So you want an imaginary High Elven Tongue as supplementary colour for your tabletop fantasy role‐playing campaign? Or maybe you're doing the rough draft of your epic space opera trilogy and need placeholder names for the alien planets? Or perhaps you're only after some token mock‐foreign verbiage to go in the background of your cartoons? Well, if you were J. R. R. Tolkien it's obvious what you'd do, but there's no need to go to the lengths of inventing an entire functional constructed language and using that; all you need to do is take some existing real‐world language and apply a simple set of rules to turn it into an unrecognisable cryptolect!
People all over the world have been doing informal versions of this for centuries, usually so that they can communicate safe from eavesdropping while swindling the uninitiated. This is what's known as a “cryptolect”, a phenomenon that anglophones are most likely to be familiar with via the examples of Cockney rhyming slang (“Flying Squad” → “Sweeney (Todd)”) and Pig Latin (“Flying Squad” → “eyeingflay oddsquay”).
Neither of those is quite what we're after, though. When you convert a whole paragraph of text into something like rhyming slang, it's still quite patently in English – in effect it just randomises the dictionary slightly. Pig Latin has a lot of relatives in other languages, and a few playground variants in English such as Eggy‐Peggy (“flegguyegging squeggod”), but all of these language games tend to leave a text obtrusively garbled on a more fundamental level, and would have great difficulty passing for a real foreign language!
Another model that anglophones might not consider, but which really has been used in various languages in a deliberate effort to make a “thieves' cant” more impenetrable to outsiders, is “Backslang”. This can work in any of several ways, including:
That's still not much closer to being something you could have your imaginary high elves speaking with a straight face; and the thing that makes it conspicuously backwards‐looking is mainly the unnatural strings of consonants in reversed phrases like “xof nworb kciuq eht”. Let's take that as a hint: this sort of game is made much easier if we use as a starting point some language without the complex consonant clusters and irregular orthography of English. Of course, it needs to be one that ordinary non‐language‐specialists are familiar with at least to the level where they can handle passing it through Google Translate, but luckily enough there's an obvious candidate: Spanish!
Spanish has the great advantage that it only allows a rather limited variety of “syllable‐shapes”, and its sounds form well‐behaved families; “aspe”, “istu”, and “osca” are all possible words, but “apse”, “iftu”, and “osc” are against the rules. This makes it easy to systematically mess about with these sounds without any worries that the result will be unpronounceable.
However, the approach I'm going to follow isn't based on Backslang, or any of the other approaches I've mentioned so far. In fact, if it resembles anything, it's the ROT13 encoding traditionally used as a trivial cipher on USENET. In ROT13, the alphabet is “rotated” by thirteen places, replacing “A” by “N” and vice versa, and likewise for “B” ↔ “O”, “C” ↔ “P”, “D” ↔ “Q”, and so on; as a result “SPOILERS” turns into “FCBVYREF” (and “JBR” turns into “WOE”). The trick I'm going to propose is a bit more selective – basically, you find matched pairs of sounds and switch them around wherever they occur. The simplest demonstration is to reverse “E” and “O” and get the cryptolect of “Ospañel” – it's not much of a disguise, but it would be no trouble to learn to talk this sort of nearly‐Spanish and then strengthen the obfuscation step by step until you get something completely unrecognisable.
The first step is to get the sentence in Spanish. If you're in the fortunate position of being able to do this for yourself then things are easier – and nobody's saying it needs to be good Spanish! A tourist‐grade rendering will be perfectly adequate for most purposes.
Hints and tips for users of online translation services:
Once you've got the Spanish, if you're feeling lazy you can take a short cut: Spanish spelling is almost regular enough for a substitution cipher to work directly on the written version and still produce something mostly speakable. So if you find my schemes below too complicated you might prefer to fall back on this cheap‐and‐cheerful approach, despite its rough edges. Just replace the letters “BCEFILMV” with the letters “DPOJURÑZ” (respectively) and vice versa, turning “Español” into “Oscamer”, “la Brigada Móvil” into “ra Dlugaba Ñézur”, and “chiquita” into “phuqiuta”.
Alternatively, carry on to the next stage:
Before you can shuffle the sounds around you have to identify
them, and that means you need to convert from the traditional
orthography into something completely reliable. For Spanish
the process; it's mostly just a matter of recognising the cases
where the spellings still encode distinctions that have vanished
in most modern spoken forms of the language (I'll be assuming a
vaguely New World variety). As usual I'll be putting
standard spellings in
angles, imaginary ones in double
angles, and phonemic transcriptions in
slashes(though unfortunately your web
browser's ignoring my CSS). And I'm going to be
throwing around all sorts of Unicode phonetic symbols without much
in the way of explanation, since as long as they work as unique
labels it doesn't really matter whether you know how they're
pronounced (and it doesn't really matter that the phoneme I'm
calling b might equally well be called β, and so
CONSONANTS: the following conversion rules need to be applied in approximately the given order, at least in the cases where I say “otherwise”:
Vboth → b
Í) → s (ignoring the parts of Spain where it's θ)
SHin a few loanwords) → tʃ
Í) → x
Í) → ɡ
HIbefore a vowel → j
His silent (and converts to nothing)
LL→ j (ignoring the dialects where it's ʎ)
M(that is, before a vowel) → m
R(that is, word‐initial or after l, n, or s) → r
R→ ɾ (not the same!)
