Indo-European Alien Language

Most alien (or non-human of any kind) languages in media are simplistic and based on the language of the creators of the media. Provided the languages have some form of grammar established, be it languages from fantasy creatures or aliens, they will always look more like English than even Welsh looks like English. It seems that even when aliens aren't speaking English, they're speaking something like it. In the conlang community, these alien languages would be described as a "relexification" of English, or relex for short—many of these may count as fictionaries.

Some conlangs, however, go beyond that, and the author actually shows their work to some extent and creates a language with grammar that is different from that of English. Unfortunately, the result often still shows the typical features of Indo-European languages—similar inflection or conjugation patterns, similar use of copulae and auxiliary verbs, and so on.

As most writers are not linguists, this trope crops up unsurprisingly often across fiction. Of course, you would have to be extremely dedicated to create an entire language not based on your own at all—and even if you did, only the particularly dedicated would try to learn it. Thus, it follows that most fictional languages look like English, particularly from the perspective of native speakers of Basque, Turkish or Hebrew, for instance. Not that that's necessarily a bad thing though.

Another issue is alphabets. On our own planet there are many forms of writing systems: some are made up of separate letters (Latin, Greek, Cyrillic, Armenian,... ), some have connected letters (Hindi) or even a combination (Arabic), some are left to right, some are right to left (Phoenician, Arabic, Hebrew, Aramaic,...), some are top to bottom (East Asian languages), bottom to top (ancient Berber), some are not even alphabets, but are logograms (Chinese) or even a combination of logographic and phonetic (Japanese). So when it comes to writing systems outside of our own planet, God knows what we should expect. However many aliens in fictional works use writing systems that correlate exactly to the 26 letters of the English alphabet except for the shape of the letters (some even have upper case and lower case).

What really counts is how an author uses their conlang in story. A story with a conlang that shares few similarities with an Indo-European language will still fail if it's a bad story. And remember that as much as authors can try to avert this trope, similarities to other languages is not a bad thing.note  And unless that particular conlang is going for The Unpronounceable, then all languages will share some very basic similarities.

If the author invents a language designed to avoid similarities to any real language, that falls under Starfish Language. Relex or relexification is something that happens when the invented language has what amounts to a one-to-one correspondence with the language the work is written in, and a Conveniently Precise Translation is the result.

Examples:

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    Film 
  • Avatar: Averted by Na'vi, which has a tripartite alignment system (not very common at all!), five verb tenses, inclusive versus exclusive first person plural pronouns, ejective consonants, et multa cetera. Helps that the language was designed by a professional linguist who went to great lengths to make the language not resemble any one human language, while still being usable by human beings.
  • Played straight with the Vulcan language in Star Trek: The Motion Picture, where, during the Kohlinahr ritual, the actors spoke English on set and were later overdubbed with "Vulcan" words that more or less matched their lip movement.
    • While Klingon was initially created in the same way in The Motion Picture, it was given a deliberate and elaborate non-English-like makeover when it was brought back in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. Mark Okrand designed Klingon with features very uncommon in natural langauges (though he admits to unconsciously using some attributes found in many Native American and Southeast Asian languages). This, combined with the high number of harsh-sounding consonants, makes it challenging to learn.
  • Mostly averted in Star Wars. People speak Basic (i.e. English) most of the time anyway, but Shyriiwook gets points for A: being just one language of the Wookiees, B: being very different from English when we hear it and C: being so hard to learn, Leia has to get help from a Wookiee with a speech impediment that makes the language easier for her. Indeed, in the movies it's based on bear noises. Other languages spoken such as Huttese are based on the sounds of languages like Aymara and Quechua (neither of which are Indo-European), although Huttese is not a conlang, just a bunch of random sounds. And, to top this off, there's a lot of bilingual conversations in the Star Wars movies and EU, with the fairly reasonable justification that some species' vocal apparatuses simply can't make the sounds of the other languages.
    • Bright Tree Ewokese is based on Tagalog.
    • According to Wookieepedia, the language of High Galactic was the original language of the Republic and Jedi Order before Basic. Some of the words, like "fi" for son, or "pera" for father, suggest that it is a Latin/Romance language expy. Which makes sense, since the Republic lives and breaths the Space Romans trope.
    • Mando'a, the Mandalorian Language, gets a lot of flak for being pretty much a re-lex of English. Most of the criticism is deserved,note  but the vehemence—the same can be said of almost every fictional language in almost every franchise's Expanded Universe—is probably part of the backlash against Karen Traviss and her Writer on Board treatment of the Mandalorians.
  • Inverted in Prometheus; according to it, our ancestors actually picked up Proto-Indo-European from the Engineers.

