Conlangs in Movies.

Manvir Singh recently had a piece in the New Yorker (archived) that takes the new Dune sequel as its hook (it both invites and has attracted tedious controversy about supposed suppression of Arabic in the Fremen language) but has a lot of other material of interest, which I will excerpt:

A trailer for Denis Villeneuve’s “Dune: Part Two” features the boy prophet Paul Atreides, played by Timothée Chalamet, yelling something foreign and uninterpretable to a horde of desert people. […] Engineered languages such as the one Chalamet speaks represent a new benchmark in imaginative fiction. Twenty years ago, viewers would have struggled to name franchises other than “Star Trek” or “The Lord of the Rings” that bothered to invent new languages. Today, with the budgets of the biggest films and series rivalling the G.D.P.s of small island nations, constructed languages, or conlangs, are becoming a norm, if not an implicit requirement. Breeze through entertainment from the past decade or so, and you’ll find lingos designed for Paleolithic peoples (“Alpha”), spell-casting witches (“Penny Dreadful”), post-apocalyptic survivors (“Into the Badlands”), Superman’s home planet of Krypton (“Man of Steel”), a cross-species alien alliance (“Halo”), time-travelling preteens (“Paper Girls”), the Munja’kin tribe of Oz (“Emerald City”), and Santa Claus and his elves (“The Christmas Chronicles” and its sequel). […]

Hollywood’s current obsession with constructed languages arguably started with “The Lord of the Rings” film adaptations of the early two-thousands. J. R. R. Tolkien was a professor of Old English at Oxford and a lifelong conlanger, and he famously created the tongues of Middle-earth long before writing the books. “The invention of languages is the foundation,” he once wrote. “The ‘stories’ were made rather to provide a world for the languages than the reverse.” The trilogy’s success showed the power of conlangs to create engrossing alternate realities, inspiring filmmakers to seek out skilled language creators.

The most influential conlanger working today is David J. Peterson. Born in Long Beach, California, Peterson started to create languages in 2000, while he was a sophomore at U.C. Berkeley. His early projects were amusing experiments: X, a language that could only be written; Sheli, which included only sounds that he liked and was initially unpronounceable; and Zhyler, which he created because he enjoyed Turkish and which, in honor of the Heinz Company, had fifty-seven noun cases. In 2005, he graduated with a master’s degree in linguistics from U.C. San Diego. Two years later, he co-founded the Language Creation Society with nine other conlangers.

Peterson’s big break came in 2009, when HBO reached out to the Language Creation Society with a strange request. They were creating a television show (which would turn out to be “Game of Thrones”) and wanted someone to develop a language (which would emerge as Dothraki). Nothing like this had ever happened before, so the society organized a competition that would be judged by the show’s producers. After signing a nondisclosure agreement, applicants were invited to send in a phonetic breakdown of Dothraki, a romanized transcription system, six to eight lines of translated text, and any additional notes or translations.

Peterson had an edge over his competitors: unemployment. For two and a half weeks, he worked eighteen-hour days, assembling a hundred and eighty pages of material. He made it to the second round and eventually produced more than three hundred pages in Dothraki. He landed the job and was later invited to develop five more languages for the series, including High Valyrian, which proved especially popular among fans. In 2017, a High Valyrian course launched on the language-learning app Duolingo; at one point in 2023, more than nine hundred thousand people had signed up as active users.

Along with James Cameron’s “Avatar” (2009), which appeared in theatres soon after Peterson was hired by HBO, the first season of “Game of Thrones” demonstrated that audiences not only tolerated fictional languages—they loved them. What had previously been a nerdy pastime transformed into a standard of fantasy filmmaking. Peterson became the go-to language wizard. He has since been hired to create some fifty other conlangs, including languages for the Dark Elves in “Thor: The Dark World” (2013), for the Grounders in the television show “The 100” (2014-20), and for the desert-dwelling Fremen in the two “Dune” movies. When Chalamet, as Paul Atreides, calls to his combatants, he does so in words devised by Peterson and his wife and fellow-conlanger, Jessie. (Peterson worked alone for the first “Dune” film, and collaborated with her on the second.)

