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

I’m not sure whether it’s an aspect of my love for the written word or a coincidental interest of its own, but language has always fascinated me. I’ve gone through many phases in my life trying to learn a multitude of languages, most of which fizzled out or faded in time (I don’t even want to think about what I’ve retained—or rather, failed to retain—from my five years of French). There’s always just been something about the sounds of other languages, the different ideas encoded into those foreign sounds, that have drawn me back again and again.

And fairly early on, that extended to probably my nerdiest pursuit—creating languages of my own.

Childhood attempts were mostly half-scrawled dictionaries full of silly syllables; as I grew, I incorporated more ideas about culture and stories into languages produced by fantasy creatures. In college, I became more interested in grammatical challenges and alternatives to the things we take for granted in English. It was all experimental and fun, mostly an extension of my desire to create fictional worlds—but Tolkien I was not and will never be. (Even though, yes, I have a language for my current world and yes, I am a complete and total nerd and proud of it.) 😉

All of this is to say that The Art of Language Invention: From Horse-Lords to Dark Elves, the Words Behind World-Building by David J. Peterson is right up my alley. The author is the creator of languages for Game of Thrones, Thor: The Dark World, Syfy shows Defiance and Dominion, and the CW’s Star-Crossed and The 100—and has an extensive background in linguistics and in co-founding the Language Creation Society. Besides being a clear authority on creating languages, Peterson has an engaging style full of humor and fascinating details, and I very much enjoyed the book.

But this is not a book for the faint of heart. Other than the introduction, this is a dense book filled cover-to-cover with linguistic terms and concepts useful for creating a language… and not much else. I’ll get to what an alternative might look like at the end, but I do want to be clear that this is not a fault with the book—in fact, more than any of the alternatives, this is a book I wish to own as a reference. But for anyone vaguely interested in constructed languages (or “conlangs”) who wants an overview, this is not the book for you.

The first section, on “Sounds,” was the hardest for me to understand. Peterson has an excellent writing style with clear examples (and tons of fun details about the quirks of language that you may have never even thought about), but terms were introduced quickly and then used fluidly without reminders of their meaning, and I definitely could have used a simple chart tying the phonological symbols to their exact sounds. There were entire paragraphs that went right over my head—which could entirely be my own inability to grasp the concepts quickly (or lack of desire to keep flipping back to the definitions). As a resource, I think all of this specific linguistic information would be invaluable; as a casual reading experience, not so much.

The later sections on “Words,” “Evolution,” and “the Written Word” were easier for me because I had a better foundation of knowledge about grammatical terms and concepts, some from English classes and some from attempts to learn other languages (so concepts of nominal inflection and grammatical gender were familiar, even if potential differences and new ideas about them weren’t). Peterson mixes examples from natural languages and constructed languages, and while the discussions are by no means exhaustive, they’re detailed and complete enough to spark plenty of ideas for applying them to a new language of your own.

The best thing I can say about this book is that it would be an incredible resource for creating a language that is nothing like English (while still feeling natural and real)—and I found it a very interesting (if challenging) read even though I have a very different process myself. I have a feeling the author would be horrified at my slapdash and lackadaisical techniques… and that’s okay. I very much respect Peterson’s expertise and desire for verisimilitude, even while my own forays into conlanging are more about fun and playful experimentation.

Besides the at-times difficult jargon (which is not a fault so much as a particular feature), my biggest complaint was that for all the incredible detail, I’m still not sure I have a grasp of the complete technique for creating a language just based on this book. To a certain extent, that’s because the concepts introduced in each section could be entire books (or fields of study) in their own right, so there may be no “complete” guide to be had in one “layperson’s” book. But the small sections on Peterson’s own created languages (including Dothraki and High Valyrian for Game of Thrones, and Irathient and Castithan for Defiance) focused in on very specific issues he dealt with as he created them; a broader discussion of the basics of his process, including generating vocabulary and determining grammatical concepts, would have been helpful to the casual conlanger.

That said, for the simplification of a Masters in Linguistics down to something that someone with no linguistics background (a.k.a. me) feels like they (mostly) understand is a great feat, and one I do not take for granted. The Art of Language Invention is something I could refer to again and again to come up with new ideas and details for created languages, even if I never reach the level of naturalism and realism that Peterson aspires to (though the Postscript does send out a call for other kinds of language creation, particularly as artistic statements and experiments).

For someone looking to create a language, this is an amazing resource and I definitely recommend it.

For someone looking for more of an overview of the history and culture surrounding constructed languages, including historical attempts as well as pop culture creations, I have read two other books I would recommend: In the Land of Invented Languages: Esperanto Rock Stars, Klingon Poets, Loglan Lovers, and the Mad Dreamers Who Tried to Build a Perfect Language by Arika Okrent; and From Elvish to Klingon: Exploring Invented Languages by Michael Adams (this one is a series of essays by different authors). Though both touch on concepts that may be inspiring (a discussion of a feminist language [Laadan by Suzette Haden Elgin] in the first book offers great examples of creating vocabulary we don’t have for cultural concepts—like “radiidin: non-holiday, a time allegedly a holiday but actually so much a burden because of work and preparations that it is a dreaded occasion”), neither have the time or focus to really dig into the full breadth of details involved in language creation.

For that, The Art of Language Invention is athdavrazar! (That’s “excellent!” in Dothraki.) 🙂

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About J. Sevick

Just write.
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