In This Episode
Constructed Languages and New Languages
In the first of our two part series on the life cycle of languages, we address how language is born. We’ll dive into the creation of constructed languages – languages made for film or TV (or even just for fun) – and natural languages, and how the process behind both reveals why new languages come into existence.
David Peterson: Uh [speaks Dothraki] I think that was, I’m going to ride to the city tomorrow. I hope it was.
Ahmed Ali Akbar: Did you recognize that language? When I first heard it, I thought I did. It sounded a bit like Arabic. It had the kh sounds and I was like, Is it Mongolian? Now I want you to listen to this next language.
David Peterson: Um, well, uh, this is a famous one. Um, zaldrizes buzdari iksos daor, and that is, uh, dragon is not a slave.
Ahmed Ali Akbar: Give up? That language is high Valryian. And that first clip was of Dothraki. It is known. David J. Peterson, the voice you heard at the top of the show, created both of these languages for HBO’s Game of Thrones. His full time job is to make constructed languages or conlang as those in the know call them. He’s made conlangs for worlds like Thor, Dune and The Witcher. But this level of success didn’t come easy.
David Peterson: The first language was, was really, really poor quality.
Ahmed Ali Akbar: It was the year 2000, and David was a sophomore at UC Berkeley. He was taking several language courses at the time, including Esperanto. Esperanto is the world’s most widely spoken constructed language. Invented in 19th century Austria, it was intended to be a Universal Language that could bring the world together. And while David was sitting in a lecture one day, he thought, maybe I can do that. Unlike Esperanto though, his motivation was young love.
David Peterson: I was going to create a language that my girlfriend at the time and I could speak, and so I named it after both of our names. I’m David and she was Megan. And so it was called Megdevi. [laughter] Um, and, uh, it was just terrible. I, I think I, I, I gave it to her as a Christmas present [laughter] It’s like when Homer, when Mar yeah, when Homer gives Marge a bowling ball with the name Homer on it, that’s basically what that was.
Ahmed Ali Akbar: Do you remember any of Megdevi? Do you, can you, can you give us a sentence or something?
David Peterson: Yeah. A sentence. Uh, yeah. [Speaks Megdevi]. My name is David. This is just terrible. [laughter]
Ahmed Ali Akbar: As you can see, David is haunted by this first conlang.
David Peterson: I set myself completely contradictory goals. So for example, I wanted it to be easy for me to learn and use easy for friends to learn and use, but I also wanted it to be linguistically interesting. And I also wanted it to be regular and I also wanted it to be highly artistic. It was just, it was just a Franken beast and it didn’t have any place on this earth.
Ahmed Ali Akbar: And just as they did with Frankenstein’s monster, humans rejected Megdevi.
David Peterson: This maybe will give you a glimpse into my character at that time. And probably in general, I assumed that since I was doing it, everybody would think it was a great idea and they’d all want to jump on board. Um, I was just shocked when that wasn’t the case.
Ahmed Ali Akbar: And so, Megdevi went from one speaker to none. We’re doing something different this week and next on Radiolingo, a two-part series on the lifecycle of languages. This episode tells the story of three new languages, and how they exemplify three ways new languages are born. They’re invented, like with Dothraki. Or they emerge with the formation of a new community. That’s what happened with Nicaraguan Sign Language. And then, the most common way. An existing language gradually experiences incremental changes until it resembles something completely new. Which is what happened with a language called Light Warlpiri in Australia. From Crooked Media and Duolingo, I’m Ahmed Ali Akbar and this is Radiolingo. Welcome to part one of our language life cycle series. Congrats, it’s a language. So we’re going to be talking about two different categories of languages in this episode. Natural languages, languages that have evolved and been used by people for generations. And Conlangs, languages invented by people like David. One of the biggest differences between the two, is the level of conscious planning involved in the language. With natural languages—
David Peterson: Generally, nobody is there making, you know, overt decisions and often if they try to make overt decisions, they fail.
Ahmed Ali Akbar: Whereas with conlangs—
David Peterson: There is one or more people who are definitely at the helm and are making active decisions.
