Word Nerd: How many of these world-famous fake languages do you know?

24 Jul

Many of us have, at some point in our childhood, conversed in a language that is fake, or perhaps made up a “secret” code with our friends. Here are a few fake languages that people around the world share, thanks to pop culture, books, and movies.

Pig Latin: This is a “secret” language kids sometimes use for fun. It is based on English, and the words are formed by transferring the initial consonant of a word to the end of the word and adding -ay. So the Pig Latin word for Pig Latin is Igpay Atinlay. Its predecessor is Dog Latin, which is simply a parody of Latin. Even Shakespeare wasn’t above Dog Latin. In our time, perhaps no one has done more to promote this Latine de Canibus than Harry Potter creator J.K. Rowling, who has given us spells such as “Expelliarmus” and “Quietus”.

Elvish: Lord of the Rings nerds will be quick to point out that this is not one language, but at least two. British author J.R.R. Tolkien, who wrote the Hobbit books in the 1930s and 1940s, created not just whole languages but the entire fictional civilization known as Middle Earth. Before he became a fantasy novelist, he was a student of languages, and he had developed the Elvish language before he even wrote The Hobbit. Quenya, or High Elvish, is based on the Finnish language, and Sindarin (Low Elvish) is based on Welsh.

Nadsat: In his 1962 novel A Clockwork Orange, British author Anthony Burgess created an argot for the protagonist Alex his friends. The teenage boys use slang that is based on Russian. So for example, “friends” are “droogs”, and when you see something, you “viddy” it. In fact, –nadsat is a Russian suffix roughly equivalent to -teen in English (e.g. thirteen in Russian is trinadsat, fifteen is pyatnadsat, and so on).

Klingon: Originally created for the brutal and exploitative extraterrestrial species, also known as Klingons, in the Star Trek TV series (1960s) and films, this language has taken on a life of its own. Its creator, American linguist Marc Okrand, has published three books on the subject. Many important works of English literature have been translated into Klingon. Today it’s possible to learn the fictional alien language from Klingon Language Institute or Duolingo. There’s even an opera in Klingon, although, due to the lack of actual Klingon actors, the performers are usually human.

Dothraki: This one is familiar to Game of Thrones fans. It is the language spoken by the warlike Dothraki nomads who inhabit the grasslands of Essos. When he first started work on The Song of Ice and Fire (the book series on which Game of Thrones is based), American author George R. R. Martin, had no elaborate plans for the language. But when HBO decided to make the TV show, they had Martin’s snippets converted into a full-fledged language.

All fake languages are not equal. John McWhorter, Associate Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, argues that “constructed languages” such as Dothraki are much more than “codes like Pig Latin, or “fabricated slang” like Nadsat. “It helps, of course, to have a lot of words. Dothraki has thousands of words,” he says. But, he adds, it takes more than words to make a language. “After all, you could memorize 5,000 words of Russian and still be barely able to construct a sentence. A four-year-old would be able to talk rings around you. That’s because you have to know how to put the words together, that is, a real language has grammar. Elvish does.” Real languages also change over time and space, and Tolkien ensured that this “happened” to Elvish as well.

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By Uma Asher


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