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Did you know that there is a Klingon translation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet? Having watched every episode of Star Trek in all its incarnations, I would probably recognize some Klingon if I heard it, but I only comprehend a single word: Qapla. Only 20 people on the entire planet are fluent in this language. Ironically, its creator Marc Okrand, is not one of them.

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(photo, right, of Worf from Star Trek, Next Generation)

My mum tells me that I used to translate television shows for my gran before I started primary school; I remember that her favourite shows were wrestling matches, I guess because she didn’t need me to translate those that much. The only English phrase she ever learned was “one ticket for Camden Town” so that she could get the tube to church. Being bilingual (English and Greek) and just-about-fluent-enough in French to travel comfortably in any French-speaking country, I definitely appreciate the accident of birth that enabled me to be more than monolingual. I just wish I had cultivated the opportunities I’ve had to learn a couple more languages when I had the chance to learn German and Spanish. I’ve admired those early 20th century comparative literature scholars who could read texts in ten, twelve, fourteen languages. The passion to learn a language that isn’t “real” is even more impressive.

Just as for national languages, sharing a common, fantasy language like Elfish acts as a linguistic handshake between people; it’s about feeling that one belongs to a group of like-minded others; it speaks to a desire for camaraderie, for a self-chosen family. Besides Klingon for die-hard Trekkies, for Tolkien aficionados, there are 13 other languages to study besides the melodious Elfish,as well as Na’vi, spoken by the indigenous blue inhabitants of Pandora from the movie Avatar, and, now, thanks to Game of Thrones, there’s Dothraki. Those in the know might greet each other with Hajas (pronounced hah-DZHAS and used as a toast to mean “be strong”) or M’athchomaroon (“hello”). People from all over the world can talk to each other in a fan-based, country-neutral language, crossing cultural boundaries (the fan who maintains dothraki.org is German).

At 3,250 words, the language is obviously not fleshed out, no where near as expansive as English’s over 200,000 words. Still, its creator David Peterson, a linguist, or, more particularly, a colanger (one who constructs a new language), applied logical premises and linguistic rules to his process that gives insight into how we learn and build our own vocabularies and structures in our Mother tongues.

First, it was important not to include words that would not be useful or be current or applicable to everyday situations faced by the Dothraki. Certain words would never have been invented given the context in which the Dothraki live. Next, it was important to figure out basic, significant words that could become roots for other words. For example, given that the Dothraki are nomadic warriors who value their horses and who live their lives travelling constantly across grass plains, there was a need for many words for different kinds of horses that then became the root for related objects or ideas. Viewers of the show read the translations of Dothraki into English at the bottom of their screens, giving an air of authenticity to the language.

Jason Momoa, who plays the Dothraki leader Khal Drogo, was both excited and intimated by the idea of speaking an invented language. In commenting on how he came to learn that he would have to act entirely in a language that he did not understand, he said that he would think of each line of dialogue as if it were a piece of music.

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With the Season Four premiere of Game of Thrones tomorrow, Sunday, April 6th, fans of the show will be introduced to more cultures and languages as we follow not only Daenerys, after her destruction of the city state Astapor, when her hidden knowledge of the language High Valyrian was of great use in her overcoming an obnoxious slave trader, but now also two more main characters (no spoilers!) who find their way to Essos across the Narrow Sea

Languages haven’t only been invented for books, movies, or TV shows but to meet particular needs. For instance, the science fiction writer Suzette Haden Elgin created Láaden as a language better suited to express women’s points of view, including how one feels about what one is saying as with the word “bala,” which means “I’m angry for a reason but nothing can be done about it.” The language was used in Elgin’s book series Native Tongue. She said that she created the language to test out Sapir-Whorf’s hypothesis that depending on one’s mother tongue one tends to think and behave in a particular manner – to see the world in a specific way – based upon that language than those who speak a different language.

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There have also been attempts to create a global language before English ended up becoming the world’s linga franca. Most are familiar with Esperanto (which happens to be a very good Scattergories game language category word to remember that begins with an “E,” most players inevitably writing down “English”). Its inventor L.L Zamenhof, a Polish native, created it over 125 years ago, hoping it would foster harmony between people of different nations. He was inspired to create the language because of the politics of his home town of Bialystok; in his small town, Russians, Germans, Poles, and Jews were each others’ enemies.

Interestingly, the nation that showed most interest in Esperanto was China. Just recently, one of China’s new museums has put together an extensive exhibit of over 26,000 items written in Esperanto. The language had been introduced in China in 1909 where it gained favour because it was not the language of any imperialist nation, like English, but, even at its peak, only 400,000 Chinese studied it, and no more than 2 million speakers exist worldwide. Only a few thousand could be termed “fluent.”

There are more benefits of bilingualism than being able to converse with a wider range of people. It improves cognitive skills, particularly those involved with problem solving and with mentally-demanding tasks that might require ignoring distractions, holding on to information as tasks are switched, or remembering sequences. It has even been proven to stave off dementia and Alzheimer’s. With only 18 per cent of Americans who are bilingual compared to the 53 per cent of Europeans who can speak a second – and even a third – language, perhaps it is time to consider picking up a new one, even if it might be Asshai.

– Eleni Anastasiou

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