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The Art of Language Invention

The first time I heard a language of mine spoken on screen was at a cast and crew premiere event for the first season of HBO's Game of Thrones. It was a lavish, but, comparatively speaking, poorly at tended event. George R. R. Martin was there, but many of the seats reserved for cast members in the Ray Kurtzman Theater remained vacant throughout the screening of the first two episodes of the series. Needless to say, they didn't Van Cleef & Arpels clover necklace replica know how big this thing would get (who did?), but I appreciated the extra legroom and the front row seat.

My initial reaction to hearing Dothraki, the language of the long braided, horse riding warriors, though, was one of dismay. The first line one hears in the series is in the pilot, when Illyrio Mopatis, wel coming Khal Drogo and his band into his courtyard to arrange a marriage, says Athchomar chomakaan "Welcome" when said to one person. I misremembered how I'd translated it, though, and thought he should have said Athchomar chomakea "Welcome" when said to more than one person. So even though Roger Allam's performance was fine and it was I who was mistaken, I was a little miffed. After the screening had finished we all got in line to congratulate David Benioff and van cleef clover necklace replica Dan Weiss on a successful premiere, and when they asked me how the Dothraki speakers did, my face must have

This is actually a question I've gotten a lot since. That is, if there's an actor performing in a created language that no one speaks, who will know if they make a mistake aside from the one who created the language? From experience, I can tell you that the actors always know (and it frustrates them when the takes with errors make their way into the final cut), but let me focus on the audience.

If you, as a viewer, sit down and listen to one line from a created language and nothing else, it's nearly impossible to tell if it's a created language, a natural language one doesn't know (one that exists in our world), or gibberish to say nothing about whether or not the actor gets all the words right. If that's the extent of the linguistic material in the production, it doesn't matter what work went into creating the line.

As the number of lines increases, though, the odds of the casual audience member picking up on inconsistencies increase. It's not every fan who pays attention to what actors are saying in a language they don't understand, but there are those who do. Furthermore, television shows and movies aren't plays that is, they aren't events that happen at one moment in time and are never seen again. If the general public is anything like me, most of the television and movie viewing they do now isn't done live and if a show is worth its salt, they'll watch it again and again and again and again.

As a language creator, I always had a bit of a different perspective. When I was creating Dothraki, I wasn't creating it simply to fill out the requisite non English dialogue. I had an idea that Game of Thrones could be big, and could occupy a special place in television history just as George R. R. Martin's books already do occupy a special place in the history of fantasy. The work I was doing, then, would need to be something that would stand the test of time. Because even if a fan who's never heard of the books can't tell if one actor makes a mistake in the premiere on their first viewing, fans five, ten, twenty years from now will be able to tell. And, of course, if mistakes crop up, they won't belong to the show, the producers, or the actors: they'll belong to me.

When I was a kid, the original Star Wars trilogy had just completed its initial run in theaters, and Star Wars was everywhere. I had a toy sand skimmer (which I broke), a toy TIE fighter (which I also broke), and a read along Return alhambra Van Cleef & Arpels necklace gold replica of the Jedi picture book with accompanying record which would play the sound of a ship's blaster when you were supposed to turn the page. (If you're too young to be familiar with record players as anything other than "vinyl," type "Pac Man record read along" into YouTube to familiarize yourself with the concept. That was my childhood.)

In short, aside from He Man, Star Wars was pretty much the thing if you were a child of four in 1985. At that age, when I watched movies, I didn't really pay careful attention to the dialogue, and wasn't able to follow stories that well. Consequently when the Star Wars trilogy was rereleased in 1995, I rewatched it eagerly. Once I got to Return of the Jedi, I was struck by what I thought was a particularly bizarre scene. In the beginning of the movie, Princess Leia, disguised as a bounty hunter, infiltrates Jabba the Hutt's palace in order to rescue Han Solo. She pretends to have captured Chewbacca, and engages Jabba to negotiate a price for handing him over. In doing so, Leia pretends to speak (or evidently does speak, via some sort of voice modification device) a language Jabba doesn't. He employs the recently acquired C 3PO as an intermediary. As near as I can tell, this is how the exchange goes (transcription is my own; accent marks indicate where the main stress is):

LEIA: Yat. Yat. Yot. (SUBTITLE: "I have come for the bounty on this Wookiee.")

