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Review of The Art of Language Invention

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Title: The Art of Language Invention

Author: David J. Peterson

Publisher: Penguin

Copyright: 2015

ISBN13: 978-0-143-12646-1

Length: 284

Price: $17.00

Rating: 94%

I purchased a copy of this book for personal use.

During my high school years, I thought it would be fun to invent my own language. Something like English, but heavily influenced by the many related Romance languages popular in Europe. I described this vision to my French teacher and she said, “You mean, like Esperanto?” One encyclopedia article later and I was on to other projects.

Others were not so easily deterred. David J. Peterson parlayed his childhood love of languages into a master’s degree in linguistics and a career inventing languages for the HBO series Game of Thrones, SyFy’s Defiance, and other projects. In The Art of Language Invention, Peterson shares his experiences as a language developer along with enough background in linguistics to appreciate the decisions and effort that go into creating a new language.

Linguistics as a Discipline

While at Syracuse University in the late 1980s, I had the good fortune to take LING 201 from Professor William Ritchie. That course surveyed the mechanics of linguistic analysis by introducing topics such as phonetics, phonology, morphology, and syntax, while also describing writing systems, language families, linguistic evolution, and interactions that produce new forms of language such as dialects, creoles, and pidgins. I thought it was fascinating stuff and went on to take several more linguistics classes. I would have taken even more if they’d counted toward my degree program.

In a little over 250 pages, Peterson does an excellent job of covering the topics from LING 201 such that a reader with little or no training in linguistics can appreciate the tools and, perhaps more importantly, the effort that goes into developing a language complete with its own grammar, syntax, and vocabulary. Even readers with only a passing interest in language creation but who would like an approachable introduction to linguistics could benefit from Peterson’s work.

Constructed Languages in Popular Media

The hook behind The Art of Language Invention, of course, is Peterson’s development of Dothraki and Valyrian for the HBO adaptation of George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones. Peterson weaves the tale of how he developed Dothraki and Valyrian throughout his coverage of various linguistic topics, supplementing his own insights and results with those of other language creators. As a co-founder of the Language Creation Society, which you can find online at conlang.org, Peterson created a meeting point for language enthusiasts to share their work and their love of language.

What I appreciated most about language development at the professional level is the attention to backstory and evolution. Just as it’s impossible to fully appreciate English without knowing how it has changed over the years, developers can’t construct a new language without giving significant thought to its proto-language and the cultural, geographic, and political forces that shaped it over time. Peterson’s commentary on how those decisions get made, and how they affect the end state of the language, provide terrific insights into his process.

Conclusion

I believe The Art of Language Invention is a terrific book that intertwines the geeky worlds of linguistics and speculative fiction into a satisfying manuscript. Yes, I am in many ways an embodiment of this book’s target audience, but if you share even a part of my enthusiasm for the subject, you should read Peterson’s work.

Curtis Frye is the editor of Technology and Society Book Reviews. He is the author of more than 30 books, including Improspectives, his look at applying the principles of improv comedy to business and life. His list includes more than 20 books for Microsoft Press and O’Reilly Media; he has also created more than 30 online training courses for lynda.com. In addition to his writing, Curt is a keynote speaker and entertainer. You can find more information about him at www.curtisfrye.com and follow him as @curtisfrye on Twitter.

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