JRR Tolkien created Elvish and many other writers have made up new words and phrases. But can you really construct a whole new lexicon? Hephzibah Anderson takes a look.

If you’re a Game of Thrones fan suffering from withdrawal, you might consider brushing up on your Dothraki while waiting to find out whether any of your favourite characters will live to see another season. How? With the Dothraki Companion app, of course, the latest creation of David J Peterson, who’s the man responsible for turning the handful of phrases found in the original series of books into a lexicon of more than 4,000 words.

Filled with fricative ‘kh’ sounds that underscore the essential harshness of life in the Seven Kingdoms, Dothraki is one of the show’s most distinctive features. But even though it’s a made-up language – or ‘conlang’, as in ‘constructed language’, to use  the proper jargon – bringing it to life has been no easy task.

Scouring George RR Martin’s text, Peterson first identified patterns and worked out a logically consistent sound for the language. Then came the problem of grammar. While Martin always claims to have made up his Dothraki phrases on the hoof, Peterson discovered that they were in fact grammatically consistent (objects followed verbs, prepositions preceded nouns and so on). The result is an evolving tongue that typifies the culture in which it’s spoken, one in which, for instance, there are seven different words for striking someone with a sword, from ‘hlizifikh’ (wild but powerful) to ‘gezrikh’ (a just-kidding decoy).

Nothing is as piquant as language, which is why some writers go that step further and create their own.  

Authors regularly create worlds that are so fully realised they come with their own topography, history and mythology. Yet nothing is as piquant as language, which is why some writers go that step further and create their own. Martin may have only sprinkled his books with Dothraki, but JR Tolkien created multiple conlangs, several so precise that they’ve become the subject of university classes.

A philologist whose day job was teaching classical languages at Oxford University, he learnt Latin, French and German as a child, and later picked up Welsh, Finnish, Old Norse and Old English. When it came to writing The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, his intimacy with all those tongues infused the names of the people and places he dreamt up. It also shaped his construction of Middle-Earth languages including High and Common Elvish (Quenya and Sindarin), along with Dwarvish, Black Speech and Entish, and a clutch of others that are less fully developed.

These made-up lingos don’t just add atmosphere and authenticity to Tolkien’s fiction, they’re crucial to the passion that led him to write it in the first place. As he explained in a letter to his son, Christopher, in 1958, “Nobody believes me when I say that my long book [The Lord of the Rings] is an attempt to create a world in which a form of language agreeable to my personal aesthetic might seem real. But it is true. An enquirer (among many) asked what the L.R. was all about, and whether it was an allegory. And I said it was an effort to create a situation in which a common greeting would be elen si-‘la lu-‘menn omentielmo [‘A star shines on the hour of our meeting’], and that the phrase long antedated the book”.

Literary devices

Languages are communities; they embody the soul of the culture that spawned them, capturing a people’s history and dreams and none knew this better than Tolkien. In The Lord of the Rings, the Elves are disappearing from Middle-Earth, taking with them High and Common Elvish and thousands of years of Elvish culture.

Few writers have created a language quite as fully realised as Tolkien’s, but plenty have flavoured their fiction with invented tongues. Sometimes it’s to underscore a point. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, for instance, George Orwell introduces Newspeak to show just how totalitarian the state of Oceania is. Newspeak’s vocabulary is purposefully limited, there are no synonyms or antonyms, and nuance is eradicated. All undesirable words have been eliminated, others stripped of unorthodox secondary meanings. Most sinisterly of all, its staccato rhythms and ease of pronunciation are intended to keep thought at bay. ‘Unperson’, ‘crimethink’, ‘bellyfeel’ – such words are crucial to Orwell’s dystopian vision.

Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange is written in English and Nadsat, the vernacular favoured by the novel’s teens. As literary devices go, it’s crucial, not only signalling where Alex and his pals fit into the social pecking order, but also blurring our initial understanding of his brutality and distancing it from our own world. Without this, we’d likely be so morally repulsed that we’d abandon the book within chapters. Instead, a kind of rapport develops.