C 3PO relays this message and Jabba says he'll offer 25,000 forLEIA: Yot. Yot. (SUBTITLE: "50,000, no less.")

C 3PO relays this message and Jabba asks why he should pay so much.

LEIA: E yto.

The above isn't subtitled, but Leia pulls out a bomb and activates it.

C 3PO: Because he's holding a thermal detonator!

Jabba is impressed by this and offers 35,000.

I want you to remember that I was in seventh or eighth grade at the time that I was rewatching this. I was not a "language" guy at that point by any stretch of the imagination. I never dreamed that a human could invent a language, and even if I had, I probably wouldn't have been able to come up with a good reason for one to do so. Furthermore, up to that point, I'd never studied a second language, and the prospect filled me with dread (I had enough trouble understanding my Spanish speaking relatives who always spoke too fast for me).

But even so, I knew something was wrong here. How on earth does Leia say the same thing twice and have it mean something different the second time? Even if we take C 3PO for an unreliable translator (he is quite loquacious, after all), that applies only to the last two phrases. How could one expect to have an unreliable subtitle? Subtitles are supposed to lie outside the world of the film. If you can't rely on a subtitle provided by the film's creators, how can you rely on anything?

In trying to resolve this conflict, it occurred to me that the only plausible explanation for this aberrant phenomenon is that the language itself was correct, but worked differently from all other human languages. In our languages (take English, for example), a word's meaning can be affected by the context it's in, but if you control for context, the word will always mean the same thing. Thus, if you're telling a story about your dog, and you use the word "dog" several times throughout the story, it will still refer to a fur covered animal that barks and covets nothing so highly as table scraps. This is fairly standard and uncontroversial.

What would happen if a language didn't do that, though?

Take, for example, the word I have transcribed as yot above. What if it changed its meaning over the duration of a discourse? Naturally, one would have to define a discourse, but I think it's fair to consider this conversation featuring Leia, Jabba, and C 3PO a sin gle discourse, so we can leave that concern aside for the moment. What if the word yot has several definitions? Specifically, what if the first time it's used in a conversation it means "this wookiee"; the second time it's used it means "50,000"; and the third time it's used it means "no less" (or the rough equivalent of those)? The same, then, applies for all other words in the language. That would resolve the ambiguity. How could one possibly use such a language? Well, they are all aliens (Star Wars, recall, takes place a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away). Maybe they're just better at this stuff than humans. Why not?

This was where my brain went while rewatching Return of the Jedi for the first time. At some future date I may have shared this with a friend, but if I did, the response was likely an eyeroll. This quirk was just an unimportant detail in an otherwise fantastic movie. Why bother about it?

And so that's pretty much where my thought experiment died. I didn't take it any further, and no one was really interested, so I didn't think about it again until college.

But that, of course, was a different era a pre internet era. Who does a teenager have to share news with other than their family, friends, and teachers? Who do they come in contact with? In 1995, that's pretty much only the people who live near you and with whom you interact on a daily basis. How would you ever get ahold of anyone else? How would I have known that someone in the Bay Area, let's say less than five hundred miles away had the same idea I'd had and also found that exchange interesting? In 1995, there was no way.

Then the internet happened.

Yes, the internet had been around for a while in 1995, but it wasn't a thing that just anyone could have access to. America Online changed all that. Pretty soon it became a thing to race home from school and go into a chatroom with a bunch of random people to talk about . . . nothing. And that was how we entertained ourselves for hours. What a world, where you could chat with someone who lived in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, about how Sound garden rules!

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