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Interviews: Ask David Peterson About Inventing Languages 87

samzenpus writes: David J. Peterson is a language creator and author. He created the Dothraki and Valyrian languages for HBO's Game of Thrones, and more recently has created languages for the CW's The 100 and MTV's The Shannara Chronicles. His new book, The Art of Language Invention, details how to create a new language from scratch, and goes over some of the specific choices he made in creating the languages for Game of Thrones and Syfy's Defiance. David has agreed to give us some of his time to answer any questions you may have. As usual, ask as many as you'd like, but please, one question per post.
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Interviews: Ask David Peterson About Inventing Languages

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  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday January 18, 2016 @02:09PM (#51323861)

    Have you considered creating a thread-safe language which avoids buffer overflows? Do you think this would be made easier by making whitespace significant?

  • by blueshift_1 ( 3692407 ) on Monday January 18, 2016 @02:12PM (#51323879)
    What do you feel helps make a language feel natural (as though it was created and evolved by a culture) rather than something created more synthetically for a work of fiction?
  • I guess Americans have an advantage in that there's very little likelihood that they'll unconsciously put bits of an existing language in.

  • by wbr1 ( 2538558 )
    qatlh Hol chenmoH, chonayta' chenmoHta' neHqu'.
  • by TheCreeep ( 794716 ) on Monday January 18, 2016 @02:24PM (#51324001)
    Most people never bother to give a fictional language a second look, they only happen to listen to the way it sounds, in passing. This makes the vocabulary and the distribution of letters / letter combinations the most important part. What, then, is the point of working on the grammar and syntax of a synthetic language, rather than using simplistic ones? Is it for the benefit of the language geeks out there, is it art for art's sake, or does it affect our perception of that language in ways we don't necessarily see?
    • by gstoddart ( 321705 ) on Monday January 18, 2016 @02:39PM (#51324137) Homepage

      I offer a counter example of just how many speak Klingon.

      I should think it's better because it sounds more authentic than someone standing there going "booga booga", and because if you plan on sub-titling things, people might notice if you don't make an effort. Especially if a phrase will be used more than once.

      I've watched a bunch of special features/making of for various movies, and the ones which do this can build in much more complex layers and nuance, and sell it as a believable thing ... from Tolkien to the latest Superman, the added depth of creating your own languages makes it seem more plausible and real than "booga booga".

      My favorite example of this came from the movie Ultraviolet [], which admittedly isn't the best piece of cinema ever. There is a spot in which someone, ostensibly a Chinese speaker, says "xin loi" to say "sorry", which through a Vietnamese friend I recognized as not Chinese but Vietnamese.

      If you just have actors say any old gibberish, or pass off one language as another ... someone WILL notice. In that case someone must have decided any Asian language would suffice, because it all sounds the same anyway.

      If I spotted it, and I know no more than about 3-4 words of Vietnamese, every Chinese and Vietnamese speaker heard it and went "WTF was that about?".

      • Back when George Lucas gave a crap, the story is that he sampled a number of languages for Star Wars. I think either the Ewoks (or maybe Jawas) are actually speaking a rare dialect from Mongolia and Nien Nunb (Lando's copilot) speaks a language usually heard in Kenya.

        As for Klingon, the syntax was purposely designed to make it sound alien, and this is especially noticeable if you try to learn a few phrases. To most Western ears the word order is pretty much backwards; it's generally object-verb-subject, but

      • Not sure what you're disagreeing with me on. I never suggested that having vocabulary and a certain set of sounds was useless. In fact that's the one thing I said mattered most. My question was regarding the grammar (note the title of the comment). I asked what's the use of creating a sophisticated grammar, rather than using the simplest one.

        For example, can you tell which one is klingon and which one has the words jumbled around? Can you tell the difference?

        vavlI’ quv Say’moHmeH nuj bIQ
        • by tepples ( 727027 )

          What some people refer to as "simplest grammar" is probably isolating morphology []. This is more common in creoles (languages recently formed out of a pidgin) than elsewhere. English itself is a product of partial creolization, namely with Norman French after the invasion of 1066, which is part of why it's less inflected than its close cousin German. Using simple or not-so-simple morphology shows whether or not the language is widely learned by second-language learners.

          But isolating morphology is also common

      • by dcw3 ( 649211 )

        ... from Tolkien to the latest Superman, the added depth of creating your own languages makes it seem more plausible and real than "booga booga".

        Yup, about as plausible as hobbits and kryptonite. I can appreciate the desire to make fiction seem more realistic, but find it interesting how people can get pedantic about it.

    • No soup for you.... One question per post. Clearly a silly rule...
  • How do you decide to what extent a language will have less polite/more naughty aspects, and how do you decide what they are?

    Almost every language will have some kind of swearing, or double-entendres, or other aspects which aren't purely syntactic.

    Obviously a warrior race is going to have much more bawdy aspects to their language than a race of monks.

