full transcript

From the Ted Talk by John McWhorter: Are Elvish, Klingon, Dothraki and Na'vi real languages?

Unscramble the Blue Letters

To many, one of the coolest things about "Game of Thrones" is that the inhabitants of the Dothraki Sea have their own real language. And Dothraki came hot on the heels of the real language that the Na'vi speak in "Avatar," which, surely, the Na'vi needed when the Klingons in "Star Trek" have had their own whole language since 1979. And let's not forget the Elvish languages in J.R.R. Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, especially since that was the official grandfather of the fantasy conlangs. "Conlang" is short for "constructed language." They're more than codes like Pig ltain, and they're not just collections of fabricated slang like the Nadsat lingo that the teen hoodlums in "A Clockwork Orange" sapek, where "droog" from Russian happens to mean "friend." What makes conlangs real languages isn't the number of words they have. It helps, of course, to have a lot of words. Dothraki has thousands of words. Na'vi sertatd with 1,500 words. Fans on websites have steadily created more. But we can see the difference between vocabulary alone and what makes a real language from a look at how Tolkien put together grand old Elvish, a conlang with several thousands wrdos. After all, you could memorize 5,000 words of Russian and still be barely able to construct a sentence. A four-year-old would talk rgnis around you. That's because you have to know how to put the words together. That is, a real language has grammar. Elvish does. In English, to make a verb past, you add an "-ed." Wash, wehasd. In Elvish, "wash" is "allu" and "washed" is "allune." Real languages also change over time. There's no such thing as a lgnuaage that's the same today as it was a thousand years ago. As ploepe speak, they drift into new habits, shed old ones, make mistakes, and get ciervate. Today, one says, "Give us today our daily bread." In Old English, they said, "Urne gwmaaidgalceehn hlaf syle us todaeg." Things change in conlangs, too. telkoin charted out ancient and newer versions of Elvish. When the first evles aowke at Cuiviénen, in their new language, the word for "people" was "kwendi," but in the language of one of the guoprs that moved away, trleei, over time, "kwendi" became "pendi," with the "k" turning into a "p." And just like real languages, conlangs like Elvish split off into many. When the Romans tnetsrlaanpd Latin across Europe, French, Spanish, and Italian were born. When groups move to different places, over time, their ways of speaking grow apart, just like everything else about them. Thus, Latin's word for hand was "manus," but in French, it became "main," while in sapin it became "mano." Tolkien made sure Elvish did the same kind of thing. While that original word "kwendi" became "pendi" among the Teleri, among the Avari, who spread throughout Middle Earth, it became "kindi" when the "w" dropped out. The Elvish varieties Tolkien fleshed out the most are Quenya and Sindarin, and their words are different in the same way French and Spanish are. Quenya has "suc" for "drink," sianirdn has "sog." And as you know, real languages are messy. That's because they change, and change has a way of working against oedrr, just like in a lniivg room or on a bookshelf. Real languages are never pceeftrly logical. That's why Tolkien made sure that Elvish had plenty of exceptions. Lots of verbs are conjugated in ways you just have to know. Take even the word "know." In the past, it's "knew," which isn't explained by any of the rules in English. Oh well. In Elvish, "know" is "ista," but "knew" is "sinte." Oh well. The truth is, though, that Elvish is more a sketch for a real language than a whole one. For Tolkien, Elvish was a hbboy rather than an attempt to create something people could actually speak. Much of the Elvish the caactrhres in the "Lord of the Rings" movies speak has been made up since Tolkien by dedicated fans of Elvish bsead on guesses as to what Tolkien would have constructed. That's the best we can do for Elvish because there are no actual Elves around to speak it for us. But the morden coaglnns go further. Dothraki, Na'vi, and Klingon are dpoleeved enough that you can actually speak them. Here's a translation of "Hamlet" into Klingon, although prnefomirg it would mean getting used to pronouncing "k" with your uvula, that weird, cartoony thing hanging in the back of your thoart. Believe it or not, you actually do that in plenty of laggenuas around the world, like Eskimo ones. Pronouncing eslvih is much easier, though. So, let's take our leave for now from this introduction to conlangs in Elvish and the other three conlangs discussed with a heartfelt quad-conlangual valedictory: "A Na Marie!" "Hajas!" Na'vi's "Kiyevame!" "Qapla!" and "Goodbye!"

