THE BLOG
05/01/2014 05:28 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

9 Made-Up Languages from Books

The narrators of my novel Dark Eden use a version of English that differs slightly from standard English as spoken now on Earth. They come from a small community which has been cut off for the rest of the human race for 160 years, and it seemed to me that this needed to be reflected in the language, for we know that new human communities always do quite quickly develop a distinctive way of speaking, even when not completely cut off. In the case of Eden, the differences are not great -- the most immediately noticeable one is that characters double adjectives for emphasis rather than using "very" -- but we are finely tuned to pick up linguistic clues and, to the pleasure of many but to the irritation of some, readers notice them at once.

All writers play with language in one way or another, but this business of inventing imaginary dialects is a particular kind of game which can be played by writers attempting to imagine, not just the feelings and relationships of characters, but the development of whole societies.

Inventing new languages, or variants of existing languages, can help build a sense of differentness, but there's much more to it than that. One of the things it can do is to foreground the nature of language itself and how it both reflects and shapes our thinking. Imagining different languages, like imagining characters and situations, then becomes yet another way in which making stuff up helps us to notice what is really here.
1. A Clockwork Orange (Anthony Burgess, 1962). "There was a doddery starry schoolmaster type veck, glasses on and his rot open to the cold nochy air..." Alex lives for classical music and ultra-violence, and tells his story through the medium of a Russian-influenced youth argot known as Nadsat. (The name comes from the Russian word for "teen.") When Stanley Kubrick's movie version came out in the early seventies, several real-life acts of violence by teenagers in the UK were attributed to the influence of the film, and the film was taken out of circulation. A teenager myself at the time, I did not copy the violence but did copy the Nadsat as delivered by Malcolm McDowell in the part of Alex. It seemed to me unutterably cool, and I guess for some it helped the violence to seem cool as well.
2. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (Robert Heinlein, 1966). Heinlein's masterpiece is set in a human colony on the moon, where former convict transportees from many nations have established a tough but thriving society which functions without laws or government. It is a kind of Tea Party utopia (though it doesn't work out in the end) and it popularized the expression TANSTAAFL (There Ain't No Such Thing As A Free Lunch). Whatever one thinks of its politics, this book is an absolute masterclass in world-building, and part of the effect is achieved through the use of "Loonie" English by the book's first-person narrator. Like Nadsat, Loonie is influenced by Russian and articles and pronouns are typically omitted, in the way Russian speakers of English often do: "My old man taught me two things: 'Mind own business' and 'Always cut cards.'"
3. Nineteen Eighty-Four (George Orwell, 1948). In Orwell's Oceania, Newspeak is a language expressly designed to make it more difficult for people to think outside of the official Party line. The word "blackwhite" for instance "has two mutually contradictory meanings. Applied to an opponent, it means the habit of impudently claiming that black is white, in contradiction of the plain facts. Applied to a Party member, it means a loyal willingness to say that black is white when Party discipline demands this. But it means also the ability to believe that black is white, and more, to know that black is white, and to forget that one has ever believed the contrary. This demands a continuous alteration of the past, made possible by the system of thought which really embraces all the rest, and which is known in Newspeak as doublethink."
4. Ancillary Justice (Ann Leckie, 2013). This very intelligent piece of space opera is written in standard English, but we're made aware that it has been translated for us from another language. Specifically, we become aware that it's been translated from a language where there is only one personal pronoun, rendered here as "she." At first you assume that all the characters are female, but you realize this isn't necessarily the case when the narrator speaks of her difficulties with speaking other languages which do make gender distinctions, and indeed other distinctions, with their pronouns. After that, you read the whole book without knowing whether or not the various characters have penises or vaginas, an interesting experience which makes you think about how odd it is that this one distinction, above all others, has acquired such deep significance that it has found its way into grammar itself.
