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A Brief History of Conlangs and Their Uses in Pop Culture

A Brief History of Conlangs and Their Uses in Pop Culture

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When you were a child, did you ever come up with your own language to discuss secret playground topics with your friends? Or perhaps you whispered some phrases in Quenya after watching some hobbits trample through Middle-earth on the big screen?

These aren’t just one-off words that a famed poet came up with for his performances, these are entire linguistically and grammatically correct languages constructed from scratch.
Constructed Languages (Conlangs) are one of our favourite topics in linguistics. They’re fascinating and can help you learn more about the structure of other languages. In this blog post, we will discuss what conlangs are, their history and their uses in academic literature and pop culture.
Most people will have heard of one or two of the more well-known conlangs listed in this post, and if you haven’t, then, as we say in High Valyrian, “Kirimvose syt māzis, nyke hope ao raqagon” (Thank you for coming, I hope you enjoy.)

The different types of conlangs

The primary difference between language and conlangs is that language develops naturally, while conlangs are artificial and are purposefully designed for a specific use case. There are many reasons to create a constructed language, such as ease of human communication, linguistic experimentation, and artistic creation.
Language is said to have existed for tens of thousands of years, and the first written language was invented around 3300 BC. Conlangs, however, developed more recently; the earliest documented case is Lingua Ignota (which translates to unknown language), developed by a 12th-century nun called Hildegard von Bingen, who created it as a secret language and used it as hymn lyrics so that she could have a closer connection to God.
Another example similar to Lingua Ignota is Balaibalan, the oldest recorded conlang outside Europe. It was constructed by an Ottoman mystic, Muhyi Muhammad Gulseni, in the early 16th century and used by his followers as a secret language that only a select few knew to gain a spiritual connection to their practised mysticism.
These creative inventors used their languages to write down their views of history and their stories and to create new words to expand their lexicon — just like we do today.
In terms of purpose, most constructed languages can broadly be divided into:
● “Engineered languages” (engelangs) which are further subdivided into logical, philosophical, and experimental languages, devised for experimentation in logic, philosophy, or linguistics.
● “Auxiliary languages” (auxlangs) or IALs (for International Auxiliary Languages), devised for interlinguistic or international communication.
● “Artistic languages” (artlangs), devised to create aesthetic pleasure or humorous effect (secret languages and mystical languages are also usually classified as artlangs).
A constructed language can have native speakers if young children learn it from parents who speak it fluently. There are roughly 200 to 2000 who speak Esperanto as a first language, and a member of the Klingon Language Institute, Dr. d’Armond Speers, attempted to raise his son as a native (bilingual with English) Klingon speaker.

Linguists and philologists have created many conlangs

In the early 17th century, groups of linguists and philologists began constructing languages meant to correct natural language’s wrongs, called “philosophical languages”. They did this better to understand the formation of language and its origins, and though most were not widely used, they were the stepping stones for the creation of conlangs for future linguists.
The main problem with “philosophical languages” is that the basic lexicon corresponds to the linguists’ map of reality and tends to be very much a product of its time. Once new ideas and understandings develop, the language starts to cease usefulness unless the language is revised or relaxed, which opposes the primary concepts of some philosophical languages.
As time passed, “auxiliary languages” started to gain popularity in the late 19th century, with the desire to create universal communication between cultures. One of the most famous practical conlangs is Esperanto, which was invented by L.L. Zamenhof in 1887 when he was sick of seeing people kill each other over their native languages; he wanted a language that everyone could speak quickly so they would stop fighting each other over differences in nationality or ethnicity. It initially started out strong, but with the unfortunate events of both World Wars driving a wedge in the peaceful adoption of the language, Esperanto gradually faded away until a slight resurgence in the late 20th century, where it now has a relatively comfortable following.
Conlangs come in a variety of shapes and specific use cases. Some additional notable examples can be seen below:
Toki Pona
A philosophical, minimalist language with 120-137+ words, with over 700 speakers, known for its small vocabulary and easy acquisition. It was developed by Sonja Lang to try and simplify thoughts and communication.
A tonal language oriented towards women. It was created by Suzette Haden Elgin to test if natural languages are biased towards men and to compliment her science fiction series, Native Tongue.
A significant effort to systematize the international scientific vocabulary. It aims to be immediately comprehensible by Romance language speakers and, to some extent, English speakers.
Lingua Franca Nova
An auxlang created by George Boeree and further developed by many of its users. It is based on the vocabulary of Romance languages, and with creole-like simplified grammar, it is very straightforward to learn, similarly to the “Pidgin” languages.
A conlang designed by Dr. Hans Freudenthal. It was made to be understandable by any possible intelligent extra-terrestrial life for use in interstellar radio transmissions. Because it doesn’t rely on any “earthling” based syntax, it has the potential of being a bridge language between diverse, intelligent species.
A difficult language designed to express deeper meanings briefly and clearly. It tries to minimize the vagueness and ambiguity in natural human languages, using its excessive grammatical complexity.

