Every year sees the publication of dozens of new books about the charming, quirky little nuances of the English language, and they’re all crap. They’re. All. Crap. Crap, I tell you! Because while they purport to offer a thoughtful, revealing study of the subtleties of our language, they actually reveal nothing beyond the writer’s own social prejudices and pet peeves. “Down with the Oxford comma!” “Up with the non-gender-specific pronoun!” Give me a fucking break. This is how certain bored old white people try to re-assert their precarious hold on a certain echelon of society. It’s like quibbling over neckties at a country club.
And then, on the other hand—finally, for fuck’s sake—we have The Art of Language Invention by David J. Peterson. Peterson is a linguist (linguistics is that other way of thinking about language, the one that’s actually scientific and informative) and he’s a conlanger, which means he creates constructed languages (“conlangs”) for fun. For fun! For fun he sits around and puzzles out new ways of communicating, using the tools that are common to all languages. I’m not talking about Oxford commas. I’m talking about ergativity, semantic bleaching, phonological erosion, the pragmatics of intonation, and the reification of gender. You know, the real stuff.
David J. Peterson created the Dothraki language for Game of Thrones. He has also created languages for Marvel, Syfy, and the CW. And he seems to have written The Art of Language Invention as a rallying cry for conlangers all over the world. We’re here, we’re queer, and you can no longer make a “realistic” sci-fi movie or fantasy TV show without our help! The Art of Language Invention also serves as an instruction manual for would-be conlangers. So you want to build a fictional language? Start here.
Peterson’s book becomes a crash course in Linguistics 101—everything you need to understand language from the ground up. It’s nerdy and it’s often slow going, but if you read this book carefully you can pretty much invent an original, perfectly sensible language as you go along. The difference between most books about language, and The Art of Language Invention, is like the difference between a person who brags that they can memorize all the traffic signs, and a person who teaches you how to build a combustion engine from scratch.
How many paragraphs does it takes Peterson to thoroughly explain a fictional, alien language whose speakers are “one gigantic eyeball and forty-nine tentacles, seven of which [are] shorter and used as armlike appendages”? Five. It takes him five paragraphs, and one drawing of the aliens, to clearly explain how that seven-tentacle language would work.
So quit bellyaching about your Oxford commas, cancel your country club membership, and come party with the hardcore nerds of the conlang community. As a guide to languages on earth and beyond, The Art of Language Invention is excellent—or, as we say in Dothraki, athdavrazar.
– Brian Hurley is an editor at Fiction Advocate and The Rumpus.