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From Dothraki to Klingon

A visit from the creators of high-profile fictional languages sheds light on linguistics


After the fall of the Tower of Babel, according to one legend, a Scythian king collected his favorite parts of the then-many languages and created Goidelic—known today as Old Irish. Then came the Lingua Ignota, a language invented by an abbess for mystical purposes. Today there are hundreds of "conlangs," or constructed languages, and more than ever they're becoming a staple of film, television and literature.

"I think part of the appeal of constructed languages being attached to major franchises is it will bring in people that might not have been interested in language otherwise," said David Peterson, the creator of Dothraki and other conlangs in the HBO program Game of Thrones.

Peterson will join Marc Okrand, the creator of Klingon in the Star Trek universe, at Boise State University on Thursday, Nov. 29, for Linguists in Hollywood, an event put on by the Boise State Linguistics and English Majors associations at the Special Events Center. There, Peterson and Okrand will be interviewed on stage about their experiences building languages for major franchises.

"This is a pretty big deal for us," said Boise State Linguistics Association Vice President Emma Jones at a planning meeting for the event. "This semester, it's finally becoming a reality."

This is the second time Boise State will host a Linguists in Hollywood event. The first took place in 2011 and brought Okrand and Paul Frommer, creator of the Na'vi language in Avatar, to the City of Trees; and while the two events are similar both in content and preparation, the experience has been a fresh one for the student organizers, who have been working toward it for more than a year.

Open to the public, Linguists in Hollywood will have plenty going on for fans of the series and conlangs—people who construct languages for fun or profit—alike, but ahead of the public portion of the event, there will be a Q&A in an intimate setting where students will talk shop with Peterson and Okrand. Cecelia Staggs, a linguistics lab coordinator, said she plans to ask about how the sound inventories, or the core audible building blocks, of Dothraki and Klingon were created. For other students, it's a chance to explore some of the directions their area of study can take them.

"It can show students the potential careers in linguistics. Conlang is one of those career paths," said Jones.

Conlangs have been used for thousands of years for purposes like coding, the pursuit of a utopian society and magic. In the age of mass media, they have become features of fictional universes, and the most popular include Klingon (Star Trek) and Elvish (The Lord of the Rings trilogy).

Peterson said he believes there is more room for conlangs in popular culture, but lamented that they seem to appear primarily in films and on television. Na'vi and High Valyrian have made a splash in the public consciousness, but contemporary science fiction and fantasy writers have yet to begin hiring people to construct languages for their novels, pinching the market for less-well-known conlang developers.

Ultimately, he said, he envisions people learning conlangs alongside natural languages like Chinese, French or Swahili, developing their passions for how languages work and what they do.

"It's just to get people to engage in a second language—any second language at all—especially in the United States, where there's a huge swath of people that are completely monolingual, and, honestly, are very happy about that," he said. "It's baffling to me."

Even as conlangs branch out from the provinces of, as Peterson put it, "geeks and nerds," Michal Temkin Martinez, an associate professor of linguistics at Boise State who helped put on the first Linguistics in Hollywood, hopes to harness their star power to bring attention to her students' field of study. Linguistics has applications in everything from cryptography and speech pathology to preserving endangered languages and, yes, developing conlangs; but it's something people have to wait for college to discover.

"Linguistics isn't something you learn about in high school," she said. "This is one way we can open people up to our field."