Crowdsourcing language construction

Like Klingon before it, the languages of George R.R. Martin’s ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’ (better known to many in its televisual form, ‘Game of Thrones’) have a peculiar mode of construction, being partly generated by individuals and partly crowdsourced.

The Klingon language was, as originally presented in the first ‘Star Trek’ movie, a mere collection of guttural grunts. However, the producers of the movie series later contracted professional linguist Dr Marc Okrand to help them transform these grunts into the basis of a functioning language.

Okrand’s text derived from this work, 1985’s Klingon Dictionary, was an unexpected publishing success, selling over 300,000 copies, and resulted in the creation of a fan community who, like many Tolkien fans beforehand, were keen to develop their fandom into a linguistic arena.

By the early 1990s, this had developed into a formal Klingon Language Institute, where fans worked alongside Dr Okrand in generating not only additional lexis, but entire ‘translations’ of existing works of literature, including famously ‘Hamlet’ ‘in the original Klingon’.

This hybrid creation paradigm has extended into the arena of Westeros also. While George R.R. Martin obviously originated the idea of languages like Dothraki and Valyrian, and included a few gnomic phrases of both in his novels, it was not until the televisual adaptation by David Benioff and Dan Weiss that a professional linguist was hired to develop these fragments into working languages.

David Peterson, of the Language Creation Society, an organisation dedicated to the art and practice of creating invented languages, was recruited for this task, and quickly developed basic functioning languages of both Dothraki, the tongue of the nomadic horselords, and Old High Valyrian, the language of a long-lost high civilisation in Essos. Peterson has since moved on to work as language creation consultant on a number of other television programmes also.

In a similar process to the development of Klingon, Peterson’s (and Martin’s) creations have grown beyond their originator and become a passionate interest for many fans. Websites proliferate online which offer to teach people these growing languages.

Peterson’s background as originator of the Language Creation Society has perhaps inspired this process of crowdsourced proliferation of invented languages. Equally, this may simply be a product of the mutuality format of globalised fandom. Or there may be other explanations, and we would be keen to know more.

If you have a theory about how invented languages come about, please consider submitting an abstract for our conference on the 18th of March in Coventry. Details and the call for papers can be found in the archives of this blog.


Bowie sings Nadsat

Music legend David Bowie’s unexpected new album ‘Blackstar’, released on his 69th birthday two days ago, features a rather experimental track entitled ‘Girl Loves Me’, which appears to be sung primarily in Nadsat, with additions from the gay London slang of the Sixties, Polari.

Slooshy well, my little droogies:


How do you translate a dialect?

In our project using corpus linguistics methodologies to analyse the invented language of Nadsat in Anthony Burgess’s ‘A Clockwork Orange’, we have discovered that there are significant grey areas demarcating the borders between language, creole, pidgin and dialect.

Is Burgess’s ‘Nadsat’ a language? Is it merely, as some glossary compilers and editors have suggested, a lexicon of slang appended to English? Is it somewhere in the hinterland between – a creole, perhaps? Is it maybe even just the protagonist’s own dialect, an idiolect? Whichever it is, it is certainly not formal English.

While the process of translation already offers problems to translators dealing with formal versions of established languages, such as how to translate idioms or culturally specific terms, this becomes even more complex when dealing with less formal examples of language.

Students challenged with Old English texts, such as Beowulf, often struggle with the idea that they are, in fact, still dealing with the English language, and desire a modern ‘translation’ to ease comprehension. This can even be encountered among students dealing with later texts again, such as the works of Chaucer, or even the Elizabethans.

Similarly, people who speak strong dialectal versions of a language may struggle with comprehending a different dialect of the same language. I recall a Glaswegian friend asking a barman in Cork whether the local customers were speaking Irish when in fact they were communicating in their local heavily accented and dialect version of English.

So all sorts of issues can arise when a translator is faced with dialect or similarly informal versions of a language. Luigi Bonaffini has written intelligently of the many challenges faced by translators when they are confronted with dialectal language: As he correctly points out, the problems begin with perceptions that dialect is a “subaltern, marginal” form of language which diminishes the validity and cultural role played by dialect.

