The Making of Hollywood Languages

 

Linguists aren’t restricted to studying the origin and use of different languages. “Conlangers” are linguists who create languages, some of which have made their debut in well-known Hollywood productions. Marc Okrand (Klingon language, “Star Trek”) Paul Frommer (Na’vi language, “Avatar”) and David J. Peterson (Dothraki language, “Game of Thrones”) are the masterminds behind three distinct Hollywood languages.

Last Friday, these three distinguished linguists spoke about their experiences in creating languages at the event “Linguistics Goes to Hollywood,” hosted by the UCSD linguistics department to mark its 50th anniversary. Hundreds of UCSD students, staff and faculty gathered in Price Center Ballroom B to hear what they had to say. 

“When we say invented languages, we think of sweaty sci-fi geeks,” UCSD Linguistics Language Program Director Grant Goodall, who moderated the event, said. “But what people don’t realize is that there is a very long and noble tradition of creating languages.”

Goodall said that invented languages were created as early as the 1800s to accommodate the increase of international trade and communication between people from different nations. This resulted in the invention of dozens of languages, including Esperanto — an auxiliary language that an ophthalmologist constructed in the late 1870s in hopes of fostering world harmony through language.

According to Goodall, Esperanto still exists today, with a population of less than a thousand speakers. Unlike the historical advantages Esperanto can provide us, though, Goodall said that the Klingon, Na’vi and Dothraki languages have their own advantages in that they reflect present time. Through this advantage, their usage has become widely popular outside the fictional worlds within which they were created.

“People are speaking Klingon better than I can, because they use it every day,” Okrand said. “A community has developed around the use of the language, and it’s an unexpected joy to see that there are people who are even writing Klingon poetry.”

All three conlangers agreed that the real challenge in creating a language for a movie or television series is finding a way to balance the exotic nature of the language with accessibility. 

“I came up with sound palettes for a way a language might sound,” Frommer, a communications professor at the University of Southern California, said. “For example, I would work with tone and distinctive vowel length in different existing languages, and then let James [Cameron], the director, decide what sounded best. It’s accessible because all sounds in Na’vi are found in one language or another.” 

Peterson, a UCSD alumnus, added that establishing sounds is easier than constructing a system that combines sounds into words. He explained the need to start with a prototype before evolving the language so that it has a more natural and authentic feel to it. So far, there are 3,500 Dothraki words, according to Peterson. In comparison, he said most spoken languages in the world have at least 50,000 words. English has over 100,000 words.

The far less extensive vocabulary that these invented Hollywood languages present doesn’t make it any easier for the actors and actresses who must bring them to life on the big screen. They work closely with the conlangers to get the pronunciation just right. Oftentimes, the conlangers are on set with the actors running through lines, and, between takes, the director will double-check that the line was delivered correctly.

“You learn when it is appropriate to correct one of the actors and when you need to just let go,” Frommer said. “You have this crazy language that the actors have never heard before; they have to memorize it, make it their own and on top of that, act.”

Perhaps much of the difficulty in learning the language comes with its inherent complexity.

According to the three conlangers, each of them generally avoids simplifying their created languages or merely throwing sounds together, as they know that their work will be subjected to close scrutiny on behalf of fellow linguists and fans. 

“I also wanted to have a good time while doing it,” Okrand said. “It’s much more interesting to create something with complexity.”

However, complexity doesn’t always mask mistakes. Okrand lightheartedly noted an entire website dedicated to listing mistakes he has made in Klingon.

Currently, Okrand, Frommer and Peterson are all working on new and upcoming language creation projects. Peterson said that he’s creating a language for a pilot show on the CW but cannot disclose what the show is or when it’s coming out. Okrand, even more mysterious than Peterson, could only reveal that his project will be released a month from now. Frommer, on the other hand, announced that there will be an “Avatar 2 and 3,” in which he will have the opportunity to expand the Na’vi language.

It doesn’t look like Hollywood will be seeing the end of these innovators of fictional languages any time soon.

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