20 May 2010

5 Fake Languages You Can Actually Learn

With all of the real languages in the world (somewhere between 3,000 and 8,000) you would think people had plenty of ways to communicate with one another. However, this assumption does not take into account mankind’s desire to improve upon that which is already here, or nerdkind’s desire to expand their cosplay to the nth degree and try to become the characters they portray. Or at least leave “normal” people out of the loop.

1. Elvish

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J.R.R. Tolkien is the king of geeks. As one of his subjects, I acknowledge this gladly. In Tolkien’s case, he invented the language because he was a linguistics man, and because it added flavor to his stories. It is amazing that he started writing the Lord of the Rings when he was 45, and managed to create a complex language with it’s own syntax and structure from the ground up, all the while writing a story so big that the publishing company decided to break his single story up into a trilogy.

The internet has several sites dedicated to exploring, interpreting and teaching elvish, or if you are ambitious enough to pay to learn them, there are several books on the subject. There are two dialects, Quenya and Sindarn, which complicates things a bit. All of the actors that spoke Elvish in the trilogy had to learn some degree of sentence structure in order to do their lines, which is why it flows so naturally in the movies. Tolkien actually created Middle Earth because he very much wanted to make a beautiful language from the ground up and apparently needed an excuse. Two real languages that inspired Quenya Elvish were Welsh and Finnish. To see how complex he made it, just take a look at the Quenya Wikipedia page. Also, you know people are taking a language seriously when they take the time to make an English to Elvish dictionary online.

Although some of the languages below could qualify as “partial”, Tolkien’s elvish is definitely a full-fledged language.

2. Klingon

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No offense to anyone who might be a fan, but Star Trek enthusiasts are probably the dorkiest nerds on earth, and the Klingon language reflects that. It is so well developed that there is an Institute that teaches it in Pennsylvania, that holds a yearly seminar to provide a platform for new people to learn the language, and existing aficionados to discuss it. The language was originally created by James Doohan (Scotty) for Star Trek the motion picture, and subsequently developed into a full language by Marc Okrand. The language is very much centered on the Star Trek series, so most of its words relate to the sci-fi world and aren’t quite suited to speaking about the modern world since phasers and starships aren’t nearly as common in real life. This probably works out fine, though, because I can’t imagine anyone wanting to learn Klingon, but not being at all interested in the Star Trek franchise.

People take this language so seriously that they often dress as Klingons for gatherings, and have translated both Hamlet and Much ado about nothing into the Klingon language. Also, in a much more bewildering and complicated venture, someone took the English translation of the Chinese book Tao Te Ching, and translated that into Klingon. Where Tolkien created a world in order to give ours a purposely pretty language, Star Trek has inadvertently given us an ugly, guttural, but surprisingly complete language. Thank you, Scotty.

3. Esperanto

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Sometimes, people just do things to try and make the world a better place. One of those things was Esperanto. it was originally developed back in the late 1800s as a way to make an easy to learn, phonetic language. The man who created it literally wanted to unite people by way of language. I knew a kid in high school who was teaching himself Esperanto, and let me say that if he was indicative of the type of people who try to learn the language, it is doomed (he was scary…) It does have quite a following, though, with somewhere between 10,000 and two million people spread out over 115 countries speaking it. That is a pretty rough estimate; they could have easily just said “between some and a whole bunch” if they wanted to skip the numbers.

You might be wondering why the Klingon entry didn’t have a picture of William Shatner, but this one does. That’s easy, The Shat is a fluent speaker of Esperanto. He didn’t just try to teach us to love by boning every alien woman he came across in Star Trek; in real life he speaks the universal language of unity. The image is from a purely Esperanto movie called Incubus, and if a cheesy horror flick can’t make a language popular, nothing can. Just look at Italian; they put out some truly awful and cheesy horror films back in the day, and millions of people speak that language

4. Atlantean

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Guess what? The guy who fleshed out Klingon? He made this one, too. Now, Disney movies aren’t usually ambitious enough to create languages for their native characters, but Atlantis wasn’t a typical Disney movie. It isn’t as full as the other languages detailed here, but I was impressed with the level of thought that went into developing a new language for a kid’s movie. The Wikipedia page is pretty long and detailed, although finding places to actually learn the language were pretty difficult to track down. Atlantean can be learned, but while the other languages have sources for learning it, it seems liek you are left with Wikipedia and the movie if you really want to known this one.

5. Na’vi

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Of course I would not miss this one; it literally inspired the article. While the others are interesting, I am both a hardcore science fiction fan AND pathetic Jim Cameron fanboy, so this one is right up my alley. Jim Cameron wanted a language that could be “realistically learnable” by the human characters in the movie, but not resemble any single human language. To do this he hired Paul Frommer, a professor and doctor of linguistics. The entire language was developed in six months back in 2005. Frommer worked hand in hand with the cast to help them speak it properly during filming, and expanded the language for the Avatar video game in 2009.

Na’vi was designed to be fluid and easy to listen to, and it seems to have done a good job of that; it did a good job of blending seamlessly into the movie without pulling you out when it was spoken.

Although the movie has only been out since December of 2009, there are already sites dedicated to teaching the language. It was designed to be alien but pleasant to listen too, and with the insane success of the movie, I am willing to bet this is going to be a long-lived nerd language in the future. Especially if Jim Cameron makes good on his suggestions that Avatar was part one of a trilogy.

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