TV shows have increasingly been showing off their linguistic prowess in recent years. Netflix, for one, has been stepping up its multilingual game with content sourced from all over the world. Game of Thrones captured tons of attention with full-fledged constructed languages, including Dothraki. But there’s one show that is doing something else that’s wholly original: Letterkenny, a Hulu show that just launched its seventh season (though its first six launched on Canadian streaming service Crave). It may sound silly, but Letterkenny language is unlike anything you’ve run into before.
Unlike a conlang, where the language is built from scratch, Letterkenny builds on an existing language (English, or more specifically Canadian English). When you first watch the show, this invented dialect can be at times nearly incomprehensible, but it makes more sense the more you watch — which also makes it a show that rewards rewatching.
Letterkenny isn’t the only fictional universe that’s created a dialect, but the concept is still relatively rare. How writers are able to create believable dialects, and why they do so, can give unique insights into how people in general use language.
What Is A Conlect, And Why Make One?
For the most part, constructed dialects are often lumped in with conlangs, though there are clear differences. While a conlang is something that is generally impossible to understand for regular people, a constructed dialect is something that is mostly, if not entirely, understandable for people who speak the language the constructed dialect is based on. For that reason, we’re going to call them conlects (we also debated conslang, but that seemed too misleading, and also we’re using dialect to cover cants, argots and other forms of language).
The first famous conlect is Newspeak, the fictional totalitarian language in George Orwell’s 1984. The conlect was designed by the government of Oceania in order to constrain the English language so that contrarian thought couldn’t even be conceived. This involved doing things like getting rid of the word for “warm” and replacing it with “uncold.” The Newspeak dictionary also did away with scientific terminology and changed the meanings of other words to make them facile. This language is more on the sidelines of the book, but is still a fascinating conlect from 1949.
A more fleshed-out conlect is Nadsat, the weird Russian-English hybrid used in A Clockwork Orange. Anthony Burgess, the author of the book, happened to be a linguist and polyglot. When he wrote A Clockwork Orange, which is a story about teenage boys who live in a crime-ridden world, Burgess wanted to give his characters a dialect that was different from the way adults would speak. Rather than use modern slang, which would have dated the book almost immediately, Burgess decided to create Nadsat, which combined English with Russian Anglicizations. The result looks like this:
When you first start reading the book, this can seem impossible to comprehend. But as you go along, you start realizing that deng means “money,” veck means “man,” and on and on. There’s also an incomplete glossary in the back, but the real accomplishment of the book is that Nadsat is ultimately comprehensible, despite its stark deviations from Standard English.
The reasons for making conlects vary. All in all, they’re just an underexplored way of world-building. While many texts will add a few novel words and phrases (fantasy and sci-fi are sometimes made fun of for their extensive lists of made-up words), fully formed conlects are uncommon. It’s funny, then, that one of the best examples today was invented for comedy’s sake.
How Letterkenny Language Works
Letterkenny is a show about a fictional town in southern Ontario. It follows around various groups in the town, each of which have their own colloquial name: hicks, degens, Natives, hockey players and skids make up most of the cast. Each of these groups, in turn, has its own conlect, which adds several layers to the show.
The hicks are the main characters in the show, so they’re the best to focus on. Speaking with thick Canadian accents, the most noticeable feature of the hick dialect is the collection of words and phrases they use often. Wayne, arguably the main character, might refer to a person he sees as soft as “10-ply,” which is not something anyone actually says but it makes sense if you think about it. Similarly, each character uses the phrase “pitter-patter let’s get at ‘er” when they want to start doing things. There’s a whole glossary of terms that the viewer can gradually decipher.
One of the best examples of oft-repeated language is the way the hicks greet each other. Each time two of them meet, there’s an explicit pattern:
Person 1: How’re ya now?
Person 2: Good, and you?
Person 1: Not so bad.
It seems like a small detail, but this exchange also demonstrates why the conlects are important in the first place. Whenever Wayne meets McMurray, another hick character who is outside the main group, they attempt to have the above exchange but constantly interrupt each other.
This is used largely for comedic effect, and also to show that despite being part of the same in-group, Wayne and McMurray are not necessarily on the same page.
All of the features of the conlect are, at some point in the show, changed or used in unexpected ways for comedic reasons. The show, by introducing you to a set of linguistic expectations and then later subverting them, is using the conlect to create in-jokes with the viewer.
Once you get past the hicks, you run into slightly less developed but still fascinating conlects. The skids speak like cybergoth Shakespearean actors with access to a thesaurus, in an attempt for the characters to make themselves seem more intellectual than they are. The hockey players have perhaps the most confusing language to an outsider, because it uses and remixes actual hockey language, but turns it up to an extreme. The first few seconds in this clip, for example, shows them slipping between dense hockey slang and word games:
And the language play only multiplies when these various groups come in contact with each other, leading to new terms and the interplay of the various conlects. Skids call hicks “shirt-tuckers,” for example, because they…tuck in their shirts. Letterkenny presents a rich tapestry of conlects woven together.
Why Letterkenny Language Works
One of the greatest challenges of creating a conlect is making it believable. Whereas conlangs have the benefit of being entirely different, a bad conlect will ring untrue to speakers of the language. Making a good one takes work.
Letterkenny language has the advantage of being kind of surreal to start with. The show knows that people aren’t speaking like normal people all the time, and the repetitive use of phrases is inherently strange.
Still, the show works on some level because a lot of the language is believable. While the words and phrases can seem strange, they are logical, and you can imagine how the phrase would have evolved. The use of “Texas-sized 10-4” to mean agreement, for example, is a natural extension of “10-4” being a radio code meaning “OK” or “understood.” And as mentioned, “10-ply” for someone being soft is a comedic reference to toilet paper. There are also many, many euphemisms for sex in the show, but we’ll leave you to find those on your own.
Letterkenny goes a step further at times, showing how certain phrases evolve. One of the most distinctive is “to be fair,” which is a rather innocuous phrase that one character decides sounds “fancy.” From then on, whenever someone says “to be fair” in the show, people respond in increasingly fancy accents to it. Thus, “to be fair” became part of a comedic lexicon and is an in-joke the viewer can watch evolve.
Each group of friends has its own linguistic quirks. It’s very likely that you and the people you talk to have latched onto phrases or words that you think are funny, and have found ways to play with them in conversation. Letterkenny uses that process and dials it up to warp speed, playing with language in ways that few shows do. Our world is filled with dialects, and having books and TV shows build upon that to create their own believable communities is a wonderful celebration of linguistic diversity.