BRIEF SYNOPSIS: A slim but detailed guide to the work that conlangers do, how they do it, and how someone can start on that same road.
PROS: Nuts and bolts practical advice and ideas about language construction, start to finish.
CONS: Book mostly eschews talking about the work of ur-conlanger, Tolkien.
BOTTOM LINE: Of interest to anyone interested in the construction and use of invented languages.
David J Peterson’s credentials as a constructor and inventor of languages, especially for television, are strong. From Defiance to Thor: The Dark World, to, most famously, the TV adaptation of A Game of Thrones, his work in this art form is wide and varied, and familiar to millions, even if they didn’t know or even think about it. But invented languages are far more than just a gibberish and mishmash of made up words that sound good. The art of conlanging, the construction of languages, goes back to J.R.R. Tolkien, and even earlier. In The Art of Language Invention: From Horse-Lords to Dark Elves, the Words Behind World-Building, Peterson brings this art form to life.
The book is divided into the various facets of constructing a language, grounding the reader into the basic concepts, and then showing how real life and constructed languages (primarily David’s) handle and use these building blocks. Each of the chapters ends with a full-scale “Case study” of how David approached this facet of language construction in his own work.
How should a language sound? Peterson explains how the various sounds in real life languages work–and then how he uses, remixes and adapts those for his own–and how some combinations of sounds just don’t work. There is a chapter on words is a primer on grammar, tenses, and parts of speech, and how your invented language can partake of these. Some of the strangeness of real life languages reach or even exceed anything you can invent, or you can invent this concept. Did you know, for instance, that instead of having a single word “without”, Finnish has a whole class of endings for nouns to express the concept “without” that noun? Talotta, from the base talo, house, means, “Without a house”. The author often descends into the weeds of language, but I came away with an appreciation of how conlangers really make languages that make sense and work. The book also goes into alphabets, how languages evolve, and how one can make languages seem natural in their strange and wondrous complexity.
Perhaps for copyright reasons, or as said before, perhaps preferring to remain on his home ground, the only real drawback to the book for those interested in conlanging is the relative absence of the 800 lb Gorilla in the room, J.R.R. Tolkien. While there are books already extant on Sindarin and the other languages that Tolkien invented (most notably by Tolkien scholar David Salo), this book almost completely avoid discussing the various facets of constructed languages in terms of Tolkien’s languages, even when it would seem to be an obvious choice to mention them. The Written Word chapter, for example, does not touch at all on Tolkien’s Tengwar or Dwarvish Runes, the latter especially a loss given their development and tie to real-life historical Runes in shape and development. While it is true that a reader of this book can go on and apply the principles and ideas of constructed languages to the material out there from Tolkien, the thinness of the connection between the most famous conlanger in SFF history and Peterson’s volume is unmistakable and a real weakness to the book.
Beyond this omission, however, for anyone, writer, or SF and fantasy reader alike, interested in how constructed languages work, and how they might go about creating one of their own, The Art of Language Invention is a very good primer about the process, and a window into the world of conlangers and their work.