Conlangs in Fantasy and Pop Culture

Conlangs are not just for language nerds; they’re also popularly used in literature and film to enhance world-building. As fascinating as the auxiliary and philosophical languages are, the next part will focus on the wealth of artistic and fictional languages found throughout popular fiction.
Artlangs are the languages you will be most familiar with, and in most cases, they aren’t fully fleshed out, as they are usually created for a specific scene in a book or film where required. However, some have been fleshed out by the original linguists or by avid fans for fun and to share in the sense of communal creativity (for example, Na’vi and Dothraki).
A Brief History of Conlangs and Their Uses in Pop Culture

Lord of the Rings and the new show, the Rings of Power

JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series famously uses his own made-up languages, including 15 Elvish dialects (most notably Quenya and Sindarin) and languages for the Ents, the Orcs, the Dwarves, the men, the Hobbits and more.
The elvish language spoken by elves in Middle-earth is one of the most famous conlangs. This language was designed primarily for aesthetic purposes—to give his world a sense of beauty and magic—but it also serves as a tool for character development throughout his novels and their adaptations on screen: Elvish characters are often depicted speaking English with each other while they speak their native tongue amongst themselves (and sometimes even when they’re alone).
What is most fascinating about the Elvish language is that Tolkien created variations set across multiple 1000-year periods in his stories to show how the language evolved and how different regions speak different dialects of it.
Tolkien created numerous works and poems in the Elvish language Quenya since its creation in 1910. Though he never created enough vocabulary to make it possible to converse in Quenya at the time correctly, fans have been trying to expand the language unofficially since the 1970s.
With the release of the new series, The Rings of Power, there has been a revival of fans learning the language due to its popularity of the new series.
A Brief History of Conlangs and Their Uses in Pop Culture

Game of Thrones and its dragon inspired language

Game of Thrones is an HBO show based on the book series A Song of Ice and Fire. In the fictional world of Game of Thrones, there are two main languages: High Valyrian and Dothraki. The creator George R.R. Martin uses some 20 different languages throughout his books and original television show, which recently expanded with new High Valaryian words and phrases in the spin-off show House of the Dragon.
High Valyrian is spoken in large parts of Essos (the eastern continent), but it’s also spoken by some people in Westeros (the western continent). Dothraki is spoken only by nomadic horse tribes who live beyond the great river that divides Westeros from Essos.
Both languages were constructed by David J. Peterson, who also created other conlangs featured on Game of Thrones, such as Low Valyrian (the language used by the people in Slaver’s Bay). He had a difficult two years adapting the language from the meagre 56 Valyrian phrases in the books for the show. Still, as with the show’s success, he succeeded; and it has become a distinctly memorable language.
A Brief History of Conlangs and Their Uses in Pop Culture

Star Trek and the ways of Klingon

Klingon is a conlang that has been around since the 1980s and is spoken by the fictional alien race, the Klingons. It was created by Marc Okrand, whom Paramount Pictures hired to develop the language for Star Trek: The Motion Picture. However, its initial usage was minor and gradually grew in use with the popularity of the show’s run.
Okrand based his creation on the Native American language Nahuatl, which he combined with some elements of Cantonese, English and German. It was deliberately designed to sound alien, to enhance the effect on screen.
Klingon eventually became the unofficial sci-fi language for fans (comparable to Elvish being the language for fantasy fans) and with a variety of books fully published in Klingon and global communities that practice and converse in the language, it has expanded far from its singular use on a TV show.
A Brief History of Conlangs and Their Uses in Pop Culture

