Constructed Languages

The use of constructed languages in fantasy fiction.

Lingua ignota
David J. Peterson

What are conlangs?

A constructed language – or conlang – is any language which was artificially created, as opposed to evolving naturally. The earliest example is Lingua ignota, which dates back to the 12th century.

Lingua ignota has nothing to do with fantasy fiction. It was created by Saint Hildegard of Bingen, an abbess in medieval Germany. No one quite knows why she created this language, but she seems to have used it for religious reasons, maybe in an effort to communicate with God.


In terms of fantasy fiction, Tolkien was probably the writer who explored constructed languages to the fullest. He meticulously crafted multiple conlangs for his Middle-earth races, including two versions of Elvish (Quenya and Sindarin), Dwarvish (Khuzdul), and a rough-sounding language called Black Speech, which was used by the forces of evil.

Hard conlangs

Coming up with a fully-fledged conlang adds a lot of depth to a Seconday World, but the process is far from easy. As well as grammar and vocabulary, the creator needs to think about idioms, dialects, pronunciation, body language, a system of writing, and more.

As an expert in philology – the study of languages – conlangs came naturally to Tolkien. But other fantasy writers have had to hire a linguist to help them build a conlang. For example, for the television series *Game of Thrones*, David J. Peterson was hired to create the Dothraki language, and High Valyrian.


Peterson even put together a course on High Valyrian for Duolingo, the popular language-learning app. Users can learn to speak this conlang, and understand the characters in the television series without needing to read the subtitles.

Soft conlangs

A conlang does not need to be a fully-fledged language, like the ones invented by linguists like Tolkien and Peterson. Most fantasy writers will use a soft conlang instead. This is when they only come up with a limited handful of words, then sprinkle them into the narrative.

An example of a soft conlang can be found in N.K. Jemisin’s *The Fifth Season*. In this story, the characters use words invented by the author. They refer to towns as ‘comms’, and scientists as ‘geomests’. These words are added to English sentences: “that comm is full of geomests”.

Some fantasy books include a glossary at the back, allowing readers to keep track of the strange vocabulary while navigating the Secondary World. This approach is extremely popular; a sprinkle of vocabulary gives the impression of a language, but does not take as much work.

Magic languages

A lot of fantasy books include a magical conlang which the characters use to cast their spells. Usually, this will be a soft conlang, using simple strings of impressive-sounding words to make spells sound otherworldly.


In Naomi Novik’s *Uprooted*, witches and wizards cast their spells by uttering words from an ancient magical language. ‘Fulmia’ makes the ground shake, ‘tihas’ is good for healing, and ‘vanastalem’ dresses the speaker in majestic clothes.

This idea of an ancient language, with magical properties, is common in fantasy fiction. Ursula Le Guin’s *Earthsea* series has Old Speech, which lets magic users manipulate the world around them. Christopher Paolini’s *Inheritance Cycle* has the Ancient Language, which functions in a similar way.

Visual alphabets

Occasionally, a writer will come up with a visual alphabet to accompany their fantasy conlang. It is difficult to include these alphabets in a book, but sometimes they feature in the cover design, or on an appendix page at the back.


When Tolkien designed the Tengwar alphabet for his Elvish languages, he incorporated elegant calligraphic elements, which were meant to represent the elegance of the elves who used them. Some examples of Tengwar have appeared on covers of *The Lord of the Rings*.

Eoin Colfer’s *Artemis Fowl* series features a runic script called Gnommish. It is a simple alphabet, but it has an interesting purpose. The runes appear at the bottom of pages throughout the books, and when the reader starts to translate them, they stumble across a puzzle.

Common tongues

From a worldbuilding perspective, conlangs raise an important question. If all the races speak different languages, how do they talk to one another? The last thing a fantasy writer wants is a Secondary World where no one is able to communicate.


To deal with this, writers often include some kind of common tongue in their Secondary World – a unifying language that everyone speaks in addition to the language of their race. In private, two elves might communicate in Elvish, but with a dwarf, they would switch to Common.

In real life, English often functions as a common tongue between people of different nationalities. A Dutch person and a Norwegian person might find themselves using English to communicate, just as an elf and a dwarf would use Common.

The power of language

Conlangs are not the only way that language can enhance the immersive qualities of a story. Another element to consider is the author’s style of writing. If the author’s style does not match the world, the reader will not feel immersed.

Tolkien’s stories took place in an archaic setting, so he wrote them in an archaic style: “They spoke ever after the Common Speech, the Westron as it was named.” If he had written the same line in a modern style, it would not have matched the world: “After that, they started speaking in Common Speech, also called Westron.”

This concept was discussed by Ursula Le Guin in her iconic essay *From Elfland to Poughkeepsie*. She argued how the author’s style is the most important part of building a fantasy world: “The act of speech is the act of creation […] and every word counts.”


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