A language is born…sort of

by Mellissa Martinez

Desperate to escape the heat last week, I took my children to see The Minions. Anticipating a boring kid movie, I was happily surprised when the movie began. It wasn’t the animation, exciting story or plot line that perked me up. Rather, it was the new language. I asked my teenager what they were speaking and he whispered harshly, “Mom, haven’t you EVER seen one of these movies? It’s Minionese!”

Minionese is a mixture of Spanish, Italian and English with a smattering of other languages and sounds. When the little yellow guys see friends, they exuberantly exclaim buddy; when something goes wrong, they ask que paso?; and when they see ice cream, they scream gelato. I also heard a definite Japanese kampai and what seemed to be Korean counting. Like other invented languages, Minionese does not sound like gibberish—the utterings of these creatures reflect real language. Although the directors say that they made it up, I suspect that, as with many invented movie languages, a linguist has weighed in.

Languages that are constructed for the screen are called conlangs. Some of the most well-known conlangs include Dothraki from Game of Thrones, Na’vi from Avatar, Klingon from Star Trek and Elvish, a Tolkien language used in many of his novels. According to Arika Okrent, author of In the Land of Invented Languages, there is a structure to the process of making up language, which “unsurprisingly is cribbed from the way people study natural languages. They focus on phonology (the sound system), morphology (the system for creating words), syntax (the system for creating sentences) and the lexicon (the vocabulary, or the stuff you have to just memorize).”

A professional conlanger might start with a few existing words or, in some cases, draw inspiration from an already existing language. For example, it is said that J.R.R. Tolkien was inspired by his love of Welsh and Finnish, which is why many of his invented languages include words or structures from these languages. In a recent article in the LA Times, Dothraki inventor David J. Peterson explained that his method included identifying the patterns of the few existing words penned by the author of the original story. Once he established the consonant vowel patterns of the words, he created roots for other words. In order to create a harsh-sounding language, which reflected the culture of the people, he added many throaty kh sounds, which are perceived as harsh to English speakers.

The same was true for Na’vi conlanger Paul Frommer. He explains that James Cameron had originally devised about 30 words on his own. He writes, “Those gave me a sense of the sounds he had in his ear, which struck me as rather Polynesian. For interest, I added three varieties of popping-like sounds found in languages like Amharic, Georgian and Tlingit, which I notated as kx, px and tx. I also excluded certain familiar sounds represented by English: b, d, g, j, ch, sh, th—this helped give Na’vi a distinct character.”

In most cases, those who create languages seek to reflect the fictional world for which they are creating. For example, the Dothraki people depend on the strength of their horses. As a reflection of this relationship, the common expression how are you today? is do you ride well today? It is said that Tolkien had such a profound interest in language that he devised his stories around his language creations. He wrote to his son that his “long book [The Lord of the Rings] is an attempt to create a world in which a form of language agreeable to my personal aesthetic might seem real.”

There are some conlangs, such as Klingon, that far outgrow television. This language has been learned and developed by people around the world and in one case, it was taught to a youngster as a native language. Although this sparked outrage for some, the avid Star Trek fan was not harming his son; he continued to speak English to the boy as well. There is one conlang, however, that has become so large and widely accepted that it now has almost 2000 native speakers and 2 million second language speakers—Esperanto.

Esperanto was not designed for Hollywood; it was created for international communication and the promotion of world peace. Constructed in 1887 by physician and linguist L.L. Zamenhof to transcend nationality, its speakers were persecuted during both world wars but the language continued to survive, and even thrive. Those who learn Esperanto and teach it to their children as a native language are typically utopian-minded. They form a network of people from Brazil, China, Japan, Europe and many other countries who offer free hospitality to fellow Esperanto speakers.

Esperanto has the uncommon effect of uniting people from different cultures and it might be said that this is the effect of all conlangs. Unlike natural language, which tends to divide us, an invented language is free to all. Anybody who is interested can acquire Klingon, Elvish, Na’vi or Dothraki as a second language. Although I probably don’t have the patience to do so, I must admit after last week’s trip to the movie that it would be a lot of fun to navigate a foreign country in Minionese!

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