Ahmed Ali Akbar: Learning about David’s process of creating new conlangs can be helpful in understanding how natural languages develop too. Because David has a method to mimic the natural process, he starts with the big picture. Every natural language has a context, a historical context, a social context, a cultural context, etc. These all influence how a given language evolves. So whit a new conlang, David first looks at the fictional universe. What does the culture of the people who will be speaking the invented language look like?
David Peterson: The producers come to us, right? And say, we have these people, they’re going to be speaking a language. And at that point, what I want is I want to get as much information as possible. Who are these people that are speaking the language? What are their circumstances? That is where do they live? You know, what is their history? Who do they interact with? How much? So basically all of the stuff that the writers come up with, or, uh, for these people in their history every little bit is useful.
Ahmed Ali Akbar: Step two, he presents the producers with a system of fresh sounds.
David Peterson: Creating a sound system is a part of creating a language, but it doesn’t take a long time. You can do it in a, in a day or two. Uh, and that’s all of the sounds that are spoken in the language and then how they pattern together, how they are put together to form syllables and how the syllables are put together to form words.
Ahmed Ali Akbar: Step 3 evolution. As we’re discussing throughout this series language is constantly changing. In real life, it’s messy. People continue to innovate new words, new grammar systems, new pronunciations some of it sticks, some of it doesn’t. In the case of David’s conlangs, the evolution happens with producer feedback.
David Peterson: They take a listen and they say, all right, this either, this sounds exactly like we were hoping for. Or, uh, this sound here is, is kind of bumpy for us. Can you change it? Can you change this? I make it, prettier, make it rougher. So on. I take whatever feedback they, they give me, uh, retool it, do it again. Basically keep doing it until we get it right until we have exactly the sound that they’re looking for.
Ahmed Ali Akbar: Once the producers are happy, in comes step 4.
David Peterson: So then we set about creating the grammar.
Ahmed Ali Akbar: Okay, so how does this all come together? Let’s take an example from Dothraki. The Dothraki people are nomadic warriors, and horses are integral to their way of life. As such, David wanted aspects of this to influence their language’s grammar. So the dothralat use the word ride as an expression of immediate future and immediate past. I had David record what it sounds like so you don’t have to listen to me butcher the language.
David Peterson: Anha adakh. I ate. Anha dothrak adakhatoon. I just ate, literally I ride from eating. Anha vadakhak. I will eat. Anha dothrak adakhataan. I am about to eat, literally I ride to eating.
Ahmed Ali Akbar: The word ride also features in the greeting, how are you doing? Which comes out as—
David Peterson: Hash yer dothrae chek? How are you doing? Literally, do you ride well?
Ahmed Ali Akbar: Meaning, like, what’s up? It’s not the real thing, but the work David did to integrate culture and language it makes Dothraki feel more real, right? But that’s a constructed language. How are natural languages born? New natural languages can often be born within an isolated place. For example, if people have had to migrate somewhere new. Or, when a group of people who come together share no common language. A need for communication and lacking a common language is actually very typical for one group in particular. Deaf people.
Lina Hou: I would say at least 90% of deaf children are born to parents who are hearing that don’t know sign language.
Ahmed Ali Akbar: This is Lina Hou. She’s an assistant professor at UC Santa Barbara’s Department of Linguistics. Lina is deaf and speaks American Sign language, so the voice you’ll hear interpreting for her is Mala Poe.
Lina Hou: When I show up in class the first day, I often tell the students. That they have a professor who is signing, and Mala is interpreting what they’re saying. So what students here is me, not Mala. It’s kind of interesting. And then after a while, they’ll kind of forget that the interpreters are there.
Ahmed Ali Akbar: As Lina mentioned earlier, most deaf children are born to non-signing parents. Often this will result in a child communicating in what is called home sign.
Lina Hou: The term refers to those deaf children who make up their own signs to communicate with their family members because they don’t have access to the language.
Ahmed Ali Akbar: There are a lot of different circumstances under which home signs are formed within a family, and a lot of this depends on where you’re located. For example, the reasons for the development of a home sign in America is different than in other places.
