The Unexpected Depth Behind Hollywood’s Fantasy Languages

Linguists are increasingly being hired by major studios to craft original fantasy languages for blockbuster films and shows.

Inside the Booming Business of Inventing Languages for Hollywood

A recent article in The Guardian explored the surprising amount of work that goes into developing fantasy languages for major fantasy film and television productions.

What originated with Star Trek’s famous Klingon language in the 1980s has rapidly grown into an entire industry.

Linguists like David J. Peterson and Paul Frommer are now regularly hired by studios to craft completely new languages that help build immersive fictional worlds for properties like Game of Thrones and Avatar.

The Rigorous Process of Language Creation

The process of inventing a language from scratch is remarkably rigorous.

Linguists start by establishing criteria like sound systems, ideal learnability for characters, and cultural reflections with producers.

Then they follow meticulous steps to build vocabulary, grammar structure, syntax, verb tenses, and more.

Their finely detailed work adds dense linguistic depth to fantasies, though most viewers remain unaware of the many complex rules and words developed.

Some projects allow linguists only weeks to create a language, while ideal timeframes are measured in months rather than days.

Motivations of Millions of Language Learners

Despite the niche realm, learning platforms like Duolingo now have millions of people actively studying fictional tongues like High Valyrian from Game of Thrones.

Reasons for learning vary greatly – from greater immersion in a favorite fictional world to general appreciation for linguistic experimentation.

For some, invented languages are actually easier to access than endangered real-world languages tied to cultures they cannot claim.

Translations that are flawed or lack dialogue also motivate interest.

Connecting Fantasy Languages to Real Ones

Importantly, prominent language creators maintain strong ties to endangered natural languages as well.

Peterson and others have worked extensively on supporting and preserving indigenous tongues.

The mainstream popularity of their commercial Hollywood work has brought wider public visibility to language invention and conservation as a whole.

Methods used for fictional languages are now being successfully applied to revitalize endangered native languages through community engagement.

Hollywood Driving a Larger Trend

Although high-budget Hollywood productions have fueled its recent boom, language invention and grassroots linguistic communities have long existed outside the entertainment industry and fantastical works.

Enthusiasts have always crafted experimental languages as artistic projects or private linguistic passions completely separate from the film and television spotlight currently accelerating the field.

But insiders agree that the mainstream popularity of fantasy media has thrust their niche craft dramatically into the global public eye.

douglas heingartner editor saywhatyo!
Douglas Heingartner

Douglas Heingartner, the editor of SayWhatYo!, is a journalist based in Amsterdam. He has written about science, technology, and more for publications including The New York Times, The Economist, Wired, the BBC, The Washington Post, New Scientist, The Associated Press, IEEE Spectrum, Quartz, The Village Voice, The Los Angeles Times, Frieze, and others. His Google Scholar profile is here, his LinkedIn profile is here, and his Muck Rack profile is here.