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Esperanto to Elvish: Invented Language in Song

Friday, December 16, 2011

Last month the Icelandic band Sigur Ros released a live album called Inni which contains songs in a language they call “Hopelandic.” It’s not English, it’s not Icelandic – it’s completely invented. And they’re not the only ones to pass over the world’s 6500 or so languages in favor of one of their own making. Slate contributor William Weir joins us along with the linguist Arika Okrent (who has a first level certification in Klingon) to discuss the origins and meanings of constructed languages in song.

Listeners: Do you have to understand a song’s lyrics to love a song? When do words matter? Do you have a favorite song in an invented language? Weigh in!


Arika Okrent and William Weir

Comments [29]

Erik from Munich


where I could find that Klingon version of Queen - We will rock you? Who made it? I would like create an karaoke of that to use at Esperanto Youth meetings. I.e. . I like that idea of bringing conlang communities together.

ĝis poste,

Dec. 22 2011 04:30 PM

I've been studying Esperanto for about six months and it has been useful to me because of what it has taught me about English, not because I believe I will ever have to use it.
Music in Esperanto I have found very interesting, because even when I can't understand all the words, I get to listen to music from all over the world. I had never been able to enjoy music from so many other countries until I started learning Esperanto.

Dec. 21 2011 09:51 AM

For those who want to have friends in every country of the world, to be guided for free, receive invitations to spend an evening overnight in any major city, correspond with thousands, Esperanto is your choice. There is nothing like it.

Dec. 19 2011 03:51 PM
Brian Barker

Lest anyone think Esperanto is something dead or historical, you might be interested to know of Esperanto’s current popularity - which is 125 years young in 2012.
Their new online course has 125 000 hits per day and Esperanto Wikipedia enjoys 400 000 hits per day. That can't be bad :)

Dec. 19 2011 02:18 PM

@ jon- most languages are NOT invented,they are the manifestation of time and culture,history and human interaction, over time. they develop slowly,for the most part [english is an exception, because it borrows {or steals} from many other languages,it changes rather quickly.] but, english is not invented, because it is added to by so many people. the definition of invented language,is usually something done by one person,and often, it is something that has little, or no connection, to anything else. thus, an invented language.

Dec. 17 2011 04:11 PM
dave from NYC

Brilliant show! Are you aware that there was a full length feature film made entirely in Esperanto? You can watch it on YouTube, in parts:

If you think William Shatner overacted in Star Trek, you ain't seen nuthin' til you see him overact in Esperanto.

Kudos to Ms. Okrent for her eloquent Klingon rendition of the opening line of Hamlet's soliloquy. She should, though, acknowledge the quote she employed regarding it:
"In Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, Chancellor Gorkon says, "You have never experienced Shakespeare until you have read him in the original Klingon."
Qapla', Holtej Okrent!

Dec. 17 2011 02:05 AM
Demetri from Queens

I want to mention the Sally Oldfield, about 30 years ago now ( ouch...) sang in Elvish. She is an amazing singer if you haven't checked her out.

Also, not understanding the words lets you only enjoy the song as music and not for lyrical content. while nice in some circumstances, it can also be misleading. i know lots of traditional music where the music sounds happy and beautiful, yet the lyrics are sad and mournful. hmmm....

Dec. 16 2011 02:50 PM

Too late for the broadcast segment, but "Meusurry," by The Delicates:

Dec. 16 2011 02:46 PM
Richard from Brooklyn

The example you picked for the Cocteau Twins ethereal mouth music was the title track from Heaven or Las Vegas, the album that caused critics to marvel that, finally,the lexical content of Elizabeth Fraser's vocals was actually discernible. Yep, that vocal was greeted with relief at its comprehensibility. A lot of the mystery of Fraser's singing is down to unconventionally stretched vowels, and her Grangemouth accent.

As to invented languages, my sister and her best friend invented a tongue they called "Spindlefibre". As far as I can tell it evolved from code words for boys they liked and school friends tso they could talk about the kinds of things pre-adolescent children might want to talk about privately, even in public. They can still speak it, and they still won't translate it. They never took an academic approach to it — since the purpose was not to have an intellectual puzzle, but to communicate clearly and confidentially — and so the syntax, etc. would have to be back-constructed, but they did write notes to each other (in roman graphemes) so it does exist as a written language. Its birth is circa 1984.

Dec. 16 2011 02:45 PM
Dièry Prudent from Brooklyn

Found on

"From Elvish to Klingon": An Impressive Overview of Conlang-ology
December 16, 2011
By Mark Peters

When word nerdom and sci-fi nerdom collide, what do you get? A dictionary-bot that recites definitions while performing the duties of a butler?

