The idea of visitors from other worlds is one of the oldest in all of science fiction, but Denis Villeneuve’s new film Arrival is one of the very few that poses a genuinely thorny problem: how would we actually understand what visitors from other worlds were trying to tell us? As a student of languages who lives in a foreign country, the idea of creating a language has always fascinated me. So here’s a list of 10 fictional movie languages I would love to learn.
10. The Galactic Language (Serenity, 2005)
OK, so we’re starting off with a bit of a cheat here since it isn’t a fictional language, but hear us out. Joss Whedon’s Serenity, a spin-off of the classic cult TV show Firefly, was often described as a Space Western, but it also had a distinctly Eastern flavour; a look at how humanity might evolve over the next five centuries. Whedon’s vision of humanity’s future drew many influences from Chinese culture for the sets, costumes and props. Most notably, however, the dialogue was often peppered with Mandarin, which led to some interesting curses – our favourite comes from the Firefly episode ‘Trash’, and literally translates as “Holy testicle Tuesday!”
9. Atlantean (Atlantis: The Lost Empire, 2001)
Disney’s sci-fi action-adventure mishmash Atlantis: The Lost Empire is one of their most criminally underrated movies. Admit it, more than a few of you probably forgot that it exists until we mentioned it just now. Which is a shame, because an insane amount of work went into creating the language of the lost undersea civilisation. Marc Okrand, the American linguist widely credited with the creation of Klingon, drew on languages from all across the world to create a “Tower of Babel” language that feels universal and incredibly old, complete with complex rules of grammar and a written language that is read alternately left-to-right then right-to-left, like the tides of the ocean coming in and out.
8. The Prawn Language (District 9, 2009)
Arrival’s pessimistic and ultraviolent little brother, Neill Blomkamp’s debut film remains one of the high-points in 21st-century science-fiction; both for its stunning special effects work and its depressing portrayal of what first contact between humanity and a group of alien refugees might look like in the era of Donald Trump. The ‘prawns’, as they come to be known, are a far cry from the cute and cuddly little grey men we normally think of when we think of alien visitors, and their language – a series of harsh-sounding clicks and grunts – reflects this. It’s also a continuation of District 9’s not-very-subtle message about modern apartheid: in some places the prawns’ speech is reminiscent of the Khosian languages that exist across southern Africa.
7. Parseltongue (The Harry Potter series)
Lord Voldemort might look like Michael Jackson with alopecia and he might get constantly thwarted by a teenager, but the ability to talk to snakes would be enough to tempt us into using dark magic. J.K. Rowling’s books have only ever described Parseltongue (as snake language is known to non-Muggles) as the sounds of hissing and spitting, but the films have tackled it in several different ways. In The Philosopher’s Stone a snake speaks to Harry in perfect English as he’s one of the rare humans who can understand the language. From The Chamber of Secrets onwards, the filmmakers created actual words in Parseltongue with the help of noted Cambridge phonetics professor Francis Nolan. Just be sure to carry a hanky if speaking it in public – you may end up dribbling on a lot of people.
6. Minionese (Minions, 2015)
The Minions are, depending on who you ask, either the incredibly cute mascots of the Despicable Me films (and their own spin-off) or the most annoying thing in popular culture since the Crazy Frog. Voiced by Despicable Me directors Chris Renaud and Pierre Coffin, their popularity is so ubiquitous that Illumination Entertainment made the Minions their official mascots. And there’s a reason why they work so well across the globe; their language, Minionese, is taken from a mix of English, French, Spanish, Italian, and even Hindi. Even their name has a European flavour – in French it’s a play on the word mignon, which means “cute.”
5. Na’vi (Avatar, 2009)
The first part of James Cameron’s 12-part magnum opus (as soon as he gets round to making them all), Avatar was a phenomenal exercise in world-building in cinema, and the language of the blue-skinned Na’vi was no exception. Paul Frommer, a linguist at the University of Southern California, was asked to create a language that sounded alien but was simple enough for the cast to learn in real life. Frommer drew inspiration from Polynesian, removing plosives (like “b” or “d”) common in Western languages. God knows who decided to write the subtitles in Papyrus font, though. Frommer also created Barsoomian, the language of Mars in John Carter: another super-expensive film half of you have probably completely forgotten about.
4. The ‘Big Isle’ Dialect (Cloud Atlas, 2012)
Of the six interconnected stories that make up Lana and Lilly Wachowski’s criminally underrated masterpiece, by far the strangest is the last – a post-apocalyptic tale set on a lush Hawaiian island that feels like Mad Max populated by the Wurzels. Tom Hanks and the assorted cast make the strange patois feel natural and lived-in, talking about the “Old’uns” and the “smart” – a term for ancient technology so advanced as to be indistinguishable from magic. It’s a dialect that feels like a believable evolution of our own modern English, and goes a long way to making this far-flung future feel all the more plausible.
3. Elvish (The Lord of the Rings)
Even before Peter Jackson brought J.R.R. Tolkein’s epic trilogy of books to the big screen (and arguably changed modern cinema as we know it in the process by bringing nerd culture to the mainstream), the Elvish languages were firmly established. Tolkein was a philologist by profession, and it was his obsession with Finnish epic poetry that inspired him to create what would become the Elvish of Middle-earth. As lovely as the language looks on paper, there’s nothing quite like seeing top-tier actors like Lee Pace, Cate Blanchett and Hugo Weaving chewing their way through the honeyed syllables.
2. Klingon (The Star Trek films)
We couldn’t write a list of fictional languages without talking about Klingon. Despite having a vocabulary of only 3,000 words, it’s probably one of the most well-known alien languages in all of science fiction. Actor James Doohan, who played Scotty, came up with a basic vocabulary of harsh, guttural words for Star Trek: The Motion Picture (before then Klingons always spoke English in the TV show), which our old friend Marc Orkrand developed into a working language. It’s reckoned there are only about 30 ‘fluent’ Klingon speakers in the world, and it’s a language filled with difficulties – while it has a word for the ‘bridge’ of a ship, nobody thought to come up with a word for the thing you use to cross a river until as late as 2012.
1. Nadsat (A Clockwork Orange, 1971)
What’s it going to be then, eh? The top of our list? Well you know, since you’ve already read the title. Anthony Burgess drew on Russian, German and Cockney rhyming slang to create the sinister lingo of Alex DeLarge and his merry band of droogs, and Stanley Kubrick did a horrorshow job of translating it from the written to the spoken word. In Malcolm McDowell’s dulcet tones there’s something almost lyrical about nadsat; it’s the kind of language that gets you good and drunk at the Korova milkbar before taking you outside and spilling your red, red krovvy all over the pavement.