Open Cloze

To many, one of the coolest things about "Game of Thrones" is that the inhabitants of the Dothraki Sea have their own real language. And Dothraki came hot on the heels of the real language that the Na'vi speak in "Avatar," which, surely, the Na'vi needed when the Klingons in "Star Trek" have had their own whole language since 1979. And let's not forget the Elvish languages in J.R.R. Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, especially since that was the official grandfather of the fantasy conlangs. "Conlang" is short for "constructed language." They're more than codes like Pig _____, and they're not just collections of fabricated slang like the Nadsat lingo that the teen hoodlums in "A Clockwork Orange" _____, where "droog" from Russian happens to mean "friend." What makes conlangs real languages isn't the number of words they have. It helps, of course, to have a lot of words. Dothraki has thousands of words. Na'vi _______ with 1,500 words. Fans on websites have steadily created more. But we can see the difference between vocabulary alone and what makes a real language from a look at how Tolkien put together grand old Elvish, a conlang with several thousands _____. After all, you could memorize 5,000 words of Russian and still be barely able to construct a sentence. A four-year-old would talk _____ around you. That's because you have to know how to put the words together. That is, a real language has grammar. Elvish does. In English, to make a verb past, you add an "-ed." Wash, ______. In Elvish, "wash" is "allu" and "washed" is "allune." Real languages also change over time. There's no such thing as a ________ that's the same today as it was a thousand years ago. As ______ speak, they drift into new habits, shed old ones, make mistakes, and get ________. Today, one says, "Give us today our daily bread." In Old English, they said, "Urne _______________ hlaf syle us todaeg." Things change in conlangs, too. _______ charted out ancient and newer versions of Elvish. When the first _____ _____ at Cuiviénen, in their new language, the word for "people" was "kwendi," but in the language of one of the ______ that moved away, ______, over time, "kwendi" became "pendi," with the "k" turning into a "p." And just like real languages, conlangs like Elvish split off into many. When the Romans ____________ Latin across Europe, French, Spanish, and Italian were born. When groups move to different places, over time, their ways of speaking grow apart, just like everything else about them. Thus, Latin's word for hand was "manus," but in French, it became "main," while in _____ it became "mano." Tolkien made sure Elvish did the same kind of thing. While that original word "kwendi" became "pendi" among the Teleri, among the Avari, who spread throughout Middle Earth, it became "kindi" when the "w" dropped out. The Elvish varieties Tolkien fleshed out the most are Quenya and Sindarin, and their words are different in the same way French and Spanish are. Quenya has "suc" for "drink," ________ has "sog." And as you know, real languages are messy. That's because they change, and change has a way of working against _____, just like in a ______ room or on a bookshelf. Real languages are never _________ logical. That's why Tolkien made sure that Elvish had plenty of exceptions. Lots of verbs are conjugated in ways you just have to know. Take even the word "know." In the past, it's "knew," which isn't explained by any of the rules in English. Oh well. In Elvish, "know" is "ista," but "knew" is "sinte." Oh well. The truth is, though, that Elvish is more a sketch for a real language than a whole one. For Tolkien, Elvish was a _____ rather than an attempt to create something people could actually speak. Much of the Elvish the __________ in the "Lord of the Rings" movies speak has been made up since Tolkien by dedicated fans of Elvish _____ on guesses as to what Tolkien would have constructed. That's the best we can do for Elvish because there are no actual Elves around to speak it for us. But the ______ ________ go further. Dothraki, Na'vi, and Klingon are _________ enough that you can actually speak them. Here's a translation of "Hamlet" into Klingon, although __________ it would mean getting used to pronouncing "k" with your uvula, that weird, cartoony thing hanging in the back of your ______. Believe it or not, you actually do that in plenty of _________ around the world, like Eskimo ones. Pronouncing ______ is much easier, though. So, let's take our leave for now from this introduction to conlangs in Elvish and the other three conlangs discussed with a heartfelt quad-conlangual valedictory: "A Na Marie!" "Hajas!" Na'vi's "Kiyevame!" "Qapla!" and "Goodbye!"

