Review: The Art of Language Invention

Author: Scott Hamilton  /  Category: Conlanging, Reviews

Anyone who knows me to any degree knows that I am a conlanger – that is, I create constructed languages for fun (and occasionally for profit). It’s an obscure art form, needless to say. However, it is a pursuit that has become increasingly more visible in the entertainment industry and the public eye. Tolkien’s languages have been around for a long time, and everyone knows about Klingon, sure. But the real harbinger of wide recognition that conlanging is a thing was spawned by the HBO show Game of Thrones and its languages Dothraki and High Valyrian. The zeitgeist of that new wave is is the creator of those languages, David J. Peterson. He’s the mind behind The Art of Language Invention.

Let’s start out with the most important detail about this book: You do not have to be a linguist to read this book. While there is a lot of information in the book, this is not a dry textbook focused on an academic audience. Rather, this book is full of entertaining tangents like when David blames English spelling on foul-tempered print setters, or repeatedly makes peanut gallery-style remarks on how much he hates onions, or uses werewolves to explain linguistic concepts. But if you can just enjoy the ride, the book has a unique voice that’s entertaining and engaging no matter how much you know about language.

That being said, linguistics is a huge topic (as is making languages) so he covers of lot of topics pretty fast. I would not expect the average person to absorb much of the information on the first read. In fact, I think that those who already have a little bit of linguistics knowledge (you’ve learned a few languages or taken an introductory linguistics course, for example) will be those who get the most out of the book. There’s enough there to fill in the holes of what you don’t know to give you a foundation that you can really appreciate the nuances of what David is talking about.

Now, this isn’t to say that if you don’t have that experience then you’ll be in over your head. It just means that this is a book you’ll end up reading a few times, and getting more details out of each time as you get more familiar with the topics. And that’s the sort of book you want on your shelf anyway, isn’t it?

The real gems of the books are the case studies, however. At the end of each major section, David uses some of his own experiences to further explain the topics he has been going over. These are a mix of insights into his thought processes and decisions, as well as little tidbits about making languages for the entertainment industry. There’s something for all levels of readers here. The fans of shows like Game of Thrones and SyFy’s Defiance will find the sort of details that they love to gather about their favorite shows. People new to the art of conlanging will find these to be valuable examples of the sort of things you need to think about. Experienced conlangers will find discussions and bits of wisdom that can only come from getting your hands linguistically dirty in the art, and that’s a very rare thing to find.

If you are looking for a light read, this is probably not it. But if you are really interested in learning what the art of inventing languages is like, David’s book is a great place to start. Heck, even if you never want to make your own language, you’ll learn a ton about how language works and enjoy doing it.

Here’s a David Peterson-style tangent: If you’ve ever listened to one of his presentations, or just sat down to talk with him, David is just like how he comes across in the book. He can dive into deep discussion on language topics, and then suddenly veer off on tangents that get you laughing. He obviously knows what he is talking about, but his combination of knowledge and amusing relatability make him perfect for being the popular face of this hobby. David is pretty much the Bill Nye of conlangs.

So yeah, buy the book.

Okay, next steps:

  • If you finish the book and your curiosity is satisfied, then good job – it’s money well spent.
  • David is also starting a YouTube channel to go along with the book.
  • If you want to learn more about making a language, I suggest reading The Language Construction Kit by Mark Rosenfelder. It’s another introduction to conlanging and while there is a bit of overlap, you’ll find that it complements The Art of Language Invention nicely.
  • If you want to dig deeper into the nuts and bolts of language, I suggest Describing Morphosyntax by Thomas Payne. It’s meant to be a guide for field linguists, but it is very useful to someone who wants to build a language.
  • If you want to get involved in the community, check out Conlang communities on Facebook and Google+, as well as look at the Conlang-L mailing list. Also, check out the home page of the Language Creation Society at http://www.conlang.org

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