I've received several messages with links to this NYT piece since its appearance online on Sunday. The piece is on Dothraki, a constructed language used in the HBO series "Game of Thrones" and invented by David J. Peterson,
founder and President of the Language Creation Society and (as it happens) a former PhD student here in the Extreme Southwest Wing of Language Log Plaza. The piece also talks about constructed languages ("conlangs") and language constructors ("conlangers") a bit more generally, and most specifically with respect to their use in Hollywood. (That 'their' is purposely ambiguous.)
One of the messages I received was a Google+ post from a non-linguist friend with the humorous imperative, "+Eric Bakovic This seems lucrative. Hop to it." Seriously, I've been tempted. But I doubt that I have what it takes to win an open call to create a language for a fictional universe, as Peterson did. And besides, I have as close to no experience with constructing full-fledged languages as you can possibly have; the real conlangers would spot me as an interloper from miles away. And besides besides, I have job security. And besides besides besides … well, you get the idea.
One of the other messages I received was an email message from a linguist colleague, with a more sarcastic version of the same sentiment — something along the lines of, "here's another career opportunity that we can talk to linguistics undergrads about." [Exact content withheld to protect the innocent.] Why the sarcasm? Well, there's an attitude among some linguists — and also plenty of non-linguists, as is evident from many of the comments on the NYT piece — that engaging in conlang activity is a waste of time, perhaps even detrimental to the real subject matter of linguistics. I don't share this attitude, in large part because one could say much the same about any human undertaking, including large swaths of what we might call "the real subject matter of linguistics". If I had a conlanger in one of my classes, I certainly wouldn't discourage them from doing what they're doing — at least, not any more than I would discourage any of my undergrads from following any other specific path in linguistics, especially given that the career opportunities in this field in general aren't exactly thick on the ground (with the possible exception of speech-language pathology and computational linguistics, as pointed out by Stuart Robinson in the comments below).
I also happen to think that asking the type of question that I believe conlangers must (= should) ask themselves — what does it take to construct a language? — is probably a great way to get people to think critically, creatively, and scientifically about language; in other words, to comprehend the real subject matter of linguistics. I know that Peterson thinks deeply about all this, which is part of what makes him a successful conlanger and which would have made him a successful "mainstream" linguist had he chosen to pursue that route with the same vigor with which he has chosen to pursue the conlang route.
A large proportion of the 119 comments (and counting) on the NYT piece can be lumped into two large groups. (Some of the commenters really got wound up about these issues, though apparently not sufficiently to look for fellow travelers among the previous comments — the number of times each type of comment is repeated is pretty astounding, but that's probably true of long comment threads in general.)
- Klingon (Star Trek) and Na'vi (Avatar) and their inventors (Marc Okrand, Paul Frommer) are discussed, but why is there no mention of J.R.R. Tolkien's invented languages from The Lord of the Rings? [Internal LLog plug: Ben Zimmer wrote about Na'vi in his NYT 'On Language' column back when Avatar was released.]
- Why are these conlangers sitting around inventing languages, when there are so many endangered languages in need of "saving", and/or why is Hollywood paying to have new languages invented, when they could be using and promoting existing (and preferably endangered) languages?
The first of these is a bit obvious, perhaps, but the point of the piece wasn't to review the history of conlangs in fiction — it's a fluff piece in the Television section, for crying out loud. The second is simply curious. Do we really want Hollywood to appropriate existing languages and cultures and attach them to fictional, stereotypifiable individuals/cultures more than they already do? And why are the commenters sitting around commenting, when there are so many better things they could be doing with their lives?
[Comments are open to allow commenters to sit around and comment instead of doing better things with their lives.]