From Elvish to Klingon: Exploring Invented

From Elvish to Klingon: Exploring Invented

Languages, A Review

Author: Don Boozer

MS Date: 11-16-2011

FL Date: 12-01-2011

FL Number: FL-000003-00

Citation: Boozer, Don. 2011. «From Elvish to Klingon:

Exploring Invented Languages, A Review.»
FL-000003-00, Fiat Lingua, . Web. 01 Dec. 2011.

Copyright: © 2011 Don Boozer. This work is licensed

under a Creative Commons Attribution-
NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.


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From Elvish to Klingon: Exploring Invented Languages
!!!! A Review «»»»

Don Boozer

From Elvish to Klingon: Exploring Invented Languages. Michael Adams, ed. Oxford:
Oxford University Press. Nov. 2011. c.294 p. index. ISBN13: 9780192807090. $19.95.

From Elvish to Klingon: Exploring Invented Languages is a welcome addition to the

small but growing corpus of works on the subject of invented languages. The
collection of essays was edited by Michael Adams, Associate Professor and Director
of Undergraduate Studies in the Department of English at Indiana University
Bloomington and Vice-President of the Dictionary Society of North America. Not
only does Adams serve as editor, he also writes complementary appendices to
accompany each of the contributed essays to expand on a particular aspect or to
introduce related material. Adams’ previous works include Slang: The People’s Poetry
(Oxford University Press, 2009) and Slayer Slang: A Buffy the Vampire Slayer Lexicon
(Oxford University Press, 2003).

Although Oxford University Press is known for its scholarly publications, the

title From Elvish to Klingon would suggest that the book is geared toward a popular
audience. Both Elvish and Klingon are artistic languages devised for well-known
fictional settings, namely The Lord of the Rings and Star Trek, respectively (although in
the case of “Elvish,” the languages came first). As such, the distance “from Elvish to
Klingon” is not far and does not begin to encompass the wide range of topics
covered in the contributed essays. The essays themselves run the gamut from
popular culture to erudite scholarship, adding to the overall fuzzy focus as to the
intended audience. Is From Elvish to Klingon meant to be akin to Arika Okrent’s very
accessible and informative In the Land of Invented Languages (Spiegel & Grau, 2009)?
Is it meant to be a scholarly work like Sarah Higley’s Hildegard of Bingen’s Unknown


Language: An Edition, Translation, and Discussion1 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2007)? Is it
meant to be a history of language creation like Umberto Eco’s The Search for the
Perfect Language (Wiley-Blackwell, 1995)? A better title could have been “From Adam
to Zamenhof” since Adams spends considerable time in his introductory essay
explaining how, in his view, the search for the original language of Adam in the
Garden of Eden was the beginning of language invention. Additionally, one essay in
particular discusses L.L. Zamenhof’s creation, Esperanto, in great detail. The
alternative “From Adam to Zamenhof” would not have been nearly as recognizable
to a wide audience or as provocative to a scholarly one as mentioning Klingon and
Elvish. The inclusion of two popular invented languages in the title would appear to
have been a clever marketing decision and not necessarily to convey the full content
of the book itself.

Adams acknowledges the scattered focus of the book when he says that he

“tried to invent a book from what [he] was given, but not from dissatisfaction.”
Readers will not be dissatisfied either, but this mention of dissatisfaction comes
from one of the primary motivations for language invention that Adams discusses in
his introductory essay. He posits a spectrum of motives for language creation that
includes “dissatisfaction with available natural languages” and curiosity as to what is
linguistically possible. Adams returns to this theme of dissatisfaction repeatedly, in
some ways giving too much weight to this one motivation. Granted, dissatisfaction
with natural languages often does play a role in the invention of international
auxiliary languages; however, J.R.R. Tolkien (in his seminal apologia “A Secret Vice”)
insists that a major motivation for artistic language invention is simply about taking
pleasure in it.