Solution

  1. washed
  2. teleri
  3. elves
  4. groups
  5. rings
  6. sindarin
  7. transplanted
  8. modern
  9. performing
  10. awoke
  11. based
  12. elvish
  13. words
  14. creative
  15. perfectly
  16. spain
  17. hobby
  18. living
  19. speak
  20. tolkien
  21. characters
  22. throat
  23. order
  24. people
  25. developed
  26. gedaeghwamlican
  27. language
  28. latin
  29. languages
  30. started
  31. conlangs

Original Text

To many, one of the coolest things about "Game of Thrones" is that the inhabitants of the Dothraki Sea have their own real language. And Dothraki came hot on the heels of the real language that the Na'vi speak in "Avatar," which, surely, the Na'vi needed when the Klingons in "Star Trek" have had their own whole language since 1979. And let's not forget the Elvish languages in J.R.R. Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, especially since that was the official grandfather of the fantasy conlangs. "Conlang" is short for "constructed language." They're more than codes like Pig Latin, and they're not just collections of fabricated slang like the Nadsat lingo that the teen hoodlums in "A Clockwork Orange" speak, where "droog" from Russian happens to mean "friend." What makes conlangs real languages isn't the number of words they have. It helps, of course, to have a lot of words. Dothraki has thousands of words. Na'vi started with 1,500 words. Fans on websites have steadily created more. But we can see the difference between vocabulary alone and what makes a real language from a look at how Tolkien put together grand old Elvish, a conlang with several thousands words. After all, you could memorize 5,000 words of Russian and still be barely able to construct a sentence. A four-year-old would talk rings around you. That's because you have to know how to put the words together. That is, a real language has grammar. Elvish does. In English, to make a verb past, you add an "-ed." Wash, washed. In Elvish, "wash" is "allu" and "washed" is "allune." Real languages also change over time. There's no such thing as a language that's the same today as it was a thousand years ago. As people speak, they drift into new habits, shed old ones, make mistakes, and get creative. Today, one says, "Give us today our daily bread." In Old English, they said, "Urne gedaeghwamlican hlaf syle us todaeg." Things change in conlangs, too. Tolkien charted out ancient and newer versions of Elvish. When the first Elves awoke at Cuiviénen, in their new language, the word for "people" was "kwendi," but in the language of one of the groups that moved away, Teleri, over time, "kwendi" became "pendi," with the "k" turning into a "p." And just like real languages, conlangs like Elvish split off into many. When the Romans transplanted Latin across Europe, French, Spanish, and Italian were born. When groups move to different places, over time, their ways of speaking grow apart, just like everything else about them. Thus, Latin's word for hand was "manus," but in French, it became "main," while in Spain it became "mano." Tolkien made sure Elvish did the same kind of thing. While that original word "kwendi" became "pendi" among the Teleri, among the Avari, who spread throughout Middle Earth, it became "kindi" when the "w" dropped out. The Elvish varieties Tolkien fleshed out the most are Quenya and Sindarin, and their words are different in the same way French and Spanish are. Quenya has "suc" for "drink," Sindarin has "sog." And as you know, real languages are messy. That's because they change, and change has a way of working against order, just like in a living room or on a bookshelf. Real languages are never perfectly logical. That's why Tolkien made sure that Elvish had plenty of exceptions. Lots of verbs are conjugated in ways you just have to know. Take even the word "know." In the past, it's "knew," which isn't explained by any of the rules in English. Oh well. In Elvish, "know" is "ista," but "knew" is "sinte." Oh well. The truth is, though, that Elvish is more a sketch for a real language than a whole one. For Tolkien, Elvish was a hobby rather than an attempt to create something people could actually speak. Much of the Elvish the characters in the "Lord of the Rings" movies speak has been made up since Tolkien by dedicated fans of Elvish based on guesses as to what Tolkien would have constructed. That's the best we can do for Elvish because there are no actual Elves around to speak it for us. But the modern conlangs go further. Dothraki, Na'vi, and Klingon are developed enough that you can actually speak them. Here's a translation of "Hamlet" into Klingon, although performing it would mean getting used to pronouncing "k" with your uvula, that weird, cartoony thing hanging in the back of your throat. Believe it or not, you actually do that in plenty of languages around the world, like Eskimo ones. Pronouncing Elvish is much easier, though. So, let's take our leave for now from this introduction to conlangs in Elvish and the other three conlangs discussed with a heartfelt quad-conlangual valedictory: "A Na Marie!" "Hajas!" Na'vi's "Kiyevame!" "Qapla!" and "Goodbye!"

