Non-Fiction Reviews

From Elvish to Klingon: Exploring Invented Languages

(2011) Michael Adams (ed.) Oxford University Press, £12.99 / US$19.95, hrdbk, 294 pp, ISBN 978-0-192-80709-0


This is a smartly-marketed, fragmented and incomplete book, but mainly in a positive way. Its key innovation, which is also its main flaw, is in trying to arrange all forms of invented languages on a very long and sometimes tenuous spectrum. So Modern Hebrew and Cornish and Hawaiian are treated alongside Esperanto and its predecessor Volapük alongside vocabulary inventions such as Newspeak and Nadsat alongside fully-fledged literary languages like Klingon and Elvish. It is not really a long way from Klingon to Elvish in terms of motivation, function and emblematic poetic value, but it is a long imaginative stretch from real historical languages with living or once-living speakers. The publishers have gone for a handsome-looking book with a baited hook of a title, when in fact the subtitle – 'Exploring Invented Languages' – is the real description. The editor claims that there are more invented languages than natural ones, so the book does not claim to be comprehensive, and it isn’t.

The eight chapters are authored largely by highly respected academic linguists and literary scholars, and overall but not exclusively the tone retains that scholarly flavour: a reader needs something more than a school-level set of knowledge about language and linguistics to be able to follow some of the material, while elsewhere the exposition is accessible and even journalistic. There is, then, a little something for everyone, but I suspect each person encountering this book would have liked a book-length treatment of their own nugget. For example, there is an excellent book to be written about the poetics of literary, cinematic and gaming invented languages; another excellent book on the sociolinguistics of revitalised languages and language-promotion; another excellent book on dialect, accent and its uses and abuses in literature; and another excellent book on the history and ideologies of auxiliary languages like Esperanto or Air-Traffic Control English, spelling reform and the academies and government policies that sustain them. Each of these finds a place in this collection, which makes it at once suggestively rich in local detail but sketchy in coverage.

There is no listing of contributors' biographies in the book, aside from a brief intro by the editor, and in fact my quick web search gives a flavour of the interdisciplinary nature of the chapters. Arden Smith has a PhD in linguistics from Berkeley and is a leading light of the Elvish Linguistic Fellowship, devoted to the study of Tolkien’s invented languages, but in this volume his chapter provides a clear survey of the history of auxiliary languages including Volapük and Esperanto. My old colleague Howard Jackson is a Professor of linguistics and brings his expertise in lexicology to Orwell’s Newspeak from 1984 and Burgess’ Nadsat from A Clockwork Orange – both primarily merely glossaries of vocabulary without much grammar. Edmund Weiner and Jeremy Marshall are editors (lexicographers) at the Oxford English Dictionary, and exercise their expertise as Tolkien researchers in a chapter that also offers a perfect blend of linguistic description and literary effect.

Chapter 5 details the phenomenon of the Star Trek language Klingon, written by its inventor, linguist Mark Okrand, with sociolinguists Judith Hendriks-Hermans and Sjaak Kroon, and the editor Michael Adams, who himself is primarily a specialist in the history of the English language at Indiana University. James Portnow, game designer and journalist, contributes a chapter on video game language, including 1337 or Leet, an extreme form of fundamentalist texting or ‘digital calligraphy’ which substitutes numbers and keyboard symbols in English spelling – the sort of thing that your IT manager loves in a password. Where this chapter is more journalistic and bloggy, the next chapter by Professor of theatre and drama Stephen Watt – on the playful Irish material in Joyce, Beckett and Muldoon – is high college literary criticism. Again, this stretches the bounds of the book’s topic to include as invented languages the close linguistic creativity of these literary writers. Lastly, and stretching the definition in another direction, the eminent Oxford University sociolinguist Suzanne Romaine considers revitalised languages as invented languages, including in different ways Modern Hebrew, British Cornish, Breton, Hawaiian, Welsh, Maori and Galician. To add to the fragmentary effect, the editor adds eight appendices over fifty pages which are sort of elongated scholarly endnotes on the matter of the contributors' chapters.

The science fiction fan in me wanted more on Babel-17, Marain, Ragi, Fremen, Qwghlmian, Utopian, Laadan and other other-worldly languages. The literary critic in me wanted more on canonical creativity. And the sociolinguist in me wanted more factual accounts of language extension and promotion. This book is expansive enough to tickle the interest and leave you wanting more – in both a good and bad way.

Peter Stockwell

For an average SF fan's take see Tony Chester's review of From Elvish to Klingon.

Peter Stockwell is Professor of Literary Linguistics at the Faculty of Arts, Nottingham University. He works in literary linguistics, which broadly covers the fields of stylistics, narratology, cognitive poetics, and the sociolinguistics of literary reading.

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