The BBC’s latest drama series, an adaptation of China Miéville’s 2009 novel The City and The City, is a police procedural – but with a difference. The series is set in a fictitious divided city – Besźel and Ul Qoma – where the residents of each side are allowed no contact with each other. The main character, Inspector Tyador Borlu (played by David Morrissey), is a resident of Besźel – a slightly grubby, down-at-heel kind of place. During an investigation, he has to travel to the other city, Ul Qoma, and in order to heighten the difference for both the character and the audience, the Ul Qoman language of Illitan had to be completely different.
This is where I came in. As a linguist, I was called in to design a distinctive language for the series. This is not as uncommon as it sounds – there have been a number of languages created over the years, for various reasons. The American linguist Arika Okrent lists 500 in her book In the Land of Invented Languages which goes well beyond the usual suspects of Esperanto, Elvish and Klingon.
Constructed languages, or conlangs, have been gaining popularity in recent years, with their own society, the Language Creation Society, and annual conference. The seventh annual conference was held in July 2017 in Calgary – and even a brief look at the schedule of talks will tell you that these people take language construction extremely seriously (“(Ab)using Construction Grammar (CxG) as a Conlanging Tool”) but also have a sense of humour (“Someone from That Planet Might Be in the Audience”).
Of course, J.R.R. Tolkien created languages for Lord of the Rings – and there is a huge amount of detail on those languages for anyone with enough interest to pursue it. But in what is now widely regarded as the golden age of television, with multiple providers needing content for their channels, there is a broader scope for invention and fantasy – which is where language invention comes into its own.
The most famous example of a language created specifically for film and television is Klingon, originally created by Marc Okrand for Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Klingon has since taken on a life of its own, with a Klingon Language Institute and translations of Hamlet and Much Ado About Nothing. More recently, HBO’s television adaptation of the Game of Thrones books required the creation of the Dothraki and Valyrian languages, for which David J. Peterson was responsible.
While Tolkien left some fairly detailed instructions regarding the structure and vocabulary of Elvish, most authors do not go into such detail. George R.R. Martin makes reference to the languages in his Game of Thrones novels, but Peterson created them. Likewise, while Miéville gives a number of hints about the sound and structure of Illitan, there was no grammar or dictionary to refer to. Having free rein to create a language – not purely as an academic construct, but one which will be used – is both a challenge and a joy.
The primary concern for what we might term “artistic” language creators is the ease of pronunciation for the actors. If we are being asked to produce a human language, then we have the luxury of our previous study of language and linguistics to guide us. If asked to create an alien language – as Okrand was – there might be limitless possibilities, but the actors still have to be able to physically say the lines; we are constrained by human physiology. This was not an issue in the adaptation of Story of your Life by Ted Chiang (which was filmed using the title Arrival), as the aliens communicated telepathically – although the writing system had to be created by the design team.
In his novel The City and The City, Miéville tells us that Illitan uses the Roman script, having lost its original, right-to-left script “overnight” in 1923 (we’re not told how or why). We know that Borlu finds the sound of Illitan “jarring” (although we know from Miéville’s description of the character that he speaks “good” Illitan). In Besźel, meanwhile, people speak Besz, but for the purposes of the TV adaptation this is rendered as English and the written language, despite its occasional Cyrillic intrusions and diacritics (accents, for example), is still understandable to an English-speaking audience.
In order for the audience to share in Borlu’s sense of alienation in Ul Qoma, the decision was taken to use an entirely different alphabet for Illitian for the television series – and we eventually settled on the Georgian alphabet as it bears no resemblance to English.
The grammar of Illitan is made up of a mixture of Slavonic languages (such as Slovene, with its extra verb conjugation referring to two people: “we two are”, “you two are”, “they two are” as well as “we are”, “you are”, “they are”) and a system of infixes (like a prefix, but it fits into the word rather than in front of it) to denote tense and aspect. The word order remained roughly the same as English in order to help the actors know where to put the emphasis in their lines.
One final problem when creating a language from a novel is one familiar to any adaptation – the expectations of the audience. With any adaptation, the audience is divided into those who know the original novel and those who do not. Those who do will always have their own ideas about how the characters look and sound – and this extends to fictional language.
My version of Illitan will not necessarily match up with that of a fan of The City and The City, but I hope it will add something for people who are new to Miéville’s work.
