Most languages develop through centuries of use among groups of people. But some have a different origin: They are invented, from scratch, from one individual’s mind. Familiar examples include the international language Esperanto, the Klingon language from Star Trek and the Elvish tongues from The Lord of the Rings.
The activity isn’t new—the earliest recorded invented language was by medieval nun Hildegard von Bingen—but the Internet now allows much wider sharing of such languages among the small communities of people who speak and create them.
Christine Schreyer, a linguistic anthropologist at the University of British Columbia’s Okanagan campus in Kelowna, Canada, has studied invented languages and the people who speak them, a topic she writes about in the 2021 Annual Review of Anthropology. But Schreyer brings another skill to the table: She’s a language creator herself and has invented several languages for the movie industry: the Kryptonian language for Man of Steel, Eltarian for Power Rangers, Beama (Cro-Magnon) for Alpha, and Atlantean for Zack Snyder’s Justice League.
Schreyer spoke with Knowable Magazine about her experience in this unusual world, and the practical lessons that it provides for people trying to revitalize endangered natural languages. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How did you come to study something as esoteric as invented languages?
I teach a course on linguistic anthropology, in which I give my students the task of creating new languages as they learn about the parts of languages. Around the time I started doing that, Avatar came out. The Na’vi language from that movie was very popular at the time and had made its way into many news stories about people learning the language—and doing it quickly.
My other academic research is on language revitalization, with indigenous or minority communities. One of the challenges we have is it takes people a long time to learn a language. I was interested to know what endangered-language communities could learn from these created-language fan communities, to learn languages faster. I wanted to discover who the speakers of Na’vi were, and why and how they were learning this particular created language.
When I surveyed Na’vi speakers, many said they joined because they were fans of the film and they stayed for the community. They’re very welcoming and inclusive communities. It doesn’t matter what your race is or what your gender is, though many of these fandoms tend to be more male.
But also, one of the things I saw in the Na’vi case was that individuals joined the fan community because Avatar was very tied to environmental rights and indigenous rights. These ideals of environmentalism are part of the language, and they picked up on that. That is part of the reason that some of them were learning the language.
What about other invented languages?
The ones that are learned most widely are those intended as an international auxiliary language, like Esperanto, meant to be shared by people around the world to promote unity and world peace. It’s supposed to be a neutral language, and it’s simplified and very easy to learn. It’s been learned by millions of people around the world. You can learn it on Duolingo!
The other ones are fan languages: Na’vi, Klingon from Star Trek and Dothraki from Game of Thrones are very popular. There were 300 Na’vi speakers when I surveyed them in 2011, everyone from beginners to very advanced—but they all considered themselves part of the community. Dothraki speakers were much fewer at the time, maybe 20. And studies have shown there are about 20 advanced Klingon speakers in the world as well. It depends on the popularity of the show at the time. If another season of Star Trek: Discovery comes out, you will have more people learning Klingon.
We definitely see that with Na’vi. It was very popular early on, and there are still those core members who are learning Na’vi. And with Avatar 2, which is supposed to be coming next year, we will likely see an increase in speakers.