Recently I listened to a beautiful song by an Icelandic music group called Sigur Ros. I assumed the beautiful and ethereal song must be sung in Icelandic, so I headed to the Internet to find an English-language translation of the lyrics.
Surprisingly, there is no translation. The song appears to be sung at least partially in what’s known as a “constructed” language, Hopelandic, invented by lead singer Jónsi Birgisson. Enya has also used a language invented by her lyricist, and If you’ve ever attended a performance of Cirque do Soleil, you may have heard Cirqish, an invented language spoken only by the troupe and common in some of its work.
Clearly these artists use their invented languages to express what other languages cannot, or to evoke emotions without limiting meanings, or perhaps as a secret language known only to a few. Usually these are evocative sounds and have little of any grammar. However, science fiction and fantasy have made extensive us of invented languages that have at least some grammar, such as the Elvish of Tolkien and the Klingon of StarTrek, which fans are able to learn.
Constructed languages have a long history. Among the most interesting constructed languages are the “language of angels” of Hildegaard of Bingen, as well as the well known Esperanto, a constructed language its creator hoped would become an international language that could increase understanding among people of many countries. Today up to 2 million people may speak Esperanto, and about 1000 of them are native speakers who have learned the language from parents. You may not know that George Soros, the business magnate and philanthropist, is a native speaker who learned Esperanto from his father.
One of the most interesting recently constructed languages is Dothraki, created for the HBO series Game of Thrones. Dothraki is now heard by more people every week than Yiddish, Navajo, Inuit, Basque, and Welsh combined. David Peterson, who created the language, took great care to connect the language to the culture of the Dothraki, a civilization in which the horse is everpresent—in its religion, its transportation, its cuisine, etc. Instead of “How are you?” the Dothraki ask, Hash yer dothrae chek? or “How do you ride?” Peterson has developed a vocabulary of over 3000 words and a grammar for Dothraki, inspiring Dothraki dictionaries, and language learning websites. Peterson clearly understands, as linguists like Stephen Levinson do, that “the constructs of language, and much of its forms are . . .largely the products of cultural tradition.”
You can watch a great little video about the creation of Dothraki here.