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Imaginary languages are now par for the course in fantasy literature: sometimes called something like 'the old tongue' or 'the ancient language', sometimes the languages of different types of being or of people living in different places. In many cases these languages aren't developed beyond a few words (e.g. in The Wheel of Time, The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, or A Song of Ice and Fire), but some authors have actually constructed whole languages for the purposes of a single work of fiction: e.g. the language of Klingon was invented for Star Trek, and for the Game of Thrones TV series, a linguistics expert was employed to create the Valyrian and Dothraki languages. I suspect Christopher Paolini has invented more than just the phrases listed at the end of each book for his elvish and dwarvish tongues, but I haven't seen this confirmed.

Tolkien was already devising his own languages as a young boy, and continued to do so throughout his life, so it makes sense that he might have been the first to do so in fiction. Can anyone confirm this?

Follow-up question: was Tolkien the first person to write fiction with any words invented in an imaginary language, let alone the whole language constructed? I don't count things like Lewis Carroll's nonsense words in 'Jabberwocky', since they were intended to be (and some have since become) words in the existing language of English.

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    He was very likely the first person to do so for a work of fiction who was actually qualified to do so, having his degrees in Languages and Literature. – RBarryYoung Jan 4 '15 at 19:47
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    Also, "a work of fiction" is a bit unclear in this context. If it includes scams and other frauds, then I beleive that there were a number of previous cases in the 19th century and earlier.. – RBarryYoung Jan 4 '15 at 19:48
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    I'd rather say that in Tolkien's case, he didn't invent the langages for his works, he invented the fictionnal works (and settings) to provide a background for some of the langages he was working on (and show them evolve) ^^ – Olivier Dulac Jan 5 '15 at 11:44
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    Lovecraft pre-dated Tolkein and had a few phrases in a made up language, but was never as thorough as Tolkein – Premier Bromanov Jan 5 '15 at 18:00
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    Joyce's Stephen Hero (started 1903, abandoned 1907, published posthumously 1944, so predating LotR in both inception and publication) mentions, and has a smattering from, a constructed language which was indeed complete. However it was only complete by virtue of having been created by mixing several existing languages according to some set rules, which is rather a cheat if considered from the position of Tolkien's project. It was also quite likely a realistic portrayal of a real earlier language game (being a semi-autobiographical novel) and if so that would discount the "for fictional work" – Jon Hanna Jan 6 '15 at 17:32
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From Arika Okrent's In the Land of Invented Languages, page 284, talking about Tolkien and what made him different:

Plenty of other authors throughout history have provided fictional languages for their imagined lands. The citizens in Sir Thomas More's Utopia (1516) have a Utopian language that looks very much like Latin. The inhabitants of the moon in Francis Godwin's Man in the Moone (1638) speak a musical language. The people in Terre australe connue (1676) by Gabriel de Foigny speak a philosophical language like that designed by Wilkins and his contemporaries. From the strange cries of Swift's Lilliputians in Gulliver's Travels to Orwell's Newspeak to the street slang of Burgess's ruffians in A Clockwork Orange to the x- and z-filled jabber of countless works of science fiction, language creation has always been practiced for artistic purposes. However, these creations usually aren't languages so much as they are ideas, a bit of vocabulary, a few phrases. They don't invite further examination. They serve the story, never the other way around.

So:

  • yes, Tolkien was probably the first person to so thoroughly combine conlanging and fiction; but
  • no, he wasn't the first one to write fiction that included imaginary-language words.
41

According to Wikipedia, Edgar Rice Burroughs' A Princess of Mars "was possibly the first fiction of [the 20th] century to feature a constructed language" and preceded Tolkien.

Tolkien was far from the first to write with any invented words. Part of the problem is that a work with constructed language is either successful or forgotten, with newspeak from successful works becoming part of the new vernacular. Again, to quote Wikipedia about Rabelais' The Life of Gargantua and of Pantagruel, "Rabelais had studied Ancient Greek and he applied it in inventing hundreds of new words in the text, some of which became part of the French language." (emphasis mine). You can't dismiss constructed phrases that become part of common language - when they do so, it's a sign of their success as literature.

Recall, also, that Esperanto was introduced in the late 19th - early 20th century, so the concept of a constructed language was out and about. Tolkien had some interplay with the Esperanto movement. I'm sure many other artists and authors were inspired by the example Esperanto presented.

Where Tolkien stands apart is the academic rigor he brought to the problem, and the depth he privately (e.g., not just in the novels) built the languages to. The more common practice is so shoddy as to invite Neal Stephenson to lampoon it in REAMDE's Apostropocalypse.

Edit:

In response to @rand-althor's comment below, Barsoomian was nowhere near as fully developed as Tolkien's languages, but appears to have a little more structure than the here-and-there word method as seen in the Wheel of Time. Interesting to read about the work involved in formalizing it enough to use in a movie (but, IMHO, the extent to which they were able to base it on the original source supports that it was more than a collection of strangely spelled words).

