Q&A with Brenna Hanley, Fantasy-Language Enthusiast

Brenna Hanley graduated from Florida Southern College in 2011 with a bachelor’s degree in English literature. Brenna is currently studying to get her master of arts degree in education at Florida Southern College. She’ll be discussing invented languages at Ascendio 2012, a July 12–15 conference in Florida celebrating the Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling.

brenna hanely

photo courtesy Brenna Hanley

Q: What’s your background in languages, and what languages are you studying now? How many languages do you speak?

A: Throughout grade school I was very involved in studying Spanish, and I continued that learning in college. I also took a few classes in French, which came in handy when I studied abroad in England and France in my junior year. After I got back from being abroad, I became absorbed in Klingon and Elvish for the rest of my senior year. I received my bachelor’s degree in English in December 2011, and I’m proficient in Spanish and French.

Q: What are the strangest, most fun, and/or most unique languages you’ve ever studied?

A: The strangest language I ever studied would probably be Klingon, from the popular sci-fi series Star Trek. Or Nadsat, from Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, because it’s basically a mix between British rhyming slang and Russian. The most unique language I’ve ever seen is Blissymbols, created by Charles K. Bliss. It’s made entirely of symbols that work together to create different meanings. The coolest thing about this language, though, is that it was picked up by the Ontario Crippled Children’s Centre (now called The Hugh MacMillan Rehabilitation Centre) to help teach children with cerebral palsy to express themselves through language.

Q: When did you first become interested in fantasy languages?

A: Actually, I became interested in the idea when I needed to find a topic to focus on for my senior-seminar presentation. A friend gave me Arika Okrent’s book In the Land of Invented Languages, and I ate it up! She explores nearly every invented language out there. Okrent goes a lot into the scientific languages like Philosophical Language by John Wilkins, and she explores attempts at universal languages, including Esperanto and Loglan. Of course, there was mention of the literary languages as well, which is really where I wanted to focus, being an English major. So I chose Newspeak from George Orwell’s 1984, Nadsat from A Clockwork Orange, Elvish from J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, and Klingon from Star Trek. It worked out great because I was able to cover a lot of material while still focusing on what I needed to—the social implications that Orwell and Burgess were making with their modified languages and the pop-culture status of Elvish and Klingon.

For the presentation at Ascendio 2012, I decided to tweak my original presentation to include Harry Potter and focus more strongly on the fan-culture aspect of the languages.

Q: How are Latin and other languages incorporated into fantasy books, like the Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling?

A: Well, obviously, with the Harry Potter series there are spells based on Latin words. Any Harry Potter fan will know what you are trying to do when you say, “Accio” or “Expelliarmus.” There have been jokes all over the Internet that combine and tweak those terms to make up spells that weren’t included in the books. Of course, though, you can’t overlook the languages that Rowling included but never actually developed. Parseltongue and Gobbledegook are both mentioned several times throughout the series, but they’re never given syntax or grammar. I believe that if Rowling had included those details in the languages there would be Harry Potter languages with speakers all over the world! The devotion that the Harry Potter community shows to the series is so intense that I have no doubt that languages developed through the series would have hit it big just like Klingon and Elvish did.

Q: Why do you think people in general are fascinated by fantasy languages?

A: There are several reasons why these fan communities are so interested in the fantasy languages of their choosing. My theory, which I stated in my presentation, is that they give a certain life and realness to the series that the fans may be craving. While doing research on this topic I attended a Star Trek Convention in Orlando last year, and I heard a very interesting comment by a fan of another popular sci-fi TV show. This particular fan was showing off his large collection of memorabilia to a group of fellow fanatics, and he said, “They just make the universe better. We can’t let that world die. Don’t let it die.” His comment may not have pertained to Star Trek or invented languages, but this ideal exists in all fan communities—especially when it comes to the invented languages. To let fictional languages like these die, would mean to let a rich culture die as well. These languages empower the readers, viewers, and speakers to reflect on their own society and build a community that they can thrive in, and these languages propel these individuals into a world they can call their own.

I find the whole idea of fantasy languages very exciting. The new HBO TV series Game of Thrones is based on the book series A Song of Ice and Fire, by George R. R. Martin. In the TV series there is an invented language, Dothraki, but the language is rendered to English in the books. In order to do the TV series, HBO ran a contest with the Language Creation Society, which is filled with people just making up their own languages. The entire group submitted their languages to HBO, and the winner, David Peterson, is now developing Dothraki for the TV show. I think that is just amazing—that languages and linguistics are growing this way.

Q: What is Ascendio 2012, and where should people go to find out more?

A: Ascendio 2012 is a Harry Potter convention hosted by HP Education Fanon Inc. in Orlando! The event is taking place July 12–15, and it is open to all Harry Potter fans and scholars. You can go to hp2012.org to find out about registration and programming.

Q: How will you be participating in Ascendio 2012?

A: I will be giving my presentation, “Making Up Words: A Look at Elves, Spells, and Nerds,” on Friday, July 13, at noon, and then I plan on enjoying the weekend with my friends in the Harry Potter community! I’m also looking forward to hearing an exclusive chat by Potter expert John Granger and meeting some members of the cast of the film version of Harry Potter—Chris Rankin (who plays Percy Weasley) and Afshan Azad (who plays Padma Patil)—after-hours in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

Rosetta Stone shares with the interviewee a passion for languages. The information about languages, argots, and writing systems given in this post reflects the opinions of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect the views of Rosetta Stone.

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