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


Subtitled "Exploring Invented Languages" this is a fascinating and thought-provoking book, if occasionally baffling, edited and partly written by Adams, author of Slayer Slang – a Buffy the Vampire Slayer lexicon (also OUP). There are eight chapters, each with its own appendix, and a comprehensive index. References are given throughout. The book tries to explore why and how new languages are invented and what, if any, impact they have on society. The scope goes well beyond SF and fantasy, but there is much in here that will appeal to fans of those genres.

The self-acknowledged 'problem' with this book, made explicit in Adams' opening chapter, is "what constitutes a language?" as opposed to slang, invented vocabulary, or even "anti-language". Arguably the language of A Clockwork Orange and 1984 (discussed in chapter 3) are examples of the first two, whereas Polari, the language of homosexuals and lesbians widely spoken from the 1900s to the end of the 1970s, is given as an example of the latter. To my mind this last is passed over a trifle too quickly: even in the two books mentioned I think the reader can tell that Newspeak and Nadsat are 'slang', but anyone who has heard Polari spoken would certainly assume that they were hearing a 'foreign' language (which raises interesting questions about the differences between reading a language and hearing and speaking a language, questions that are well beyond the scope of this book and, rightly, belong in the realms of neuro-science rather than mere linguistics). Indeed, the case of Polari, I think, also raises questions about what, if any, differences there are between invented languages on the one hand and synthetic languages on the other (without, hopefully, getting into the vexed question of whether or not all 'living' languages are, in fact, synthetic by their very nature).

There is a further, though more common, problem – typified by the foregoing sentence – about how one employs language to talk about language without resorting to an artificial metalanguage. Can we even agree on meanings? When I use the word "invented" above, I mean 'languages where the vocabulary and grammar are made-up from scratch', whereas by "synthetic" I mean 'languages where the vocabulary is borrowed-but-pre-existing and the grammar is defaulted to the speakers native tongue'. These problems are, arguably, worse in print than when spoken, as one can use punctuation, typeface, bold and italic, etc. to try to make meanings more clear, but which might actually make things worse. Just look at this paragraph!

Chapter 2 deals with what I think the casual reader would best understand as being 'true' invented languages (or "international auxiliary languages"), such as Esperanto. This was quite popular for a while and there were even movies made in Esperanto which are still available, if you would like to hear it spoken, including one starring William Shatner in the mid-sixties (the name escapes me – look it up on IMDb if you're interested).   The problem of most IALs is, of course, that it hardly solves the 'problem' of translation between existing languages if you make everyone have to learn yet another bloody language! Besides which it is usage, more than anything else, which will ultimately 'decide' what does or does not become a 'common' language.   Obviously I'm biased, but I think that English serves the function admirably. This is partly because it has such a head-start, so to speak, but also because English is synthetic (in the sense given above) and is therefore prone to borrow, i.e. steal, so much of its vocabulary from other languages, as well as having an inherent grammatical flexibility; though the opposite is also true, as anyone who has heard Singlish can well attest. Mandarin or Cantonese, though arguably having more speakers, does not fit the bill because those speakers are more geographically bound than are speakers of (some form of) English. Chapter 3 mentioned above is mirrored in chapter 7, which deals with 'Oirish' inventions. However, once again, I think this is more to do with the inventive use of language, rather than having anything to do with invented languages per se.

From a fannish perspective, two of the more interesting chapters are 4 and 5 which deal with Elvish and Klingon respectively. Unfortunately, for me at least, the Tolkien chapter is pretty impenetrable. Not only do I have to cope with the fact that I've never liked Tolkien's work, but the chapter really comes across as 'academic' in the discussion of its topic (and I don't mean that in a good way!) and, therefore, defeats the object of a 'popular' book.   That the book is meant to have a wide appeal is evidenced by the title alone, but non-linguists will definitely have problems with this chapter. The Klingon chapter is more accessible, but points up its uselessness as a language since it alienates (pun-intended) non-speakers, including most of those, i.e. Star Trek fans, who one might have assumed would be most sympathetic. Chapter 6 deals with so-called gaming languages which are, and always will be, totally useless to non-players, and also languages such as 1337 (aka. leet) which I would call an exclusionary language, mainly intended for computer geeks with an inordinate love of ASCII characters – the kind of self-styled elite who enjoy a vicarious status through the exclusion of others, but who those others would really rather kick in the face while themselves enjoying the fact that the elite have excluded themselves from 'us' (and good riddance!).

The final chapter concerns itself with 'revitalized' languages, such as Hebrew, Cornish and Hawaiian. It is very interesting for many reasons, but one of the more fascinating (for me) is that it points up the futility of 'ownership' of a language. That is to say that the 'problem' for a revitalised language is "who gets to decide what the 'new' words are?" (or even how they're spelt!).   This topic is partly covered in some of the preceding chapters, but it comes to the fore here.   I hope it comes across that there can be no ownership of language since, if it is to be a living language, then the vocabulary and grammar will always be decided by usage and not by the dictate of some (usually) self-appointed guardian of the language.   Not that one really needs to look at revitalized languages to find an example of this futility. Just look at French: the Académie Français can have all the meetings it likes, but that will not make a blind bit of difference to the (wo)man on the street.

All in all, despite some minor quibbles, this is a very interesting read for the SF and fantasy fan, and you are bound to be pondering its contents long after you have put the book down.   Arguably these genres lend themselves to the concept of invented languages, much more so than 'mainstream' books.   Certainly SF itself can lay claim to a rich invented vocabulary, and in 2007 OUP produced Brave New Words: the Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction, and I thoroughly recommend both volumes to those whose reading of the genre is more than merely casual.

Tony Chester

For a linguist's take see Peter Stockwell's review of From Elvish to Klingon.

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