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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, 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.


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 In addition to his writing, Curt is a keynote speaker and entertainer. You can find more information about him at and follow him as @curtisfrye on Twitter.

Introverts at Parties: Part 2

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About two years ago I wrote a quick post on how introverts can survive at parties. It was a good idea but, upon rereading it at the end of 2014, I realize I didn’t include a lot of usable advice. Therefore, in the proud tradition of the internet, I present this listicle:

  • Go with a friend. Partying can be lonely work when you’re there by yourself. If you can, find someone to attend the party/affair/function/whatever with you.
  • Practice your introduction. Neil Gaiman, a famous writer, follows a script. “Hi, my name is Neil. I’m a writer. What do you do?” If it’s a party without name tags or place settings, you could modify that statement to: “Hi, I’m Curt. I’m a writer. How about you?” Learning and remembering names helps establish yourself as a good conversational partner.
  • Arrive a little after the start time and leave after about a third of the guests have departed. Arriving too early is awkward and leaving too soon implies you’re not having a good time, but if you’re tiring and need a break, having a guideline in place can help take the stress off. That said, if you’re truly uncomfortable, make your apologies and head home.
  • Drink alcohol in moderation. Alcohol is a social lubricant, but the first thing it affects is your judgment. It’s also a mood enhancer, meaning that it makes your emotions stronger. If you’re feeling crowded and overwhelmed, consuming alcohol can make it worse. In a similar vein, alcohol removes inhibitions. That might sound like a great thing for an introvert, but remember that if you’re not used to being outgoing you could easily overdo it and make a fool of yourself (see “affects your judgment” above). Feel free to drink a little, but one serving (1 ounce of whiskey, 4 ounces of wine, or 12 ounces of beer) per hour is about right for the average person.
  • Share the wall. Standing with your back to a wall or in a corner provides literal support, but anyone facing you must at least partially block your path forward. If you’re in a one-on-one conversation, turn so you’re both away from the wall and can move as freely as furniture and other guests allow.
  • Spread yourself around a little. As an introvert, I often hoped to find one person to talk with for the rest of the evening. For most party-goers that won’t be possible or desirable, so be ready to move around and don’t take it amiss when the person you love talking to moves on.
  • Thank your conversation partner. My wife and I took ballroom dance classes for about a year and, while we no longer pursue it as a hobby, I do like the practice of thanking your partner when you switch around. Smiling and expressing appreciation reinforces that you’re a pleasant person others will enjoy talking to, which makes starting the next conversation easier.
  • Learn more about your introverted self. The best book I’ve found in living as (or with) an introvert is Quiet, by Susan Cain. I’m not severely introverted, but I found lots of useful insights in her book.

I hope this advice helps. Remember: be open, be honest, and understand we’re all works in progress. If something goes wrong this holiday season, do better next time.

Written by curtisfrye

December 27, 2014 at 2:27 pm

Introverts and Goals

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One frequent mistake introverts make is to frame our goals in terms of how others perceive us. Doing so gives others control over our feelings of self-worth, which is exactly the opposite of what we should be doing. The other side of the coin is that we have to be honest with ourselves about our contributions. If we don’t add value to a relationship or a business, we shouldn’t expect to be rewarded.

Over the past 12 months, I’ve started using “To Do” lists to track my tasks for a day. Yes, they seem outdated and hokey, but they have helped me focus my efforts. Some of the tricks I use to create beneficial lists are:

  • Make it easy to tell when you’ve finished a task.
  • Make your goals personal. You can’t control how others perceive you, but you can control how you perceive you. Goals such as “I’ll work out for an hour four times a week” are personal and measurable.
  • Write down other things you accomplish and make them part of the list.
  • On a calendar, check off each day you complete your list. This is Jerry Seinfeld’s technique–he wants to write for an hour every day and draws an “X” in the box of every day he does so. Now he doesn’t want to break the streak. In a similar vein, one of the keyboardists from ComedySportz Portland has completed over 800 New York Times crosswords in a row, the seventh longest active streak.
  • Forgive yourself if you don’t quite make it through your list. You’re human. Be kind.

Introverts and Parties

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For an article with actual advice, see my update from December 2014.

I hope everyone had a wonderful holiday season, whether you celebrated Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Yule, Festivus, Saturnalia, none of the above, some of the above, all of the above, or something else entirely. And happy New Year!

