How the Klingon and Dothraki Languages Conquered Hollywood
By Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy
One great strength of science fiction is that it creates new worlds. The downside is that creating new worlds is hard. Many science fiction films cut corners, falling back on convenient but scientifically dubious notions such as that faster-than-light travel is no big deal, or that aliens all look like (and can mate with) humans, or that everyone in the galaxy speaks English. For the most part science fiction fans have had to grit their teeth and suspend disbelief, but one recent trend offers hope: The rising use of constructed languages, or “conlangs,” for movie aliens.
“Not having them talk to you in a Brooklyn accent or use Valley slang from Southern California helps transport you into that world,” says Lawrence M. Schoen, director of the Klingon Language Institute. “And I think that Hollywood has seen that’s very effective, and is a lot cheaper than CGI.”
Klingon was the first Hollywood conlang to achieve widespread notice. It was invented on the set of Star Trek by actor James Doohan (“Scotty”) and developed into a full language by linguist Marc Okrand. But writers and directors of subsequent TV spinoffs were often careless about sticking to the established grammar and pronunciation, figuring no one cared. They were wrong.
“Paramount has learned, often to its regret, how rabid and enthusiastic Star Trek fans are,” says Schoen, who points out that digital recording and the internet have made it much easier for fans to notice and complain if an imaginary world doesn’t hold together.
This has led to a much greater attention to language on the part of Hollywood studios. When David Benioff and D.B. Weiss adapted George R. R. Martin’s novel A Game of Thrones for HBO, they were careful to get the conlangs right, hiring linguist David J. Peterson, co-founder of the Language Creation Society, to develop Dothraki and Valyrian into real, consistent languages. Peterson feels that Lord of the Rings and Avatar helped pave the way for the current trend of Hollywood conlangs, and also credits the success of Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ, which presented its dialogue in Latin, Hebrew, and Aramaic.
“That’s kind of the nudge I think a lot of producers needed to say, this is not only something that audiences will tolerate, this is something that audiences will seek out and find interesting,” he says.
Listen to our complete interview with Lawrence M. Schoen and David J. Peterson in Episode 119 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast (above), and check out a few highlights from the discussion below.
Lawrence M. Schoen on writing aliens who are truly alien:
“By definition a truly alien language is going to be one you can’t comprehend. You can’t grok it, so to speak. I had a story where the aliens show up and they’re lumps of igneous rock, as far as we can tell. And they throw Earth’s best linguist in a room with one of these aliens, and they won’t let either of them out until they communicate. And it’s horrible, they’re making no progress at all. The rock every now and then emits a little ammonia, it paints colors on the wall or something. The guy is trying to talk to it, he’s doing dialects, he’s trying every different grammatical category he can think of, and finally after weeks of this he starts banging the walls in frustration. And the rock can relate to this, because it’s frustrated too. And now we have a common ground to build communication from.”
Lawrence M. Schoen on realistic nuance in conlangs:
“I don’t know a lot of people who have degrees [in linguistics] who are writing science fiction. They’re getting the physics right. They can tell you everything about the gravity of the planet and the density of the core and all that, but the aliens land and they all sound identical. I always say I want to hear alien speech impediments, I want to hear the Martian equivalent of ‘you know’ and ‘um.’ And I don’t want to talk to the officer on the bridge who’s gone to all the best schools, and had diction lessons and all this. I want to talk to the guy who’s scrubbing out the mess, who didn’t get that education, who has a different dialect. … And then I want to take it a step further and I want figurative language. I’ve been pushing for this in Klingon for 20 years. Because if you really are driving your conlang, then you should be able to use metaphors in that language and be understood.”
David J. Peterson on hostility toward conlangs:
“Linguistics is often under fire, and so I think anything that’s related to linguistics that could possibly diminish the field, linguists will sometimes react defensively, and they certainly did that over the years with constructed languages, especially when one of the most prominent examples of constructed languages was Esperanto, which carried with it a political agenda. But I think that many linguists—not all, certainly—but many linguists are really getting it now, that those who create languages and those who are interested in creating languages are really interested in language, period, and that interest in language is a good thing, because it leads you to interest in other natural languages, it sometimes leads you to the study of natural language, and it also just raises your level of understanding of language in general, which as Lawrence pointed out is pretty low in America specifically.”
David J. Peterson on authors and conlangers working together:
“There are literally thousands of people all over the world who spend the better part of their free time creating languages … and a lot of them would love to be in my position. And I think that it’s going to be tough to break into television for a conlanger, but I think it might be easier to break into fiction. … It would be wonderful if there were tons of conlangers working with fantasy authors, working with science fiction authors, where the author can spend their time on the story and the conlanger can spend their time on the language, so by the time it gets picked up and it becomes the next blockbuster, whether on film or television, they actually have a language there to go along with it. … And right now the place where both conlangers can go and people interested in getting languages created can go is the Language Creation Society’s jobs board.”