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Ask the author: Yens Wahlgren on constructed languages


We spoke to Yens Wahlgren, author of The Universal Translator, about his love for constructed languages.

You describe yourself as a xenosociolinguist, could you tell us what that means?

Well, it’s a made up academic-sounding discipline for the study of how languages from outer space are used on Earth. In my case, my interest for fictive alien languages in literature, movies and TV-shows. I am not really that interested in the languages themselves, but the stories behind them and how many of them are now languages that are, to the highest degree, living on Earth thanks to their enthusiastic fans. So, I am more into the ‘socio’ part, the speakers and the background, than the grammar, ‘linguistics’. And ‘xeno’ in the xenosociolinguist means that it is ‘alien’. In Star Trek every spaceship has a xenolinguist in the crew to communicate with aliens.

When and how did your fascination with constructed languages begin?

I remember being interested in different languages I found in comic books as a kid, the Smurf languages and the languages of Tarzan and the great apes. Then Tolkien’s different languages and the languages, or rather sound effects, in Star Wars, but when I became more aware of constructed languages was when I realized that Klingon in Star Trek was created to be a fully functional language. Since then I have been fascinated by the stories behind the creation, and use of, made-up languages in movies, TV-shows and novels, and how much effort authors and producers put into creating real languages as movie props.

What do you think makes a good, authentic constructed language?

Good conlangs are carefully developed to reveal aspects of the beings that speak them; they allow us to tune into an author’s mindset as well as into a strange alien culture, giving us a deeper insight into the literary work they are a part of. In science fiction movies, conlangs are necessary as a verbal movie prop as it’s kind of ridiculous if the protagonist lands on an extraterrestrial planet and its inhabitants start speaking English.

Are there any languages in the book you particularly enjoyed researching and writing about?

I would like to say: all of them! All languages in the book have fascinating stories behind them, but that’s a boring answer. I could take Kryptonian from Superman as an example. I did not include the language in the first edition because I thought it was not a ‘real’ conlang and that there was not much to say about it. Then my editor convinced me to have a look at it, and I was wrong—it had a great story and two developed ‘dialects’. I also have a special relationship with Klingon which is fascinating in the way it has transformed from a movie prop to a living language to pop-culture public property over almost 40 years. No other conlangs have come that far.

What do you think are the benefits of learning, or even creating, a constructed language?

One reason why people study artificial languages is simply because it provides a deeper insight into the literary or cinematic works that birthed them. If you are a Tolkien nerd you need to know everything about his world and his works. Then we have the conlangers who create languages as a hobby. They build languages for their own sake, with no intention of their personal language projects becoming new world languages or having any other practical benefit. It’s a form of art, not that different from writing poetry or composing music as a hobby.

To learn an artificial language is not so different from learning a real language and the benefits are similar, though it’s probably easier to find someone to speak Spanish to than Mandalorian! Foreign languages – dead, alive or constructed – open a window to something new, and that is also my purpose with this book.

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