Lina Hou: Home sign for deaf people in the United States is intentionally when people deprive them of learning an actual language that has been established.
Ahmed Ali Akbar: This is because there’s an established sign language in the U.S. that people can learn American Sign Language. But what about in places where no organized sign language exists? Or places that don’t quite have the resources to introduce an established sign language to its deaf community.
Lina Hou: In a rural indigenous community in the southern part of Mexico, for example, where you have deaf children and those children are not deprived of sign language, they just don’t know any conventional sign language in the area. They don’t have resources. They don’t have access to another sign language near them. They don’t have a deaf school. There is no one to learn from and there is no access to any conventional sign language.
Ahmed Ali Akbar: So the children develop their own home sign to communicate. This was the case initially, at least with signers of our next language. Nicaraguan Sign Language. Nicaraguan Sign Language, or NSL is relatively new, only a few decades old.
Molly Flaherty: My best guess, and my colleagues best guess is that today there’s probably around 1500 people who sign Nicaraguan Sign Language who learned it in early childhood. I think now the oldest signers are given they came into the school at like five or six. They’re in their fifties.
Ahmed Ali Akbar: This is Molly Flaherty. She’s an assistant professor of psychology at Davidson College.
Molly Flaherty: I do work that’s a little bit different from what people typically expect from a developmental psychologist, which is number one. I mostly work with adults and number two, I mostly study the structure of language. And the reason I study the structure of language with adults is that I think that it is possible to see the evidence of the way that those adults were thinking and learning as children, by looking at the way that they use language today.
Ahmed Ali Akbar: For a Developmental Psychologist like Molly, Nicaraguan Sign Language is an incredible opportunity to see how language changes rapidly over generations of signers. All those questions David was asking. The cultural context, the needs of the community that caused a language to evolve. You can observe a lot of that history in this small NSL community, partly because of how new the language is. So how did NSL come to be? As Lina mentioned, many deaf children who aren’t taught an established sign language develop a home sign. But home signs tend not to have consistent grammar and complete vocabularies, at least not in the same sense that widely used sign language is do. In order to develop some consistency. You need a location where the deaf community can sign together.
Molly Flaherty: And so in Nicaragua, there just was no place like that. Before the 1970s, there was no place where deaf individuals came together in a community setting in a school setting and anything like that for an extended period of time.
Ahmed Ali Akbar: And this issue often results in the delay of learning a language fluently. Dr. Lina Hou says that this is a challenge many deaf children face compared to their hearing counterparts, and the results of delaying the acquisition of a first language can be huge.
Lina Hou: You need that foundation to be able to socialize with people based on what is considered appropriate behavior. To learn to communicate with people on different topics. In general. The later you learn ASL or the first language, I should say, the harder it will to quote unquote “catch up” with the deaf who learned it earlier in life.
Ahmed Ali Akbar: And this was the case in Nicaragua until the 1970s, when the first schools for special education began to open their doors.
Molly Flaherty: So kids from around Managua, from around the capital and to some degree from other places, too, came together in the school. And, you know, they got there. And it’s not like there was a language for them to learn already. It’s not like somebody also brought in a sign language.
Ahmed Ali Akbar: When they arrived. The only language each student knew was whatever home sign they had taught themselves. And when the teachers attempted to introduce them to a language, they prioritized a spoken one.
Molly Flaherty: They were trying to get these kids to speak Spanish and to write Spanish, which didn’t work very well .
Ahmed Ali Akbar: Not because the kids didn’t want to learn or communicate. But because the teachers were not trained to build on what the kids already knew and would be the most useful for them, signing.
Molly Flaherty: But luckily they didn’t prevent the kids from communicating with each other, however they wanted to, and since they were deaf kids, the way that they communicated with each other was using their hands. And it didn’t take long before teachers at the school reported that they didn’t know what the heck [laughs] the kids were saying to each other.
Ahmed Ali Akbar: A need to communicate leads to creation. A new language.