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    Was the constructed language in A Princess of Mars fully developed, grammar and all, or just a few words like the Old Tongue in the Wheel of Time? I wasn't 'dismissing' phrases that become part of common language, but a lot of Carroll's words were explicitly portmanteaus of English words, and he never (AFAIK) tried to construct a whole language that one could write books in. And I know the concept of a constructed language was already out and about; that was why I specified 'purely for fictional works' in the question title. Interesting that Tolkien was involved with Esperanto! – Rand al'Thor Jan 4 '15 at 19:17
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    Didn't H.G. Wells invent a language for the Eloi for his Time Machine in 1895? I'm not sure how well-developed it was, or whether he even made the grammar consistent, but I distinctly remember them saying words in a different language, and the traveler not being able to understand them. This would precede Princess of Mars by a couple decades. – trysis Jan 5 '15 at 0:12
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    @trysis I always did think it was a bit of a plot hole in the film that they spoke the same English as the time traveller! – Rand al'Thor Jan 5 '15 at 19:39
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    Esperanto was created in the late 1800's, actually, though it may have taken a while to gain traction. (I have a 1911 Esperanto pocket dictionary on my shelves. Used book sales are wonderful things.) – keshlam Jan 6 '15 at 2:17
  • Gargantua and Pantagruel also included a lovely scene where one character is trying to explain how very smart he is to another character (I think it is Panurge to Pantagruel), and proceeds to give some passages (a few sentences long each) in about a dozen different languges, some of which appear to be made up. (The other character, incidentally, appears to recognize most of the languages, including all of the made-up ones.) – January First-of-May Mar 7 '16 at 21:15
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Hildegard von Bingen's Lingua Ignota was a 12th century fabricated language that may have been used for works of fiction (but this is difficult to say, since very little text written in it is known to remain).

In addition, the 15th century Voynich manuscript is clearly a large fictional work, and while its writing system is not generally regarded as understood by modern scholars, it does appear to have many properties of actual language (as opposed to complete gibberish), and may thus be written in a conlang.

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    And.... another few hours spent searching through the Voynich manuscript..... – Firebat Jan 5 '15 at 15:44
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    Oblig: xkcd.com/593 – RLH Jan 5 '15 at 16:17
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    @randal'thor We can know that the plants, animals and constellations are fictional. – Lexible Jan 5 '15 at 19:44
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    Maybe they're real constellations, as seen from some other vantage point in our galaxy.... – David Conrad Jan 5 '15 at 19:58
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    @S.Fruggiero Someone seriously needs to start a Journal of Voynich Scholarship. – Lexible Feb 21 '15 at 17:57
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Joyce's Stephen Hero (started 1903, abandoned 1907, and the unfinished manuscript published posthumously 1944, so predating Lord of the Rings in both inception and publication) mentions, and has a smattering from, a constructed language which was indeed complete.

However it was only complete by virtue of having been created by mixing several existing languages according to some set rules, which is rather a cheat if considered from the position of Tolkien's project. It was also quite likely a realistic portrayal of a real earlier language game (being a semi-autobiographical novel) and if so that would discount the "for fictional work":

Cranly was speaking (as was his custom when he walked with other gentlemen of leisure) in a language the base of which was Latin and the superstructure of which was composed of Irish, French and German:

Atque ad duas horas in Wicklowio venit.

Damnum longum tempus prendit, said the clerk from the Custom-House.

Quando … no, I mean … quo in … bateau … irons-nous? asked Temple.

Quo in batello? said Cranly, *in “Regina Maris.”

So after a little talk the young men agreed to take a trip to Wicklow on the Sea-Queen. Stephen was much relieved to listen to this conversation: in a few minutes the sting of his « disaster was no longer felt so acutely. Cranly at last observed Stephen walking at the edge of the path and said:

Ecce orator qui in malo humore est.

Non sum, said Stephen.

Credo ut estis, said Cranly.

Minime.

Credo ut vos sanguinarius mendax estis quia facies vestra mostrat [sic] ut vos in malo humore estis*. »

(The [sic] above is of the original text, a comment upon a mistake by the character, not the author).

4

No, he wasn't. The most obvious example which precedes him by 5 years is George Orwells Newspeak, in "Nineteen Eighty-Four"

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    It's correct that 1984 was published before LotR, but Quenya and Sindarin (although it wasn't called Sindarin at the time) date to the 1910s/1920s. – user8719 Jan 5 '15 at 19:21
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    Also Newspeak wasn't a fully developed language; it comes under the category of 'only a few words invented'. I don't think Orwell invented enough of it to be able to write a whole book in it. – Rand al'Thor Jan 5 '15 at 19:35
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    It's almost the point of the idea of Newspeak that any whole book written in it would be something Orwell wouldn't want to write. – Jon Hanna Jan 7 '15 at 2:53
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A race: Tolkein’s friend, C.S. Lewis, wrote three novels collectively called the Cosmic Trilogy or the Space Trilogy:

  • Out of the Silent Planet (1938)
  • Perelandra (1943)
  • That Hideous Strength (1945)

(dates according to Wikipedia) thus following The Hobbit but preceding The Lord of the Rings.  They contain a made-up language.  AFAIK, it’s nowhere near as fully realized as Tolkien’s languages or the Star Trek languages, but it’s complex enough that you’ll want to have a notebook handy when you read the books, so you can build up your own dictionary.

  • Hey, great username! Birds and LotR - what more could you want? :-D – Rand al'Thor Aug 14 '15 at 12:04
  • @randal'thor: And also chess. :-)  Thanks for noticing; I spent a couple of days thinking it up.  Seriously. – Peregrine Rook Aug 15 '15 at 23:19
  • @Randal'Thor: Congratulations on earning the "Legendary" badge. – Peregrine Rook Apr 29 '16 at 20:48
  • Thanks :-D Apparently there are now six Legends on this site; I keep exalted company! – Rand al'Thor Apr 29 '16 at 20:58
2

I may add that as early as 1953, before the publication of The Fellowship of the Ring in 1954, L. Sprague de Camp's Science Fiction Handbook had much advice for science fiction writers, including advice for constructing imaginary languages, if I remember correctly. No doubt the advice was based on his methods for constructing alien languages for his own stories. I don't know how extensive any of his alien languages were.

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