The role of constructed languages in storytelling

Faculty: Arts, Humanities, Education and Social Sciences
School: School of Humanities and Social Sciences
Category: Language, literature and media

27 January 2020

Bettina Beinhoff

Constructed languages (or conlangs) are languages designed with a specific purpose in mind. While these languages are very different in their structure and the way they sound, they have one thing in common: they support the storytelling of the authors who work with them.

Conlangs are artificially created – rather than naturally developed – languages. Famous examples are Tolkien’s Elvish languages Quenya and Sindarin, Mark Okrand’s Klingon for the Star Trek franchise and Dothraki and High Valyrian, which David J Peterson created for the Game of Thrones TV series.

Conlangs can lend significant depth and credibility to stories. They can make characters more authentic and help actors connect with their character in ways that would otherwise not be possible (though speaking a conlang also makes learning lines harder – but it’s worthwhile).

In my research I work with language creators to find out how they try to achieve a specific effect with their conlang. For example, when they try to make the conlang sound appealing to the audience to support the characterisation of its speakers. This is exactly what Dr Paul Frommer set out to do when he designed Na’vi, the language spoken by the inhabitants of Pandora in James Cameron’s Avatar. He tried to make Na’vi sound pleasant by excluding sounds perceived as ‘guttural’ to many Western audiences. He added longer vowel sequences to the language to make it sound gentler. In addition, he had to make Na’vi sound very different from well-known natural languages, because – after all – it is spoken by people living on Pandora, a planet quite far from Earth.

In a study I am currently conducting, I test how people evaluate Na’vi (and other conlangs) without prior knowledge of these conlangs, ie participants are not told that they are listening to the language of Avatar. Preliminary results indicate that the design aims on which Na’vi was based have been very successful, and that our participants evaluate Na’vi as sounding pleasant.

The results of this research project are important beyond language creation. Indeed, the results we have gathered so far suggest that we quite easily associate meanings and sound (eg we find certain sounds unpleasant and others quite pleasant). This is a very useful finding which is relevant for wider issues in sociolinguistics.

Finally, while the most popular examples of fictional conlangs appear in film and TV (as the ones mentioned above), there is an increasing interest in conlangs in gaming. This started with the Dungeons and Dragons table top games and has since moved into digital games. The purpose of conlangs here is very similar to the one described above, with the added benefit of making the gaming experience more immersive.

Bettina Beinhoff, Course Leader, MA Intercultural Communication; Senior Lecturer, Applied Linguistics
Published to mark National Storytelling Week 2020


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