Molly Flaherty: So this was the very beginning of the sign language. And then these initial kids who were in this school stayed in that school, right? They didn’t just come together one time for a week or a month, or even a year. They stayed in that school for multiple years. They went up through the grades and new kids came in every year. New younger children came in, who were then able to learn this language from their older signing peers. So they still weren’t learning it in the classroom. It still definitely wasn’t any kind of explicit teaching, but there was a language there once they reached the school. Once these younger kids reached the school.
Ahmed Ali Akbar: Over time, the kids at the small school created an entirely new language that could be taught and passed down. It came to be known as Nicaraguan Sign Language and it’s now the sign language of all deaf communities there. [music break] Out next language is out last, and it’s a demonstration of the most common way that new languages emerge. We’ll get to all of that after the break. [music break]
Ahmed Ali Akbar: Most new languages are built off of existing language systems. They’re combinations or remixes or descendants or variations of older languages. [clip of Light Warlpiri] Like a brand new language spoken in an indigenous community in Australia some people say it’s the newest language in the world Light Warlpiri. [clip of Light Warlpiri] So, remember how I said new languages are often formed by a cultural change, or a combination of two languages? In this case, Light Warlpiri is a language all on its own and has built on elements of English, Australian, Creole and Warlpiri. I know Light Warlpiri is different from Warlpiri. To help avoid confusion when we say Warlpiri or strong Warlpiri, we’re referring to the indigenous language of the Warlpiri people. Light Warlpiri is the new language. Strong Warlpiri is spoken by about 2 to 3000 people, but once was spoken by many more indigenous people in Australia. Since the introduction of English through the colonization of Australia, there have been fewer and fewer speakers of Warlpiri. And recently, this interaction between Warlpiri and English resulted in the birth of Light Warlpiri
Carmel O’Shannessy: The Light Warlpiri speakers. They grow up speaking Light Warlpiri as their main language. They also learn Warlpiri, and they also learn English at school.
Ahmed Ali Akbar: This is Carmel O’Shannessy. She’s an Australian linguist who first documented Light Warlpiri for people outside the Warlpiri community of Lajamanu. She spent years working with indigenous communities in the Northern Territory of Australia, including an Australian Kriol speaking community.
Carmel O’Shannessy: And then I moved over to Lajamanu community, where I’m speaking to you from now, um, and was working there supporting the Warlpiri teachers to teach Warlpiri in the Walpiri English bilingual education program.
Ahmed Ali Akbar: It became clear to her that Lajamanu was a special place.
Carmel O’Shannessy: What I learned was that it is incredibly culturally linguistically rich, a place where people were very active and enthusiastic about making sure that the next generations learned Warlpiri culture and language. The elders always say that learning Warlpiri language and culture and English language and culture are really important.
Ahmed Ali Akbar: Lajamanu is remote and small. Only about 600 people live there.
Carmel O’Shannessy: It’s about 600 kilometers from the nearest town. So it’s, it’s not, it’s not an easy place to get to, Lajamanu.
Ahmed Ali Akbar: When Carmel arrived in Lajamanu as a teacher in the late nineties, she found herself paying close attention to how people spoke around her. After a while, she began to notice that younger people in the community were mixing the languages of Warlpiri, English and Australian Kriol in a way that seemed especially unique.
Carmel O’Shannessy: And after a while I thought I’ll, I’ll, I’ll pay more attention to this, this seems interesting. And then I realized they were mixing them in every sentence, which I hadn’t really noticed earlier. And I thought, oh gosh, this is really its own way of speaking.
Ahmed Ali Akbar: These young people had begun mixing languages in a way that was different. Light Warlpiri was born the way that most languages are born out of a messy, slow, unintentional process that happens naturally when different cultures and languages come into contact. Here’s Carmel talking to a Light Warlpiri speaker named Cindy. If you listen closely, you can hear the blend of Light Warlpiri and English.
Carmel O’Shannessy: What are the times when you speak Lajamanu style?
Cindy: Sometimes I speak Warlpiri when my family come [speaks Light Warlpiri] or when I go to [speaks Light Warlpiri] yeah, but [speaks Light Warlpiri].
