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Dylan Hilber

English 467

Creating Languages: Comparing the Creation of Esperanto, Nynorsk, Elvish, and Klingon
with the Creation of Video Game Languages

For my Capstone Project I wanted to combine my major with something I love, and that
thing is video games. Video games have come a long way since they were first introduced in the
1970s. Today you can play games can now be played anywhere you go, assuming you have cell
phone that is. For this project I wanted to look at games that had unique languages created or
there worlds. I wanted to see what went into the creation of the languages and what previous
created languages had influenced them. To do this I conducted research to see what went into the
creation of Esperanto, Nynorsk, Elvish, and Klingon. I also tried to learn about the men who
were responsible for creating these languages. After researching those languages I researched the
language Tho Fan, from the game Jade Empire, and looked into its creation. I also found an
article where Richard Garriott, another game designer, listed his five rules for creating a
language for a video game. With all of this research I hoped to come away learning what
influences the creation of video game languages.
The first created language that I researched was Esperanto. Esperanto was created in
1887 by Polish Physician L.L. Zamenhoff. Zamenhoff thought by creating an easy-to-learn

language he could help to establish world peace. Zamenhoff grew up in an area that was
surrounded by conflict and oppression. As a result of this he didnt think multilingualism was a
good thing. Pierre Janton discusses this in his book, Esperanto: Language, Literature, and
Community, when he writes The problem of linguistic diversity had already wounded his spirit
before it came to occupy his intellect and intelligence (Janton 23). Janton also gives a quote
from Zamenhoff about his dreams when he writes I kept telling myself that, when I was grown
up, I would certainly destroy this evil (24). This shows how much the conflict that surrounded
him affected his life. He learned many languages in school, such as German, French, Latin, and
Greek, but he firmly believed that if there was one language that everyone could easily learn,
then it could be the thing that united people. Esperanto hasnt lived up to the expectations that
Zamenhoff had for it, as today it is only spoken by an estimated 2 million people. Despite the
fact that there are so few speakers of Esperanto, it is still the most widely spoken constructed
language in the world.
I then looked into the creation of another created language, Nynorsk. Nynorsk, also
known as New Norse, was created by Ivar Aasen, a Norwegian philologist and lexicographer, in
the mid-19th century, with the first dictionary coming out in 1850. It is currently one of two
official written standards in Norway, with the other being Bokmal Most of my research into
Nynorsk came from the work of Einar Haugen, an American linguist who was a leading scholar
within the field of Norwegian-American Studies. In his article The Linguistic Development of
Ivar Aasens New Norse Haugen says It does not often happen that a language form created by
conscious deliberation and planning wins the warm support and widespread acceptance which
was fallen to the lot of New Norse (25). This shows how Nynorsk gained a fair amount of
ground in Norway at the time. Today, Nynorsk has lost a little bit of that ground with 25% of

municipalities having it as their official written standard, and that accounts for about 12% of the
countrys population. The number of school districts which primarily use Nynorsk has decreased
overall since the 1940s. (Story of Nynorsk)
The first fictional language that I looked at was the Elvish languages, specifically
Sindarin and Quenya, from JRR Tolkiens Lord of the Rings series. Sindarin and Quenya were
the two main Elvish languages, and they were also two of Tolkiens most complete languages.
Tolkien was a Philologist, so he In an article discussing Elvish, Fred Hoyt, a linguistic
researcher at the University of Texas in Austin, said They are invented languages but they are
completely logical and they're linguistically sound (Jha). Hoyt latter mentions Quenya when he
says Quenya is the Elvish Latin - a literary language not used as a spoken vernacular; it was
reserved for poetry, for song, for lament, for magic. So, compared to Sindarin, Quenya was
used only for certain things. Sindarin was the language that most Elves used in normal
conversations. Despite the completeness of both Elven languages, it would still be difficult to
have a casual conversation using them. As Hoyt says Look at it this way, it would be easier to
compose an elegant elegy for the dead than it would be to order a sandwich. There's very basic
vocabulary we use hundreds of thousands of times a day which he did not develop (Jha).
Another important thing about Tolkiens work with created language is that he was one
of the first and one of the best, if not the best, at doing it. Fred Hoyt, a linguistic researcher at the
University of Texas at Austin, taught a linguistics course which heavily used Tolkiens work said
the following about how Tolkien created language:
Every name Tolkien used in his books has an etymology. It has a linguistic
history. He didnt include a single name without exhaustively going through and
determining what the possible etymology might have been, given the groundwork

