“The first time I heard a language of mine spoken on-screen was at a cast and crew premiere event for the first season of HBO’s Game of Thrones.”

I’m a native English speaker and sometimes I think that’s for the best. I’m not disparaging other languages by any means, or suggesting one is better than any other, but just take a look at this language. English is full of irregular verbs, strange grammatical quirks, silent letters, wonky pronunciations, unusual plurals, and words that have been pilfered fully-formed from other languages. I can’t imagine not having this as a first language and having to try and understand why “read” rhymes with “red” and “read” rhymes with “reed”, but “reed” and “red” don’t rhyme with each other.

Languages and linguistics are very interesting topics, and this book comes from a man who knows a thing or two about them. David J. Peterson has a job that seems ridiculous on the surface – he is a conlanger; someone who invents languages (conlang comes from “constructed” and “language”). But if you’re a fan of Game of Thrones, or Defiance, then you will have heard his work. Thrones is probably his best-known project, for which he invented the languages Dothraki and High Valryian. I don’t watch the show, but I looked up some clips of these being spoken, and you have to admit that they sound very realistic.

Inventing a language is more than just substituting the symbols of the English alphabet for new ones and putting in too many x’s where they don’t belong. In this book, Peterson introduces the reader to the basics required if someone is wanting to make their own language. Not only do you have to work out what words are important to these people, you also have to get to grip with verb tenses, possessive pronouns, compound works, locative words, and even the basic biology of the species you’re writing for. If this is an alien species with an extra pair of lungs, or no tongue, how would that impact what sounds they’d be able to make? And then once you’ve got the sounds down, you need to decide what they’ll look like written down, or how they work together.

Although the topic has the capacity to be insanely dry, in Peterson’s hands, it is interesting and engaging. He writes with humour (stopping mid-paragraph at one point to emphasise how much he hates onions) and skill. This is a man who knows his craft, and really cares about it, which is such an important factor in writing good non-fiction. It’s also a great lesson in linguistics, although I don’t think even now I could rightly explain the difference between the ablative and partitive case. Nonetheless, it’s interesting to read about how languages and writing evolved, and to see examples from other languages that seem daunting but must be easy to master, or they would’ve died out by now. For me, I’ll stick with English and Spanish, but I recommend this book to anyone with an interest in language, as well as anyone who writes fantasy or science fiction and needs a few pointers on what makes a language look realistic.

And if you take nothing else from this book, you will at least finally understand the correct way to use “who” and “whom”.

Fonas chek!