Most languages have developed over centuries of use among groups of people. But some have a different origin: they are invented, from scratch, in the mind of an individual. Familiar examples include the international language Esperanto, the Klingon language of Star trek and the elvish languages of The Lord of the Rings.
The activity is not new – the first invented language recorded was that of medieval nun Hildegard von Bingen – but the internet now allows for a much wider sharing of these languages among the small communities of people who speak and create them.
Christine Schreyer, linguistic anthropologist at the Okanagan campus of the University of British Columbia in Kelowna, Canada, studied invented languages and the people who speak them, a subject on which she writes in the Annual Review of Anthropology 2021. But Schreyer brings another skill: she herself is a language creator and has invented several languages for the film industry: the kryptonian language for Steel man, Eltarian for Power rangers, Beama (Cro-Magnon) for Alpha, and atlante for Zack Snyder Justice League.
Schreyer spoke with Knowable Magazine about his experience in this unusual world and the practical lessons it offers to people trying to revitalize endangered natural languages. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How did you come to study something as esoteric as invented languages?
I teach a course in linguistic anthropology, in which I give my students the task of creating new languages as they learn the language parts. Back when I started doing this Avatar came out of. the na’vi language of this film was very popular at the time and had made its way into numerous reports about people learning the language and doing it quickly.
My other academic research focuses on the revitalization of languages, with indigenous or minority communities. One of the challenges we have is that it takes a long time for people to learn a language. I was interested to know what endangered language communities could learn from these language fan communities created, to learn languages faster. I wanted to find out who the speakers of Na’vi were, and why and how they learned this particular created language.
When I surveyed the Na’vi speakers, many said they joined because they were fans of the film and they stayed for the community. They are very welcoming and inclusive communities. It doesn’t matter your race or gender, although many of these fandoms tend to be more masculine.
But also, one of the things that I saw in the Na’vi case was that individuals joined the fan community because Avatar was very much related to environmental rights and indigenous rights. These ideals of environmentalism are part of the language, and they picked up on that. This is part of the reason why some of them were learning the language.
What about other invented languages?
Those that are learned most widely are those conceived as an international auxiliary language, like Esperanto, intended to be shared by people around the world to promote unity and world peace. It’s supposed to be a neutral language, and it’s streamlined and very easy to learn. It has been learned by millions of people around the world. You can learn it on Duolingo!
The others are fan languages: Na’vi, Klingon from Star trek and Dothraki from Game of thrones are very popular. There were 300 Na’vi speakers when I interviewed them in 2011, everyone from beginner to very advanced, but they all saw themselves as part of the community. Dothraki speakers were much fewer back then, perhaps 20. And studies have shown that there are around 20 advanced Klingon speakers around the world as well. It depends on how popular the show was at the time. If another season of Star Trek: Discovery fate, you will have more people learning Klingon.
We certainly see it with Na’vi. It was very popular in the beginning, and there are still those core members who are learning Na’vi. And with Avatar 2, which is expected to arrive next year, we will likely see an increase in the number of speakers.