As kids, everyone has their dreams and aspirations, and more often than not, they are a bit on the fantastic side. But I don’t think many of us have ever said, “I would like to become a professional ‘conlanger’”; a person who invents languages professionally. This is such a niche profession that people aren’t even aware that it exists! Because how can one “invent” a language? Languages have always just ‘existed’ and have been evolving since time immemorial, right? Well, conlangers and ardent fans of the recent television phenomenon, The Game of Thrones, would beg to differ.
Tell me more!
The most commercial aspect of a conlanger’s job is to create constructed languages for works of fiction. With so many works of fiction needing their own languages and with the fans of these works becoming increasingly demanding about the accuracy and consistency of the fictional universe, constructing languages is fast becoming one of the more important jobs in the entertainment business. For example, in the mythos of the Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien created more than 9 different languages and kept on honing them till the time of his death. In more contemporary media, TV shows like the Game of Thrones have languages like the Dothraki and High Valyrian, and the film Avatar had the alien language called Na’avi.
Cool, so how does a conlanger do it?
Naturally, the process of creating a conlang is very complex, but in a nutshell, the creator needs to either base his language on one or several existing languages and scripts, or to conjure up phonetic sounds, then words, then sentences and to create scripts which should go with the feel of the language. For example, a language which is musical and flows well will feel better with scripts that are artful and flowing. A rough sounding language, however, would work better with a blocky, disjointed script.
Initially, the conlanger may use the Latin script to write it down, and develop a new character set for the conlang later. He goes about this process in two ways: he either starts with a common sentence at random with random sounds, then works his way backwards or “reverse-engineers” the conlang. He then decides which words are the articles, suffixes, prefixes, nouns and so on, as well as how they are to be pronounced (long, short, emphasis or elongation of the sound). Otherwise he may start phonetically, choosing sounds which feel right and using them as building blocks to create words, then sentences, and then decide the grammar.
All of this is completely subjective though, and in the end, the objective is to achieve a language which is functional and coherent, and suited to the objective. Professionally, there is no huge requirement for conlangers and people mostly do it as a hobby. But it can certainly be a great hobby or a way to train your mind to think linguistically.
Conlangs outside fiction
The most famous “artificial” language outside the realm of fiction is Esperanto, which is officially classified as a constructed international auxiliary language. Esperanto was created in the later part of the 1870s and the early 1880s by a Polish-Jewish ophthalmologist, L. L. Zamenhof. He hailed from Białystok, which used to be part of the Russian Empire. According to him, he created the language with the objective of reducing the “time and labour we spend in learning foreign tongues” and to promote harmony between people from various nations. Esperanto has started spreading around the world as an easier alternative to English. Some countries like Sweden and China have even included Esperanto in school curricula. So it’s safe to say that L. L. Zamenhof’s dream of a language to end humanity’s barriers is on its way to fruition.