Equally importantly, Nadsat flags Burgess’s political message. Filled with words like baboochka (an old woman), eggiweg (egg) and pretty polly (money), it’s a characterful hybrid of Cockney rhyming slang and Russian (Nadsat itself derives from the Russian suffix equivalent of teen), highlighting similarities between totalitarian Russia (the novel was published in 1962) and his futuristic Britain. Russell Hoban’s cult classic, Riddley Walker tells of another futuristic dystopia, this one some 2,000 years after a nuclear war has obliterated civilisation as we know it, more or less sending humanity back to the Iron Age. Its eponymous narrator lives in ‘Inland’ (England) in what is presently Kent, a region whose accent shapes the dialect in which the novel is phonetically written. There’s also no punctuation. Along with everything else, language has been broken down, resulting in sentences like this: “Wel Im telling Truth here aint I. That's the woal idear of this writing”.

Language, as dystopian novels remind us over and over, is a barometer of a society’s health.  

Long before we’re told when the story is set, Riddley’s pidgin English provides us with clues: ‘program’ means plan, olden times rulers are known as the ‘Puter Leat’ and ‘clevverness’ is a lost power. Yes, it can make for slow reading, but the language is what makes this novel so powerful. Almost Chaucerian in its cadences, its fragmentary nature is the embodiment of all that has been lost. As Riddley puts it, “O what we ben! And what we come to!”

Butterfingers, lovelorn, scuffle

But it isn’t only desperate futures that inspire writers to lexical invention. Remember the world of frobscottle, sogmires and cattlepiddlers? If you don’t, it’s time to revisit Roald Dahl’s The BFG, aka the Big Friendly Giant for whom he created gobblefunk, the language to which those words belong (they refer respectively to a yummy fizzy drink whose bubbles travel downwards, quagmires and caterpillars).

An opera, Dickens’s A Christmas Carol and scenes from Shakespeare have all been rendered in Star Trek’s conlang Klingon – but most have limited real-world application. As linguistics researcher Fred Hoyt told the Guardian in 2013, even Elvish is a language in which “it would be easier to compose an elegant elegy for the dead than it would be to order a sandwich”.

Nevertheless, over the centuries authors have given birth to words that are now an integral part of the English language. Authorisms, as word nerd Paul Dickson dubbed them in his recent book on the subject, range from bump, hurry, and bedazzled (all Shakespeare’s) to butterfingers and boredom (Dickens) and nerd (Dr Seuss). Normal Mailer came up with factoid, cyberspace belongs to William Gibson and Milton coined lovelorn. Yahoo originates in Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels and as for twitter, well he may not have actually invented it, but the first recorded usage comes from Geoffrey Chaucer (who can also lay claim to universe).

Some are inspired by foreign languages or are portmanteau words (Lewis Carroll gave us that one), meaning words created by merging two that already exist. Some come from sounds (Shakespeare’s scuffle), or from titles like Catch-22 (Joseph Heller’s novel was almost called Catch-18, but was changed to avoid confusion with Leon Uris’ recently published Mila 18). And others derive from the author’s or their characters’ names – think Kafkaesque and quixotic.

Contemporary writers tend to have a tougher time of it, simply because so many words have already been invented, but that hasn’t stopped them from trying. James Branch Cabell, an American author briefly popular in the 1920s, spent two years thinking up a new expletive. He landed on ‘smirt’, which, unsurprisingly, failed to catch on, despite his 1934 publication of a novel that used the word as its title.

Language, as dystopian novels remind us over and over, is a barometer of a society’s health. With juicy regional dialects falling ever deeper into disuse and languages dying out globally (by some estimates, as many as 10,000 were once spoken; today it’s around 6,000, many of which have fewer than 1,000 speakers), it’s reassuring to know that wordsmiths are still labouring to expand our vocabularies, and with them, our experience of the world around us. So, to borrow from the Dothraki, san athchomari yeraan! (Thanks! Or literally: a lot of honour to you.)

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