When David Peterson was in middle school, he had no particular interest in language and never dreamed he would one day create languages for wildly successful TV shows—but when he watched Return of the Jedi he noticed that something was not quite right about the scene where Princess Leia, disguised as a bounty hunter, speaks in an unknown language to Jabba the Hutt. She basically repeats what sounds like yaté and yotó a few times, and that somehow, according to the subtitles, stands for both “I have come for the bounty on this Wookie,” “50,000, no less,” and a few other things. That didn't seem like something a language should do. Peterson didn’t know it at the time, but this sense of unease about what he was seeing was an early glimmer of the particular artistic sensibility of the language inventor, the ability to distinguish an intelligent, well-crafted creation, from a lazy jumble of nonsense syllables.
He eventually developed an intense love of language, studying several of them and creating even more. His professional language creations (heard in Game of Thrones, Defiance, and Thor: The Dark World) as well as the personal projects he has been working on since 2000 are of the intelligent and well-crafted type. They have complicated, learnable grammars, extensive vocabularies, and features consistent with fully-imagined cultural practices. In an era where we can watch, re-watch, and pick apart on the internet to our heart’s content, fans demand no less. Yaté yotó just doesn’t cut it anymore.
But what makes a good constructed language (or conlang, for those in the know)? And for those who want to try their hand at language creation for their fantasy novel, secret club, thought experiment, or plain personal enjoyment, where is a good place to begin? Since the early 90s, conlangers have been sharing their ideas and strategies and evaluating each other’s work on listservs and forums and sometimes even at in-person conferences. A sort of technique and artistic standard has emerged, but it can be difficult for a newbie to figure out what it is. Peterson asks,
Where is the collected wisdom of the early conlang community? Why is it not written down somewhere that if you’re creating a naturalistic ergative language, it will most likely be split ergative, and that those splits will happen in one of a small number of likely places in the grammar? This is something that every conlanger knows or eventually learns, but the information is only passed via word of mouth—it’s like we’re living in the 1300s, but we also have the internet and indoor plumbing!
If you are a budding language inventor now thinking “yikes! What’s an ergative language?” Peterson has written the book for you. Full of examples from both natural and constructed languages, The Art of Language Invention will take new conlangers through “the nuts and bolts of language creation so they can focus on the more important question: What do I want to say with this new language that I can’t say in my native language —or any other language that currently exists?”
Even if you have no plans to build your own language, the book is a lively introduction to the important concepts of linguistics, from consonants and vowels, to stress and tone, to verb agreement and case, to how grammar evolves over time. There’s also a section on writing systems with some beautiful examples of invented scripts. And if you’re a fan of HBO’s Game of Thrones or Syfy’s Defiance the “case studies” of the languages Peterson created for those shows will give you a deeper appreciation for just how far we’ve come from the days of yaté yotó.