia (words like “crash” or “bang” that sound like the noise they describe) and borrows words from other languages, such as English, Spanish, Italian, Filipino and Korean, to create an unexpected series of humorous sounds.
Quenya and Sindarin
J. R. R. Tolkien, author of the famous saga “The Lord of the Rings” and “The Hobbit,” created these two languages for his fictional world of Middle-Earth. Sindarin is based on Welsh and can be written with the Latin, Cirth, and Tengwar alphabets, whereas Quenya is influenced by Finnish, Latin, Greek and Celtic. Some authors consider them to be the most developed artificial languages of all times. In addition, Tolkien created fifteen different Elvish dialects and even a type of sign language used by the dwarves.
Thanks to advances in Artificial Intelligence (AI), the next few years could see the emergence of AI‑generated languages specifically adapted for fictional worlds. Future conlangs could also use more inclusive language representing linguistically neglected communities.
The creation of fictional languages in the film and television industry enriches our cinematic experience. As the industry evolves, the art of creating new worlds through language will continue to be integral to the development of captivating narratives and stories.
Have you ever invented a secret code or novel form of communication? If so, we’d love to know more about it!