he had laid. And then he started writing the story because he needed something to
do with the languages. Tolkien believed that you couldnt separate a language
from its cultural context
This really shows how much Tolkien knew about what he was doing, and how much he cared
about it. Tolkien used his knowledge of languages, such as Old English, Welsh, and Finnish, and
he created his own languages. He then created a world in which they could be used, and the
world was the world of Middle-Earth. This is talked about by Tolkien himself when he said,
The invention of languages is the foundation. The 'stories' were made rather to provide a world
for the languages than the reverse. To me a name comes first and the story follows (National
The second fictional language I looked at was Klingon, the popular language from Star
Trek. Kling was created by Marc Okrand, a linguist and the Director of Live Captioning. Okrand
first got involved with the Star Trek world when he met one of the producers for Star Trek 2:
The Wrath of Khan at the 1982 Oscars. Garriott described his involvement by saying They were
planning on hiring a linguist from UCLA to create some lines of Vulcan for Leonard Nimoy and
Kirstie Alley. There was a mix up and I ended up getting the job (Nishi). Okrand also described
the experience when he said They had already shot the scene in English. Someone later decided
it was better if they spoke Vulcan. I had to create gobbledygook that matched their lips so it
could be dubbed in (Nishi). This shows that at that point in time Okrand didnt actually create
the language, but rather he just made noises that fit with the characters mouth movements. It was
sometime after this that the producers approached him about creating Klingon for the third
movie. Okrand said I got to work from scratch for the third film, which included creating
grammar and vocabulary (for the Klingon language). I did base some sounds off the lines spoken

in the first film. But I came up with some basic rules and stuck to them (Nishi). Okrand also
discussed what languages he drew from when it came to creating Klingon. He said You can't
help being influenced by what you know, which (for me) was a bit of Spanish, French and
American Indian. I also knew Southeast Asian languages (Nishi). Klingon has evolved from
random gibberish into a full language. Akira Okrent describes this by saying There is logic
behind it; a linguist doing field research among Klingon speakers would be able to work out the
system and describe it as he would an exotic indigenous tongue (Okrent 1). So, Klingon does
make sense as a language, and it should considering all of Okrands experience with language.
Okrent comments on Klingons odd sound when she writes He ended up with something that
sounds like an ungodly combination of Hindi, Arabic, Tlingit, and Yiddish and works like a mix
of Japanese, Turkish, and Mohawk (Okrent 1).
Klingon is very popular among Star Trek fans, although most prefer to memorize a few
phrases rather than the whole languages. Akira Okrent, in her article Theres No Klingon Word
for Hello comments on Klingons usage when she says There are maybe 20 or 30 people who
can hold their own in a live, unscripted Klingon conversation and a few hundred or so who are
pretty good with written Klingon (Okrent 1). She also says that most fans simply pick out words
from the Klingon dictionary in order to make song lyrics or wedding vows (for the bigger fans).
Okrent also mentions the title of her article when she writes Okrand filled the language with
back-of-the-throat sounds and made up a rich war vocabulary but left out social pleasantries like
Hello (Okrent 1). This exclusion of the word hello seems to make a bit of sense seeing as how
Klingon is primarily a war language, but still its an interesting thing to note.
The primary video game that I looked at for this paper was the game Jade Empire. Jade
Empire was a game made by Bioware in 2005, and as part of the development process they