To encompass the diverse topics covered in the essays he was given, Adams
uses the metaphor of a “spectrum of invention.” “The practice of [Joyce, Beckett,
and Muldoon] and similarly inventive writers pushes the issue of what we mean
when we say ‘a language’ is ‘invented’: we speak of a particular literary style as ‘a
language’ metaphorically…Literary invention of this kind rests at one end of the
spectrum of linguistic invention; full-blown language creation [such as J.R.R. Tolkien

1 See also Henry, Jim. 2008. «Review of Hildegard of Bingen’s Unknown Language: An Edition,
Translation and Discussion.» FL-000001-00, Fiat Lingua, . Web. 01 October


and Marc Okrand] is at the other end…” Adams appears to be expanding the
definition of the title’s “invented languages” to make it almost meaningless. If
“inventive writers” who engage in playfulness with language and masterful wordcraft
are to be included under language inventors, then writers as diverse as William
Shakespeare, Walt Whitman, and Tom Robbins could arguably be included in that
list. Many conlangers would see the spectrum of invented languages as going from
bare-bones creations like Lapine, Newspeak, or even a substitution cipher like Al-
Bhed to “full-blown” invented languages like Quenya, Klingon, or Ithkuil. The
outlier essay in the book (“‘Oirish’ Invention: Joyce, Beckett, Muldoon”) was written
by Adams’ colleague Stephen Watt at the University of Indiana Bloomington and
appears to have required this expanded definition of invented languages for its
inclusion in the book.

The first contributed essay is by Arden R. Smith, a member of the Elvish
Linguistic Fellowship (an “international organization devoted to the scholarly study
of the invented languages of J.R.R. Tolkien”2) and a columnist and editor of their
print journal Vinyar Tengwar. He has contributed to Tolkien’s Legendarium: Essays on
the History of Middle-earth (Greenwood Press, 2000), various volumes of Tolkien Studies
(West Virginia University Press), and the J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia: Scholarship and
Critical Assessment (Taylor & Francis, Inc./Routledge, 2006). Smith received his
Ph.D. from the University of California Berkeley in 1997 with the thesis Germanic
Linguistic Influence on the Invented Languages of J.R.R. Tolkien. With his extensive
expertise in Tolkien’s languages, Smith’s essay in From Elvish to Klingon is, oddly
enough, on the subject of international auxiliary languages. Smith is involved with
these languages, even maintaining a website completely in Volapük3. Even though
he seems the perfect contributor for an essay on Tolkien’s languages, Smith does an
excellent job in outlining the history and development of international auxiliary
languages: Volapük and Esperanto in particular but also Spokil, an a priori language
by Adolph Nicolas; the Germanic auxlang projects of Elias Molee; Langue bleue
(Bolak) by Léon Bollack4 and others. One interesting fact that Smith gives in his

4 See also Chapman, H. S. 2010. «Léon Bollack and His Forgotten Project.» FL-000002-00, Fiat
Lingua, . Web. 01 November 2011.


essay is that the designations of a posteriori and a priori constructed languages dates
back to the early 20th century to the works of Louis Courturat and Léopold Leau.5
The task of contributing the actual essay on Tolkien’s linguistic creations fell
to Edmund (E.S.C.) Weiner and Jeremy Marshall, co-authors (with Peter Gilliver) of
The Ring of Words: Tolkien and the Oxford English Dictionary (Oxford University Press,
2009). Weiner and Marshall are the Deputy Chief Editor and an Associate Editor in
Science, respectively, at the Oxford English Dictionary. Marshall also co-authored
Questions of English: Your Questions about the English Language Answered by the Oxford
Dictionaries Team (Oxford University Press, 1995). Weiner and Marshall do a
thorough job of putting the “Elvish” languages of the book’s title (i.e., Tolkien’s
Quenya and Sindarin) into literary, linguistic, and historical context.

