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To many, one of the coolest things
about "Game of Thrones"
is that the inhabitants of the Dothraki Sea
have their own real language.
And Dothraki came hot on the heels
of the real language that the Na'vi speak in "Avatar,"
which, surely, the Na'vi needed
when the Klingons in "Star Trek"
have had their own whole language
And let's not forget the Elvish languages
in J.R.R. Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings" trilogy,
especially since that was the official grandfather
of the fantasy conlangs.
Conlang is short for constructed language.
They're more than codes like Pig Latin,
and they're not just collections
of fabricated slang like the Nadsat lingo
that the teen hoodlums
in "A Clockwork Orange" speak,
where droog from Russian
happens to mean friend.
What makes conlangs real languages
isn't the number of words they have.
It helps, of course, to have a lot of words.
Dothraki has thousands of words.
Na'vi started with 1500 words.
Fans on websites have steadily created more.
But we can see the difference
between vocabulary alone
and what makes a real language
from a look at how Tolkien
put together grand old Elvish,
a conlang with several thousands words.
After all, you could memorize 5,000 words of Russian
and still be barely able to construct a sentence.
A four-year-old would talk rings around you.
That's because you have to know
how to put the words together.
That is, a real language has grammar.
In English, to make a verb past,
you add an "-ed".
In Elvish, wash is allu
and washed is allune.
Real languages also change over time.
There's no such thing
as a language that's the same today
as it was a thousand years ago.
As people speak, they drift into new habits,
shed old ones,
and get creative.
Today, one says,
"Give us today our daily bread."
In Old English, they said,
"Urne gedaeghwamlican hlaf syle us todaeg."
Things change in conlangs, too.
Tolkien charted out ancient
and newer versions of Elvish.
When the first Elves awoke at Cuivienen,
in their new language,
the word for people was kwendi,
but in the language of one of the groups
that moved away, Teleri,
over time, kwendi became pendi,
with the k turning into a p.
And just like real languages,
conlangs like Elvish split off into many.
When the Romans transplanted Latin across Europe,
French, Spanish, and Italian were born.
When groups move to different places,
over time their ways of speaking grow apart,
just like everything else about them.
Thus, Latin's word for hand was manus,
but in French, it became main,
while in Spain it became mano.
Tolkien made sure Elvish did the same kind of thing.
While that original word kwendi became pendi
among the Teleri,
among the Avari, who spread throughout Middle Earth,
it became kindi
when the w dropped out.
The Elvish varieties Tolkien flushed out the most
are Quenya and Sindarin,
and their words are different
in the same way French and Spanish are.
Quenya has suc for drink,
Sindarin has sog.
And as you know, real languages are messy.
That's because they change,
and change has a way of working against order,
just like in a living room
or on a bookshelf.
Real languages are never perfectly logical.
That's why Tolkien made sure
that Elvish had plenty of exceptions.
Lots of verbs are conjugated in ways
you just have to know.
Take even the word know.
In the past, it's knew,
which isn't explained by any of the rules in English.
In Elvish, know is ista,
but knew is sinte.
The truth is, though,
that Elvish is more a sketch for a real language
than a whole one.
For Tolkien, Elvish was a hobby
rather than an attempt to create something
people could actually speak.
Much of the Elvish the characters
in the "Lord of the Rings" movies speak
has been made up since Tolkien
by dedicated fans of Elvish
based on guesses as to what Tolkien
would have constructed.
That's the best we can do for Elvish
because there are no actual Elves around
to speak it for us.
But the modern conlangs go further.
Dothraki, Na'vi, and Klingon are developed enough
that you can actually speak them.
Here's a translation of "Hamlet" into Klingon,
although performing it would mean getting used
to pronouncing k with your uvula,
that weird, cartoony thing hanging
in the back of your throat.
Believe it or not,
you actually do that in plenty
of languages around the world,
like Eskimo ones.
Pronouncing Elvish is much easier, though.
So, let's take our leave for now
from this introduction to conlangs in Elvish
and the other three conglangs discussed
with a heartfelt quad-conlangual valedictory:
"A na marie!"