decided to bring in a linguist to create a unique language for the game. The man who ended up
getting the job was Wolf Wikeley, who was a Ph.D. candidate in linguistics at the University of
Alberta at the time. Wikeley was actual hired to create languages for two games, Jade Empire
and Dragon Age, but only Jade Empire was discussed in the articles I found. At Wikeleys
interview one of the first things that came up was the shared love of Klingon that Wikeley and a
project lead had. Wikeley stated It didnt hurt at all that I was familiar with the Klingon
phenomenon because of my long term Star Trek fandom. One of the guys who was head of
projects said, Wow Ive met someone who knows more Klingon than me this is going to be
cool (Alberta). This shows how Wikeleys familiarization with fictional language helped him
out in the interview, and he ended up getting the job. As stated in Stephen Totilos New York
Times article, Bioware wanted to avoid using Chinese or any other Asian language that might
shackle their invented universe to actual historical events. At the same time, they did not want to
resort to unintelligible nonsense (Totilo). By creating a unique language for their new world
they could give it any extra sense of depth. Wikeley even catered the language to the class of
those who would speak it. Initially the language was meant to be spoken by the servant class, so
he made their speech soft and deferential (Totilo). However, a change was made and the
language was to be used by the Imperial class, and so The language's deferential softness would
no longer imply servile humility, but rather the elegance of the elite (Totilo).
Wikeley ended up creating four 2,500 word languages for Jade Empire and Dragon Age.
Wikeley commented on the Jade Empire language when he said For Jade Empire I used my
experience with Asian languages to create a new Asian language with a 2,500-word dictionary, a
basic primer on grammar and a phrase book containing useful phrases for that language
(University of Alberta). This job of creating a game language was also a dream for Wikeley, and

this can be seen when he says This was really a dream job because as a hobby I write and as a
profession I work with languages so to combine those, working creatively and scientifically, was
a blast (University of Alberta). Wikeley also commented on Biowares desire to create a
language for the game by saying:
The design team decided that it would be a great idea to have their non-English
speaking characters or even non-human characters have authentic sounding
fantasy languages. My feeling is that gibberish instantly compromises the
entertainment experience because it is fake. I say it as a gamer and a film viewer.
And movies especially the Star Trek franchise has worked hard to give
languages a sense of authenticity. The Lord of Rings movies did the same thing
with Elven
This quote by Wikeley shows a couple of different things. He believes, as do many others, that a
gibberish language sounds fake, and thus it ruins the experience of the game youre playing or
show youre watching. He also points out the Star Trek and Lord of the Rings universes as being
examples of franchises with languages that enrich the worlds with their uniqueness.
Another article I found gives a bit of a different take on creating video game languages.
The article is an interview by James Portnow, a game designer, with game designer Richard
Garriott, who goes over the five rules that he follows for creating video game languages. Garriott
is known as the lead designer for the Ultima game series, which was popular in the 80s and 90s,
as well as the game Tabula Rasa. Garriott points out that the reason for creating game languages
in the first place is for immersion. Portnow adds If you want to enrich your game world, its not
about how much depth your world has, but about how much depth the player can participate in
(Portnow 1).

Garriotts first rule is Familiar sounds which he describes by saying: I'm a big believer
that, when you create an alternate language, it can't be too complex or it might as well be
gibberish (Portnow 2). By this Garriott meant that if you present gamers with a new language
which sounds somewhat familiar to them, then they may be more inclined to try and learn it. He
also notes something that stands in contrast to what Wolf Wikeley believes, and that is that he
dislikes Klingon. While Wikeley loves Klingon Garriott cites Klingon as an example of what not
to do, he says Klingon is an utterly alien language with a large number of harsh, consonant
filled syllables. Very few Start Trek fans actually learn Klingon (Portnow 2).
Garriotts second rule is Grammar which he describes by saying: We tried to change
sentence structure to make it more universal. In the end we came back to English. You're strong
at what you know (2). Garriott talks about how it was easier to use an English grammar because
it was already familiar to his fellow game designers. This brings up the question of if that means
foreign game creators should also stick with grammar that they are most familiar with, but
Garriott does not discuss that. However, by using the grammar that they are accustomed to they
are more easily able to craft the language, and gamers arent frustrated by poorly written
Garriotts third rule is Usability which he describes by saying: Handing someone a
dictionary is simply not useful. How you unfold [the language] is key (Portnow 2). For this rule
Garriott and his team would try and make the language a dynamic part of the game, and make
sure it wasnt merely something in the background. They also aimed to expose the player to the
language bit by bit, and that every time they encountered the language it was tied to the previous
piece the player had seen (2).

