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Learn the Art of Language Creation From the Guy Who Created the Game of Thrones Languages

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When David Peterson was in middle school, he had no particular interest in language and never dreamed he would one day create languages for wildly successful TV shows—but when he watched Return of the Jedi he noticed that something was not quite right about the scene where Princess Leia, disguised as a bounty hunter, speaks in an unknown language to Jabba the Hutt. She basically repeats what sounds like yaté and yotó a few times, and that somehow, according to the subtitles, stands for both “I have come for the bounty on this Wookie,” “50,000, no less,” and a few other things. That didn't seem like something a language should do. Peterson didn’t know it at the time, but this sense of unease about what he was seeing was an early glimmer of the particular artistic sensibility of the language inventor, the ability to distinguish an intelligent, well-crafted creation, from a lazy jumble of nonsense syllables.

He eventually developed an intense love of language, studying several of them and creating even more. His professional language creations (heard in Game of Thrones, Defiance, and Thor: The Dark World) as well as the personal projects he has been working on since 2000 are of the intelligent and well-crafted type. They have complicated, learnable grammars, extensive vocabularies, and features consistent with fully-imagined cultural practices. In an era where we can watch, re-watch, and pick apart on the internet to our heart’s content, fans demand no less. Yaté yotó just doesn’t cut it anymore.

But what makes a good constructed language (or conlang, for those in the know)? And for those who want to try their hand at language creation for their fantasy novel, secret club, thought experiment, or plain personal enjoyment, where is a good place to begin? Since the early 90s, conlangers have been sharing their ideas and strategies and evaluating each other’s work on listservs and forums and sometimes even at in-person conferences. A sort of technique and artistic standard has emerged, but it can be difficult for a newbie to figure out what it is. Peterson asks,

Where is the collected wisdom of the early conlang community? Why is it not written down somewhere that if you’re creating a naturalistic ergative language, it will most likely be split ergative, and that those splits will happen in one of a small number of likely places in the grammar? This is something that every conlanger knows or eventually learns, but the information is only passed via word of mouth—it’s like we’re living in the 1300s, but we also have the internet and indoor plumbing!

If you are a budding language inventor now thinking “yikes! What’s an ergative language?” Peterson has written the book for you. Full of examples from both natural and constructed languages, The Art of Language Invention will take new conlangers through “the nuts and bolts of language creation so they can focus on the more important question: What do I want to say with this new language that I can’t say in my native language —or any other language that currently exists?”

Even if you have no plans to build your own language, the book is a lively introduction to the important concepts of linguistics, from consonants and vowels, to stress and tone, to verb agreement and case, to how grammar evolves over time. There’s also a section on writing systems with some beautiful examples of invented scripts. And if you’re a fan of HBO’s Game of Thrones or Syfy’s Defiance the “case studies” of the languages Peterson created for those shows will give you a deeper appreciation for just how far we’ve come from the days of yaté yotó.

Read some fun facts about Dothraki or Valyrian, and if you want to know more, check out The Art of Language Invention.

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12 Facts About Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness
George C. Beresford/Getty Images
George C. Beresford/Getty Images

Joseph Conrad’s 1899 novella about venturing into the moral depths of colonial Africa is among the most frequently analyzed literary works in college curricula.

1. ENGLISH WAS THE AUTHOR’S THIRD LANGUAGE.

It’s impressive enough that Conrad wrote a book that has stayed relevant for more than a century. This achievement seems all the more impressive when considering that he wrote it in English, his third language. Born Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski in 1857, Conrad was a native Polish speaker. French was his second language. He didn’t even know any English—the language of his literary composition—until age 21.

2. HEART OF DARKNESS BEGINS AND ENDS IN THE UK.

Though it recounts Marlow's voyage through Belgian Congo in search of Kurtz and is forever linked to the African continent, Conrad’s novella begins and ends in England. At the story’s conclusion, the “tranquil waterway” that “seemed to lead into the heart of an immense darkness” is none other than the River Thames.

3. THE PROTAGONIST MARLOW IS CONRAD.

The well-traveled Marlow—who appears in other Conrad works, such as Lord Jim—is based on his equally well-traveled creator. In 1890, 32-year-old Conrad sailed the Congo River while serving as second-in-command on a Belgian trading company steamboat. As a career seaman, Conrad explored not only the African continent but also ventured to places ranging from Australia to India to South America.

4. LIKE KURTZ AND MARLOW, CONRAD GOT SICK ON HIS VOYAGE.

Illness claimed Kurtz, an ivory trader who has gone mysteriously insane. It nearly claimed Marlow. And these two characters almost never existed, owing to their creator’s health troubles. Conrad came down with dysentery and malaria in Belgian Congo, and afterwards had to recuperate in the German Hospital, London, before heading to Geneva, Switzerland, to undergo hydrotherapy. Though he survived, Conrad suffered from poor health for many years afterward.

