“The Art Of Language Invention,” by David J. Peterson | AIM Non-Fiction Review

I have decided to read this on Kindle because I do not feel like waiting for the physical copy to arrive, especially during this pandemic when the shipping is a lot longer.

Plot

This book progresses from discussing the simple linguistic elements, such as sounds, and into the more complex ones, such as grammar. This book is more focused on instructing any beginning conlanger how to start creating a language. It’s less of an overview of the art of conlanging and more of a step-by-step tutorial to conlanging, with Peterson showing some of the conlangs he is well-known for.

Author

Peterson made it clear in his introduction that he never considered strongly the implications of dialogue of fictional languages in film and books, with the exception being attempting to decipher what R2-D2 was saying in Return of the Jedi.

He would go on to pursue a career in linguistics where he would create conlangs for major movies and television shows, with Game of Thrones being a prominent example.

Themes

Since conlanging is the major focus, then the use of oral communication would obviously become a major theme throughout the book. There is a lot of focus on how sounds are created, and the nuances that can occur that ultimately either change the word itself or the meaning.

An emphasis is put on the fact that every language has a set of rules for its grammar and sounds that make each language unique. This becomes the case in Mandarin Chinese and Thai, in which both languages are heavily reliant on tones when differentiating between words with different meanings. There is also a universality in languages because all of them can convey any tense–though the differences are whether they are as separate words or as conjugations.

Languages also always are in a constant state of evolution, depending on how much time and separation takes place. As such, the sounds change a lot, while the glyphs tend to fail to keep up, and have to compensate by including some marks or symbols indicating the change in sound. Peterson had to highlight the glottochronologies of one of his conlangs by detailing the proto-script before proceeding to the main script. He emphasized that the proto-scripts tend to be simple and convey a simple idea, whereas the later scripts become more detailed while representing one sound. This is not the case with languages like Chinese.

He also talks about the relations that different languages have between each other, particularly in what sounds they can or cannot make. English is an example, since while it uses onset clusters like [sp], [st], and [sn], it does not begin words with [pt], [ps], or [gn] like in Greek, so the first letters are silent.

Historical Context

Peterson makes a lot of references to his life growing up during the rise of internet communication. He emphasized that this ultimately influenced how conlangs would be created, either for auxiliary or fictional purposes. Since there are issues of nit-picking details in fan bases of fiction, it would involve a lot of discussion, which would in turn a much more widespread participation around the world.

Peterson himself would go on to help create the Dothraki language based on the names found throughout the Song of Ice and Fire series. He would make deductions from that information as clues as to how the language should be created. He would eventually start assigning how clusters, vowels, and conjugations should be treated.

Writing Style

Peterson begins by discussing the basics of linguistics, by using terms that describe types of languages as well as the ways in which those languages are transcribed. He also gets into detail about the articulators in the mouth, lips, throat, and lungs that are used in describing each individual sound. He uses a lot of terms throughout the book, mostly the ones that are conventional while others he made up, in order to explain the features of linguistics so it can be understandable.

Since he wanted his book to be a beginner’s guide to conlanging, then he explains every vowel, consonant, and articulator in the best possible way to anyone previously unfamiliar with conlanging. This is definitely a guide that avoids egocentricity–different from egoism, of course–because the book is not written for Peterson himself, rather for anyone who is unfamiliar with linguistics.

As such, he writes in a conversational way with humor and simply language. I thought that it was effective, since I had some problems processing some components of linguistics until he explained it thoroughly and simply at the same time.

Real World Application

The purpose of this book, as Peterson himself noted, is to explain conlanging as simply as possible. Although I pretty much know the basics of linguistics due to taking a linguistics course during my time pursuing my BA in English, I do think that this book would be helpful in developing many of my conlangs that I am either misguided about or abandoned all together.

Peterson, at the end of the book, mentions the importance of conlangs in fantasy and science fiction in that it provides verisimilitude the same way that naturalism by such painters as Da Vinci and Rembrandt provided realism to paintings. Indeed, conlanging is an artform that attempts to push the limits of linguistic imagination while also providing a sense of realism to a fictional story.

Suggest This To…

  • Any budding or dabbling conlangers, since they should definitely read this book in order to understand the basics of language itself, as well as what makes languages different from one another. This book makes linguistics no longer an intimidating subject to grasp, rather as more explorative and experimental.
  • Any writers of fantasy/science fiction who have not taken into account the importance of conlangs, particularly in a world that is not Earth. They will find that conlangs are important for developing the setting.
  • Anyone working for any media company (film, video games, publishing house), for the very same reason. The only difference being that conlanging is an underestimated artform that can truly break boundaries and provide realism to any fictional setting.

Peterson, David J. “The Art Of Language invention: From Horse-Lords To Dark Elves, The Words Behind Wordbuilding.” Penguin Books. 2015.

Image Attribution: Micky Milkyway

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