Peterson’s success stems from a commitment to naturalism. He knows languages well; he has studied more than twenty, including Swahili, Middle Egyptian, and Esperanto, and seems to have an endless mental Rolodex of the lexical, grammatical, and phonological patterns found around the world. Yet, when an interviewer asked him how, when assembling a new conlang, he decides “which aspects of a language to borrow from and mimic” (Greek suffixes? Mongolian tenses? Japanese particles?), he rejected the premise. “If you just ripped out a structure from one language and put it in your own, the result would be inauthentic,” he replied. […]

As Peterson laid out in his 2015 book, “The Art of Language Invention,” he treats languages as evolving systems whose features are interconnected and shaped by a unique history. To design verbs in High Valyrian, for example, he simulated a four-stage evolution from a prehistoric form. In the version of High Valyrian spoken in “Game of Thrones,” verbs have an imperfect stem (for past actions that were continuous or incomplete) and a perfect stem (for past actions that were completed). The perfect stem, he decided, was formed in ancient times by appending -tat­ to the end of the imperfect. Over time, this became -tet and then -et, which often reduces to -t in the version spoken in the television show. (During that imagined history, -tat also gave rise to the verb tatagon, meaning “to finish.”) There are countless other intricacies to High Valyrian verbs, yet, for Peterson, even producing this lone grammatical feature required simulating generations of linguistic change.

What a great job to have! (Peterson was featured at LH a decade ago in connection with Game of Thrones.) Thanks for the link, Eric!


  1. As much as I despise Hollywood (the metonym), it has provided work (and sometimes a livelihood) for countless artists over its history, including to artists with very specialized niches such as this.

  2. Yes indeed.

  3. Mi miras, se estas vera, ke tiu ĉi fonto havas kuracpovojn?

    I know we do this every time this broad topic comes up here, but it’s on YouTube now. And some industrious soul transcribed the dialog.

  4. Twenty years ago, viewers would have struggled to name franchises

    beside the point, i know, but the sentence could’ve ended there. and i think that’s actually the meaningful difference with the 20thC film world, rather than the money involved (which is another element of the same phenomenon, rather than a cause): conlangs become a sensible thing for a media company to invest in (as they never were for film studios as such) because their business model is based on the volume of different products they can produce from a single piece of source material. and that’s very new! and has changed the scale (and scope) of initial or early investment that can be justified to the hands that hold the purse strings.

  5. I’ve been into conlangs, on the internet (lojban, artlangs) since my teens, around the ought, so I guess I never noticed it becoming mainstream.

  6. I’ve always been into it, so it becoming mainstream did not register to me.

  7. I was looking up something related to linguistics recently (probably relative pronouns) and found a very detailed page discussing the grammar of this particular feature in High Valyrian. I couldn’t place the language and turned to Google to look it up. Imagine my surprise when I discovered it was a conlang.

  8. Marc Tracy has a piece in the NY Times, “The Invention of a Desert Tongue for ‘Dune’” (archived):

    In Denis Villeneuve’s sci-fi “Dune” movies, Indigenous people known as Fremen use a device to tunnel rapidly through their desert planet’s surface.

    The instrument is called a “compaction tool” in Frank Herbert’s 1965 novel, “Dune,” on which the films are based. But the professional language constructors David J. Peterson and Jessie Peterson wanted a more sophisticated word for it as the husband and wife built out the Fremen language, Chakobsa, for “Dune: Part Two,” which premiered earlier this month.

    They started with a verb they had made up meaning “to press” — “kira” — and, applying rules David Peterson had devised for the language before the first movie, fashioned another verb that means “to compress” or “to free space by compression” — “kiraza.” From there, they used his established suffixes to come up with a noun. Thus was born the Chakobsa word for a sand compressor, “kirzib,” which can be heard in background dialogue in “Dune: Part Two.”

    For language constructors — conlangers, as they are known — such small touches enhance the verisimilitude of even gigantic edifices like the “Dune” series. If the demand for conlangers’ work is any indication, filmmakers and showrunners agree.

    “There’s a very big limit to what you can do with anything approaching gibberish,” said Jessie Peterson, who holds a doctorate in linguistics. “If you just shouted one word in gibberish, that would probably be fine. If you shouted a phrase of two words, OK. But if you tried to do a whole sentence structure in gibberish, it would fall apart very quickly. If somebody needed to respond or repeat information, it won’t cohere.”

    Other languages are a significant part of the “Dune” films as well. For “Part One,” David Peterson devised a chant for the emperor’s fearsome military forces, the Sardaukar, and the sign language of discreet hand gestures employed by the central Atreides family.

    In “Part Two,” Chakobsa is spoken — and often subtitled — extensively, not just by Fremen played by Javier Bardem and Zendaya, but also by outsiders like Rebecca Ferguson’s Lady Jessica and Timothée Chalamet’s Paul Atreides, the movies’ main character, who first wishes to travel to Arrakis to learn Chakobsa and by the end of the second movie delivers an entire monologue in the language. […]

    Needless to say, it also references the foofarah about “the decision by the filmmakers […] not to retain some of the linguistic vestiges of modern-day cultures that the novel uses,” but only for a couple of paragraphs and without the finger-wagging of Manvir Singh and others.

Speak Your Mind