    Surely delivering insults can be as integral to a language as merely conveying an idea.

    • I'd love to see a language as (obviously) sleazy and duplicitous as Washington/Madison Avenue English. Something completely content-free, where the real meaning is 180 degrees out of phase to what's being said.
      • I'd love to see a language as (obviously) sleazy and duplicitous as Washington/Madison Avenue English. Something completely content-free, where the real meaning is 180 degrees out of phase to what's being said.

        You haven't seen the presidential debates yet, have you?

  • by TheCreeep ( 794716 ) on Monday January 18, 2016 @02:27PM (#51324041)
    Have you ever worked on a project like a book/app/website/parallel reality game where the reader/player's role would be to decipher one of your synthetic languages, given clues? Does that sound like something you would consider doing?
  • Isn't it kind of perverse to create languages that people don't understand when the purpose of language is communication?

    • Another purpose of language is identification and differentiation. Language serves a purpose even to Robinson Crusoe. On a cultural level, matters are quite similar: Same language, same culture. Different language, different culture. Moreover, there are words in my own mother tongue whose meaning I don't know. Probably even words that I don't know. What makes the French the French? First and foremost, their language, doesn't it?
  • Not a Question... (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Stormy Dragon ( 800799 ) on Monday January 18, 2016 @02:34PM (#51324097) Homepage

    ...but I just have to marvel at the degree of specialization in advanced economies such that "fake language designer" is actually a viable career possibility.

    • Is this any different than "spaceship model designer" or "cinematographer" or the guys who designed the weapons used by Orcs in LOTR over at WETA?

      If there's suddenly a lot of people trying to have authentic sounding languages in their films, there will be a market for people who have shown they can do it.

      But it's probably linguists doing this thing who were already working that field. I doubt you'll suddenly start seeing "fake language designer" showing up as a major any time soon ... the market probably i

      • Is this any different than "spaceship model designer" or "cinematographer" or the guys who designed the weapons used by Orcs in LOTR over at WETA?

        A bit. Pretty much any SciFi or fantasy film is going to have those, but only a small minority bother with made-up languages.

  • by fredrated ( 639554 ) on Monday January 18, 2016 @02:58PM (#51324237) Journal

    what's the point?

  • by shoor ( 33382 ) on Monday January 18, 2016 @03:09PM (#51324295)

    There can be intense debates about the merits and flaws of one computer language versus another. Some languages have tried to be able to do everything and they usually don't catch on. (PL1 might be the first example.)

    Natural human languages are not, for the most part, designed, though grammarians may sometimes try to 'fix' them a bit. But they have flaws. The easiest things to point out are the ambiguities and redundancies. (Some redundancy might be a good thing, allowing a listener to guess at meaning when a speaker isn't heard perfectly.)

    Do you deliberately put flaws in languages or, on the other hand, try to design 'ideal' languages that are somehow better than the naturally evolved ones?

  • Languages are affected by the cultures they are used in. I think this is mostly a matter of vocabulary. In Japanese for instance, you would use a different word for 'brother' if it was your own brother as opposed to someone else's brother. In fact there are different words for older and younger brother. That says something about Japanese culture. Do you incorporate things in your languages that specifically reflect the cultures involved?

  • by bluefoxlucid ( 723572 ) on Monday January 18, 2016 @03:15PM (#51324335) Homepage Journal

    Any thoughts on Esperanto (International), Lojban (Semantic), Solresol (Representative of French), Sindarin (Tolkien), Drow (Dungeons and Dragons), and Klingon (Star Trek)?

    I've noticed Esperanto seems to produce propaedeutic effects by either loading quickly (it's *fast* to learn) or directing more attention to the analysis of a language's structure (by nature, it encourages the student to do this). It's a very structured language, in terms of word construction.

    Lojban is supposed to be unambiguous; I think Esperanto achieves that exactly as well, due to its grammatical structure, in so much that Lojban is *semantically* unambiguous (we know what in the sentence represents the subject, verb, direct object, adjective, adverb, etc.) but can be *conceptually* ambiguous. Your thoughts?

    This leads to things like Solresol, Sindarin, and Klingon. They all seem to have a point: Solresol encodes French to music; Sindarin is supposed to "sound pretty"; and Klingon is supposed to sound harsh. How do people come up with this kind of thing? Is that even a valid concept? Is there any interesting aspect of these sorts of languages which I should consider, or are they just as essentially bland as any other?

    • by Livius ( 318358 )

      The biggest obstacle to Esperanto is way that zealots over-sell it. It is easier to learn than natural languages, but not effortless the way some would have you think.

      • The term "effortless" is a meaningless word used as an undefined quantifier. It functions as a qualifier to suggest a steep learning curve, without suggesting what that might mean; typically it acts as hyperbole.

