The art of language-building is called “conlang,” which is an abbreviation for “constructed language.” It’s way different than learning a language, and involves a lot of knowledge about syntax and phonetics. People want their fantasy or sci-fi languages to sound real, and not like an actor just making random noises on the fly. The creator of language from “Game of Thrones” and “Thor: The Dark World” is a student of 20 languages and his book, The Art of Language Invention, is essentially a scholarly text. He believes that building languages from scratch could be essential to our survival if aliens were to ever contact us. Far away from the evolution of human language, an alien lifeform could present us with a type of communication we’ve never seen before.
That’s exactly what happened in the film “Arrival.” The sounds that the aliens make are indecipherable, so Amy Adams’ linguist character tries writing to them instead. The aliens respond by creating “logograms,” or circular glyphs, with ink from their tentacles, and the puzzle begins. What’s so cool about the language that production designer Patrice Vermette worked on is that it parallels how the aliens see time as non-linear, thus the circles. However, all the designs that Vermette tried out after working with graphic designers and linguists were still too close to something humans would recognize. After seeing sketches that his artist-wife created, Vermette finally got what he wanted.
The dictionary from “Arrival” consists of 100 symbols, with a logogram sometimes meaning just one thing, like, “Hello,” or a whole sentence, like, “Hello, my name is Louise.” The tendrils that emit from the logogram determine how complex a statement is. Even the thickness of the logogram’s ring plays into the meaning, with a thick inking equaling urgency and a thin one equaling calm. At first glance, the logograms look like random spurts of ink, but once the characters run software against it and start breaking it down, clear patterns emerge.
The best known conlang creator is probably J.R.R. Tolkien, who created elaborate languages for his elves, dwarves, and residents of Mordor. He worked on them for six decades, and firmly believed that in order to write mythology, first there had to be a language. Like most dedicated conlangs, he was an expert in existing languages, like Old English and Finnish. The “Black Speech” and Elvish makes its way into the movies. The film producers had it pretty easy; Tolkien had already done all the work for them, complete with phonetics. Other famous movie languages include Na’vi from “Avatar” and Klingon from “Star Trek.”
Some pop culture languages don’t so much build from the ground up as create new dialects from English, which are known as Creole languages. In “Blade Runner,” Edward James Olmos speaks in a Creole of German, French, English, and Hungarian. In Syfy’s “The Expanse” series, the Belters (residents of the colonized Asteroid Belt), speak a hybrid of Japanese, Germanic, Chinese, and Slavic languages, but if you watch the show, you’ll notice that each actor brings their own lilt to it. Some actors sound Jamaican, while others are more South African. Given the fact that Belters are caught in an unending conflict between Earth and Mars, and exist as a true melting pot of culture, it makes sense that everyone speaks the language a bit differently. Ultimately, that’s what building a language needs to be based on. Having that history and cultural context ensures the language isn’t just a jumble of sounds or symbols.