J.R.R. Tolkien flipped readers’ wigs with his penchant for inventing new languages, but since then it has become almost de rigueur for fiction writers and moviemakers to include a constructed language (conlang) when crafting a new universe. Here are some of the best:
Invented in 1887, this real-world language is sometimes employed in movies to suggest a future language of humanity. Science fiction flick Gattaca and cult fave Red Dwarf employ the language as a background color (e.g., loudspeaker announcements and signs) while Whistler in Blade: Trinity has an entire conversation in Esperanto. The language gets additional geek cred by the fact that William Shatner starred in 1965 horror flick Incubus, the only mainstream wholly Esperanto movie ever released.
Next to Tolkien, it’s hard to beat Frank Herbert when it comes to the amount of background info he generates when writing a story. Dune‘s appendices blew my mind as a young nerd and motivated me to create excessive backstory in my own experiments with fiction. As with Tolkien, Herbert drew liberally from real-world cultures for his universe. Fremen is no exception, serving as a descendant of earthly Arabic, lending the Fremen people a dervishlike feel.
From Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon novel and Baroque Cycle trilogy, this fictional language allegedly hails from obscure British islands. It has 16 consonants and no vowels, making it ideal for representing binary information, as well as making it nearly impossible to pronounce. You really have to read the books to get more of a sense of the language — like all things Stephensonian, he presents an overwhelming amount of information and leaves it to the reader to decode it all.
An ancient vampire language from the Blade movies. The most noticeable aspect of this language are the glyphs, symbols tattooed on grunts to show their allegiance and drawn in UV ink defining the boundaries of various vampires’ territories. There’s even a vampire holy book written in the language, the Book of Erebus, featured in the first movie.
While the Gelfling language is mentioned only briefly in The Dark Crystal, we nevertheless get a tantalizing glimpse of this lost culture. What we do know is that the long-dead ancient Gelflings who got wasted by the Skeksis left behind ruins covered in beautiful hieroglyphs, which apparently only male Gelflings can read. Yeah, well, the females get wings!
While Tolkien created several languages for his various Lord of the Rings books, Sindarin, the language of the elves, is not only his most beautiful but also his most fully realized invented language. Typically, Tolkien and his language-nerd adherents have developed the tongue’s grammar and orthography to almost headache-inducing levels.
The Star Wars canon (as well of a plethora of non-canonical writings) describe the Hutts as being an ancient race of merchants who once dominated the galaxy but now have become mere gangsters. We first got a taste of Huttese in Return of the Jedi, where it was described as the “court language” of Jabba the Hutt. That tiny taste of Hutt culture has been expanded in subsequent novels and videogames, giving us a clearer picture of this rotund race.
Pretty much everything about the Cthulhu mythos (introduced in the classic Lovecraft short story The Call of Cthulhu is designed to drive ordinary mortals mad, and the otherworldly language R’lyehian is no different. Indeed, it’s barely speakable: ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn (In his house at R’lyeh dead Cthulhu lies dreaming) is the classic R’lyehian phrase that alludes to the godlike monstrosity and his bizarre, non-Euclidean city.
2. City Speak
“That gibberish he talked was city speak, gutter talk,” Rick Deckard intones in the non-director’s cut version of Blade Runner. “A mishmash of Japanese, Spanish, German, what have you.” The concept of a ‘common tongue’ has been enshrined in science fiction and fantasy literature forever, but this execution was effortless and brilliant, adding color to the movie without making a big deal out of it.
Perhaps the most fully realized science fiction language, Klingon has a complete grammar and vocabulary, permitting countless nerds to learn it like it was high school Spanish. Fans have translated Shakespeare, Sun Tzu and the Bible into the language. There’s a Klingon Language Institute, the purpose of which is to promote the language and culture of this nonexistent people. You can even select Klingon as your language of choice in Google.
So there you have it, 10 geeky made-up languages. But what did we miss? Add your suggestions to the comments field.