Avatar and the Na’vi

Na’vi is a conlang spoken by the famously blue Na’vi people in the 2009 American science fiction film Avatar, written and directed by James Cameron.
The Na’vi language was created by the linguist Paul Frommer, who partly based it on the Māori language and mixed it with European and African Languages. While working on the language, he visited New Zealand and opted to include some of the sound and Polynesian forms to bring a unique twist to the conlang.
The Na’vi language has been growing and expanding due to the work of eager fans and the language’s creator. It has an active speaker base from around the world that continually influences and shapes the growth of the language, especially since James Cameron is working on the four upcoming sequels to the franchise, so there is a definite need to expand the lexicon to support the scope of the films.
A Brief History of Conlangs and Their Uses in Pop Culture

Other Notable Examples

Other smaller artistic conlangs that you might have heard at some point include the following:
Languages across the Galaxy (Star Wars)
While the majority of languages spoken in the Star Wars series don’t qualify as conlangs, such as Droidspeak (Spoken by the droids) and Shyriiwook (Spoken by the Wookies), they do have a Tusken Raider sign language (seen in the recent Mandalorian series) that is based on ASL (American Sign Language) and Huttese, which has a few commonly used phrases, but by all accounts, is an incomplete language.
Alienese: (Futurama)
An alien written language was used in the show Futurama that was created as an in-joke to see how fast fans could decipher it. The dedicated fans (obviously) solved the first language almost instantly, and the second language (which was a bit more complicated) was deciphered shortly after.
Lapine (Watership Down)
A language used in the book series that is spoken by rabbits. The creator Richard Adams wanted the language to sound “wuffy, fluffy” and describes it as “the language of the countryside”.
Atlantean (Atlantis: The Lost Empire)
Marc Okrand (who created the Klingon language) also made the Atlantean language for the citizens of the mythical city of Atlantis. The writers designed the language to be a possible mother language for all of today’s natural languages. It was inspired by Sumerian and North American Indigenous languages to match the tone of the ancient city.
Barsoomian (John Carter)
One of the older languages on this list was initially used in the original 1917 book series. However, only 400 words or so were created by the creator Edgar Rice Burroughs. Paul Frommer (the linguist behind the Na’vi language) re-created and significantly expanded upon the language for the 2012 film John Carter.
Belter Creole (The Expanse)
Spoken by Belters, inhabitants of the asteroid belt and outer planets of the Solar System, it is a language created by Nick Farmer, who also made a couple of conlangs for the Star Trek: Discovery TV show. It was designed to be an evolution of various languages and dialects that co-existed for generations in close quarters together. It is a compound combination of all of them.
Nadsat (A Clockwork Orange)
Created by the author and linguist Anthony Burgess, Nadsat is a fictional Russian-influenced English language used by teenage gang members in the novel.
Newspeak (Nineteen Eighty-Four)
Created by George Orwell, Newspeak is a form of controlled English created by an authoritarian government to gradually reduce the capability of human thought, thus preventing rebellion. Newspeak follows most of the rules of English grammar yet is a language characterised by a continually diminishing vocabulary; complete thoughts are reduced to simple terms of simplistic meaning.

Where can you learn conlangs, and is it even necessary?

There are many reasons to learn a conlang. First, it’s fun! You get the feeling of learning something new depending on the conlang you choose, and it could be either easier or harder to grasp.
Secondly, learning these languages can help you grasp complicated linguistic concepts and make learning more difficult natural languages easier.
Thirdly, many people use constructed languages to communicate with each other across linguistic barriers: imagine being able to talk freely with someone from another country who doesn’t speak English but knows how to speak Klingon! This allows you to access a niche community of like-minded people, feel connected and offers the chance to broaden your horizons.
You can learn conlangs by reading books, taking an online course, or joining a community of conlangers. You can also attend local meetups to find people who share your interests. For those who don’t have access to these resources, there are many websites where you can learn the basics of understanding and constructing languages online.


This year has been a fantastic year for conlang enthusiasts! With House of the Dragon, The Rings of Power, Star Trek Picard and Discovery, and the upcoming Avatar the Way of Water, each of the unique languages in those franchises are significantly expanding their lexicon. With the love and detail placed into these worlds, we can firmly appreciate the effort the teams of linguists put into making each conlang sound as naturally as possible.
With all the varied use cases each conlang can offer its speakers, we hope this blog post has been an enjoyable, educational dive for you!
We may not have any native Klingon or Valyrian translators on staff. However, we do have excellent natural language translators available in over 60 languages to solve any translation or localization request you might have.
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