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Why Elvish, Klingon, Dothraki, and Na'vi are real languages

Linguist John McWhorter offers up a lesson in how fantasy languages become real languages.

Klingon illustration
Fans have filled out the Klingon language.
Screenshot by Amanda Kooser/CNET

If you've spent a couple decades studying, learning, and speaking Klingon, then you probably already know in your gut it's a real language. Linguist John McWhorter has your back.

McWhorter explains in a short Ted-Ed lesson how certain made-up languages can qualify as real languages. He investigates Elvish from "The Lord of the Rings" books and movies, Klingon from "Star Trek," Dothraki from the "Game of Thrones" world, and Na'vi from "Avatar." These all qualify as fantasy constructed languages, better known as conlangs.

McWhorter looks for certain qualities in conlangs. To qualify as a real language, you need more than a lot of vocabulary words. You need grammar. Elvish, which McWhorter calls the official grandfather of fantasy conlangs, is held up as an example here for the way it conjugates present-tense verbs into past-tense.

Real languages grow and change over time. Fans have been a huge part of expanding the languages of Elvish, Klingon, and Na'vi. The Dothraki language is largely the work of linguist David J. Peterson, who took hints from the books to create a functional language with more than 3,000 words.

The Ted-Ed lesson is a fun, informative animated stroll through fantasy languages that fans have dedicated a tremendous amount of time to developing and learning. That's worth a salute in Klingon: "'IwlIj jachjaj!" ("May your blood scream!").