Ahmed Ali Akbar: Even though Light Warlpiri seems new and young, it’s actually been a long time in the making. It goes way back but we’ll start the story with history of British colonization in Australia.
Carmel O’Shannessy: So when Australia was first colonized by the British indigenous people were living everywhere in Australia.
Ahmed Ali Akbar: Those indigenous folks spoke a diverse range of languages, including Warlpiri. When the British showed up, they of course only spoke English, so there was at first no common language between the indigenous communities and the colonizers.
Carmel O’Shannessy: Generally the, the English speakers, didn’t try very hard to learn the indigenous languages. The responsibility seemed to be on the indigenous language speakers to do most of the work of getting communication happening. So they learned quite a lot of words of English, but when you’re learning a language, uh, in a real hurry, you don’t need to learn the whole language. You just need to do it enough to get by, uh, in for whatever it is that you’re doing at that moment.
Ahmed Ali Akbar: That meant the indigenous communities were mostly learning the bits of English that were meaningful in their interactions with the British unfortunately, it was often vocabulary related to the labor they were forced to perform for their colonizers.
Carmel O’Shannessy: And so, what, what people do in a situation like that is learned some words and use the grammars that they’ve already got.
Ahmed Ali Akbar: In other words, they might use English words but slotted into the grammar of their indigenous language.
Carmel O’Shannessy: And so that very early, uh, way of communicating, that’s not yet a fully formed systematic language, but is a new way of communicating, that’s a pidgin.
Ahmed Ali Akbar: A pidgin. It’s not quite a language, because it hasn’t developed consistent rules and structures, but it’s perhaps a step in the direction of a new language.
Carmel O’Shannessy: So a pidgin is this kind of additional way of. Getting by with speakers whose languages you don’t know yet, but you all don’t know each other’s languages yet.
Ahmed Ali Akbar: And with no set rules or structures, pidgins are constantly shapeshifting, and can eventually start to develop a system of rules.
Carmel O’Shannessy: And then when, uh, when a way of speaking is being used all the time, um, with your own group, with other groups, it’s got very complicated. It’s got rules, it’s got a lot of vocabulary, then it’s a real language. And that’s what a Kriol is.
Ahmed Ali Akbar: A creole is a whole, brand new language with patterns and rules and structure. You might hear the word creole and think of the language spoken by certain communities in Louisiana but creole actually refers to a whole linguistic category, with various unique languages falling within it. For example, Carmel is referencing Australian Kriol here. To understand why Light Warlpiri sounds the way it does, you need to look at the parent language, Warlpiri, and the community it’s spoken in.
Carmel O’Shannessy: This community is quite remote from the other communities. Uh, not by choice this community came about because the government relocated people from the other communities to here. And that’s an important part of the story of Light Warlpiri actually, that this group of people were separated from the other Warlpiri communities, not by their own choice. But they were forced to do that. And they have since created a life here. Today, strong Warlpiri speakers can speak their native Warlpiri, Australian Kriol, and English. Sometimes they’re spoken separately, under specific circumstances. But sometimes, these languages get used all at once.
Carmel O’Shannessy: Firstly, adults were speaking in a way to very young children where they combined Warlpiri with English and Kriol.
Ahmed Ali Akbar: That’s Australian Kriol, again.
Carmel O’Shannessy: Those children that were hearing that pattern very consistently as they grew up, like when I’m, when they were say three or four or five years old, and this is going back about 40 years now, they just started to speak in the way that combined the languages very systematically.
Ahmed Ali Akbar: Similar to Nicaraguan Sign Language, the oldest generation of Light Warlpiri speakers weren’t quite as systematic with the way they used the language they were creating it on the fly. But the younger generations really cemented a lot of the patterns and systems of the language.