    Literature 
  • Even J. R. R. Tolkien fell into this despite his incredible dedication to his languages (he himself was a philologist).
    • Quenya was originally based on Finnish grammar; however, Finnish is part of a language family called Uralic that is unrelated to Indo-European, but shares some similarities, and Tolkien negated any brownie points by removing all the parts of Finnish that made it so Uralic to start with. If we want to be didactic, the phonology was a mix of Finnish and Latin, morphology is totally Finnish, syntax is a mish-mash of Latin and Greek. Sindarin was based mostly on Welsh, an Indo-European language in the Celtic subfamily. Interestingly, he made a serious effort (and not too shabby of one either) to derive them from the same source language, even though this would be completely impossible for the languages they were based on.
    • Khuzdul (Dwarvish), and to some extent Adûnaic, have a triconsonantal root structure similar to Semitic languages (which aren't Indo-European, but the same applies). However, there is too little extant Khuzdul text to compare its grammar. When linguist David Salo developed a more complete version of Khuzdul for the movies, he based the grammar mostly on Arabic, while most roots of the vocabulary come from Germanic languages (some more blatant than others).
  • In Artemis Fowl, the fairy language, including its writing system, amounts to a direct cipher of English, despite the fact that it's out right stated that the (very different from English) ancient Egyptians derived their language from the fairy language.
  • Despite being described as a very difficult to learn language, the High D'Haran from The Sword of Truth series seems to be that from the samples given.
  • Hardly comes into play, but K'Da language in Dragonback by Timothy Zahn is such. Because it is derived from proto-Indo-European.
  • V: The Series novel "East Coast Crisis" by Howard Weinstein and A.C. Crispin includes this description of Visitor writing : "To a human familiar with ancient Hebrew or Sanskrit the characters might have appeared faintly recognizable, but to anyone else they would have been totally indecipherable." A brief discussion of this with a comparison of Hebrew and Sanskrit characters can be found here : http://v.popapostle.com/html/episodes/V80/East-Coast-Crisis.htm
    • Leaving to one side that there's no such writing system as "Sanskrit", which was primarily a spoken language (everyone in India writes Sanskrit in their own writing systemnote ), it probably means that Visitor only really writes the consonants, with the vowels rendered as diacritics.note  Of course, just because an alien script works like a script you know doesn't mean you'd recognize anything about it. (Glagolitic, for example, works just like our alphabet, and it actually is related to it—but how much of it do you recognize?)
  • Rihan, the Romulan Conlang developed by Diane Duane for her Rihannsu novel series, uses traits of both Latin and modern European languages. Nouns have three declination cases, the language normally follows subject-verb-object order, and adjectives and adverbs follow the word they modify. However, new nouns can be constructed by concatenating existing words, and the rather rare verb-object-subject word order can also be used.

    Live Action TV 
  • Star Trek:
    • At times when the Universal Translator fails,all alien languages sound as if they obey English phonology, but their transliteration to the Latin Alphabet seems extremely implausible, using c and k interchangeably and the obligatory useless apostrophes.
    • Dominionese apparently has a passive voice transitive which serves as an optative mood. In other words? Basically, if they weren't just selecting linguistic terms from a hat, the inhabitants of the Dominion make much more use than English does of idioms where, e.g., "You're murdered" means "I wish you were dead" (presumably when a Vorta wants you to have a nice day he says "You're well-treated", for example).
    • Not all alien languages in Trek though. Because Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra.
    • Klingonese as developed by Marc Okrand was a deliberate aversion: it uses very alien grammar (agglutinative word construction and object-verb-subject word order) and was designed so that no Earth language used all the same sounds. Unfortunately many Star Trek writers couldn't be bothered to follow the rules.
  • The Twilight Zone episode "To Serve Man" runs into this a bit, first because the Kanamit alphabet has uppercase and lowercase letters (other languages have multiple variants—e.g. Japanese hiragana and katakana—but use them differently; hiragana is for normal writing and katakana is basically italics, used for writing foreign words), and second because most languages don't have an idiom where "serve" means "prepare as a dish".
  • In the Stargate-verse, the Ancient language is literally this trope. It's a close ancestor of Latin. Since the Ancients are humanity's Neglectful Precursors, it makes sense that their language would be similar to what in Real Life is known as Proto-Indo-European.

