April 6th, 2012
09:53 PM ET

A history of Hollywood's invented languages

Editor's NoteDavid Peterson is the creator of the Dothraki language used in the HBO show 'Game of Thrones.' Peterson not only created the language but also served as translator/dialect coach for select cast in 'Game of Thrones.' He is also a member of the Language Creation Society.  A 30-minute profile of Peterson will air on The Next List on Sunday at 2 p.m. ET on CNN.

The full history of language creation is a fascinating and varied one, but for now, I want to focus on the use of created languages in television and film. As a starting point, it's useful to examine the usage of "foreign languages" in television and film. Though it's hard to imagine at this point a Russian character speaking something other than authentic and grammatically appropriate Russian in a feature-length film, that hasn't always been the case.

Consider, for example, the film adaptation of Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967). Moviegoers are familiar with the racism inherent in casting the "other" in older films. For the film, if an actor looked "Asian" that was good enough. That same attitude extended to the use of language in the film. Even without knowing Chinese, you can watch Thoroughly Modern Millie and tell that the "Chinese" spoken is complete and utter gobbledygook. That, though, was simply a detail: as long as it sounded "Asian", that was good enough. And mind, this was 1967.

As it turns out, the same creative pressure that led to the fake Chinese of Thoroughly Modern Millie also led to some of the earliest uses of created languages in one form or another. In order to satirize Nazi Germany, for example, Charlie Chaplin invented a fictional country called Tomainia for his film The Great Dictator (1940) that was supposed to look German. Similar creations can be seen in television shows like Danger Man (1960-68), where in order to be able to use Soviet countries as a backdrop, the show runners used Soviet-like country names with invented dialogue that sounded vaguely Slavic, but which wasn't an actual Slavic language. This tradition of fictional "real" countries and fictional "real" languages has continued into the present, with some modern examples like the Krakozhian language in The Terminal (2004), and the more fully developed Ku language in The Interpreter (2005).

Still, it was unheard of to create an entire language for a fictional race of people. Usually in fantasy and science-fiction movies and films, snippets like Klaatu barada nikto (The Day the Earth Stood Still, 1951) sufficed. That changed when the creators of the original Land of the Lost (1974-76) television series reached out to linguist Victoria Fromkin at UCLA to create a language for the primate humanoid Pakuni people. Fromkin developed a more-or-less full grammar and about 200 words that were introduced gradually in the show, to allow viewers to learn the Pakuni language as the show progressed.

Of course, the watershed moment was Star Trek III: The Search for Spock (1984), when Marc Okrand was hired to create a language the Klingons could speak in the film.

Following Star Trek III, several films and shows began to experiment with con-langs, or created languages. However, the next large-scale production to use a conlang was The Lord of the Rings film trilogy (2001-03). Peter Jackson was determined to be as faithful to J. R. R. Tolkien's books as possible, and since the books themselves were an outgrowth of Tolkien's own created languages, the movies simply couldn't go to screen without featuring the languages of Middle Earth.

It was likely the outstanding success of The Lord of the Rings that led Hollywood producers to believe that there was a potential market for created languages in film. Those of us who create languages, then, were lucky that Avatar (2009) was the next film to take the leap. Not only did Avatar feature a fully-developed created language (Na'vi created by Paul Frommer), but the film was, well, the highest grossing film of all time.

So, where are we now? Following Avatar, of course, came Game of Thrones (2011-present) featuring the Dothraki language, and in film, John Carter (2012) featuring a fleshed-out version of Edgar Rice Burroughs' Barsoomian language. And with more productions on the large and small screen featuring created languages, the expectations of the audience have been raised. New big-budget productions that feature fictional beings are expected to have fictional languages for those beings to use.

Klaatu barada nikto simply won't cut it any longer.

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soundoff (12 Responses)
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    April 18, 2012 at 11:52 pm | Reply
    • mike k

      I taught remedial English in an inner-city high school. You're not even close.

      October 10, 2012 at 11:15 am | Reply
  3. pinakibgl

    David Peterson is the creator of the Dothraki language used in the HBO show 'Game of Thrones.' Peterson not only created the language but also served as translator/dialect coach for select cast in 'Game of Thrones.' ...its now becoming habit to use foreign languages in any film...just trying to remove the communication gape.

    April 12, 2012 at 3:58 pm | Reply
    • mustafa

      This is actually a great deal. Through Gamefest, you get the 3 games, plus a Starfleet Command II Demo, and they all WORK on XP and Vista!One wannrig, though. This compilation got me hooked on Star Trek games and the Star Trek DVD boxed sets.Interestingly, now that I own and have played every Star Trek computer game since Star Trek:Borg, these 3 games remain ranked in my personal Top 5 list along with The Fallen and Elite Force I. They are imaginative for their time. Hope you enjoy them as much as I have.

      April 30, 2012 at 9:53 am | Reply
  4. JasonP

    Cool article. It could go deeper regarding Klingon. I am pretty sure you can take courses to learn Klingon. Some people speak it in their normal lives. Also, I am pretty sure there was Klingon spoken in Star Trek the motion picture. I would be interested in knowing if Star Trek III built on that language or scrapped it and started from scratch.

    April 8, 2012 at 12:59 pm | Reply
    • tesseraktik

      I actually attended a short introductory course to Klingon at a local school in Stockholm. It didn't get me any school credits and my knowledge was already way past the course, but I'd never met another Klingon-speaker, before, so it was totally worth it for that reason alone :)

      Klingon was indeed used in Star Trek: The Motion Picture; in fact, the very first words in that film were Klingon!
      The lines were written by James Doohan and spoken by Mark Lenard (who also played Spock's father, Sarek, and a Romulan commander).

      Marc Okrand was originally hired to write Vulcan dialogue for Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.
      For Star Trek III, his task was to take the Klingon lines from The Motion Picture and incorporate them into a more complete language; something that made sense, something that sounded good (and sounded KLINGON), and something that the actors could actually learn.

      You can learn more about this here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ph77eTMZIhs

      By the way, I'm delighted that David Peterson took the time to help me express some Klingon concepts in Dothraki :)
      http://www.dothraki.com/2012/02/modern-terminology/

      April 8, 2012 at 6:56 pm | Reply

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