The next essay in the collection, Howard Jackson’s “Invented Vocabularies:

The Cases of Newspeak and Nadsat,” comes closest to setting one solid end-point in
the spectrum of invented languages with which many conlangers might agree.
Newspeak from George Orwell’s Nineteen-Eighty-Four and Nadsat from Anthony
Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange are prime representatives of the rudimentary level of
conlanging. The two “languages” are specifically intended to be “invented
vocabularies” not full-blown languages, foreshadowing the “flavour languages” in
video games described in James Portnow’s later essay. The idea of “invented
vocabularies” is nothing new and can be traced at least as far back as Athenaeus of
Naucratis’ work from the 3rd century CE, Deipnosophistae (Banquet of the Learned),
Book III. Newspeak and Nadsat are two well-known and respected modern
interpretations of this phenomenon. It is interesting to note that Orwell includes a
treatise on Newspeak as an appendix to Nineteen-Eighty-Four echoing Tolkien’s
extensive Appendices in The Lord of the Rings. Jackson’s essay addresses scholarly,
political, and sociological themes while at the same time continuing to appeal to a
lay audience. It is unfortunate that the only credentials of Howard Jackson that are
shared (in the edition reviewed) were that he is “now retired from a career as a
professor of linguistics.”

Adams complementary appendices accompanying Weiner and Marshall’s and

Jackson’s essays are a brief selection of published criticism and commentary on

5 Histoire de la langue universelle (1903) and Les nouvelles langues internationales (1907)


Tolkien’s languages and Nadsat. It is very interesting to see the overall positive view
toward Tolkien’s creations and the mixed reception of Burgess’ Nadsat.

The next essay, focusing on Klingon, was co-authored by none other than

Marc Okrand himself, creator of the alien warrior’s language. The other co-authors,
in addition to Michael Adams, are Judith Hendriks-Hermans and Prof. Sjaak Kroon.
Hendriks-Hermans’ Master of Arts thesis from Tilburg University (Netherlands) in
1999, supervised by Kroon, was entitled Klingon and its Users: A Sociolinguistic Profile. 6
Kroon remains at Tilburg University as Professor and Chairman of the Department
of Culture Studies. The credentials of the co-authors make them eminently qualified
to pen the essay on Klingon, and they do not disappoint. A number of interesting
demographic findings, primarily from Hendriks-Herman’s study, are included
although it is helpful to remember that the study is now twelve years old. There is
one black mark on an otherwise interesting and informative essay. The authors
provide the anecdote that the Multnomah County Hospital in Portland, Oregon
“advertised for an interpreter fluent in Klingon,” giving a false impression of the
importance of that event. According to the debunking website Snopes.com7, there
unfortunately does not appear to have been any advertisement, any hiring process,
or any funds spent on the procurement of a Klingon translator for the hospital, thus
taking some of the fun (and relevancy) out of the story.

An interesting connection between Klingon and Tolkien’s languages is
brought out in the essay, although not explicitly. The Klingon essay describes some
of the vocabulary creation derived from puns and wordplay: “For example, Hat
(which sounds somewhat like English ‘hot’) means ‘temperature’; ’om means ‘resist’,
based on the ohm, a unit of electrical resistance; mon is ‘smile’, as in Mona Lisa …
and the word for ‘joke’ is qID (resembling English ‘kid’).” In Weiner and Marshall’s
essay concerning Tolkien, one finds reference to an early root SAHA ‘be hot’ which
gives rise to Sahóra ‘the South’ (i.e., “Sahara”) as well as Atalantë “Downfallen” (a
name of the sunken island of Númenor) akin to “Atlantis.” Being that Klingon and
Elvish are given such prominence in the title, it is surprising that Adams doesn’t call
attention to this tangential connection in his complementary appendices. This use
of a posteriori vocabulary development for invented languages could possibly have

6 The thesis is available online at


been one of several unifying threads of which the editor could have used to tie the
disparate essays together.

Adams’ accompanying appendix to the Klingon essay looks at “Advanced

Klingon” and provides an excerpt of the Klingon translation of Hamlet. While
parallel texts of the two versions (Hamlet and Khamlet) are provided, an interlinear
translation of the alien text would have helped underscore the utility of Klingon as a
working language. In Adams’ later appendix on “Synthetic Scots”, the Scots
vocabulary is glossed in a sidebar. A similar treatment for Khamlet’s lines would have
been useful.