        I've heard quotes from 4 to 16 times as fast--25% down to 6.25% as much effort--to learn; I don't know how much I believe that, and can't test on myself because I learn more quickly than others (I'm attentive to information; it's a habit that enables me to learn faster, when I'm not being incredi

    • Lojban is supposed to be unambiguous; I think Esperanto achieves that exactly as well, due to its grammatical structure

      Justin Rye has some choice words about Esperanto [], including plenty of ambiguities and latent biases.

      This leads to things like Solresol, Sindarin, and Klingon.

      One of which is much older than the other two, which is important for the following reason: Tolkien's Elvish languages (Quenya, Sindarin), the Klingon languages of Star Trek (Klingonaase and tlhIngan Hol), and the language of the Drow in Forgotten Realms each exist to serve works associated with one copyright owner. Would a language be considered an uncopyrightable "useful artifact", much like a style of clot

      • Esperanto's structure is by context of word form. It's essentially word salad, and the words have affixes telling you if they're subject, verb, or direct object; they can come in fairly arbitrary order within a clause. I prefer the rigid structure of Japanese (as well as its extreme contextuality), but I must admit Esperanto does a fair job of telling you what you're talking *about*.

        I doubt you could claim copyright on a language. It's information, in a generalized form: claiming copyright to a languag

        • Put these together and you get a fairly direct legal conclusion: information *about* a conlang isn't copyrighted, because it isn't created in form (textbooks, dictionaries) by the creator of the conlang

          I just thought of a different legal theory that could be used to claim copyright in a constructed language. A language's lexicon is a set of names of things. In the API of a programming library, the set of functions is also a set of names of things. But in Oracle v. Google, a U.S. court of appeals upheld copyrightability of the "structure, sequence and organization" of the Java standard library's API on May 2014. (It remanded to the district court the question of whether copying said API for purposes of int

          • That's a distinctly odd case. Such cases have appeared before court many times--notably Apple v. Microsoft--and the courts have frequently claimed interface is not copyrightable. This is the basis of UNIX, as Bell Labs was unable to sue anyone for implementing a UNIX interface or defining a POSIX standard.

            I don't understand how "structure, sequence, and organization" is in any way separable from an API. An API *is* structure, sequence, and organization.

  • by Idontpostmuch ( 918650 ) on Monday January 18, 2016 @03:18PM (#51324359)
    On a Reddit AMA you said that you don't think any constructed International Auxiliary Language has a good shot of becoming a world language "for a million reasons that have nothing to do with language." I would be interested to hear about some of those reasons.
  • Certain crated languages enjoy at least a limited amount of usage outside of their original contexts, with two obvious examples being Klingon and Tolkien's family of elvish languages. Do your foresee any of the languages you've created thus far being used outside of their respective TV series?

  • by BitterKraut ( 820348 ) on Monday January 18, 2016 @03:55PM (#51324677)
    It sometimes bothers me that in the movies, people hardly ever make any grammar mistakes. Not even children. And when they do, it usually sounds artificial. Apparently, speaking like an ordinary person does is even harder to imitate than drunkenness. Now our obsession with grammatical correctness is certainly a very recent development in the history of the human species. I doubt very much that ordinary Roman citizens, or ancient Greeks, let alone Egyptians or Babylonians, ever mocked or corrected each other's grammar. I'd rather think that when people understood what you meant, your grammar was considered correct, so to speak. (Actually it wasn't considered at all.) Do the artificial languages you create, when they are spoken in fictional communities more archaic than our own, allow for more realism with respect to how people actually speak in their daily lives?
    • I doubt very much that ordinary Roman citizens ... corrected each other's grammar.

      Wrong you are []

    • by Livius ( 318358 )

      Linguists record people talking and count the mistakes - people almost never make mistakes of grammar.

      • Now that surprises me. A lot, actually. I see people make mistakes of grammar all the time, and when once I inspected recordings of my own voice, I was shocked to find how many I make, especially if in a situation I wasn't prepared for. It is, for example, a very common mistake to make the numerus of a noun congruent to that of the immediately preceding noun, not the one it is really dependent of, as in "the main cause of errors that go unnoticed remain mysterious".
  • One of the things which distinguishes Tolkien languages from most other fictional languages is that they have a history. Tolkien didn't just construct some languages, he also developed dialects and plausible etymology relationships. Did you try to take this into account in any of your languages, and if so, how successful do you think it was?

  • Ever played around with languages that aren't intended for interaction between humans or human-like entities? Programming/deterministic languages being an obvious example, but some other possibilities being human to machine, machine to human, bidirectional human/machine, machine to machine, and vastly more alien actors as well (complex chemical signaling between plants for example)?
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  • I first read "An Introduction to Elvish" ( some twenty years ago, and I was astonished to learn the detail behind Tolkein's language work, in particular the history of the language, and the theory behind its evolution. When inventing a language, how much do you consider its development - not as its creator, but as a person observing its changes throughout time?

  • Have you considered suggesting the use of an extinct or endangered human language in a film or TV show? There are plenty of them, though of course not all are well documented and even those that are would need some new vocabulary words created.

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