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That's Not RelevantIsaiah Toothtaker

Ten of the weirdest invented languages in literature

From Xu Bing to Klingon love poetry – What is “real” language missing that these writers need?

Distinctions between “natural” and “artificial” should always be treated with suspicion. Nature is just a set of loosely associated ideas after all. That said, there are languages which just exist because they just do, and there are languages that have been deliberately invented. Artificial language projects have attempted a variety of feats. Some have been eminently practical – the fourth king of the Korean Joseon dynasty, Sejong the Great, literally commissioned the Hangul script. Very useful! Some have been rendered useless by their own hubristic scale. Esperanto, fine, but the nineteenth century also gave us Volapük, Mundolinco, Bolak, and Spokil. Not useful. And now, in our time, the human creative impulse has found its most perfect form: emoji. Everyone makes a fuss over the nailpainter and the pray hands but I like the boring ones. Keep your cheap dancing girl. Give me the hospital, the cablecar, the Italian flag. In celebration of the years and decades and centuries humans have wasted trying to come up with anything as good as that lil dolphin emojus, let’s run through ten of the best literary stabs at writing in a made-up language.


In 1988,  artist Xu Bing exhibited A Book From the Sky, a work entirely written in a language thatlooked like Chinese, but was indecipherable. He laboriously designed and then hand-carved each individual character to look perfectly legible, but not to be. It caused a huge stir in China at the time. What does a text say, when it says precisely nothing?


Digital renaissance man Chan created this seething morass of sex and mythology by forcing Plato’s dialogue through his own ‘erotic idiolects’—computer fonts that churn the dialogue between Socrates and Phaedrus into an unforgiving barrage of sheer fucking. A font is an interface, not a language, but Chan calls them ‘works of art in themselves’. Phaedrus Pron harnesses their transformative power for nasty ends.


As I understand it, the Klingon language is actually called tlhIngan Hol. There are maybe twenty or thirty fluent speakers, but a lot of enthusiasts. Klingon Imperial Forums user El Payaso Malo wrote this poem in the tlhIngan Holmetrical form “cha’logh vagh”, then translated it back into English. I think it is very beautiful.

bISumSDI' jInong

jupwI' ben law' maqIHchuq.
Hochlogh SoH'e' neH qavHo'.
pIj maHagh machechchoHDI'.
vaj monDI' bI'IHqu'taH.
reH bISumqang vIneHbej.

jI'IQHa' qaleghDI'.
chaq moch 'IHtaHghachna'.
rut naDev bIghoSchugh 
lo'laHbe'chu' leSSov.
wej leS chonay qaneH.

"I Am Passionate When You Are Near"

We met many years ago, my friend
YOU are ALWAYS the only one I admire sound
We often laugh when inebriation claims us
You are gorgeous when you smile thus
I always want you to be okay with sticking around

When I see you, I am happy
Mayhap others pale in comparison of your undeniable beauty
Now and then when you are near,
Events are completely capricious
I want that you wed me in three days mere


A while back, Dazed’s Lauren Oyler interviewed Toothtaker to celebrate a serious achievement: an entire book written in emoji. That’s Not Relevant is an art book, quite unlike the strict narrative of theMoby Dick emoji translation, Emoji Dick. But it is a groundbreaker. Let us hope that Toothtaker ushers in a new generation of literary artists working in the iconographic mode.


Þrjótrunn is one of the most remarkable works of historical fiction I have ever encountered. Devised by Henrik Theiling in 2007, the project “reconstructs” Latin as if the Romans had colonised Iceland. The result is a language like Icelandic, but formed according to a Romance language structure. There’s a reconstructed history behind the language, a fully elaborated grammar, everything. In the scale of its ambition and the elegance of its ridiculous aim, Þrjótrunn is a wonderful thing.


People assume A Clockwork Orange must be overrated just because the furniture design associated with it is expensive but out of fashion. It’s better than you remember! Burgess was a talented linguist, and the Russian-infused argot he placed in Alex’s mouth reflects that knowledge. With words like veck for person, from Russian čelovék, the “nadsat” argot laces through the whole book like bitters through a Singapore Sling, flavouring the nasty social cocktail that is Clockwork Orange. I recommend forgetting all about the movie and re-reading this book.


If you’ve ever done anything to do with publishing or making a mag or designing a page with text in it, you’ve probably used the classic placeholder text, lorem ipsum. It is a stream of meaningless text, originally taken from Cicero but garbled up and used in the typesetting stage ‘greeking’ (because it’s all Greek to you, get it). It has been used this way since the seventeenth century. A grad student at Cambridge recently translated it, and it ended up in the London Review of Books. Jaspreet Singh Boparai’s version incorporates the muddles and missteps of the lorem ipsum text (“Yet yet dewlap bed. Twho may be, let him love fellows of a polecat”, etc) to produce a clunking beauty of a poem.


This fifteenth century manuscript is, like Xu Bing’s work, indecipherable. The handwritten text (on vellum) is interspersed with strange illustrations of plants, astronomical bodies, and unintelligible circular diagrams. Nobody knows who wrote it, nobody knows why. Could it be a hoax? A joke? A gorgeous, secret thing that no living person knows how to understand? Who knows, man. A perfect mystery.


Working the rich tradition of Jabberwocky-ish nonsense poetry, Scottish poet and musician Ivor Cutler wrought a fine canon of made-up literary brilliance while he graced this earth. Cutler never truly invented his own language, but he cheerfully dreamed up individual words of startlingly deft silliness. It is really hard to find his stuff online, so you should buy anything you see. While you’re waiting for them to arrive in the post, listen to him reading Edward Lear’s The Dong With the Luminous Nose.


The first story in Self’s book Liver: A Fictional Organ with a Surface Anatomy of Four Lobes features characters speaking Polari, the cant slang form traditionally used in British gay subculture and by showbiz types. Polari is a mixture of thieves’ slang, bits of the Mediterranean Lingua Franca, and much more. It isn’t exactly invented, but Polari is an artful lexicon (with words like “naff” entering mainstream speech, but “zhoosh” remaining obscure) whose beauty and wit has undoubtedly inspired “language inventors” like Anthony Burges.