Frequently Occurring Word Combinations

ngrams of length 2

collocation frequency
real language 5
real languages 4

Important Words

  1. actual
  2. add
  3. ancient
  4. attempt
  5. avari
  6. awoke
  7. barely
  8. based
  9. bookshelf
  10. born
  11. bread
  12. cartoony
  13. change
  14. characters
  15. charted
  16. clockwork
  17. codes
  18. collections
  19. conjugated
  20. conlang
  21. conlangs
  22. construct
  23. constructed
  24. coolest
  25. create
  26. created
  27. creative
  28. cuiviénen
  29. daily
  30. dedicated
  31. developed
  32. difference
  33. discussed
  34. dothraki
  35. drift
  36. dropped
  37. earth
  38. easier
  39. elves
  40. elvish
  41. english
  42. eskimo
  43. europe
  44. exceptions
  45. explained
  46. fabricated
  47. fans
  48. fantasy
  49. fleshed
  50. forget
  51. french
  52. gedaeghwamlican
  53. grammar
  54. grand
  55. grandfather
  56. groups
  57. grow
  58. guesses
  59. habits
  60. hand
  61. hanging
  62. heartfelt
  63. heels
  64. helps
  65. hlaf
  66. hobby
  67. hoodlums
  68. hot
  69. inhabitants
  70. introduction
  71. italian
  72. kind
  73. klingon
  74. klingons
  75. language
  76. languages
  77. latin
  78. leave
  79. lingo
  80. living
  81. logical
  82. lot
  83. lots
  84. memorize
  85. messy
  86. middle
  87. mistakes
  88. modern
  89. move
  90. moved
  91. movies
  92. na
  93. nadsat
  94. needed
  95. newer
  96. number
  97. official
  98. order
  99. original
  100. people
  101. perfectly
  102. performing
  103. pig
  104. places
  105. plenty
  106. pronouncing
  107. put
  108. quenya
  109. real
  110. rings
  111. romans
  112. room
  113. rules
  114. russian
  115. sea
  116. sentence
  117. shed
  118. short
  119. sindarin
  120. sketch
  121. slang
  122. spain
  123. spanish
  124. speak
  125. speaking
  126. split
  127. spread
  128. started
  129. steadily
  130. surely
  131. syle
  132. talk
  133. teen
  134. teleri
  135. thousand
  136. thousands
  137. throat
  138. time
  139. todaeg
  140. today
  141. tolkien
  142. translation
  143. transplanted
  144. trilogy
  145. truth
  146. turning
  147. uvula
  148. varieties
  149. verb
  150. verbs
  151. versions
  152. vocabulary
  153. wash
  154. washed
  155. ways
  156. websites
  157. weird
  158. word
  159. words
  160. working
  161. world
  162. years