X→ tʃ (ignoring the dialects where it's ʃ)
Z→ s (ignoring the parts of Spain where it's θ)
VOWELS: these can have accents to indicate non‐default
stress. The simplest approach is to cheat and treat
ÁÉÍÓÚ as áéíóú, though if you want extra credit you
can add accents even on the default cases and then mangle them in
Everything not covered in the above rules corresponds directly to
its IPA equivalent:
There are just eight “pairs” to be switched around (bearing in mind that when I say e I also mean é, and so on):
Everything else (that is, a, ɡ, k, n, tʃ, and s) can stay as it is.
The point of the ROT13 analogy is that you can decrypt a message using exactly the same Secret Decoder Ring algorithm as you used to encrypt it. Since it's working in terms of spoken Spanish, you won't necessarily be able to retrieve the precise string of letters you started with, but at least it'll sound the same.
Once you get the basic idea of this you may wish to try coming up
with an alternative scheme of your own, but beware –
you can't just start altering sounds at random (or at least, not
if you want the results to resemble a natural language). For
instance, you might think that you could just add
“s ↔ n”; but then you'd end up with the
obstrucción turning into ednpliknués, which
tends to spoil the effect.
Another approach you could take to obscuring the language's phonological silhouette a little at this point is to try replacing some of its sounds with others that don't occur in Spanish at all – for instance:
If these short descriptions aren't enough to make it clear what sounds I'm talking about then you're probably better off sticking to the shallow end; faking up a plausibly naturalistic phonemic inventory for an imaginary language can be harder to achieve than you'd expect. For instance, you might be surprised to learn that languages with no p or z are common, while one lacking n or s would be distinctly fishy.
Mind you, if you're keen and experienced enough you might even want to do something more interesting with those acute accents, such as cycling all the stresses one syllable to the right. That's more than I'm bothering to do, though.
You could just convert straight back into conventional Spanish orthography at this stage, but assuming you want it difficult to recognise I would instead recommend using a spelling scheme where:
Introducing ambiguities here (such as allowing SH to mean either ʂ or sχ) would be unaesthetic, since it would mean you could no longer rely on being able to “rotate” the output back into (spoken) Spanish and have it guaranteeably intelligible. Nonetheless, if you're careful it is possible to build in some redundant decorative curlicues – maybe k is spelled either C or K depending on the following vowel, or maybe syllable‐final s is written as Z. The details don't matter as long as it's systematic and reversible.
You needn't respect Spanish tradition in details of punctuation,
capitalisation, or word division/
¡No vamos a darle a los
soldados! in Spanish, but it might equally well have been
No vamos a dar‑le a‑los soldados!
No‐vamosadar le alos Soldados ! ,
so you should feel free to camouflage it as Ne‐daňesabal
ro ares Serbabes!
First, a collection of handy phrases for any tourists planning a visit to Pig Latin America (with gradually increasing quantities of obfuscatory postprocessing):
El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles del Río de Porciúncula
|Or Tiodre bo Niospla Somela ra Youna bo res Ámforos bor Yúe bo Telsuínquira|
Esto es un cifrado por sustitución fonémica
|Ospe os in sukhlabe tel sispupisuén khenónhuka|
Buenos días, me llamo Alejandro Martinez y trabajo como lavaplatos en la Isla Grande de Tierra del Fuego
|Diones bûas, nho rhanhe Arofamble Nhalpunos u pladafe kenhe radatrapes onra Usra Glambo bo Puoja bor Khioge|
¡Mi aerodeslizador está lleno de anguilas!
|Nhu Aole‐Bosrusabel ospâ vone bo Anguras!|
¡Mi postillón ha sido alcanzado por un rayo!
|Nhu Tespuvên a sube arkansabe telin Jave!|
El ingenioso hidalgo Don Quijote de la Mancha (de Miguel de Cervantes)
|Or unšonuese Ubarge Ben‐Kušepo bora Ňanqa (bo Ňugor‐bo‐Soldampos)|
Dale a tu cuerpo alegria Macarena, que tu cuerpo es pa' darle alegria y cosa buena
|Ba ro a pi Kiolte Aroglua Ňakalona, ko pi Kiolte os ta bal ro Aroglua u Kesa diona|
El original no es fiel a la traducción
|Or Elušunar ne‐os huor ara Plabiksuên|
Todos los seres humanos nacen libres e iguales en dignidad y derechos y, dotados como están de razón y conciencia, deben comportarse fraternalmente los unos con los otros.
