A while back, OUP sent me a reviewer’s copy of From Elvish to Klingon: Exploring Invented Languages, by Michael Adams. I set it aside, thinking it was probably some marginally interesting attempt to cash in on the popularity of all things Star Trek and Tolkien. When I finally took a good look at it, however, it turned out to be a collection of papers edited by Michael Adams, and a fascinating one. The table of contents is after the cut; as you can see, it covers a much wider range of topics than one might think—not only the titular languages and a chapter covering Volapük, Esperanto, et al., but Orwell and Burgess, Hebrew and Hawaiian, even Joyce and Beckett. I was as pleasantly surprised by this book as I was by Arika Okrent’s In the Land of Invented Languages a couple of years ago (see this post). Rather than try to summarize all the chapters, I’ll just quote some bits from the Tolkien one, which is worth the price of admission all by itself. It starts with this wonderful epigraph:

You can’t be a Tolkien fan without liking the look of these fake languages, and I still find them aesthetically pleasing, even now. There is something wonderful about looking at a new language, noticing something of its structure, sensing its power to communicate and hold things. […] And I remember feeling the ground had opened up in front of me when I got to Appendix F.

Jenny Turner ‘Reasons for Liking Tolkien

From the section “Secrecy and hiddenness”:

The piecemeal revelation [of the languages in The Lord of the Rings] preserves a sense of distance, ancientness, and mystery, just as does the gradual and partial revealing of the history of the Elder Days. Instructive comparison my be made with ‘The Notion Club Papers’ […], an unfinished draft in which the legend of the ancient downfall of Nûmenor is received preternaturally by 20th-century recipients. In a kind of linguistic thriller, the tale emerges as the characters gradually decipher fragments of two languages in which it is described, Elvish and Adûnaic. For the language enthusiast, the phonology and declension system are fascinating, but Tolkien’s instinct in abandoning a story so wholly dependent on linguistic investigation was very sound.

From “The pleasures of Elvish philology”:

Because Tolkien constructed his Elvish language family using the pattern of real-world language change, it is possible for the investigation of Elvish to create the same intellectual and aesthetic pleasure that can be found in real-world philology, delighting in the relations and histories of words.[…] The apprehension of these complex relationships—discovering the relation of an obscure word to another element in the same or another language, or uncovering the transformative effect of a series of sound changes—is a source of fascination whether the context is Elvish or English etymology.[…]

Since few people study classical or even modern languages in depth nowadays, very few have had the chance to discover such philological pleasure; but of those who have, many were introduced to it through Tolkien’s languages.

And reader, I was one of them!

I’m tempted to quote some of the detailed linguistic discussions, but I think I’ll just say if you like the sound of the contents and the excerpts, you’ll like this (amazingly inexpensive) book a lot. And you can still run out and get it if you need a last-minute gift!

Introduction, Michael Adams
“Confounding Babel: International Auxiliary Languages,” Arden Smith
“Invented Vocabularies: The Cases of Newspeak and Nadsat,” Howard Jackson
“Tolkien’s Invented Languages,” E.C.S. Weiner and Jeremy Marshall
“‘Wild and Whirling Words’: The Invention and Use of Klingon,” Marc Okrand, Michael Adams, Judith Hendriks-Hermann, and Sjaak Kroon
“Gaming Languages and Language Games,” James Portnow
“‘Oirish’ Inventions: James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, Paul Muldoon,” Stephen Watt
“Revitalized Languages as Invented Languages,” Suzanne Romaine
Appendices (“Owning Language,” “Nadsat and the Critics,” “The Case for Synthetic Scots,” etc.)


  1. You compare Esperanto, a living language with many dead projects here with is less than fair.
    Many ignorant people describe Esperanto as “failed” – other ignorant people say that if human beings were meant to fly, God would have given them wings.
    Esperanto is neither artificial nor a failure however. As the British Government now employs Esperanto translators it has ceased to be a hobby. More recently this international language was used to address the United Nations in Bonn.
    During a short period of 124 years Esperanto is now in the top 100 languages, out of 6,800 worldwide. It is the 22nd most used language in Wikipedia, ahead of Danish and Arabic. It is a language choice of Google, Skype, Firefox, Ubuntu and Facebook.
    Native Esperanto speakers, (people who have used the language from birth), include World Chess Champion Susan Polger, Ulrich Brandenberg the new German Ambassador to and Nobel Laureate Daniel Bovet. Financier George Soros learnt Esperanto as a child.
    Esperanto is a living language – see
    Their new online course has 125 000 hits per day and Esperanto Wikipedia enjoys 400 000 hits per day. That can’t be bad 🙂

  2. Thanks for the heads up, it sounds like a must-buy! And Jenny Turner’s article was a delight, taking me right back to exactly how I felt as a 7-year old losing myself in those appendices for the first time.

  3. And on the topic of Christmas, don’t forget to attempt the Isle of Man’s King William’s College students’ quiz. If you get more than six right you’re too clever by half, whatever that means.

