Review: The Art of Language Invention by David J. Peterson

Hi guys! Okay, so, I got really excited a couple of months ago when I saw this book, The Art of Language Invention was coming out. There’s a couple of reasons for that – first of all, it’s written by David J. Peterson, who created the languages used on Game of Thrones, so that’s super cool; but also, I’m really interested in constructed languages that are used this way. I think Esperanto is pretty awesome, but I’m just as interested in how Tolkien created all of the languages for Middle Earth – and now, how Peterson has done that time and time again for TV.

I wrote up a brief review of this book on Goodreads earlier today, but I’d like to go into it a little more in-depth here, because while dealing mainly with constructed languages, there is also a lot to be learnt about languages in general from it. So… let’s go!

The Art of Language Invention

Okay, so first, what this book isn’t: It’s not a complete guide to creating your own conlang (constructed language), or anything like that. There is definitely a lot of information that will help you should you decide that’s what you want to do, but this is no step-by-step guide. (Maybe The Language Construction Kit is better on that front, but it’s been a long time since I read that, so yeah, make of that what you will…) However, you will most likely learn a lot about linguistics (depending on what you already know, of course) and how different linguistic features are applied in languages found all over the world – and how you can apply them to your own creations.

Now, what this book is. First, this is what Peterson says his aim is with the book:

My aim is to help conlangers avoid expending mental energy on some of the nuts and bolts of language creation so they can focus on the more important question: What do I want to say with this new language that I can’t say in my native language–or any other language that currently exists?

I think he does a fairly good job of that; though if his examples are anything to go by, you don’t need to just be into creating languages for this one reason. He points out that this began as a hobby for him, as it did for other conlangers. Sometimes you can just create a language for the hell of it.

The introduction is pretty long – there’s a lot of terminology introduced (a pattern throughout the book, though considering the subject matter, that’s not surprising), and then we get into the meat of the text. The book is then split into four chapters: Chapter I: Sounds, Chapter II: Words, Chapter III: Evolution and Chapter IV: The Written Word. Each of these chapters is split into different sections (Chapter I, for example, has sections like Phonology, Sound Systems, Intonation, etc.) and each chapter is followed by a case study using one of Peterson’s created languages as an example. These languages he uses in the case studies were created either for Game of Thrones (Dothraki, High Valyrian) or Defiance (Irathient, Castithan).

Honestly, Chapters I and II were interesting, but I found them long and kind of dull in places. These are the chapters where if you’ve studied linguistics (or even the grammar of enough languages), you’re going to be familiar with a lot of what’s being said. The chapters are livened up with humour and examples of other conlangs, not necessarily created by Peterson, but definitely the case studies were what I found most interesting for the first half of the book. The case study of Dothraki sounds was probably the part of the first half I enjoyed most of all, because of the discussion about what constitutes a “harsh” sounding language – something that I hear a lot as I’m learning German.

Chapter III was probably the most interesting for me; Peterson starts to talk about language evolution and how you can do this to create a naturalistic conlang – which, if that’s what you’re after, is really useful. There are lots of examples of how he manages to ‘evolve’ his conlangs – and there are examples in natural languages, including my favourite, where he talks about the -gate suffix in English:

Imagine if you didn’t speak English, and you were being introduced to the suffixes of English and what they mean. Your instructor tells you, “And you add this suffix to any word and it forms a noun that means a media frenzy about the controversy associated with the word you added the suffix to.” That sounds sooooooooooo fake. Why would a language have a suffix for that?! If a conlanger did that, they’d be strung up by their ears!

This is a great lead-in to him discussing how the history of cultures that speak your language inform language evolution – plus it’s kind of funny, which is part of what I liked in this book.

Chapter IV then goes on to talk about the written word – writing systems, which may or may not always be necessary. Peterson talks about the fact that he had the chance to create writing systems for the languages he created for the TV show Defiance and discusses his process. This is really new ground compared to the rest of the book; examples are still taken from natural languages but I feel there’s even more emphasis on conlangs here, with again some discussion of evolution and a section on typography, which I wasn’t expecting. I think he also makes a good case for the fact that you don’t need to be an artist to create a writing system: after all, you can write in your language right now, can’t you?

The postscript talks some more about Peterson’s opportunities and career as a professional conlanger and he makes a good argument, I think, that more fantasy/sci-fi authors could benefit from either creating their own conlangs or getting someone else to do so. It does make for a more immersive experience. (There are also some phrase books at the back, which are fun!)

So what did I think overall? I really enjoyed this book. I think I read the bulk of it in a couple of days and even the parts I thought were dull, really I just found less interesting than the rest of it. I already knew some things about conlangs but Peterson has been a part of that conlanging world for so long that you’re bound to learn something – and it’s especially great that he doesn’t just talk about his own conlangs; he uses this opportunity to show other people’s work as examples of what you can do. This book feels like he’s really reaching for that aim he set out at the beginning: he wants to share this with everyone, because there’s finally a chance for more people to become interested in it, and he does this with humour and explanations that, while maybe run a little long, are definitely accessible if you take your time. I honestly would recommend this to anyone with a passing interest in Tolkien or Game of Thrones, because I think it’s a large part of what makes those books and those worlds so immersive and, as a result, so popular.

Maybe this post ran a little long, but I really did enjoy this book. Let me know if you’ve read it too, and what you thought! 

And until next time – Fonas chek!

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