David Profumo

Pele’s Excrement

From Elvish to Klingon: Exploring Invented Languages


Oxford University Press 294pp £12.99 order from our bookshop

You’d think the world was a complicated enough place, without people going around making up more languages; but we’ve been at it since the Tower of Babel went out to tender, and according to this intriguing book of essays – which addresses everything from Polari to Gargish – there have been more than 1,000 such inventions.

As Michael Adams explains, his subject covers a colourful spectrum. Some of the languages are mere curiosities of lexifabricography, whereas others are responses to perceived cultural shortcomings. Into this latter category fall the International Auxiliary Languages (IAL), schemes that were supposed to be successors to the various languages of empire. Neither Volapük – which in 1888 boasted two million students – nor the more famous Esperanto managed to be truly universal, but they were taken seriously, despite the squabbling and factionalism that seems to attend such enterprises. The Soviet Union inscribed some of its postage stamps with Esperanto, and Hitler identified it as part of the Jewish bid for global dominion. The offspring tongues Hom-Idyomo and Novial were rather less influential.

Another phenomenon involves artificially ‘revitalised’ languages, such as Cornish, Irish, and Hawaiian. Perhaps the most notorious of these examples of systematic ‘language planning’ might be Hebrew, which was revived after about 1,700 years of not being anyone’s vernacular and pressed into service by Zionism at the expense of poor old Yiddish – ‘the language of origin for almost 89% of the world’s Jews’ – in order to give coherence to the modern state of Israel. Nationalist tendencies should not be overlooked on the lesser scale, as with Néo-breton – described here as a ‘xenolect’, because it is so synthetic and ‘foreignized’ – or indeed Gaelic in Scotland. This is being ‘revived’ with oodles of taxpayers’ money, but is partly a gimmick: when on Skye recently I enquired at the Tourist Board office in Broadford if they knew the Gaelic name on the signpost outside their township, and they had no idea, saying that stuff was all done for the tourists anyway.

There is widespread evidence that in many communities native speakers can’t even understand the new textbook versions of their own language. Modernisation often diminishes subtlety and valency, too. The new Hawaiian word for sulphur – sulufura – is designed to replace the perfectly serviceable and infinitely more evocative kukae pele, which literally signifies ‘Pele’s excrement’ (where Pele is the local volcano goddess rather than a superannuated soccer player).

Other brave new words are explored in a plusgood chapter on Newspeak and Nadsat, those inventions of Orwell and Burgess (perhaps significantly, not their real names). But it is in turning to Tolkien – facile princeps in both elaboration and aesthetics – that we perhaps truly appreciate the sheer imaginative depth that invented language can lend fiction. As he wrote in a 1955 letter: ‘The “stories” were made rather to provide a world for the languages than the reverse.’ His notebooks show six decades of devising, from early Gnomish through to the elegant Sindarin. Despite accepting that modern linguistics denied any intrinsic link between the form of a word and its meaning, Tolkien clung to the attractive notion that language could be ‘inherently beautiful or ugly’, so that Orkish is deliberately brutal, and other of his ‘evil’ tongues lack the pure vowel ‘e’ that features so strongly in Elvish utterances such as the ele! with which they greet the stars. (Hang on, and I’ll fetch my anorak.)

There is a pioneering essay on contemporary gaming languages, which, to those of us unfamiliar with massively multiplayer online games (or MMOs), is by turns impenetrable and alarming. Here, the motive is commercial and the function is to involve and entertain the player at a merely superficial level. Notable examples apparently include ‘the language of the LocoRocos in LocoRoco’ (now that’s lexifabricography for you), the fiendish D’ni (of which I understood scarcely a tittle, bar the factoid that it ‘allows for a plural indefinite article’, such as ‘a dogs’, which to any cynic sounds barking), and Leet – aka 1337 in Leet itself – which is a form of digital calligraphy (or |}16174L C4LL16|24pHy), designed to exclude any uninitiated player. ‘Games present an alternative reality,’ we are advised, but I rather doubt the contention that they are on the verge of becoming art forms.

Artistry is undeniably afoot, however, in the story of how Klingon evolved. This particular essay – ‘Wild and Whirling Words’ – is partly written by Marc Okrand, who devised the language of those fictional humanoids who first appeared in Star Trek back in 1967. We learn that their original phrases were made up by the actor who played Scotty, which speaks volumes about this whole book’s sphere of study. As the franchise grew it was Okrand who invented the subsequent complexities: Klingon (well, you know this) has no adjectives, but boasts a verb base with nine different suffixes. It has a devoted fan base, not least on the Internet, to the extent that one Oregon hospital felt moved to advertise for a fluent speaker to work with its ‘mental health clients’. Quite soon, the boundaries of fictiveness here become indistinct. Is there truly a Klingon version of Hamlet, entitled Khamlet, as extracts in the book’s appendix maintain? Can some student named Judith Hendriks-Hermans really have submitted a thesis on Klingon ‘supervised by Sjaak Kroon at the University of Tilburg’?

Kroykah, as we say in Vulcan.

Sign Up to our newsletter

Receive free articles, highlights from the archive, news, details of prizes, and much more.

Follow Literary Review on Twitter