The Art of Language Invention by David J. Peterson

A 5-star book for any fantasy fan also interested in linguistics (but a 1.5-star book for any fan with a linguistics background).

The Art of Language Invention is a non-fiction book that explores the topic of conlanging, or how to construct your own language. The author, David J. Peterson, is the guy who developed Dothraki (for the TV series Game of Thrones) from a few odd phrases into a fully functional language of over 3000 words. In this book, he shows you how you can do it too.

But to construct your own language, you have to understand how language works. That means that in essence, this is a fantasy-tinged Linguistics 101 textbook. It briefly but thoroughly covers basic phonetics and phonology (sounds), morphology (word bits), syntax (grammar), semantics (meaning), orthography (writing systems), language change, and other various bits and bobs of language. There is also an overview of the field of conlanging and some anecdotes of the author’s experiences on the sets of shows/movies like Game of Thrones and Thor 2. But the bulk of the book is a linguistic “toolbox”, giving you the basics to help construct your own language – or be able to analyse others.

In my opinion, Peterson delivers his subject material very well. I’m a linguistics MA student, and I’d say this book covers approximately the first semester of first year linguistics. I would have been very happy to have had it as a supplementary text then! Peterson’s explanations are pretty clear and there’s always plenty of examples to illustrate how the concept works, some from Dorthraki or Sindarin (one of Tolkien’s created languages), others from “real-world” languages like Chinese or Arabic. He writes in an easy-going style, making it a bit less intense and dry than a normal textbook but no less informative.

However, I do have one serious problem with the book, and that’s how deceptive the blurb is. The blurb implies that the book is mostly a look at conlanging, e.g. its history and current issues, and also includes a bit of “essential tools” for making your own language. I don’t know, maybe the publishers thought people would run away screaming if they realised it was a linguistics textbook. Yes, there’s an (extremely interesting!) overview of conlanging as a whole, but it’s around 30 pages of near 300. The rest is a very thorough intro to linguistics. (You may need to take notes.)

For me personally, therefore, the vast majority of this book was a mild form of torture. It’s absolutely not the book’s fault, it’s just that I’ve heard the basic discussion on “How do you define a word?” enough times over the last five years that I wanted to scream/sob upon hearing it again. Unfortunately, there just isn’t enough conlang-specific material for it to be worth suffering through the basics for anybody with a background in linguistics.

A final issue I’d like to touch upon is choosing what format to read the book in. I listened to the audiobook. Peterson narrates it himself and is a good reader, and pretty good at pronouncing all the different language examples, whether from Icelandic or Shiväisith (the Thor elves’ language). But I’m not sure I would have been able to follow the audiobook if this was my first time encountering the material. The syntax examples get fairly complex, particularly the ergativity stuff. It’s just easier when you can refer back to the examples in question quickly, as well as to the definitions of various linguistic terms.

On the other hand, imo it’s practically impossible to understand phonetics without hearing the sounds first. Again, not the book’s fault, it’s just that no matter how carefully you word “/ɔ/ is an open mid-back rounded vowel,” it makes more sense when you can hear the sound in question at least once. Perhaps both text + audio together work best, but at the very least I recommend text + checking out Youtube IPA videos during the phonetics chapter.

In short, if you’ve always wanted a crash course in linguistics, it’s an excellent place to start. (And for people who do linguistics, avoid like the plague.)

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