Poster van film Dune 2
Poster van film Dune 2

Building blocks to create your own language: from Esperanto to Dothraki

Do you use Duolingo to get better at High Valyrian sentences like ‘Bantis zōbrie issa se ossȳngnoti lēdys’? Do you greet your partner every day with Dothraki phrases such as ‘Shekh ma shieraki anni’? Then you’ll be familiar with the work by David and Jessie Peterson. The two American linguists have created over 50 ‘constructed languages’ for major television and film productions, including Game of Thrones, Dune and Doctor Strange. On 15 March, they will give a lecture on how to make your own language as part of the InScience academic film festival.

The Petersons are regarded as the language experts when it comes to so-called constructed languages, often abbreviated as ‘ConLang’. During the Big Ideas lecture at the InScience festival, they will explain more about the languages that they’ve designed and come up with themselves, what you learn about language by creating a new one and how to get started with constructing your own language yourself. After the lecture, the pair will be interviewed by Marc van Oostendorp, Professor of Dutch and Academic Communication at Radboud University. 

“I am mainly curious about how natural the languages have become for themselves”, says Van Oostendorp. “Do they dream in Dothraki? Do they have a secret language that they only use with each other?” But also: what is it like for them to see famous actors like Timothée Chalamet speaking ‘their’ language? “Do you get frustrated if they make pronunciation mistakes, or does pride prevail above all?”

Creating your own language doesn't need to be difficult: “Just look at kids aged 12 or 13, coming up with their own secret codes in their bedroom”, says Van Oostendorp. But if you want to turn that into a well thought-out language, more work is needed. “There are actually three origins behind invented languages. They are either developed for a piece of fiction, to improve international communication or to think more logically or differently. Once you have your goal in mind, a lot immediately flows from it. For instance, an international language must be easy to learn for adults, while a language for a book or television series must suit the alien creatures that speak this language.”

When developing a new language, the Petersons also consider the underlying culture of the fictional population, for example. This is evident in the speaking style of the Dothraki: a tribe of warriors that ride around on horses. They don’t say “How are you today?”, but “Did you have a good ride?”. That’s “Hash yer dothrae chek asshekh?” in Dothraki, of course.


Constructed languages have existed for centuries, the most famous of which likely being Esperanto. This language, created at the end of the 19th century by Lejer Zamenhof on the premise of enabling people from all different countries to speak one common language, is still spoken by a few hundred-thousand people. Over the last century, many constructed languages have become popular. Aside from those created by the Petersons, other examples include the languages developed by Tolkien for the elves and hobbits in the Lord of the Rings books. Klingon is another example, created by Marc Okrand for a race of aliens in Star Trek. “That language is so popular that even operas have been sung in Klingon”, says Van Oostendorp. “Shakespeare’s Hamlet was also ‘translated back’ into Klingon”.

What is the difference, then, between Dutch or German and a constructed language like Klingon? “For a ConLang, you can pinpoint a starting point: the moment when it was created. For Italian, for instance, that would be much harder: it emerged from Latin and has branches everywhere, but there is no single point of origin.” 

But this is also an arbitrary dividing line, admits Van Oostendorp: “Imagine we discovered that Dutch was created by a monk in the 13th century. Would that change anything about our language? Our language has in any case continued to develop and change since then, just like the more successful ConLangs.” Esperanto is also a good example of this, explains Van Oostendorp: “Just before Esperanto was created, there was Volapük. Its creator, Johann Martin Schleyer, considered himself the pope of that language and did not allow any changes without his permission.” By now, Volapük is hardly known to anyone, while Esperanto still has a relatively large following over one hundred years later. “Esperanto was invented by Zamenhof, but he never declared himself the boss of that language. He left it open and free for all speakers; for him, the author was unimportant.”

Snake language

By creating your own language, you learn a lot about how language works, explains Van Oostendorp. “You immediately realise how much is involved. I once created a snake language together with some children: we started thinking about what sounds snakes would make, but also about what they wanted to communicate. From sounds and morphology to syntax and sentence structure: everything flows from a few decisions. David Peterson explains this very well in a step-by-step manner in his book (The Art of Language Invention, ed.), and I am looking forward to interviewing the pair about their process.”

The 'Big Ideas: How to create a language' lecture with David and Jesse Peterson takes place on March 15 from 19:30 to 21:00, in Lux, during the InScience film festival. Tickets are available through the organisation.

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Art & Culture, Media & Communication, Language