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 writing systems. On our own planet there are many forms of writing systems. Some are logographic (Chinese being the most famous), while others are essentially phonetic; of the phonetic ones, some are syllabaries (i.e. each symbol represents a syllable), others are abjads (each symbol represents a consonant, e.g. Arabic and Hebrew), others are abugidas (a cross between abjad and syllabary, e.g. Hindi and the Ethiopic scripts), and some are "true" alphabets (each symbol represents a phoneme, whether consonant or vowel, e.g. Greek and Latin). Some are even a combination of logographic and phonetic (Japanese,note ancient Egyptiannote ). And there's more: some are made up of separate letters (Latin, Greek, Cyrillic, Armenian,... ), some have connected letters (Hindi), a mix of the two (Arabic), or even fuse symbols together into composite glyphs representing entire words or phrases (Mayan, certain Hanzi-family characters). Some are left to right, some are right to left (Phoenician, Arabic, Hebrew, Aramaic, etc.), some alternate between left to right and right to left (some varieties of archaic Greek), some are top to bottom (the traditional orientation of both the Chinese and Mongol scriptsnote ), bottom to top (ancient Berber), or even in pairs of columns read in a zig-zag (Maya, at least for monumental inscriptions). 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.
- Averted and lampshaded in Heterogenia Linguistico. Most of the monster languages aren't even spoken as we would understand, and rely on body language, colors, vibrations in the ground, or smells. In Chapter 26, Hakaba muses on how modern Werewolf (as opposed to old Werewolf) is similar in structure to human languages, and wonders why.
- 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 languages (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 breathes 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.
- J. R. R. Tolkien fell into this while still showing incredible dedication to his languages (he himself was a philologist). This is because unlike some of the other examples on this page, he had no intention of making his languages as alien as possible, and since Middle-earth was implied to be Europe in the distant past, hypothetical connections with real European languages would make sense.
- 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 stated fact that the (very different from English) language of ancient Egypt was derived from it.
- 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.
- 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 (1959): The 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 one of their languages would be similar to what in Real Life is known as Proto-Indo-European, though that doesn't explain its lack of similarity to Afro-Asiatic languages, Amerindian languages, Asian languages...
- Reikspiel is based on the German language which makes sense since the Empire of Man is meant to be the Warhammer equivalent of the Holy Roman Empire.
- Kislevarin derives much of its alphabet and script from several Euro-Asian languages especially Russian considering that the Tzardom of Kislev is a Composite Empire based on Tsarist Russia, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and the Kievan Rus'.
- Bretonnian is a mixture of English and French. The Common dialect is inspired by Old English while the High dialect is Norman French since it is the language of the nobility much like how the aristocracy of Norman and Plantagenet England spoke French while the common folk used English until 1399.
- 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.
- In Assassin's Creed, the Isu civilization speak their own language which is modeled after Proto-Indo-European languages such as Indo-Iranian and Italic. In fact, an Assassin linguist specializing in the translation of the Isu alphabet in Valhalla theorized that the Indo-European languages and its ancestors were derived from it, or otherwise took heavy influence. Though the linguist makes the case that it's likely that the Isu were far more diverse than they'd realized, as not all Isu scripts are the same, implying that the language may not be the only Isu dialect.
- 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.
- 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.
- Heaven's Vault has Ancient, with a hieroglyph-based alphabet that happens to have the same grammar as English. The main differences are the lack of spaces and articles. As an important part of the gameplay is trying to learn the language, it is an Acceptable Break from Reality, as otherwise deciphering the language would be much more difficult.
- Metroid Dread introduces the language of the Chozo, the Precursors of the Metroid series, which follows the same overall sentence structure as English, and which is written in an alphabet-style script (albeit with the quirk that every other letter is flipped upside down). However, some grammar points show influence from the native languages of developers Nintendo (Japanese) and MercurySteam (Spanish), such as an apparent lack of distinction between present and future tenses.
- The Tainish language in Unsounded has many similarities to Japanese, especially the combination of a phonetic alphabet and pictograms (analogous to kana and kanji), the complicated politeness system that makes speakers seem overly formal to foreigners, and regular conjugations (Japanese has very few irregular verbs). The only major divergences are that Tainish branches in the opposite direction, and that it appears to use a lot of compound consonants that don't exist in Japanese.
- The Gard language from Winters In Lavelle is actually English written with redesigned characters (the same as Artemis Fowl's fairy language above), though this may be a sort of Translation Convention to simplify the decoding process.
- 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 (not to mention, of course, that Mars has no living inhabitants, something then unknown).
- The "Enochian" language which the literal and 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.
- In the Numberphile video 58 and Other Confusing Numbers, Tom Scott discusses a closely related trend. He points out that ConLangs, even those that otherwise try to avert this trope, disproportionately use decimal numbers and have number naming conventions more similar to English than even other European languages have.
- Many languages evolving near Indo-European languages have evolved Indo-European-like phonologies and grammatical features through frequent contact with speakers of these languages. A notable example would be Hungarian (use of prepositions as prefixes to derived verb forms and a significant number of loanwords from Slavic languages).
- Some Sino-Tibetan languages from the lesser-spoken branches have similar average syllable-per-word count, syllable structure, and phonetic inventories to Indo-European languages despite speakers having little contact with speakers of Indo-European languages.