A new video explores the origins of some of the more famous fictional languages in movies and TV. World-building can be a difficult task. While the expansive universes created by J.R.R. Tolkien, J.K. Rowling, and George R.R. Martin may seem organic and life-like, it took a lot of work on the part of the authors to craft not only compelling characters, but locations, races, history, and language. This challenge can grow even greater when a written work is adapted to screen. Not only do all the fantastical places and costumes need to be created, but actors have to learn how to speak in all of those made-up languages.
To do so, films and TV shows often rely on the help of linguists. Their work is to find a way to take the written word and make it sound like something a human (or alien or droid) would be able to create. Other times, these creatives have to invent the language from nothing if there’s no source material. But all human sounds have a basis in a reality, and so too do all constructed languages, or conlangs, have roots in reality.
In the second part of their series on language in TV and movies, WIRED once again asked dialect coach Erik Singer to analyze some fictional mouth sounds. Their first video together dealt with the authenticity of real world accents that actors employ for movies. In the latest installment, Singer goes through a number of famous conlangs and breaks down their origins and how well they’re voiced by actors.
The video tackles Dothraki and High Valyrian from Game of Thrones, Parseltongue from Harry Potter, Klingon from Star Trek, Sindarin from Lord of the Rings, and Na’vi from Avatar. Each has some fascinating roots, and a few even employed linguists to help construct them. Of course, Sindarin has the greatest advantage as it’s not only been around the longest, but was crafted by Tolkien himself. Not only did he invent the world of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, but he was also a linguist, giving him unique insight into the construction of language.
It’s also interesting to hear Singer’s critiques of the various performances. For one, Klingon used to be delivered pretty lazily, but has improved. You also realize that Zoe Saldana is used to speaking two fictional languages thanks to her dual roles on Avatar and Star Trek. Meanwhile, the way Daenarys has grown more comfortable with Dothraki helps chart the evolution of her character.
The final part of the video offers a quick dive into a bunch of other conlangs that are a bit less thought-out and impressive. There are the language of Wookiees, Furbies, Ewoks, and of course, John Malkovich from Being John Malkovich. There was a time when the authenticity of conlangs would be an afterthought to studio execs, so it’s good to know we live in a world where the people behind genre entertainment take proper world-building seriously.