Book #113: The Art of Language Invention (2015)

aoliauthor: David J. Peterson
language: English and a slew of conlangs and example sentences in a bunch of other languages
length: 281 pages
finished reading on: 19 September 2016

I’m always a bit wary of writing these reviews when the author is only one degree of removal from me, as far as I can tell. Maybe two. At least we’ve been members of the same relatively small conlanging communities online, and might have even interacted a couple of times, although currently the board I mostly post on has positioned itself as a rival to his. It’s a funny old world. Anyway, it means he’s likely to see this.

Peterson made his name in the conlanging community when he designed the Dothraki language for Game of Thrones, the immensely popular TV show that I still haven’t found the time to try and watch. He’s also done one or two more languages for that show, and a few more for other TV shows. He occasionally shows up as a guest on the Conlangery Podcast, which I still listen to and would like to give big props to.

From the title I thought this would be a historical account of conlanging, which it wasn’t: it’s more of a linguistics primer for beginners, along the lines of Mark Rosenfelder’s Language Construction Kit (and the follow-up Advanced Language Construction, which I reviewed on here). In fact, it serves pretty much the same purpose. While it wasn’t entirely what I expected, I liked seeing examples of Peterson’s conlangs, and I liked a few of the ideas mentioned… however, for the most part it’s stuff I learned off my own back over a decade ago.

There are a couple of minor things that bothered me – first, every time Peterson mentions his conlangs, he mentions the show and often the network that they’re associated. Now, I think was done to keep the book as something that could be dipped into at random, so that people reading the thing backwards could keep straight in their heads which conlang is from where, but it has the unfortunate effect of seeming like Peterson has been paid to advertise the network.

There’s also the transcription system on the front, which I have strong feelings about – it’s a mish-mash of systems, and the only IPA character is the schwa. I keep reading “gwij” as IPA [gwij]. I think or could have been used here. A minor point, but the book was lying on my table for the couple of weeks or so that I was reading it, and I kept misreading it the whole time.

There’s also some outright errors that I caught about Japanese – for example, Peterson seems to think it’s written left-to-right on the page, with only the page order going right-to-left, which is nonsense. And there’s a typesetting error on at least one Mandarin example, and all that makes me wonder how many errors I didn’t catch about other languages.

The other thing is I personally don’t like Peterson’s writing style, or indeed his talking style when I’ve heard him on the Conlangery podcast or doing other things online. I find him too flippant, for one thing, and I find that his jokes are often forced and awkward. I find Rosenfelder’s work much easier to read.

But that’s more of a personal feeling. The book is still interesting, and it’s more up-to-date than Rosenfelder’s books. It’s good if you’re at all interested in Game of Thrones, because you can find out more about Dothraki and High Valyrian easily using this. In that sense Rosenfelder’s books aren’t so interesting, as his own conlangs are a personal project not connected to any major works. So give it a try if you’re peripherally interested in conlangs or linguistics. I’m too far down the rabbit-hole of conlanging to find the book useful.

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