Some translators seek a kind of metaphoric or analogous transformation, rendering dialect in one language into a comparative dialect in the target language. For example, the poems of Giacomo Belli, a 19th century sonneteer in the Roman dialect, have been variously translated into Scots, “Tyke” (a Yorkshire dialect), “Strine” (1960s Australian dialect), Mid-Ulster Hiberno-English and many more regional dialectal variants of formal English. In each case, the translator has been forced to render the unique cultural environment evoked by Belli’s 19th century Rome into analogous cultural environments located within the 20th century Anglosphere. This can quickly lead to significant semantic differences opening up between the source text and the translation.

Obviously, when the dialect involved is an invented one, with no existing penumbra of culture upon which to draw, the translator is faced with an even more exacerbated problem. How can one translate a culture which doesn’t really exist beyond the pages of a slim novella?

As a team, we’re looking at various translations of ‘A Clockwork Orange’ in order to see what is happening in them, and to compare the translation strategies and processes, in the hope that this may shed useful light upon the translation process in general.

Obviously, we’re therefore interested in hearing from other scholars who have an interest in how components like dialect come to be translated, and we would urge anyone with an interest in this area to look at our call for papers and consider presenting their perspectives at our symposium in March.

Closing date for abstracts is 29th January.

Happy new year!

Translating the untranslatable

Translators face many challenges in attempting to convey meaning from the medium of one language to another. The many idioms, nuances and semantic differences between languages renders all acts of translation necessarily imprecise. In other words, translation, especially of literature, is very much an art rather than a science.

Corpus linguistics has helped to generate some significant insights into how translators go about this delicate task of transformation while preserving meaning. By comparing large bodies of text, such as EU documentation, which are rendered into multiple languages simultaneously, corpus methodologies have assisted understanding of the alchemical process of translation.

But dry and precise legislative documents are one thing; literature provides a series of additional challenges to translators seeking to transmit the literary experience and meaning across language barriers. The challenge of translating aesthetic, cultural, metric and prosodic components sometimes seems insurmountable, or at least, an act of approximation.

Then there are additional challenges – that of translating dialectal elements, or dense idiomatic components closely related to individual cultures. In relation to our project – the translation corpus of ‘A Clockwork Orange’ – we are examining how translators seek to convey the meaning inherent in ‘Nadsat’, the invented teen dialect in which the novella is written.

We hope to use methodologies derived from corpus linguistics to illuminate this translation process, in the hope that it may tell us new things about how the artistic aspect of translation functions.

We’re keen to hear from other researchers who are looking at the process of translating the untranslatable, especially those who are utilising corpus methodologies to do so. And we offer a warm welcome to anyone working in this area to come along to the ‘Ponying the Slovos’ conference at Coventry in March.

Introducing Invented Languages

Douglas Bigham, Assistant Professor of Linguistics at San Diego State University, presents a really interesting introduction to the whole idea of invented languages, and how art languages fit into that wider context.

The link on Youtube has an especially useful list of links to websites about individual art languages which is well worth exploring.

Tolkien’s Invented Languages

Tolkien can be seen as the father of invented art languages. His Middle Earth mythos, whose tales have thrilled generations of readers, and latterly cinema goers also, only came into being because of his fascination with language and desire to create his own languages.

Elvish, which exists in two main forms in his work – Quenya and Sindarin, is the best known of these, and is thought to be heavily influenced by Finnish and Welsh, two languages Tolkien found aesthetically beautiful.

But behind these largely complete languages exist a whole complex body of linguistic development, for as a scholar Tolkien was well aware that languages do not come into being fully formed, but organically grow and change over time. He began work on his ‘Elvin tongue’ while still a schoolboy in Birmingham and was still working on it when he died over six decades later.

But the family of Elvish languages extends far beyond these two variants, and even they form only a small part of Tolkien’s full creative linguistic achievement. He based the secret language of his dwarves – Khuzdul – on a Semitic, largely Hebrew, base which has led, along with some of his depictions of the dwarves as gold-obsessed, to allegations of anti-semitism.

