Sometimes we read fantasy books, watch sci-fi movies, and play epic RPGs for the escapism and to explore other worlds. With their good writing and obsessive attention to detail, it’s easy to believe that these fictional worlds are real places. A huge part of that is the use of languages. From aliens chattering unintelligibly to wizards casting ancient spells, fiction is full of languages.
Sometimes good writing can use just hints of a language to make it feel real, but other times creators go out of their way to develop grammar, vocabulary, and examples so you can learn these languages as if they’re real. Here are our favourite fictional/constructed languages that you can actually begin learning. Technically a few aren’t full languages but you can still impress people by understanding text and speech from your favourite universes.
1. Dothraki (Game of Thrones)
Example: Me nem nesa (It is known)
The Dothraki in George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones universe occasionally speak their own language but the author never fleshed out an entire language. He’s busy enough trying to write the mammoth storyline. But for the TV show, the Dothraki had to speak more often and the creators wanted it to be realistic. After all, fictional languages are great for world-building.
HBO approached David Peterson of the Language Creation Society to take the little Dothraki available in the books and turn it into a real language to be used by actors in the show. The language has been developed so much that there are thousands of words and it has pretty simple grammar if you want to learn it. There are online resources available as well as an official book by Peterson himself.
2. Alienese and Betacrypt 3 (Futurama)
The geeks behind Futurama are famous for filling the show with hidden references, usually inspired by mathematics. It should be no surprise that there are several alien languages used in the show, and fans have figured out how some of them work. Technically these are just English but ciphered and using different alphabet, which makes them easier to learn. The first language, sometimes referred to as Alienese is a simple substitution cipher where a symbol represented a letter of the alphabet to translate into English. It took fans no time to solve and translate.
A 2nd version of the alien language appeared after a while to keep fans on their toes. In the episode Leela’s Homeworld, Professor Farnsworth says Alienese can be translated into Betacrypt 3 but that the language is so complex it would make it more difficult to understand. That’s a joke that makes sense when you learn how it works. Instead of symbols representing characters, they now represent numbers. The very first symbol has its number translated into a letter (0=A, 1=B etc) but for the remaining symbols you subtract the previous symbol from them before translating. If you ever get a value less than 0, you add 26.
Sure, it’s not a new language really but it’s fun and means you can write Alienese or Betacrypt 3 in secret and spot easter eggs in the show. The info here should be enough to get you started but there are online resources if you need them. If you want to check you’re doing it right, try these interactive decoders and encoders.
3. Klingon (Star Trek)
Example: noH QapmeH wo’ Qaw’lu’chugh yay chavbe’lu’, ‘ej wo’ choqmeH may’ DoHlu’chugh lujbe’lu’ (Destroying an empire to win a war is no victory, and ending a battle to save an empire is no defeat)
Possibly the most famous fictional language for geeks, Klingon belongs to a warrior race of aliens in Star Trek including Commander Worf (who could kiss Hitler without their moustaches touching). Linguist Marc Okrand created Klingon and other fictional languages for other franchises. He published several books and the language is taken very seriously by some “Trekkies”. The Klingon Language Institute even has a quarterly journal.
The Klingon language is probably the fictional language that has been used the most in other shows and films, usually with reference to fans. It’s even been used to recreate other works of art, including Hamlet written entirely in Klingon. If learning to speak the language isn’t enough work, you can try learning the alphabet too, though most books and websites just use the Latin alphabet. There are dictionaries and various online resources available if you want to start learning.
4. Elvish (J.R.R. Tolkien’s works)
Example: Elen sila lumenn’ omentielvo (A star shines on the hour of our meeting)
If you think the languages in Lord of the Rings seem very realistic, that’s because J.R.R. Tolkien was a philologist. Of all the popular fictional languages, some of his are the most complete. Also unusual is how beautiful they look and sound. The most popular languages from Middle Earth, because of their beauty and importance within the stories, are Elvish.
Tolkien created several Elvish languages that are used in the Lord of the Rings and other works. There’s Quenya, which is influenced by Finnish, and Sindarin that found inspiration from Welsh. The best place to start learning is the Council of Elrond, of course. If you want to take it seriously, there are a number of technical books.
5. Na’vi (Avatar)
Example: Pxenantang hahaw (Three viperwolves are sleeping)
James Cameron wanted Avatar to feel like a real world and there was much attention to detail when it came to things like the weird (and bizarrely Earth-like) biology. Cameron wanted to have a native language created for the Na’vi that would sound unlike any other language on Earth but still be possible for the actors to learn. He tasked linguist Paul Frommer with the challenge and he came back with working grammar and about 1,000 words required for the script.
In the years since the film’s release, the language has been expanded by fans and creators of books and games set in the same universe. With more Avatar films on the way, the language will probably be updated further. It’s fairly easy to learn and you can start learning the basics online.
6. Galactic Basic Standard (Star Wars)
Technically Galactic Basic Standard (GBS) is just English. It’s the language you hear Luke Skywalker and the other heroes use throughout the films when there are no subtitles. There are genuine fictional languages you can learn from the Star Wars universe, such as Ewokese, but Galactic Basic Standard is probably more useful. What are the odds you’ll bump into someone else who can speak like an Ewok? Yub yub.
Like Futurama’s Alienese, Galactic Basic Standard is just a substitution cipher using what’s called the Aurebesh script. But if you learn to read and write, it certainly looks like another language. It’s also more fun than the genuine languages because there are plenty of opportunities to use Galactic Basic Standard when watching the films and playing the games. In The Force Awakens, the helmet that Rey affectionately wears at the start of the film has R-E-Y on the side. Interesting…
You can learn from various websites including The Complete Wermo’s Guide.
Lapine from Watership Down. Mostly just noun variations for English but some are now used out there in the real world. Example: Hrududu (a motor vehicle)
Simlish from The Sims games. Example: Nicloske Ga Gloop (I would like a taxi to come pick me up)
Atlantean from Disney’s Atlantis: The Lost Empire. A language created by Mark Okrand, who also created Klingon. Example: Nishentop Adlantisag Kelobtem Gabrin karoklimik bet gim demottem net getunosentem bernotlimik bet kagib lewidyoh (Spirits of Atlantis, forgive me for defiling your chamber and bringing intruders into the land)
There are plenty more but these should be enough to get you started if you’re bored of Duolingo.
Main image: Flickr/Bart, distributed under a CC BY-NC 2.0 license