As an introvert who does improv, I have the luxury of performing during the holidays. The fourth wall, the invisible barrier at the front of the stage that separates the performers from the audience, comforts me. What’s more, it lets me reach out across the barrier to make eye contact with audience members who are enjoying themselves and, best of all, understand they should stay in their seats during the show. Packing ’em in like sardines for a New Year’s Eve show so only the patrons on the end of a row can move easily makes it even better.

Introverts dread attending parties as a guest, but I can tell that we fear something else even more: attending a party as an outside solo entertainer. Yes, the dreaded walk-around entertainer who often, as Joe Buck said on a Fox NFL broadcast a few years ago, “Does card tricks nobody wants to see.” I perform more interactive pieces that are about the participants more than me, but I’m still the guy nobody knows. Even better, once they find out what I do, they wonder if I’m going to take advantage of their trust and embarrass them.

I did a gig for a Portland law firm this December and got the usual mix of tables — groups that were indifferent, groups that wanted me to leave right away, groups that loved everything I did, and groups that wanted to bust my chops. I only had one table that messed with me (my first, which had me worried), but that setback was balanced out by two groups and one individual who loved me.

The danger’s in the middle. It’s easy to tell when you should leave a hot or cold table, but what about the group that gives you lukewarm reactions? With a nod to Kenny Rogers, knowing when to walk away and knowing when to run is easy, but knowing how long to stay is hard. My wife’s socially fluent, so I let her call the shots when we’re at a party as a couple. When I’m solo, I follow the old Army boot camp maxim: never be first, never be last, and never volunteer for anything.

Introverts and Crowds

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One of the most difficult aspects of being an introvert is finding a way to get ahead in a world dominated by extroverts. The unfortunate truth is that, especially in our early years, we overcompensate.

I was particularly guilty of this type of behavior in high school. I didn’t understand that other, more outgoing students weren’t just being loud and aggressive. Instead, they were simply acting the way their instincts told them to. Social awkwardness and much unintentional hilarity ensued.

I found my way out of this particular trap by joining and staying with a couple of improv groups, one in DC for three years and my second here in Portland for seventeen. I highly recommend improv, or theater in general, as a way to break out of one’s shell and learn how to cooperate with others in the business and in life. Don’t expect immediate results, but it’s like going to the gym — your friends will probably notice the change before you do.

Introverts: Review of Quiet

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Cover Image of Quiet, by Susan Cain

Title: Quiet

Author: Susan Cain

Publisher: Crown

Copyright: 2012


Length: 312 pages

Price: $26

Rating: 95%

This review originally appeared on Technology and Society Book Reviews.

I am an introvert. I prefer my own company to that of others, though over the years I have found ways to manage social interactions with something approaching grace. In her new book Quiet, author Susan Cain describes my experiences with unerring accuracy.

Cain graduated from Harvard Law School and practiced corporate law for seven years. Early in the book, she described the fear she felt giving presentations, negotiating with her clients’ creditors when times were tough, and teaching negotiation techniques after she left the legal field. For an introvert, interacting with new people in a one-on-one or small group setting can be difficult. When you put the same individual in front of a large group or any group when new business or the well-being of your client is on the line, the pressure can become unbearable.

The pressure introverts feel is brought into sharper focus by what Cain calls the “extrovert ideal” prevalent in America. She starts by describing a Tony Robbins seminar she attended, where Tony’s seemingly boundless energy let him maintain his momentum throughout a 10-hour seminar with minimal breaks. Tony seemed to draw his energy from the audience, but introverts are exhausted by social interaction. The author describes one popular and dynamic speaker who is a profound introvert and must withdraw to his hotel room after he speaks to recharge. She also visited Harvard Business School, which might be characterized as Extrovert Central. Participation in classroom discussions contributes a significant amount to students grades, so it pays great dividends to speak up and make useful comments in class. Introverts, surrounded by Type A extroverts, often struggle in this environment.