  4. Leonardo Boiko says

    Making a lot of effort not to bite and start ranting on the ugly amateurish kludge that is Esperanto. I agree that it’s totally unfair to compare it with the beauty of artistic languages designed by actual linguists who had some idea of what they were doing, like Tolkien and Okrand.
    Mr Hat, there’s no preview on Amazon nor in Google—is the gaming chapter any good?

  5. AJP: Really tough. I got two and a possible third, which I suppose means I’m not clever enough by at least half ..

  6. You compare Esperanto, a living language with many dead projects here with is less than fair.
    What the hell are you talking about? Are you saying Hebrew is dead? It’s true Joyce and Beckett are dead, but that’s hardly their fault, and Paul Muldoon is still with us. In fact, he’s only a week and a half older than I am.
    is the gaming chapter any good?
    With the proviso that I am a complete ignoramus when it comes to video games, yes, it looks good to me. He starts off saying “game worlds need the richness and vibrancy invented languages provide, perhaps more than do fictional universes in other media … language is a form of play.” In the section “The Mists of History,” he discusses Gargish (“a very difficult language for an English speaker to acquire”) and D’ni (“one of the most intricate and complicated languages yet created for a game”—gorgeous alphabet, too); under “The Modern Era” he talks about Simlish (“the only language ever invented for the sole purpose of being enjoyed”) and Al-Bhed (“a carefully crafted substitution cipher”), and in “The Online Revolution” he has a long description of Logos—including “a few words (written at my invitation) about its creation from its creator, Richard Garriott”—and a couple of pages about 1337 (“an entirely disruptive and exclusionary language: it has no other purpose than to exclude the uninitiated”). In his conclusion he says “Games stand now where film stood at the turn of the last century, on the verge of making the transition from an entertainment to an art form… [The alternative reality they create] requires the transfer of concepts as strange and alien as the worlds they allow us to explore, and this requires the invention of new language.”

  7. J.W. Brewer says

    Since the OP did not diss Esperanto in any way I can detect, the first comment appears to be an example of “the wicked flee when no man pursueth.” But I will pretend to take offense at the relevant chapter title since Babel was already fully confounded approx 1850 years before Zamenhof, we are told by the Holy Fathers, on the Day of Pentecost, which provides us with two convenient non-Esperantist options for worldwide communication: a) if the miraculous happens to be transpiring we will all communicate without a formal Int’l Aux Lang thanks to tongues of fire sent down by the Holy Ghost; or b) we can all just learn koine Greek, a perfectly respectable language providentially designated for universality, with a convenient and well-established alphabet.

  8. J.W. Brewer says

    I mean, it’s Suzanne Romaine’s chapter that sounds from its title as if it might provoke the prickly advocates of the languages it discusses.

  9. I’m super-bored by artificial languages. Don’t know why. Might be that they lack the spark of imagination (=broken rules) that make human things human: those beautiful defects.
    Now that Esperanto has some native speakers, though, it might be worth learning. I’m looking forward to dialect-splitting, regional slang, and in general some improvement on the dull original.

  10. This, for example, is much more interesting to me. (Although I would only learn it in order to become familiar with PIE.)

  11. Marc: The scope of artificial languages is far greater than you think. The great majority of those constructed in modern (i.e. Internet) times are explicitly designed as works of art. Many of them are extremely naturalistic in morphosyntax, whether a priori in vocabulary or not. It is quite common to have reconstructed proto-languages as well, from which the irregularities (no shortage of those) are derivable. Tolkien’s Quenya and Sindarin are by common acceptance the greatest of these, but there are a great many others, some fully detailed systems, others sketches. Many have associated cultures with or without histories.

  12. Yes, I used to feel as you do, marc, but what JC says is absolutely true.

  13. Richard Hershberger says

    Based on the first comment, Esperanto seems to be one of those magic words whose appearance on a blog post ensures a furious response regardless of what was actually said.
    As for the book, I will probably buy it if only for the Tolkien bits. Recent discussions of artificial languages often strangely omit it, as if Klingon were the first language created for artistic purposes. This is just weird, and suggests to me that those engaged in such discussions have remarkably short attention spans.

  14. Had we but worlds enough and time, I’d happily devour every language known to man. But in the limited time we have, given a choice between natural and artificial, I’m afraid artificial comes second…

  15. ‘The Notion Club Papers’ … a kind of linguistic thriller … Tolkien’s instinct in abandoning a story so wholly dependent on linguistic investigation was very sound.
    At the time, no doubt – but he had no way of knowing how communities of niche readers would become so much more connected in the future. It looks pretty interesting. See Wikipedia: The Notion Club Papers. Apart from the main storyline, it seems to have been a vehicle for literary and philological criticism of CS Lewis’s Out of the Silent Planet: see The scientifiction novels of C.S. Lewis: space and time in the Ransom stories.

  16. @Richard Hershberger: Esperanto seems to be one of those magic words whose appearance on a blog post ensures a furious response regardless of what was actually said.
    It’s regular pro-Esperanto comment spam.

  17. Ars longa, vita brevis, it is said; or as one of Tolkien’s characters put it, “I wish life was not so short. Languages take such a time, and so do all the things one wants to know about.” Conlangs do have the virtue that it’s possible to actually learn (about) them within a reasonable time.

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