    Tabletop Games 
  • Forgotten Realms: The Ilithyrii or better known as Drow language is just basic English grammar (plurals end with -n instead of -s, female titles still end in -ess, etc) with new words based on a lot of hissing sounds (sibilants) like /s/ to simulate their underdark home that's prone to echo "harder" consonants a lot.
  • Played with in World Tree RPG. The world's languages are based on a divinely created Common language with simplistic grammar, and all known languages are based on Common. So every language in that setting is like this trope towards every other, and described as being only about as different as English and Italian (ie. not very). We're also told that the standard pronoun "genders" are based on species, so that "the male Cani greeted the female Rassimel" would be written as something like "Ce greeted rir" instead of "He greeted her". The in-character journal by one of the game's authors has the hero dealing with other grammatical oddities like social-class markings, and even making fun of cheap in-universe novels that don't think through their "alien" language.
  • The First Tongue from Werewolf: The Forsaken, the language of the spirit world. Given its name, however, it may be justified. The developers even admitted they've come up with terms for it by going down the Indo-European language tree and taking a few turns.

    Video Games 
  • The Tevinter language from Dragon Age is very similar to Latin, since Tevinter is based on the Roman Empire.
  • The Elder Scrolls
    • "Dovahzuul", the language of the Dragons, is basically a relexification of English—except without tenses, since the dragons who speak it are timeless beings; what look like tense-constructions are usually either aspect or voice. Its script was invented from scratch — it's cuneiform-esque, based on scratches made with dragon-claws.
    • The Daedric language is simply English spelled with a unique script.
    • The languages of the series' Beast Races tend to sound quite alien and may have some unusual rules, but are actually not all that far off from an Indo-European language. To note:
      • Jel, the language of the Argonians. Unlike the other languages of Men and Mer, it does not descend from Ehlnofex (the language of the Ehlnofey), but rather comes from the Hist. It is unique in that it has no past tense or future tense verbs, only present tense. As such, Argonians tend to live "in the now", easily forgetting and forgiving past offenses while paying little mind to the future. (The possibly Omniscient Hist seem to do that for them, as seen with them foretelling and preparing the Argonians for the Oblivion Crisis and turmoils of the 4th Era.)
      • Ta'agra, the language of the Khajiit. It obviously makes heavy use of the Punctuation Shaker and it famously has no word for "rules," with the closest word, "Thjizzrini", meaning "foolish concepts". This helps to explain the race's difficulty in understanding what constitutes "personal property" and this, unsurprisingly, extends to their methods in battle. They have no qualms with deception, trickery, and even outright fleeing battle if things don't go their way. They are more than willing to abandon their allies (after all, a smart ally would do the same!) or flee a fight if it means that they can turn around and come back later to stab their enemies in the back.
      • The language of the Sload "Slug Men" of Thras. The in-game book "N'Gasta! Kvata! Kvakis!" is a treatise on Necromancy written in the language of the Sload by the legendary Sload necromancer, N'Gasta. It looks downright alien, but is actually a cypher for Esperanto of all things. There is not currently a known in-universe translation, but its real-life translation can be found here.
      "So interreta Kvako (retletera kaj verjheauw) ahkstas unufsonke alternativaj kanasouw por distribui so enhavon so papera Kva! Kvak!"
  • Al Bhed in Final Fantasy X, which uses a simple substitution cipher but is apart from that identical to English.
  • Far Cry Primal's prehistoric conlangs are based on Proto-Indo-European.
  • The Moiety and Cho in Riven speak in Tok Pisin, a dialect from Papua New Guinea. The latter briefly switches to bad D'ni when trying to speak to you.

    Webcomics 

    Other 
  • This was a criticism made of the "Martian" language of the "messages" produced by 19th-century medium Hélène Smith via automatic writing — it bore a considerable resemblance to her native language, French.
  • The "Enochian" language which the literal & proverbial renaissance man John Dee and his scryer Edward kelly allegedly received from angels in 1580s Prague and Poland is written in an alphabet which is essentially a substitution for the 16th century Latin alphabet, and the consonant combinations have much of the same values as they do in English. The language itself has a similar phonological inventory to English, though the way they are used in a word are often downright unpronounceable for an untrained English-speaker. Word-formation may possibly revolve around a vague and more unsystematic echo of Hebrew triconsonantal roots, while the syntax is largely that of english.


Dijejn duvenen, duzemejes. Gememost praitaatumos. (Good day, humans. We come in friendship.)
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