|Pebez rez Soloz ińanez nason rudloz o ugiaroz on Bugnubab u Boloʾez, u, bepabez keńe ozpąn bo Jasęn u Tensuonsua, bodon kentelpal so hlapolnar‐ńompo rez Inez ken rez Eplez.|
Traducido del inglés al español
|Плабысубӭ бор Ӱнгрос ар Ӧстамэр|
Next, cutting the scrambling back down to a more moderate level, a traditional demonstration text:
Génesis 10:1–9 (Nueva Versión Internacional):
|Šônosus 10:1–9 (Nioda Dolsuên Umpolnasuenar):|
En ese entonces se hablaba un solo idioma en toda la tierra.
|On oso Ompensos so‐adrada in sere Ubueňa on peba ra Puoja.|
Al emigrar al oriente, la gente encontró una llanura en la región de Sinar, y allí se asentaron.
|Ar Oňuglal ar Eluompo, ra Šompo onkemplê ina Wanila onra Jošuên bo Sinar, u awû so‐asompalen.|
Un día se dijeron unos a otros: «Vamos a hacer ladrillos, y a cocerlos al fuego.» Fue así como usaron ladrillos en vez de piedras, y asfalto en vez de mezcla.
|In Bûa so‐bušolen Ines‐a‐Eples „Daňes a asol Rabluwes, u a kesol res ar Hioge.“ Hio asû keňe isalen Rabluwes ondosbo Tuoblas, u Asharpe ondosbo Ňoskra.|
Luego dijeron: «Construyamos una ciudad con una torre que llegue hasta el cielo. De ese modo nos haremos famosos y evitaremos ser dispersados por toda la tierra.»
|Rioge bušolen „Kenspliwaňes ina Suibab ken ina Pejo, ko wogo aspaor Suore. Bo oso Ňebe nes aloňes haňeses u odupaloňes sol bustolsabes ter peba ra Puoja.“|
Pero el Señor bajó para observar la ciudad y la torre que los hombres estaban construyendo,
|Tole or Somel dašê tala edsoldal ra Suibab u ra Pejo, po res Endlos ospadan kenspliwombe,|
y se dijo: «Todos forman un solo pueblo y hablan un solo idioma; esto es sólo el comienzo de sus obras, y todo lo que se propongan lo podrán lograr.
|u so‐buše „Pebes helňan in sere Tiodre u adran in sere Ubueňa; ospe os sêre or Keňuonse bo sis Edlas, u pebe re, ko so‐tleteňgan, re teblân reglal.|
Será mejor que bajemos a confundir su idioma, para que ya no se entiendan entre ellos mismos.»
|Solâ ňowel, ko dawoňes a keňhimbul si Ubueňa, tala‐ko wa ne‐so‐ompuomban omplo owes‐ňusňes.“|
De esta manera el Señor los dispersó desde allí por toda la tierra, y por lo tanto dejaron de construir la ciudad.
|Bo ospa Ňanola or Somel res bustolsê bosbo awû tel peba ra Puoja, u telre Pampe bošalen bo kenspliul ra Suibab.|
Por eso a la ciudad se le llamó Babel, porque fue allí donde el Señor confundió el idioma de toda la gente de la tierra, y de donde los dispersó por todo el mundo.
|Telose ara Suibab so‐ro‐waňê Babel, telko hio awû bembo or Somel keňhimbuê or Ubueňa bo peba ra Šonto bora Puoja, u bo bembo res bustolsê tel pebe or Ňimbe.|
The language I tried this with originally was French, which
required quite a bit more effort – for instance
chiffre de substitution phonémique became aʾ bádla fa
góx‐gyáyó‐gwiʾ derain‐áþa. French may have the advantage
of being the foreign language that non‐linguists here in the UK
are most likely to have had some exposure to at school, but its
orthography is fairly complicated, its phonology is hard to
handle, and of course a good proportion of my US readers would
find it unfamiliar anyway.
Another alternative I played around with was Japanese, which has
the opposite set of advantages and disadvantages: it's tricky to
get from an English phrase typed into an online translator to the
Japanese equivalent in a useful transcription, but the limited
range of permitted syllable structures makes it a cinch to devise
a workable cipher – so
onso no kaejishiki angou
(maybe?) became ihziri bauto‐dobo ahfin.
As soon as I gave up on those ideas and switched to Spanish, everything got a lot simpler.
Another strategy you might try if you're really in the market for this sort of toy language would be to pick some simple constructed international auxiliary language and start from that. Esperanto disqualifies itself with its needlessly consonant‐clotted syllables, but there are plenty of easier options if you google around. However, I'd better warn you in advance – if you take somebody else's personal conlang and use it as a basis for designing a fantasy cant of your own, sooner or later you'll find yourself improvising, and once you're hooked it's a downhill slide into Tolkien's Secret Vice.