5. THERE HAVE BEEN MANY ALLEGED KURTZES IN REAL LIFE.

The identity of the person on whom Conrad based the story’s antagonist has aroused many a conjecture. Among those suggested as the real Kurtz include a French agent who died on board Conrad’s steamship, a Belgian colonial officer, and Welsh explorer Henry Morton Stanley.

6. COLONIZING WAS ALL THE RAGE WHEN HEART OF DARKNESS APPEARED.

Imperialism—now viewed as misguided, oppressive, and ruthless—was much in vogue when Conrad’s novella hit shelves. The "Scramble for Africa" had seen European powers stake their claims on the majority of the continent. Britain’s Queen Victoria was even portrayed as the colonies' "great white mother." And writing in The New Review in 1897, adventurer Charles de Thierry (who tried and failed to establish his own colony in New Zealand) echoed the imperialistic exuberance of many with his declaration: “Since the wise men saw the star in the East, Christianity has found no nobler expression.”

7. CHINUA ACHEBE WAS NOT A FAN OF THE BOOK.

Even though Conrad was no champion of colonialism, Chinua Achebe—the Nigerian author of Things Fall Apart and other novels—delivered a 1975 lecture called “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness” that described Conrad as a “thoroughgoing racist” and his ubiquitous short classic as “an offensive and deplorable book.” However, even Achebe credited Conrad for having “condemned the evil of imperial exploitation.” And others have recognized Heart of Darkness as an indictment of the unfairness and barbarity of the colonial system.

8. THE BOOK WASN’T SUCH A BIG DEAL—AT FIRST.

In 1902, three years after its initial serialization in a magazine, Heart of Darkness appeared in a volume with two other Conrad stories. It received the least notice of the three. In fact, not even Conrad himself considered it a major work. And during his lifetime, the story “received no special attention either from readers or from Conrad himself,” writes Gene M. Moore in the introduction to Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness: A Casebook. But Heart of Darkness managed to ascend to immense prominence in the 1950s, after the planet had witnessed “the horror”—Kurtz's last words in the book—of WWII and the ramifications of influential men who so thoroughly indulged their basest instincts.

9. T.S. ELIOT BORROWED AN IMPORTANT LINE.

Though Heart of Darkness wasn’t an immediate sensation, it evidently was on the radar of some in the literary community. The famous line announcing the antagonist’s demise, “Mistah Kurtz—he dead,” serves as the epigraph to the 1925 T.S. Eliot poem “The Hollow Men.”

10. THE STORY INSPIRED APOCALYPSE NOW.

Eighty years after Conrad’s novella debuted, the Francis Ford Coppola film Apocalypse Now hit the big screen. Though heavily influenced by Heart of Darkness, the movie’s setting is not Belgian Congo, but the Vietnam War. And though the antagonist (played by Marlon Brando) is named Kurtz, this particular Kurtz is no ivory trader, but a U.S. military officer who has become mentally unhinged.

11. HEART OF DARKNESS HAS BEEN MADE INTO AN OPERA.

Tarik O'Regan’s Heart of Darkness, an opera in one act, opened in 2011. Premiering at London’s Royal Opera House, it was reportedly the first operatic adaptation of Conrad’s story and heavily inspired by Apocalypse Now.

12. THE BOOK ALSO SPARKED A VIDEO GAME.

In a development not even Conrad’s imagination could have produced, his classic inspired a video game, Spec Ops: The Line, which was released in 2012.

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Dan Bell
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Design
A Cartographer Is Mapping All of the UK’s National Parks, J.R.R. Tolkien-Style
Peak District National Park
Peak District National Park
Dan Bell

Cartographer Dan Bell makes national parks into fantasy lands. Bell, who lives near Lake District National Park in England, is currently on a mission to draw every national park in the UK in the style of the maps in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, Kottke.org reports.

The project began in September 2017, when Bell posted his own hand-drawn version of a Middle Earth map online. He received such a positive response that he decided to apply the fantasy style to real world locations. He has completed 11 out of the UK’s 15 parks so far. Once he finishes, he hopes to tackle the U.S. National Park system, too. (He already has Yellowstone National Park down.)

Bell has done various other maps in the same style, including ones for London and Game of Thrones’s Westeros, and he commissions, in case you have your own special locale that could use the Tolkien treatment. Check out a few of his park maps below.

A close-up of a map for Peak District National Park
Peak District National Park in central England
Dan Bell

A black-and-white illustration of Cairngorms National Park in the style of a 'Lord of the Rings' map.
Cairngorms National Park in Scotland
Dan Bell

A black-and-white illustration of Lake District National Park in the style of a 'Lord of the Rings' map.
Lake District National Park in England
Dan Bell

You can buy prints of the maps here.

[h/t Kottke.org]

All images by Dan Bell

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