Next, James Portnow provides what Adams says is, to the best of his
knowledge, “the first serious account of languages invented for online role-playing
games.” Portnow is well-qualified to contribute an essay in this area. He received a
Masters in Entertainment Technology from Carnegie-Mellon University in 2008, is
CEO of Rainmaker Games, and contributes as a freelance journalist to numerous
gaming industry magazines and websites including being listed as an “Expert
Blogger” by the well-respected website Gamasutra8. Interestingly enough in relation
to this essay on language, Portnow also received a bachelor’s degree in Classics from
St. John’s College, Santa Fe (New Mexico) Campus.

According to Portnow, video games have “generated a slew of strange dialects

and spawned a thousand tongues” which may be a bit of a hyperbole. Even so, his
answer to why this may be the case is that “game design attracts the sort of mind
likely to invent a language.” Unfortunately, Portnow doesn’t say what “sort of mind”
this is but does echo Tolkien when he says that one of the reasons is that “language
is a form of play.” He echoes Tolkien again in saying that languages “express a great
deal about the peoples and cultures to which they are attached.” Tolkien asserted
that a language will give rise to a mythology, and Portnow seems to be in agreement
in that a language will reflect the culture of characters and lands developed for
gaming platforms and can provide a richer experience for players.

Portnow provides a new designation to add to the existing conlang

classifications (e.g., artlangs, auxlangs, and engelangs) — “flavour languages” — which
he defines as “an incomplete language often comprising only a few sentences”. These
are meant to, as the name implies, add “flavour” to a game without a full-fledged



grammar or vocabulary. Among the flavour languages Portnow discusses are Gargish
from Ultima IV; D’ni from the Myst series of games; Logos from the ill-fated Tabula
Rasa; Simlish, a gibberish standing in for a language in The Sims series; Al-Bhed, a
substitution cipher masquerading as a language within Final Fantasy 10; and 1337 or
Leet, the alternative alphabet for transcribing English9. The descriptions of Gargish,
D’ni, and Logos provide fascinating reading and fit nicely on the spectrum of
invented languages. Logos appears even to have had the potential to be a very
sophisticated artlang. Al-Bhed, even though it is a cipher, is used convincingly as a
language among the characters of Final Fantasy 10 and can also be included
comfortably as an elementary “flavour language.” On the other hand, Simlish and
1337 once again could be seen as examples of Adams’ stretched definition of
invented language.

Where Portnow’s foray into popular culture and gaming is conversational and

highly accessible, the essay following it — “‘Oirish’ Inventions: James Joyce, Samuel
Becket, Paul Muldoon” — is the most erudite and scholarly of all the essays in the
book. This dichotomy and sudden shift in tone underscores the book’s split
personality (i.e., popular vs. scholarly). The author, Stephen Watt, has impeccable
credentials when it comes to writing about these three Irish authors: Professor and
Associate Dean of the Department of English and Adjunct Professor of Theatre and
Drama at Indiana University Bloomington, author of Beckett and Contemporary Irish
Writing (Cambridge University Press, 2009), Joyce, O’Casey, and the Irish Popular
Theatre (Syracuse University Press, 1991), and co-author of A Century of Irish Drama:
Widening the Stage (Indiana University Press, 2000).

Watt, similar to Adams, emphasizes the “strong motive for inventing

language” as the dissatisfaction of Joyce, Beckett, and Muldoon with the adequacy of
English to express their ideas. This theme continues as part of Adams’ distorted
spectrum of what it means to invent a language. In reading Watt’s exemplary and
fascinating exposition, one is confronted with the two spectra working at odds in the
book: the traditional conlang spectrum ranging from basic naming languages to
complex, fully-formed invented languages and the second literary language spectrum
from straightforward journalistic reportage to the “linguistic invention” of writers

9 e.g., L4n6U463 or |4|\|6|_|463 for the word “language”


like James Joyce. Attempting to cover both the literary genius of Joyce and the
linguistic genius of Tolkien in the same book does both authors a disservice in the

This is not to say that some of the techniques of the Irish authors described in

Watt’s essay would not fit comfortably on the traditional conlang spectrum: For
example, Joyce’s obsession with etymology and his neologisms that parallel, in some
ways, the “invented vocabularies” of Newspeak and Nadsat. Watt goes out of his way
to point out that “Joycean invention, however, involves more than neologisms and
puns” as if to subordinate the conlang spectrum to the seemingly more significant
literary language spectrum.

