English? Pshaw! My Language is Elvish — How Languages Translate into Movie Magic
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English? Pshaw! My Language is Elvish — How Languages Translate into Movie Magic

English? Pshaw! My Language is Elvish — How Languages Translate into Movie Magic

The One Ring. Courtesy of the Wikimedia CommonsJust today, the film industry is all abuzz about the success of Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit, which has landed on spot 15 on the list of films to make more than $1 billion on the global film market. Anyone else wanting to see one of those reports published in Elvish? Come on, language fans, now’s the time to make our expectations known!

Okay, more seriously, it’s no surprise that part of pleasure of the fantasy realm is the sheer genius of the complete package, from costuming and set design to, you guessed it, fictional languages. We’ll take a trip down the yellow brick road to see how language has helped shaped media history and, surprisingly, spilled over into modern medicine.

Space. An Early Frontier

Lists abound of fictional languages. Perhaps it will surprise no one that down in the Land of Oz in some of the world’s oldest-discovered caves, the otherworldly language of Klingon is dazzling the ears of tourists in its alienesque glory. But then, Aussies are known for their sense of humor, so when CNN reported that visitors to the Jenolan Caves in the Blue Mountains of New South Wales could “take a self-guided audio tour in Klingon,” many of the cave’s 200,000 annual visitors made the trek and, well, with Star Trek in mind.

Fictional Languages and the Arts: Tolkien

While Star Trek’s Klingon language, understandably, is among the most popular artificial languages, there are various other well-known examples. Peter Jackson helped launch author J.R.R. Tolkien’s Elvish language into the mainstream when filmgoers were treated to the fantastical Lord of the Rings trilogy. As a boy, Tolkien “loved languages so much, it wasn’t enough to speak as many as he could. He started making his own languages” reported The Japan Times in an article about the British author.

In Tolkien’s case, he approached his invented language formally as one might expect from an Oxford professor of both Anglo-Saxon and English Language and Literature. Tolkien used his extensive knowledge of ancient languages to inform his construction of fictional languages.  “Over the course of his life he invented several languages, such as Elvish (including Quenya and Sindarin), Dwarvish (Khuzdul), Entish, and Black Speech” reported the National Geographic.

From Middle Earth to Hogwarts

Invented language also makes an appearance in the Harry Potter books and films. Author J.K. Rowling infused her children’s fantasy series with invented speech filled with words that are “are transparent blends of existing words” asserted OxfordWords like “mudblood” (a wizard or witch) or “animagus” (an animal-transforming wizard). However, “not all her inventions are so simple” and various literary critics have been trying to link her invented words to dead languages like Latin.

Fictional languages can be found in literature, television, film and even video games. The Sims, regarded as the best-selling PC game of all time, employed the fictional language of Simlish to help ground players in the game’s world. Other popularized invented languages include Pravic of Ursula K. LeGuin’s novel Dispossed, Nadsat from the book/film A Clockwork Orange, and Mangani from Edgar Rice Burroughs Tarzan series.

The Rationale for Devising a Language

Why did Marc Okrand invent Klingon? Why did Richard Adams, author of Watership Down, invent the rabbit-friendly language of Lapine? What do these invented constructions have that real living languages don’t? Firstly, it helps to remember that authors of fiction aren’t the only language inventors. The Huffington Post asserted that “There are at least as many modern invented languages as there are natural ones.” The report also stated that some languages are even reconstructed or reinvented “for political and ideological reasons” or “to reestablish and reinvigorate national or ethnic identities.”

New York Times Magazine offered linguist Harold F. Schiffman’s reasoning for fake languages: “to confuse and amuse.” Yet, when James Cameron created the blockbuster film Avatar, he began by “envisioning the linguistic landscape” in part because “expectations are more sophisticated now when it comes to alien tongues” and viewers want to be fully immersed in the other world experience.

Beyond the Arts

A couple years ago the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics published a book review titled “Inventors and Devotees of Artificial Languages” (PDF) which discussed a book titled In the Land of Invented Languages by Arika Okrent. One of the languages covered by the book discusses the invented language of Blissymbolics, a system of pictographs that was originally designed for “the purpose of international communication.”

A survivor of Dachau and Buchenwald, Charles Bliss knew something about the need for a transcendent language that could, perhaps, weather the political fray of his time. In the end, his invented language is being used by “persons with severe speech and physical impairments” as reported by the nonprofit group Blissymbolics Communication International.

In 2011, BBC reported how the Klingon language helped a man deal with his dyslexia. “Jonathan Brown, 50, of Furzton spent 12 years learning the fictional language of the alien race from Star Trek films.” Brown asserted, “Working on the translation has helped me understand where I’ve been having problems all my life with languages, I realised I’d been trying to remember the words in the name part of my brain and because I can’t remember names, I can’t remember the words.” The straightforward nature of the Klingon language has allowed him to better store words in his “long term memory.”

Language News of Mordor: the Precious is Mine

Pedin i phith in aníron, a nin ú-cheniathog (Elvish translation: I can say what I wish and you won’t understand me).

One thing that Tolkien and other language inventors know—their creation uniquely belongs to them. In his essay “A Secret Vice” (PDF), Tolkien acknowledged the pure element of pleasure that accompanies the invented tongues:

In these invented languages, the pleasure is more keen than it can be even in learning a new language…because more personal and fresh, more open to experiment of trial and error. And it is capable of developing into an art,  with refinement of the construction of the symbol, and with greater nicety in  the choice of notational-range.

And his Elven syllables are beautiful, indeed, particularly when spoken on the silver screen by the likes of Liv Tyler, amiright?! So far though, Elvish hasn’t been established as a language of a national park as Klingon has. One can’t help wondering what Tolkien would say about that and in what tongue he would say it!

If beauty isn’t inspiration enough for language creation and one requires something more monetary in nature, keep this in mind, “Sims franchise has grossed more than $2.5 billion for publisher Electronic Arts” reports the Examiner and Forbes reports that “Lord of the Rings ranks ninth on our list with $2.91 billion in global ticket sales.” Compare that to our top ranking franchise, Harry Potter, which has earned $7.70 billion.

Clearly, there’s something valuable about these artistic endeavors that employ a fictional language … and earnings like that, it must be agreed, are beautiful in any language.

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