5. Riddley Walker (Russell Hoban, 1980). "On my naming day when I come 12 I gone front spear and kilt a wyld boar he parbly ben the las wyld pig on the Bundel Downs.... He dint make the groun shake nor nothing like that when he come on to my spear he weren't all that big plus he lookit poorily. He done the reqwyrt he ternt and stood and clattert his teef and make his rush and there we wer then. Him on 1 end of the spear kicking his life out and me on the other end watching him dy." Riddley Walker is set in Kent in South-East England, following a nuclear holocaust which has thrown human civilization back to something resembling the Iron Age. Hoban was an American based in England and he meticulously constructed for this book a language which is barely closer to modern English than is the language of Chaucer. By spelling phonetically, Hoban highlights the sounds of the words, which means that you don't hear them in your head as you might speak them yourself, but as the characters speak them. One of the many delights of the book is the way that some words yield up their meaning only slowly. You might be puzzled by "Pry Mincer" at first, and then you realize that it's Riddley's way of saying "Prime Minister."
6. Embassytown (China Miéville, 2011). This must be one of the strangest of all imagined languages. The alien Ariekei have two mouths, and all of their language involves two sets of sounds being produced simultaneously, necessitating the raising of human clones to act as interpreters to them. However, the strangest feature of the language is the fact that it is impossible for the Ariekei to say anything in it that is not literally true. This makes it impossible for them not only to lie but to use metaphors. They can use similes however, and in order to expand the range of ideas they are able to express, the Ariekei get certain humans to enact scenes for them which can then be referred to by way of comparison. Avice, the main character, is one such, serving the Ariekei as a simile. This is surely the only novel in existence in which a group of figures of speech can gather together in a bar to discuss business.
7. The Dispossessed (Ursula Le Guin, 1974). Like Ancillary Justice, this great "ambivalent utopia" is written in English, but with the understanding that this is translation from other tongues. On the anarchist planet of Anarres, people speak a language called Pravic, which has been deliberately constructed in an attempt to avoid the characteristic ways in which older languages shape people's thinking. Possessive words, such as "my" are avoided, for instance, for in Anarres all property is held in common, and different words are used to denote purely biological parenthood, as opposed to the adults involved in actually raising a child. Many words considered rude or insulting in Anarres' sister-planet Urras, are simply meaningless in the context of Anarres, for example the word "bastard," in a society where marriage as an institution simply does not exist. Le Guin does not attempt to construct a grammar or a vocabulary for Pravic, but her main character Shevek reflects on the differences between Pravic and Iotic on a trip to Urras, and this allows us to see how language, even grammar itself, embeds the assumptions of a society.
8. The Lord of the Rings (J.R.R.Tolkein, 1955). It's hard to talk about invented languages without acknowledging a trilogy for which its author designed not just one but several different languages complete with alphabets. I have a love-hate relationship with this work. It would be absurd not to acknowledge the achievement, and dishonest not to admit how much I enjoyed the trilogy when I first encountered it, but there are things about it I really do not like, and one of them is its depiction of races of people who are inherently good (elves) and inherently evil (orcs). Tolkein tried to express this difference in their languages too. The Elvish language is musical and Northern-sounding, somewhat like modern Welsh. The Black Speech spoken by the orcs sounds (to English-speaking ears) "guttural" and "harsh" -- Ash nazg durbatulûk, ash nazg gimbatul... -- but then so do Arabic, Hebrew and Danish, which I'm sure don't sound "harsh" or evil to their own speakers. I'm no more easy really with the idea of some languages being inherently harsh or unpleasant, than I am with certain races being inherently evil.
9. Dark Eden (Chris Beckett, 2014) The language of Eden derives from just two people, one from London and one from New York. This means that it bears traces of both British and American English. Perhaps more importantly, though, it began as a language being spoken by two adults to their children. I've noticed that parents of small children sometimes start using childish language even to one another, and this has happened here, but without the counteracting tendency of other adults, the changes have stuck and childish forms have become the norm: The words doubled up as a means of emphasis being the most obvious example. New ways have been developed to measure the passing time on a sunless planet with no day or night and no year, and new forms of swearing have come into being in a culture with completely different reference points to our own.