The new movie The Interpreter doesn’t sound very good (reviews use words like “bloated” and “hooey”), but the gimmick of an invented language, Ku, provided with grammar and vocabulary by an actual linguist can’t help but attract my interest; fortunately, Mark Liberman of Language Log has done the necessary spadework, and you can read all about it in his posts Ku? and Ku Two. A particularly useful find was this page, which explains the background and the associated culture, and says:

Although known as ‘Ku’ to foreigners, the actual language spoken by the Tobosa people of the fictional Democratic Republic of Matoba is indigenously known as Chitobuku, literally meaning ‘the language of the Tobosa people’. Ch’itoboku is the only surviving ancient Bantu language, and the Tobosa oral traditions indicate that ‘Ku’ is the root of modern Bantu languages spoken in contemporary sub Saharan Africa. The structure of Ch’toboku is characterised by its use of indicators to make up words. For example, ‘tobo’ is the root and ‘sa’ is the indicator for ‘they’. There is no gender distinction as in French, hence the word for ‘he’ or ‘she’ is the same, ‘a’. Verbosity is positively valued in Ch’toboku, and ordinary speech should approximate the elegance of poetry.

(Chi- is a variant of ki-, the class 7 noun prefix in Bantu, frequently used for the names of languages: ki-Swahili, chi-Nyanja.)


  1. But what’s with the spelling? Chi-, Ch’i-, Ch’- … it changes each time.
    And it’s the root of the modern Bantu languages? Um, yeah, and Sanskrit is the root of the Greek and Latin. It’s the only ancient Bantu language in the area? Sure, it’s the oldest language in the world. And isn’t it a bit disingenuous to say a Bantu language doesn’t use gender?
    Ah, publicity about technical subjects is such a joy 😉

  2. Hm. You have to wonder about the rigour when the explanation makes little sense. And the language of the Tobosa people would be Chitobosa, and their country Matobosa (or Utobosa, Butobosa, Botobosa etc.). I don’t know of a Bantu language that fiddles with its endings like that: Swahili and Shona don’t.

  3. It seems to fall into the category of using technical consultants in films. If Kidman was playing a pilot, there might be a technical consultant to ensure that the dials and controls in the cockpit looked authentic, and that Kidman looked like she knew what she was doing, but there’s no necessity either for the technical consultant to build a plane that really flies or for the actor to really know how to fly planes.
    By the way, Anthony Burgess seems to have constructed a prehistoric language for a film called “Guerre du Feu” ( but I can’t find any good information on it.

  4. With respect to Burgess’s language – the film’s better known in English as “Quest for Fire”*, so you may have more luck searching under that title.
    I didn’t find much of interest online, but old postings on the CONLANG mailing list note that there are two such languages in the film, and provide two bibliographical references:
    “Creating a language for primitive man”
    A. Burgess
    in: New York Times Magazine 15 Nov 1981 p. 102+
    and an (unnamed) essay in Burgess’s book, But Do Blondes Prefer Gentlemen?. (These may be the same piece, for all I know.)

  5. NW, you’re right. I kinda assumed that this was a question of one or more of those words coming from another language (as often happens with ethnonyms and toponyms), but it may be simpler to assume another error.

  6. HamOperator says

    Have a look at about a made up language used in an Xbox game…Interview with the creator of that language.

  7. The Interpreter is a GREAT MOVIE!!, strongly recommend it!

  8. John Cowan says

    Perhaps it’s not so much the root Bantu language as the most divergent Bantu language.

  9. David Eddyshaw says

    I attempted to reply to this, but the margin is too narrow. Also the system ate my post. And my homework.
    Fortunately, nothing of value was lost.

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