How do people make up languages for films/books? Do they go through a dictionary word by word and make up a translation for each one? Or is it more of a pig-Latin type process?


How do people make up languages for films/books? Do they go through a dictionary word by word and make up a translation for each one? Or is it more of a pig-Latin type process?

In: Culture

It varies, largely depending on how much time and resources they’re willing to devote. The easiest thing is to just have the actors make up a bunch of nonsense sounds on the spot, but then there is no consistency.

The next easiest thing is a cipher, just replacing one word with another and still using English grammar. That is fairly common.

But creating brand new languages is not actually that hard, so it is done pretty regularly, especially if it is being done for media that is going to last a long time. Dothrakhi and Klingon, for example, are both actual languages at this point with their own rules of grammar and vocabulary.

That strongly depends on how competent or ambitious said writer is. Sometimes they actually hire a linguist to help construct their languages and make an actual consistent language from the ground up – with vocabulary, grammar, and idioms to fit a real language. Often this constructed language goes far beyond what actually appears in the work it features in, but it helps give it an air of authenticity. Often they use a real language family as basis, but in some cases it’s made up. Tolkien, being the prolific world-builder he was, constructed [several languages to some degree]( Klingon for instance is a real language you can learn. You probably won’t get much use out of it in your day to day life, but you could learn it to a good enough degree to hold a conversation.

Sometimes you just need to construct enough of the language so that your characters can speak it to the degree required for the book. That language might never have a word for “Relax”, but it might have a couple of war-related phrases for that big battle sequence.

Sometimes it’s just pig-latin esque, but that’s a bit lazy and is easily found out: language is more than just english with a 1:1 word replacement.

It depends, really. In case of A Song of Ice and Fire, GRRM didn’t really invent any language. He just wrote what they were saying in English, and said ‘this is in Dothraki/Valyrian/…’. Or described how the language sounds like to someone that doesn’t know it. For the show, they did invent these languages, because there it’s harder to do this type of thing.
That being said, GRRM did make up a few words or phrases in his new languages.

On the other end of the spectrum, you’ve got Tolkien who (and correct me if I’m wrong here, I’m sure there are enough LotR nerds around) made the languages first, specifically Elvish if memory serves me. And from there, he went on to write his books.

So, it’s a spectrum. When writing for a book, you can go from anywhere between Martin’s way of describing the language, to Tolkien’s way of actually inventing a new one.
And even if you do invent a new one, you can also go far. Do they use the Latin alphabet, or a custom one? Is it just some transliterations (ie: a us this rune, b is that rune etc and words are just English words, in this new alphabet), or are the words different as well? How does grammar and syntax work? Is it like English: subject verb object; or like Latin where word order doesn’t matter that much? Are there grammatical cases, or not?
If you’re really interested, you can head over to /r/conlangs, a subreddit for constructed languages.

As others have said, it depends on how the writer feels. You can go from simply having words that mean x, y, or z; work on grammar structure and how a sentence is created (e.g. in what order your subject-object-verb is).

Maybe you delve into what sounds are commonly used, and what are infrequent or never found. Maybe a harsh people use a lot of words with D, K, T in them, while languages with high amounts of S and L are considered gentler or more refined.

Do you add in accents? How do they impact the sound of a word? Does using a different inflection change the meaning (e.g. kézì with a rise on the e and a decline on the i means something totally different than kĕzi where you have the fall-rise inflection just on the e).

Are there any things where one language will have a word (or multiple words) and another might lack it? A war focused culture may have many words relating to battle – dying with honor vs. dying in childbirth vs. dying in your sleep; another may revere something so much that they have a dedicated word for it, e.g. “our summer begins when the swallows come home to roost” being condensed down into Ōmùnīwāká (which in and of itself contains roots for summer, swallow, and home from that language).

Then you get the ones who are dedicated and do create at least a conversational amount of words for a language.

Tolkien for example was an academic who specialized in languages. He actually invented his fictions languages and built the world around them first before starting to write a story to use all of that in.

Of course not everyone can be a Tolkien. Sometimes they just make up some random gibberish words that aren’t part of an actual language.

With Klingon the language of the Klingon aliens from Star Trek, they started out with a few random phrases that didn’t mean anything, before they got a professional to build a consistent and complete language based on the original meaningless throwaway lines.

The Language in Avatar was created from the ground up by a professional who tried hard to make more alien than most created and constructed languages.

Some movie makers go the other way and include actual real world languages. Star Wars fro example had multiple instances of actors being encourage to speak in their native tongue as the makers didn’t expect many movie goers to recognize exotic languages like Kalenjin and it sounded alien enough.

Sometimes writers who haven’t actually studied any of that want to try their hand at creating a language. this mostly ends in embarrassment for them. At worst they come up with a cypher that just replaces english words with their made up words but keeping all the other parts of the english. This is especially noticeable when the writer only speaks a single language themselves.

At best they make up a language based on what they know, but all they know are indo-european descended languages so their alien or fantastic tongue ends up being a lot more familiar than languages actually used here on earth.

Most readers of course won’t know the difference, but some writers like to go overboard in their world building and think having an actual language is neat.