Garriotts fourth rule is It Cant Be Mandatory which he describes by saying:

[Learning a language] is like having to study the history of a game world: If you have to do it in
order to play, it becomes a barrier to entry. The same is true of alternate languages. If it is
required for play, it's a failure of game design (Portnow 3). With this rule Garriott is basically
saying dont try to force the language down the players throat, because then they will never
want to learn it. The language cant be integral to progressing in the game, or as Garriott says
Integrating a language into gameplay is good; making it integral is bad (3). Tho Fan follows
this rule, because it only makes up around 10% of the game dialogue, and the player isnt forced
to learn it.
Garriotts fifth and final rule is Intuitive Symbols which he describes by saying Make
sure your symbolic languages are echoes of a reality with which you are familiar with (3). This
rule applies more to older games, such as Garriotts own game Ultima, but its still a useful rule
nonetheless. With this rule Garriott says you want the language to echo something familiar,
which itself is similar to rule number 1 of Familiar sounds, if its familiar its easier to learn.
An interesting point with this rule is that Garriott found that pictographic languages from the
past, such as Egyptian hieroglyphics, are not useful for game designers as they are too
referential and not literal enough (3). Another interesting about this rule is what Garriott was
inspired by, symbolic languages invented to assist in communication with the mentally
handicapped (3). Garriott says These languages are grounded in the literal and the familiar.
Moreover they generally utilize a limited character set to express an extremely large set of
physical and temporal ideas (3). Another neat thing that is brought up is the health bar, a
common feature that can be found in almost every type of game. Garriott discusses this by
saying A life bar is completely alien and counterintuitive, but we'd all recognize and assimilate

one instantly. By agreeing on a symbolic notation for health, game developers have acclimated
players to it and taught them to recognize it whenever they encounter it (3). The health bar may
have seemed odd when it was first introduced, but now everyone knows that when that bar drains
your game is over.
After learning about all of Garriotts rules for language creation, and after looking at
went into Wikeleys creation of Tho Fan, its interesting to compare the two together. The first
thing to look at is how they were influenced by other languages. The language that comes up in
both cases is Klingon, Wikeley loved it, and Garriott hated it. Tolkiens created languages for the
Lord of the Rings series also come up in the articles about Tho Fan, but they dont appear in the
interview with Garriott. One reason for the difference might be because the different
backgrounds the two have. Wikeley has a Ph.D. in linguistics, so he went to school to study
language, whereas Garriott does not have a linguistics background. They also both went through
different processes to create their languages. Wikeley was hired by a game developer for the
specific purpose of creating a language for their game world. Garriott was a game designer to
start with, he collaborated with his fellow designers to create the languages for his games Ultima
and Tabula Rasa, but he didnt have a background in linguistics.
From all the research and reading that I did for this I came away with two main
conclusions. The first conclusion was that the creators of video game languages have been more
influenced by created fictional languages than by created real world languages. This makes sense
as you would try to learn from those who have come before you, like Tolkien and Okrand. The
second conclusion was that video game languages arent all necessarily created in the same
manner, or by following the same rules. The accounts from Wolf Wikeley and Richard Garriott
show two different ways of creating a language for a game. They both agree on one important

thing though, creating a new language for a game adds a sense of immersion and depth to its
world. This also leads me to believe that there may be more variation out there in the video game
world, and thats something I hope to look into for a possible expansion of this paper somewhere
down the line.

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