Learning a Fantasy Language? Apparently There’s an App for That

I work part time at an institute that runs classes in a whole range of foreign languages. Real-world languages, that is – like French and Arabic and Japanese. On our feedback forms at the end of each course, we ask students to suggest any new languages that they would like us to offer in the following year. One day a colleague came to me, confused, with a feedback form in hand, and asked:

“What’s Dothraki?”

I couldn’t help but smile. Obviously one of the students had been having a bit of fun with the feedback form, and my colleague had unwittingly brought it to the one person in the office that was likely to get the joke.

Dothraki, I explained, is a fictional language from the Game of Thrones world. It’s based on a few phrases spoken by the Dothraki people in the original books, and was developed into a fully-fledged language by a linguist for use on the TV show.

My colleague and I had a laugh. I suggested that as an April fools joke, we could advertise new courses in Dothraki, Elvish and Klingon on our website. But then I wondered…

Would People Actually Enrol?

Personally, I love the idea of fictional languages, and I love the otherworldly feel a few foreign phrases can add when scattered through a fantasy book. I’m also in utter admiration of anyone smart and dedicated enough to invent a whole new language… but I wouldn’t learn one.

I’ve spent years learning French and German, and to a lesser extent Hindi. When I think of the reasons I learn these languages – to be able to travel and live in those countries, to communicate with family and friends, to understand another culture, to appreciate the beauty of the language itself – well, with a fictional language, it’s really only the last one that I’d be satisfying, and that’s not quite enough for me.

For some, though, it clearly is:

There’s An App For That

image: iPhone App MagnetsAn article in the Huffington Post just announced you can now buy an app to learn Dothraki.

In general, I can see the appeal of using language apps like these. I’ve used the Duolingo app to help with learning German (it doesn’t replace a real face-to-face class, but it’s helpful for memorising and revising vocab).

So I did some further investigation into the world of fictional language apps… and surprisingly, this is not the only app for a fantasy language out there.

There is an Elvish translator app, and a High Elvish Dictionary app. There’s an app for learning Na’vi. There are Klingon translators and keyboards and calculators and language suites. The more I looked, the more I could see that this was not a new thing. There are plenty of apps for fantasy language learners.

Fantasy and Science Fiction Languages

In case you were wondering, these are some of the fictional languages out there (and there are many more than this):

  1. Dothraki & High Valyrian – invented by linguist David J. Peterson and used in Game of Thrones TV show.
  2. Klingon – invented by linguist Marc Okrand and used in Star Trek universe. (You can watch Marc Okrand discussing how he developed the Klingon language)
  3. Atlantean – invented by linguist Marc Okrand for Disney’s 2001 film Atlantis: The Lost Empire.
  4. Parseltongue – the language of snakes from the Harry Potter books. Francis Nolan designed the version of Parseltongue used in the films.
  5. Na’vi – invented by linguist Paul Frommer and spoken by the Na’vi people in the film Avatar.
  6. Aklo – a secret, occult fictional language used in the works of several authors, including Arthur Machen, H.P. Lovecraft and Alan Moore.
  7. Alienese – used in graffiti or advertisements in the background of Futurama episodes. It’s more a script/cipher than an actual language, as almost all messages transliterate into English (offering extra jokes for fans dedicated enough to decipher them).
  8. Newspeak – from George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. Essentially a version of English used by the totalitarian government in the novel that removes language that conveys ideas of freedom and rebellion.
  9. Elvish (Quenya & Sindarin) – invented by J. R. R. Tolkien and used in The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion. Actually, Tolkien invented not one but many interrelated languages spoken by the peoples of Arda. The most fully developed were: Quenya (High-Elven – kind of like the Latin of Middle-Earth, poetic and old and rarely spoken) and Sindarin (Grey-Elven – the modern common tongue the Elves use in Lord of the Rings). For a full list check out this entry on the Tolkien Gateway.

There are also some fictional languages that I wouldn’t classify as being fantasy or science fiction languages, but that are interesting all the same: Simlish (from the Sims game), Esperanto (invented to be an international common tongue), Nadsat (from A Clockwork Orange), and Mangani (language of the apes from the Tarzan novels).

Oh, and if you’re a fan of the Supernatural TV series, and are wondering why the Angels use ‘Enochian’ symbols: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Enochian

Learning A Fantasy Language

Image: A Gateway to SindarinAlmost all of the above languages are learnable – i.e. there are either apps, dictionaries, translators, books, language institutes or other means through which you can learn them.

So there must be a demand for it, even if it’s a niche one. I’m sure a lot of these language apps and sites are simply created to promote the films or TV shows they are from (e.g. the Dothraki app). But there are a lot of apps that appear to have been invented by fans and enthusiasts, so obviously it’s not all just promotional hype. There are people who want to learn these languages. If you’re a mega fan of a fantasy or science fiction series, or you like the novelty of a new invented language, or you simply want to speak something only a few select others are going to understand (a bit like a secret code), it’s got a certain appeal.

Still, somehow I don’t think my language school would be able to get an Elvish course off the ground. People might be willing to download an app, but to commit to the cost and time of a face-to-face course in a language they will probably never really use? I doubt we’d get much interest, let alone find someone willing to teach it.

That said, I could be wrong. Maybe we could send an emissary to a Star Trek convention and try our luck…

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3 thoughts on “Learning a Fantasy Language? Apparently There’s an App for That

  1. I love the idea of fictional languages! I have a few in my fantasy series, Dragon Calling. Predominantly Faeren (the native language of the woodland dwellers), Horvish (the language of the mountain-dwelling creatures, which includes the main antagonistic race), and Helisal (an ancient language which is still in use, and which has been ‘woven’ with manna to form the Spoken vein of the magic I use in my fictional world).
    I haven’t really developed the first two with any real depth, but the third I’ve spent a lot of time on, including restricted pronunciations, words derived from a base ‘origin’ form, and a written alphabet.
    But, considering I’m not a linguist, it’s a but small accomplishment compared to languages like Klingon and Sindarin.

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    • Sounds like you’ve been very thorough with your language – is the script Latin or something entirely different? I especially like fictional languages when they’re woven in with the history or magic of the world, like yours are. The world in the book I’m currently writing has different languages that get referred to, but I’m doing everything I can to avoid actually writing any excerpts in those languages, because coming up with even the basics of a new language has so far been too daunting for me! I’m sure eventually I won’t be able to avoid it and I’ll have to bite the bullet… wish I could just hire a linguist 🙂

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  2. I heard about a fellow who knew enough Klingon to start dating a girl who did not know any English, clearly there are plenty of people out there who study artificial languages. If nothing else, you can confuse the hell out of a cop trying to give you ticket if you speak nothing but Sindarin to him…

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