The race of man in his mythos were granted their own family of languages also, led by Adunaic, the language of the noble race of Numenoreans whose pride led to the sinking of their island utopia before the events depicted in The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings.

From this base descends a panoply of ‘Mannish’ languages in Middle Earth, which Tolkien had once intended to depict separately by ‘translating’ them into different Germanic tongues. Rohirric, the language of Rohan, was to be rendered via Old English, of which Tolkien was himself a leading philologist and professor. The language spoken by the people of the Dale, terrorised by the dragon Smaug in The Hobbit, would be rendered via Old Norse, and the language of the Kingdom of Rhovanion would be rendered via Gothic.

Even the ‘Black Speech’ of Mordor had variant forms, including the higher version which is inscribed on Frodo’s one ring to rule them all, and a lower demotic version spoken by the Orcs.

As early as the 1930s Tolkien had developed such a complex linguistic history for Middle Earth that he wrote a number of versions of a language treatise, entitled the Lhammas, to explain the linguistic lineages and etymologies of the tongues of Middle Earth.

Tolkien sought to explain his passion for creating languages, a process he termed glossopoeia, in an essay entitled ‘The Secret Vice’, which goes some way to revealing how his linguistic interests led ultimately to some of the best-loved literature of the 20th century. The complexity of his linguistic creations naturally required the creation of concomitant cultures to be expressed via those invented languages and it was in this way that Middle Earth came into being.

Tolkien’s expansive and exhaustive achievement of linguistic creation has been influential in the genre of fantastikal literature ever since, as he demonstrated conclusively the role that linguistic invention can play in world-building. That influence can be felt even today, with the invention of Dothraki and Valyrian for the ‘Game of Thrones’ television series, based on George R.R. Martin’s ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’.


We started this project in March 2015 with a seedcorn grant from Coventry University.

Since then, we have been joined by colleagues from the University of Birmingham in our quest to discover how ‘untranslatable’ invented art language gets translated, by focusing on the ‘Nadsat’ slang embedded in Anthony Burgess’s cult novella, ‘A Clockwork Orange’.

We’ve already presented some preliminary findings at a conference in Nottingham, which can be viewed at the link below.

We’re looking forward to presenting some more of what we’ve discovered in March at the ‘Ponying the Slovos’ symposium.

Even moreso, we’re excited to hear from other researchers, translators and academics and linguists about what they’ve discovered when they’ve looked at such translation strategies, or when they’ve looked at art languages in literature.

If you’re one such researcher, please consider contributing a paper to the symposium. See the call for paper for details.

Nott poster draft 3

Ponying the Slovos Symposium

Call for Papers:

Ponying the Slovos – Art-languages and translation corpora in literary criticism

A team of researchers based at Coventry University and the University of Birmingham have been studying how invented languages are translated, using parallel corpus techniques and comparing translations of Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange.

We now invite papers for a special one-day symposium event to be held at Coventry University on 18/3/2016, which will explore and expand upon all the various contexts of this interdisciplinary study.

Possible topics include:

  • the use of parallel corpora in the exploration of translation strategies for creative uses of lexis and grammar
  • the creation and translation of invented art-languages, including but not limited to, Burgess’s Nadsat, Tolkien’s languages of Middle Earth, Orwell’s Newspeak, Suzanne Haden Elgin’s Láadan, Dothraki and Valyrian from George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire (Game of Thrones), Klingon and Vulcan from the Star Trek mythos, and Richard Adams’s Lapine.
  • the use of language invention as a world-building component in fantastical and other literature.

We welcome submissions from scholars, academics and early career researchers in any of these areas, especially corpus linguistics, translation studies, fantastika studies and conlang studies.

There is no registration fee to attend or present at this symposium as it is funded by a seed-corn grant from Coventry University.

Abstracts of 300 words, accompanied by a brief professional bio, should be submitted as Word documents to by 29th January 2016.