Conlangs begot Artlangs. Science fiction writers and readers know this relationship well, even if they’ve never heard the terms. Constructed languages (conlangs) gave birth to artistic languages (artlangs). In doing so, we all inherited a fresh, fascinating vision of science fiction, mythology and fantasy writing. Artlangs opened up a very different reading experience, one that has immense staying power.
Conlangs and artlangs are a science unto themselves, an intricate study of linguistics. But we needn’t go that far to find their value. For writers, they are creative forms of expression. They are a means to add dimension and authenticity to a story line that’s intended to carry us away to other worlds and other times. They are a powerful writing device.
The Big Daddy, conlangs, has been around for a very long time. Early examples can be found from very different parts of the world across many centuries. The Lingua Ignota, created by Hildegard of Bergen, is dated from the 12th century and meant to express the language of angels. Dante Alighieri chased the perfect Italian vernacular. Kabbalistic scholars tried to hunt down and record the original language of higher beings, much like Hildegard. The list is a long one. These were the original conlangs, never designed for the pure enjoyment of readers. They served other masters.
For our purposes, artlangs are of special interest. Artlangs are not intended to be a functional, useful language. They have no real-world practicality. Instead, they are expressions and reflections of the writer’s art, a way to weave a deeper, more sustainable tale. Artlangs give characters their own special language, a way of communicating that is unique to them. Obviously, this makes the characters even more fascinating, more real to readers. It doesn’t matter that the language is incomplete or that we have little idea about its meaning or complexities. A well-constructed artlang drives us deeper into the characters and makes them come alive on the page.
The popularity of artlangs began to take hold in the early twentieth century, probably with the publication of A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs. He is considered to be the modern father of using an artlang to enhance his characters and story line. It was J. R. R. Tolkien who formalized the use of artlangs when he created an entire family of interconnected languages for his characters. He was so fond of artlangs that he lectured publicly on the topic. For artlangs, he became the great publicist and the writer to emulate for fantasy, myth and science fiction.
A century later, artlangs are everywhere. They have become a vital part of creating a good myth, strong characters, and lasting memories of fictional story lines. Here are a few other writers who have used artlangs to create enduring stories and engaging characters:
Anthony Burgess, Samuel R. Delany, Suzette Doctolero, Diane Duane, Suzette Haden Elgin, Frank Herbert, M.A.R. Barker, Ursula K. Le Guin, Barry B. Longyear, Morioka Hiroyuki, George Orwell, Karen Traviss, Christian Vander, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Robert Jordan and Christopher Paolini.
There’s also a world of artlangs all around us in other forms of entertainment. Consider these: Star Wars, Star Trek, Lord of the Rings (movies), Stargate SG-1, Atlantis: The Lost Empire, Game of Thrones, Avatar, Dune and the Myst series of computer games. The list is enormous. Artlangs are expected, even demanded by readers, viewers and game players.
For any fiction writer, it’s important to remember that artlangs can go a long way to captivate readers. It’s not an easy task to construct an artlang and use it effectively. Artlangs demand consistency, an implication of clear meaning, coherency and a unique tonal quality that sticks with the reader. It’s something that cannot be overused or it will lead to utter confusion. Treat it like salt — a little goes a long way. When it’s done right, there are few techniques more potent than following a character through a story line in his or her own language.
To help with your artlang inspiration, here’s a famous proverb:
bortaS bIr jablu’DI’ reH QaQqu’ nay’
Get it? Its Klingonese, one of the most popular conlang/artlang constructions ever devised. It’s also one of the most complete and, like a living language, it’s still evolving.
“Revenge is a dish best served cold,” uttered by Khan Nooien Singh in Star Trek II – The Wrath of Khan.