- Building Languages, Building Worlds:An Interview with Jessica Sams
When the designers of the video game Final Fantasy X introduced players to the isolationist desert culture of the Al Bhed, they wanted to ensure that they seemed alien and strange and wild in comparison to the rest of the world. One of the ways they distinguished these people from everyone else was to create for them their own unique language. Or should I say "language"? Because the Al Bhed don't actually speak a different tongue. They speak in a code. They employ a simple substitution cipher wherein one letter is consistently swapped with another (think: the daily Cryptoquote puzzles in your local newspaper). They weren't really speaking their own language. They were speaking in code. Didn't the game designers understand the difference?1
Lots of games use a similar scheme to create the illusion that their worlds feature a unique language. For example, in World of Warcraft the Horde and Alliance factions can see other player characters speaking to one another. However, they can't easily read one another's messages. The game filters player text from the opposite faction through a scrambling algorithm first (somewhat more complicated than a direct letter-for-letter substitution) so that it would seem as though the enemy players are inscrutable and mysterious. The sci-fi mmorpg (massive multiplayer online role playing game), or mmo for short, Earth and Beyond did something similar, conveying the backstory of the galaxy via a series of garbled alien broadcasts that turned out to be nothing more than an English-language cryptogram.2 Other games approach language creation in different ways. Simlish, the upbeat chattery gibberish [End Page 150] in Th e Sims, is rumored to be "a combination of Latin, Ukranian, Navajo, and Tagalog."3
Still others take a more ambitious route. Blizzard Entertainment maintains a dictionary for the alien language Khalani, spoken by the Protoss in the Starcraft series, which fans have attempted to parse; and BioWare's Dragon Age series features several invented languages, such as its own versions of Elvish and Dwarven and the Qunari language, Qunlat.4 Each of these languages has an extensive vocabulary developed by linguist Wolf Wikeley, who also invented the language Tho Fan for the game Jade Empire.5
These invented languages are more than lists of made up words. They require structure and grammar and the development of new writing systems, which in turn are influenced by the cultures and even morphological features of the creatures who speak them. The art of language construction, in other words, is also a science.
Dr. Jessica Sams teaches an advanced undergraduate course called "Invented Languages" at Stephen F. Austin State University.6 In this interview, she discusses these monumental linguistic undertakings and how they are shaped by (and can, in turn, help to shape) the fantastical worlds in which they are found.
How did you become interested in the topic of invented languages?
I was in elementary school when one of my teachers had us do an activity where we basically created a code for English. It was by no means an actual invented language (or "conlang," which is short for "constructed language," the technical term), because it was just another form of English. But it made me fall in love with the process of actually creating words.
I worked on my coded language for about a year, but then it fell by the wayside when I couldn't get any of my friends interested in learning it. However, my love for creating language-type things was planted then. It grew when that same teacher a few years later introduced me to an Esperanto-translation exercise. Doing those types of activities really helped me discover a love for language in general and a love for creating languages. [End Page 151]
I didn't create my first full conlang until 2008, when I had an idea for a novel that needed a language no one else had ever heard. And so I set to work filling out the constructed culture (or conculture) of the speakers before I worked on the language...