Oddly enough, it is Adams, in his “The Case for Synthetic Scots” (the
complementary appendix to Watt’s essay), who brings the focus back to the conlang
spectrum using the case of the revitalized (and artificial) Scots language. This focus
on a synthetic form of a regional language provides the perfect segue to the final
contributed essay by Suzanne Romaine.

Romaine’s essay, “Revitalized Languages as Invented Languages,” examines

language planning and the resurrection or revitalization of marginalized or near-
extinct languages. Prof. Romaine is currently the Merton Professor of English
Language at Oxford University (a post held by J.R.R. Tolkien himself from 1945 to
1959). She has done fieldwork in Scotland, England, Papua New Guinea, and
Hawaiʻi and was also a member of the team that wrote the 2003 UNESCO position
paper Education in a Multilingual World 10.

Romaine’s fascinating, in-depth essay looks at whether “reinvented languages”
like Modern Hebrew, Quichua Unificado, Cornish, Néo-breton, School/University
Hawaiian, and others can be considered types of “invented languages.” Romaine
appears to come down firmly on the side of agreeing that there are parallels between
languages as distinct in origin and use as Modern Hebrew (or Israeli) and Klingon:
“The idea of a modern standard Hebrew as the language of a secular Jewish state
sprang from the mind of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, no less than Klingon did from the
imagination of its inventor Marc Okrand.” Where these revitalized languages should
fall on the conlang spectrum of language invention is a matter of debate; however,
that they belong appears to be without question.

10 Paper available online at


From Elvish to Klingon ends with Adams’ final appendix, “A Reconstructed

Universal Language,” where he revisits the search for the language of Adam and the
theme of dissatisfaction with existing languages. Adams also seems in this appendix
to reject his original spectrum metaphor: “a spectrum is not the only nor even the
best metaphor to explain linguistic invention and invented languages.” Finally,
Adams seems to come to the realization that trying to conflate those two distinct
spectra is not possible without contorting each into uncomfortable shapes.

Even with its ill-defined focus, From Elvish to Klingon belongs on the reading
list of all those interested in the world of invented languages, conlangers and non-
conlangers alike. Although the essays sometimes cover topics with which many will
already be familiar, even those areas provide insightful commentary and some novel
information. With its thought-provoking ideas, interesting facts, and in-depth
coverage of selected topics, From Elvish to Klingon should appeal to a wide audience,
and everyone should find at least one essay that speaks directly to his or her

[NOTE: The above review is based on an advance reader copy of From Elvish to Klingon. Some minor
changes may occur between the edition reviewed and the final published volume.]

!!!! About the Author «»»»
Don Boozer has been interested in invented languages ever since discovering Dr. Seuss’s On Beyond Zebra
in his elementary school library in the 1970s. Boozer’s previous articles include “I Want to Speak Elvish!
Teens and the World of Imaginary Languages” (VOYA: Voice of Youth Advocates. August
2007),»Speaking in Tongues: Literary Languages» (Library Journal, Reader’s Shelf column. September 15,
2006), and “Playing God: If Language Is a Divine Punishment, Why Are ‘Conlangers’ Creating More of
Them?» (The Linguist Magazine: Official Journal of the Chartered Institute of Linguists (UK).
July/August 2006). A librarian by trade, Boozer created the exhibit Esperanto, Elvish, and Beyond: The
World of Constructed Languages which appeared at the Cleveland Public Library in 2008 and the 3rd
Language Creation Conference in 2009. Boozer currently serves as Secretary/Librarian of the Language
Creation Society and maintains The Conlanger’s Library online.

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