The twentieth anniversary celebrations of the highest-selling book series of all time are now coming to a close. 2017 has been a milestone year for Harry Potter fans in their twenties and thirties, who spent much of their youth in anticipation of the release of each new book or film.
Last week’s Wheeler Centre event Harry Who? The True Heroes of Hogwarts brought together writers, comedians and musicians to celebrate the series. While Harry and his broken glasses predominate at most Potter tourist sites and film screenings, Harry Who? asked the audience to consider who really is the true hero of J.K. Rowling’s stories.
As readers contemplate the long-term legacy of the Potter universe and whether it will endure, it’s also important to consider the overarching messages of Rowling’s series as the most popular example of children’s literature to date.
Harry embodies the key characteristic of some of the most memorable protagonists of classic children’s literature. From centuries-old stories of Cinderella onwards, child and youth characters who are orphans not only foster the reader’s empathy, but are also freed from the expectations and restrictions that biological parents impose.
Melanie A. Kimball explains the twin effects of child orphans in literature:
Orphans are at once pitiable and noble. They are a manifestation of loneliness, but they also represent the possibility for humans to reinvent themselves.
Without the tragedy of Harry’s parents being violently killed by the evil Lord Voldemort, Harry would have had no compulsion to go beyond the “typical” experience of a child with a witch and a wizard for parents.
At Harry Who?, writer Ben Pobjie pointed out that Harry is not exceptional, but that it is his nemesis, Voldemort, who propels Harry to importance. With reference to his dubious celebrity, Pobjie joked that if Voldemort was in Australia, he would “be on Sunrise every morning”. As with the importance of Harry’s lack of parental influence and constraint, the extreme adversity of being Voldemort’s inadvertent nemesis establishes a heroic scenario for Harry to inhabit.
One of the repeated claims throughout the event was that Harry is not much of a hero at all, particularly as he relies on other people to succeed. In the first book of the series especially, Hermione Granger possesses most of the personal attributes and knowledge required to defeat the ever-present threat posed by Voldemort. She is clearly the most intelligent of the Harry, Ron and Hermione trio, and works hard where her male counterparts often attempt to shirk the effort required.
While Hermione’s heroism is important, she clearly plays a supporting role to Harry: the series is, after all, named after him. The emphasis on Harry is reflective of the deep gender bias in children’s literature throughout the past century.
A 2011 study of twentieth-century children’s books found that, on average, in each year, no more than a third of children’s books featured central characters who were adult women or female animals. In contrast, adult men and male animals usually featured in 100 per cent of children’s books.
Though the Harry Potter series does depict some strong and beloved female characters including Professor Minerva McGonagall, it is reflective of an era in which protagonists in children’s literature are usually male unless a book is specifically marketed at a girl readership. In addition, the series is also lacking in the depiction of queer characters, regardless of J.K. Rowling’s post-book declaration that Hogwarts’ headmaster Professor Albus Dumbledore is gay.
With the rapid changes in attitudes toward social and cultural issues including same-sex marriage and children with non-normative gender and sexual identities, the Harry Potter series — as a product of the 1990s and early 2000s – might not endure as well as some might imagine.
Indeed, the issue of changing social norms means that very few children’s “classics” continue to be read by children as decades and even centuries pass. It could be that the series is eventually understood as somewhat outdated and more about producing nostalgia for adults in the same way as the once ubiquitous books of Enid Blyton are viewed today.
One crucial part of the Harry Potter legacy, however, is its effectiveness in encouraging readers, viewers, and now theatre goers with Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, to embrace fantastic stories about young people once again.
Adults in the late 19th and early 20th centuries delighted in children’s stories and made up a significant segment of the audience for plays such as Peter Pan. The dual audience of children’s literature, for both adults and children, was once the norm and one that did not bring any shame or embarrassment with it.
Twenty years on, today’s adults are still gathering to talk about and celebrate the Potter novels they enjoyed as children and have continued to re-read. In addition, other series such as Twilight, The Hunger Games and Riverdale, show the continuing popularity of stories about young people for adults. In 2037 we will be able to tell if the Potter-effect has lasted or if its magic only worked for a brief spell.
The links below are to articles reporting on a new Harry Potter book and a Harry Potter series special at Kindle.
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The link below is to an article that lists the best selling fantasy series of all time, with Harry Potter leading the pack.