Cain also analyzes the new emphasis on teamwork and consensus that permeates business and education as far down as the elementary school level. She refers to this emphasis on teamwork as the New Groupthink and declares that it “has the potential to stifle productivity work and to deprive schoolchildren of the skills they’ll need to achieve excellence in an increasingly competitive world.” She supports her argument by citing several studies performed by psychologist Anders Ericsson. His research found that the key to success in many fields depends on practicing in solitude. When you’re alone, you can engage in deliberate practice without interruption or distraction. Solitude also lets you concentrate on the elements of a skill that are bothering you the most. Mohammed Ali referred to this type of work as “the lonely work”— the work you have to do to be special is the work that no one else ever sees.

Cain provides a number of useful strategies and tactics for introverts and for organizations who hire substantial numbers of introverts to follow so they can succeed. In the computer realm, which draws introverts in huge numbers, teams can begin their collaboration virtually. Introverts perform better when given time to think on their own and without the expectation of immediate response. Also, because typing comes to them much more readily than speaking, introverts are more likely to share their ideas via a chat room or discussion forum. After your team of introverts generates their ideas, you can summarize what they’ve written and use it as the basis for a relatively brief in-person meeting to discuss the available options.

I found Quiet to be an exceptional book that speaks directly to my personal experiences. I highly recommend it to anyone who is an introvert or who lives or works with one. Much of what might mystify you about our approach to the world will become clear.

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 over a dozen online training courses for In addition to his writing, Curt is a keynote speaker and entertainer. You can find more information about him at

Improv and Business for Introverts

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One of the best-known yet still strangely prevalent misconceptions about comedians is that we’re all extroverts, energized by more or less showing off in front of an audience. Many of us are, but many others are introverts searching for connections from the safety of the stage.

Wait…the safety of the stage? Performing for a crowd is somehow less intimidating and awkward than going to a party? For many people, myself included, it’s true. A show, even a solo act, is a team effort. You have the house staff, the technical crew, and perhaps other performers on your side of the curtain to share the experience with. You are a team of individuals with a stake in making the show successful. Even though they’re not in front of the audience, the crew and house staff benefit from good shows. No one wants audience members to remember they saw a horrible show at the XYZ Theatre – there’s a very real possibility they’d never go back.

Rehearsals, workshops, and pre-show technical checks are all ways for the team to bond and make the performance space their home, at least for a bit. And as anyone who has been on stage can tell you, the “fourth wall” between the audience and performers is real. There is a tangible separation between the stage and the seats. Improv groups and other performers often break the fourth wall and permit direct interaction with the audience, but the distinction between performer and audience member remains. When the performers turn their attention from the audience and to the action on the stage, audience members understand they should return to the role of observors.

Well-functioning business teams provide a similar environment for introverts to work in comfortably, but both improv groups and business teams can be dominated by individuals with forceful, extroverted personalities. The growing cultural emphasis on in-person teamwork and outward expression puts introverts at a severe disadvantage. In-person meetings and brainstorming sessions emphasize immediate participation, not the quiet reflection and careful communication introverts prefer.

I’ll devote the next few posts to introverts and how we interact with the world, starting with a review of a book I hope you find the time to read.

Significant Objects and Events

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I have one more post to go in my listening series but I had to tell you about the book Significant Objects, just published by Fantagraphics. The idea behind the project was to sell 100 mudane items such as ashtrays and gold-colored rabbit candles on eBay. The twist was that the item description was actually a short-short fiction piece by professional writers such as Meg Cabot, William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, and Scarlett Thomas.

So how much value did the stories, which were clearly labeled as fiction, add to the items? The items cost an average of $1.25 to acquire and sold for a total of nearly $8,000. That’s a profit of about $7,875, or over 6,000 times acquisition cost.

When I was young, I heard a story about an auction where the auctioneer was having a hard time getting anyone to bid on a guitar. One of his assistants picked up the guitar and played a beautiful song, causing the price to go through the roof when the bidders realized the object’s potential. That story is probably apocryphal, but the lesson remains: you make something significant by how you relate to it, whether by making music or writing a story about it.

As improvisers, we use our audience members’ suggestions to create our work. We have a duty to them to make their contributions significant by honoring what they gave us, especially if we’re replaying their day or referring to an important event in their life. Remember also that we can do harm. It’s one thing to show how a person’s day could go wrong, but it’s another to dismiss what they’ve said or done.

Keep your audience’s needs at the forefront of everything you do. After all, they’re the most important group in the theatre.

Written by curtisfrye

July 22, 2012 at 1:27 am