I was really excited to get my hands on this book, and remain excited about it having just finished reading it. Before I get into more depth (though honestly, this will be a relatively shallow and overwhelmingly positive review), let me note that I recommend this book to a wide variety of folks: those of you interested in creating languages of your own (the obvious target audience, but I would say it doesn’t have to be the only audience); those interested in an accessible introduction to the basics of linguistics (I wish I’d had something this engaging and easy to follow when I was in undergrad); writers/creators who don’t plan on creating their own languages, but might consider hiring a conlanger to create one (the conclusion of the book contains a special appeal to you); fans of Game of Thrones, Defiance, or any of the other franchises Mr Peterson has created languages for (it’s an opportunity to dig into worldbuilding, which everyone seems to be interested in now); fans of fantasy and sci-fi in general (again, if you are someone into the worldbuilding side of things); and those just interested in an very unusual angle on language itself (whether language as art, or language as something we can play and create with in a very different way than what we already do in poetry or prose). Now, on to the book itself…
Peterson‘s book is an introduction to conlanging, or the creation of constructed languages. While the term “conlang” is recent, most folks are aware now that this was a big element of JRR Tolkien’s creative work, his creation of the Elvish languages predating or contemporaneous with his initial creation of the myths and legends that lay behind the world of The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings, and people are generally aware of the language construction that went into Star Trek (Klingon) and Avatar (the blue folks, not the airbending guy)–and now most folks know of Game of Thrones and other franchises that have brought Peterson on board to add some linguistic depth to their projects. In-between Tolkien and Peterson, and in particular with the rise of the internet, various conlang hobbyists coalesced into a community–I’d run across them once or twice online, but I’m afraid I was always too shy about joining groups, so I missed out. Due to some changes in how folks currently use the interwebz to stay in touch, more recent hobbyists have started constructing languages on their own without awareness of or ready access to this community and its resources, and in his very nice introduction to the history of conlangs Peterson sets his own book up as an attempt to remedy this, providing the new generation of hobbyists (and potential professionals, now that you can get paid for this) with a quick guide to some of the basics.
After his more historically minded introduction, Peterson’s book is essentially a very brief and easy-to-follow introduction to Linguistics, with special notes relevant to the conlang practitioner. There are four large chapters: Sounds, Words, Evolution, and The Written Word. Each chapter is itself subdivided into subtopics in logical sequence, followed by a case study from one of Peterson’s now-famous languages. For example, Chapter 1: Sounds is divided into Phonetics, Oral Physiology, Consonants, Vowels, Phonology, Sound Systems, Phonotactics, Allophony, Intonation, Pragmatic Intonation, Stress, Tone, Contour Tone Languages, Register Tone Languages, Sign Language Articulation, and Alien Sound Systems, followed by a case study on the Sounds of Dothraki (one of the languages Peterson constructed for Game of Thrones). You should remember that, however helpful these sections are for getting across the essentials of a topic (especially what is essential for a conlanger), they will not cover absolutely everything–for example, Chapter 2 on Words covers nouns, verbs, and word order–nothing in there about, for example, conjunctions specifically. That said, nouns and verbs were the obvious and most complicated things to focus on, and as far as I can tell (being a Norse mythologist rather than a linguist) he does a great job of succinctly showing just how varied these things can be in different languages. I especially enjoyed his chapter on evolution, as I have been trying to read up a bit on historical linguistics on my own time (I’ve got a decent understanding of what goes on with the Scandinavian languages, but I’ve never been formally introduced to Historical Linguistics as a topic in its own right), and my take on that chapter is pretty much my take on the book as a whole–it’s a great, concise, and accessible summary, and it will set you up nicely to continue on to more specialized introductions (in, say, historical linguistics–I’ve been reading Lyle Campbell’s intro lately–or phonology, or morphology, or, to really get a picture of the potential for variety, Typology–I got my hands on a used copy of Whaley’s intro to the topic recently, hope I can find time to work through it).
In addition to using this book as a springboard into more thorough introductions to various linguistic topics, think of it as inspiration to start learning more languages yourself, whether at a conversational level or just skimming a wikipedia summary–if you want to get a feel for what languages can do, in all their variety, there is nothing for it but to get your hands dirty. Looking at my own conglanging experience (small as it is), I have at times been too conservative, not pushing far enough outside the “box” of the languages I knew, and other times have been just plain silly, trying things that were ridiculous and could not make for pragmatic communication (which is fine–you have permission to be silly–but once you discover something isn’t working, you put it away). Taking courses in linguistics is a no-brainer, if you are in college, and I really wish I had stuck with that myself, instead of being super-intimidated by my first linguistics course (this was about 15 years ago now). And while I definitely prefer Peterson’s book as a general introduction, you can also read Mark Rosenfelder’s Language Construction and Advanced Language Construction for another introduction to the art (Rosenfelder’s book feels more like a checklist–“Do you do this in your language, or that?”–than a general introduction, but it seems like it can be taken as nicely complementary to Peterson’s. Rosenfelder covers conjunctions for example).
I got sucked into the conlang world (though I wasn’t aware there was any sort of community–and at the time maybe there wasn’t) when I was just a kid, after deciding (in 3rd grade) to become a novelist. It was not long before I discovered Tolkien and decided I wanted to be Tolkien. Since Tolkien was an academic, this is largely to blame for my going into Scandinavian Studies, and more specifically Old Norse language and literature. And of course, I discovered early on (before Jr Hi, I think) that Tolkien had invented languages as part of his worldbuilding, and of course I had to do that too–the only problem was, I had never learned a foreign language, and when I started (in High School Spanish) I felt completely lost. I think I had some abortive attempts at a fantasy language in high school, back when I first started creating the world that (though it is very different now) I am still writing in. The next attempts, and the most serious ones for a long time, were in early grad school, creating languages for two of the different human cultures involved in my stories. Honestly, I still didn’t really know what I was doing–I had learned a variety of languages by then, but I’ve always been better at learning to read a language than I have been learning to think systematically about it. Not that these were total losses, but I’m currently revisiting these and trying to figure out what can be salvaged (a decent amount, I think–it seems to mostly be a matter of filling in gaps and reframing what I’ve already done). While I find it a lot harder, I get the same sort of kick, or buzz, out of creating languages that I do out of writing–both feed my soul in a way that my academic work, rewarding in one way, and my non-verbal creative work (art and music), rewarding in another way, do not quite cover on their own. Now if only I could get rid of that feeling that tells me “shouldn’t you be doing something more practical or career oriented right now?” whenever I try to do what I love…
Bonus link: Watch a conlang being made right here! Demonstrates nicely that screwing around with language creation can be the work of an afternoon–sure, if you really want to make something of it you will have to put a lot more in, but honestly, it makes me feel like sitting down for a couple hours and just hacking together a quick grammar and vocabulary and seeing how it goes–no pressure, after all (unless you are doing it for HBO I guess…)
And another (added more recently)–check out this interview with Rose Lemberg, a professor and specialist in sociolinguistics (among other things), who discusses some aspects of her own conlang history early-midway through the interview.