Carmel O’Shannessy: And what’s really cool about this pattern is the way it combines the languages is that it takes verbs, action words, from English and Kriol and it takes nouns, words for names for things, and word endings that go on nouns from Warlpiri. So that you’ve got not just words that combine in a very patterned way, but the grammatical structures from each one combine in a very patterned way. So for example, let’s say I wanted to say today I came on the bus, in Warlpiri I’d say [speaks Warlpiri]. So, today I, came here, bus, on. In Light Warlpiri you’d say [speaks Light Warlpiri]. So the word for today [speaks Light Warlpiri] is the same. And on the bus is the same. But in Light Warlpiri you’d say [speaks Light Warlpiri] which takes come, from English and Kriol, and then there’s the new construction we from English, you and I. And the next part, the [speaks Light Warlpiri] is part of the new construction. So, [speaks Warlpiri] versus [speaks Light Warlpiri].
Ahmed Ali Akbar: At the core of so many great language innovations, children being allowed to experiment and play with language.
Carmel O’Shannessy: And then they also brought in just some very small changes that children might often make when they’re, when they’re learning their first languages, anywhere in the world. But instead of changing back again to the way adults speak, these changes stayed around. So now those chnages are the way of speaking Light Warlpiri.
Ahmed Ali Akbar: Light Warlpiri doesn’t need to exist, per se in the way that NSL did. The young speakers had three languages already to choose from which many of them spoke. But the fact is that they didn’t pick one of those existing languages because they were already growing up differently from their parents and grandparents. They weren’t the same as monolingual English Australians, or the same as the older Warlpiri and Kriol speakers the culture they were surrounded by was a combination of many elements, and so their communication system reflects that. In short, Light Warlpiri shows the kind of world its speakers live in. And importantly, the children weren’t stopped from creating. They did it regularly, until it became the language they spoke within their generation.
Carmel O’Shannessy: They sort of thought we like our way of talking. Like this is our way of talking and, and of course we know they do speak strong Warlpiri as well. Right? So it’s not to the exclusion of strong Warlpiri, but it’s just like our own special way of talking.
Ahmed Ali Akbar: In our increasingly globalized society, there’s a lot of pressure to conform to English or other international languages. Not only this, but throughout Australia’s history, indigenous communities have been punished for speaking their native languages by English speaking colonizers. As of 2020, 90% of indigenous Australian languages are endangered. But the unintentional creation of Light Warlpiri is a story of growth and linguistic agency in indingenous communities. The emergence of a new language can sometimes be a story of human resilience.
David Peterson: Any language is going to keep evolving simply because of the human desire for unique expression.
Ahmed Ali Akbar: David J Peterson, again.
David Peterson: And it’s not just, it’s not just teenagers, too. This is why we have poets and why we have authors. And why, when you’re reading a really good book, you might see a turn of phrase you’ve never seen before. This is why Shakespeare invented a bunch of new words that nevertheless kind of made sense within the context of English. We have this drive inside us to be unique and individual, but we want to be understood. And that’s why we all speak languages rather than each of us just saying whatever word comes into our head. Uh, and that’s why language is the great compromise it is.
Ahmed Ali Akbar: It’s not that languages need to succeed or have a goal. If they communicate with others, they’re succeeding. If they’re continuing to grow and evolve and change, they’re doing well. But what happens when there is no chance for the compromise that David spoke of? What happens when certain people decide that there’s no room for linguistic diversity in a given place? When languages disappear, or are forced to disappear?
Salikoko: Languages don’t die, like individual animals, die languages die, like species die.
Ahmed Ali Akbar: That’s on part two of our Language Life Cycle series. Radiolingo is an original podcast from Duolingo and Crooked Media. I’m Ahmed Ali Akbar, your host, writer and producer. From Crooked Media, executive producers are Sandy Girard and Katie Long. From Duolingo, executive producers are Laura Macomber and Timothy Shey. This episode was produced and co-written by Mary Knopf and story edited by Lacy Roberts. Our associate producer and fact checker is Brian Semel. Our theme and original music is by Carly Bond with mixing sound design and additional music by Hannis Brown. Additional research and production support from Crooked Media’s Ari Schwartz and Duolingo’s Cindy Blanco, Emily Chiu, Alexa Fernandez and Hope Wilson. Special thanks to Crooked Media’s Danielle Jensen and Gabriella Leverette and Duolingo’s, Michaela Kron, Monica Earle and Sam Dulsimer for promotional support.