Someday, I hope that's true. For now, the answer is From Elvish to Klingon: Exploring Invented Languages: a thorough look at invented languages (also known as conlangs, short for constructed languages) from sci-fi and elsewhere. Over time, there have been about a thousand invented languages, including well-known examples such as Esperanto, Elvish, and Klingon, plus many failed tongues. This new volume gives a tour of the landscape.

Dec. 16 2011 02:37 PM
Flick from queens

Pretty sure the three stooges sang a song once, using the "childrens \" language..nyuk nyuk

Dec. 16 2011 02:35 PM
Jon from Brooklyn

Aren't all languages invented?

Dec. 16 2011 02:28 PM
Trey from Brooklyn, NY

you shouldn't neglect to mention Ruins... an amazing japanese prog/math rock duo who sing in an invented language.

Dec. 16 2011 02:28 PM
Amy from Brooklyn

When I was a kid, my best friends and I created our own language, in which we replaced the first letter of every word with 'sn'; for example, hi becomes sni, and thanks becomes snanks'. While it wasn't that complicated, it was a way to have conversations that our parents couldn't pick up on.... We got to a point where we would speak it almost exclusively, and sing our favorite songs that way. I still, on occasion, unintentionally use it mid-conversation. I have no idea what inspired us, but it has stuck with me, 20 years later! At least its not Klingon!

Dec. 16 2011 02:28 PM
William from Manhattan

Do you have to understand a song’s lyrics to love a song? I have just one thing to say: "There's a bathroom on the right."

Dec. 16 2011 02:24 PM

... Star Trek... made-up languages... Esperanto...


Dec. 16 2011 02:23 PM
Michael Azerrad

Oh yeah, this is a classic: a '60s tune called "Prisencolinensinainciusol," an Italian impression of what English sounds like in song.

Dec. 16 2011 02:22 PM
Michael Azerrad

In the DVD extras of _30 Century Man_, the intriguing 2008 documentary about celebrated pop enigma Scott Walker, Brian Eno says "Fortunately, I have the talent of filtering out lyrics — I just don't hear them. For me, lyrics in most songs are a way of just getting the voice to do something.  I like _voices_."  My sentiments exactly.  Lyrics are just to get the singer psyched to sing.

Dec. 16 2011 02:20 PM
Garry Rindfuss

Speaking of Star Trek, let's not forget the only known feature film to be filmed in Esperanto, Incubus, (1965) starring one William Shatner, in a pre Captain Kirk role.

Dec. 16 2011 02:19 PM

Kobaïan is a "phonetic language made by elements of the Slavonic and Germanic languages to be able to express some things musically. This is the language of Magma.

Dec. 16 2011 02:17 PM
Shannon from UES

Very interesting.... where was this discussion when you had the Lyrics vs. Music Smackdown? Seems like music is the clear winner here.

Dec. 16 2011 02:15 PM
Mickey from Sault Ste Marie

My bad - I may be wrong about Sugarcubes.

Dec. 16 2011 02:14 PM
john from toronto

how wud u characterize Cocteau Twins in their place here, contributing or bridging real to invented via sound, like Rimbaud?

Dec. 16 2011 02:12 PM

The French band, Magma had their own language.

Dec. 16 2011 02:11 PM
Ted in Atlanta

Elizabeth Fraser, we miss you!

Dec. 16 2011 02:10 PM
Freddy from LES

As a musical theatre lyricist I often work back and forth with my collaborator (composer) and we just use word sounds to work out a melody. Of course I then go in and write real works to the phrases but often times we end up with words that sound just like it.

Dec. 16 2011 02:10 PM
Mickey from Sault Ste Marie

A shout out to This Mortal Coil and The Sugarcubes - Bjork's former band.
I think bands use made up languages to relate to a global community instead of limiting themselves to one language.
I find it incredibly fantastical to fabricate words based on the music instead of telling a story.
I wonder if the music is created before the lyrics.

Dec. 16 2011 02:08 PM
Ron Carter from East Orange, NJ


Didn't this start with Cirque Du Soliel?

I seem to remember that most of their music is in invented language...
Happy Holidays,
Ron Carter

Dec. 16 2011 02:04 PM

I'm looking forward to this segment. I hope it's not too obnoxious to point out that in the promo I heard this morning the song playing is Hoppipolla from the Sigur Ros album Takk, which is sung mostly in Icelandic.

Dec. 16 2011 09:14 AM

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