“Gi suilon!” For mere mortals, this is how one greets a friend in Sindarin Elvish. Nerdy, it’s true, but language and fandom have gone hand-in-hand for at least half a century. It began with J. R. R. Tolkien, a noted philologist and arguably the best fantasy author that ever lived, who decided that no fantasy world was complete without a brand new language or two. (In fact, Tolkien developed vocabulary and grammar for at least 15 Elvish languages alone.)
Interest in constructed languages (or conlangs) certainly did not die with Tolkien, however. Over the years, artists and linguists alike have developed all sorts of new tongues — some as well known as Newspeak, from George Orwell’s “1984” (1949), and others obscure as Tenctonese, from television series “Alien Nation” (1989-1990). Klingon, a language from the Star Trek universe, perhaps wears the biggest crown among conlangs; at least four major works of world literature, including “Hamlet” and “The Epic of Gilgamesh” have been translated and published in the alien language.
Now, thanks to modern technology, fluency in one of television’s newest conlangs needs not be constrained merely to linguists and people with too much time on their hands. That’s right — Random House LLC recently released the Dothraki Companion, an app to help speakers of the common tongue learn the Dothraki Sea language of George R. R. Martin’s “Game of Thrones” book series. The new app, available for $3.99 from the iTunes App Store, builds fluency using flash cards and vocabulary games and includes a chat function for users looking to converse with other Dothraki speakers. The app was developed by David J. Peterson, the linguist hired by HBO to create the language for the “Game of Thrones”(2011-present) show.
Outside of the fandom, however, the app is already a subject of some scorn. A few have complained that Dothraki Companion encourages people to spend time learning a made-up language when they could be learning real languages spoken by thousands of people. What good is a language, critics ask, without a nation of people and a culture behind it? It’s true that conlangs lack the depth and history of real languages, but there’s something to be said about a group of fans determined enough to create and learn a new language. After all, many of the best stories ever told are the brain children of world builders — creative geniuses who could not be confined to the boundaries of the natural world, whether they be physical, visual or spiritual limits. If one can appreciate Martin’s skill in communicating the details of his imaginary land, one must also value the purposefulness of fans who wish to enjoy his stories in a creative way.