How Hollow Knight's community crafted gibberish into a real language
Video game lore nerds love a good fake language. Dragon Age has its own version of Elven, The Legend of Zelda has various Hylian dialects, even Ratchet and Clank had its very own Lombax alphabet (which, if I recall correctly, is creatively named 'Lombaxian').
Hollow Knight is no exception; there's certainly a language in the game, though it isn't obvious, because it all sounds like absolute gibberish. From Iselda's wistful sighs of "bafanada", to Hornet's battle cries of "adino!", these are just noises to fill the quiet air of the Hallownest and give life to the various bugs we meet.
These seemingly random sounds are well-designed, characterful expressions which help to provide the player with an idea of each characters' personality. The Dung Defender and his proud guffaws tell us he was a bold and eccentric knight, whereas the Seer's odd chanting paints her as a spiritual figure, if not a bit of a bizarre one.
There are hints at written language in Hollow Knight as well, in the form of glowing lore tablets. These lore tablets can be found all over Hallownest, and their designs can vary greatly from location to location, indicating different dialects for different regions.
But for some Hollow Knight fans, the gibberish just wasn't enough.
Reddit users Anand_G, The_Dialog_Box and ThePawnOfOthers (along with a team of Hollow Knight enthusiasts) took it upon themselves to draw up an entire alphabet inspired by the game's designs.
Deemed The Hallowscript, the fans designed a language almost completely from scratch - complete with sets of rules on how to write it. And not only have they come up with a written language - in theory, at least - you could actually speak it.
"I've always had a hobby for conlanging, and I find linguistics really interesting. Most of what I know just comes from watching YouTube videos and reading Wikipedia," Anand_G told me. Conlanging is the process of constructing a language that hasn't naturally developed.
"I wanted to make a group of conlangs for a D&D campaign, and for one of the conlang's writing system I wanted to use the script of the Hollow Knight lore tablets, because I thought they looked really cool.
"After a while the language became separate from the rest of the campaign, and after I couldn't find the actual language anywhere on the internet, I realised I had to make it myself."
The_Dialog_Box had already tried to design a bug language a few months prior, but struggled as Team Cherry didn't design the in-game language to be functional, it was simply intended to fit the game's aesthetics.
"I didn't get very far at all," he said. "I came up with some basic rules/syntax for the system, and then pretty much abandoned the project until I stumbled across Anand_G's post on the r/HollowKnight subreddit."
To start off the language, The_Dialog_Box predominantly used the lore tablet that can be found in the White Palace Hollow Knight, and began transcribing every voice line heard in the game to analyse them.
"A large part of that was isolating any recurring words and trying to figure out what they might mean based on a variety of factors: the word's placement in the sentence, which other characters say the same word, the tone of voice with which the word is said, etc." he explained.
What the group has managed to come up with thanks to all their hard work is incredibly impressive, and while they make it look easy, there were a lot of challenges involved with the language's construction.
"The biggest difficulty with this project is knowing where to draw the line between sticking to the source material and making a 'good' conlang," The_Dialog_Box continued.
"If we try too hard to stick to what the voice lines say, we could end up with a massive set of oddly specific rules that only serve to allow certain voice lines to make sense. But if we don't draw from the voice lines enough, we could end up creating a generic conlang that's only loosely inspired by Hollow Knight."
This conlang is certainly not generic, however. Below you'll find the in-depth alphabet structure Anand_G has come up with, and this is only version three, as the group are still working on improving it.
The systems referred to in the alphabet above relate to different ways The Hallowscript can be written. System one is for inanimate objects (and has options for how the letters can be joined together or written alone), system two is for animate objects, abstract nouns and important verbs.
According to the conlangers, some of the language appears to follow rules of logography - where certain words already have their own sort of pre-built design. The multiple systems of writing are similar to some real-world languages too, Anand_G told me it's closest comparison would be to the Japanese dialects of Hiragana, Katakana, and Kanji.
"I also saw some letters had a different look near the end of words in the tablets (but not so different it was justifiable they were different letters). This is comparable to Arabic, which has a beginning, middle, and end forms of each letter."
If you want to have a go at writing some words or phrases in The Hallowscript yourself, there are a fair amount of rules and systems the group has come up with that you can find here. If you manage to wrap your head around the language, you could end up with something resembling this:
The spoken part of the language is a slightly different affair, however. Anand_G told me he got an idea for the 'feel' of it from Latin and Japanese, but the way characters talk in Hollow Knight is so unique he's found it difficult to compare. Though it is somewhat possible to speak it - if you're able to replicate the sounds.
"The phonetics were really hard, and I didn't get very far with them until The_Dialog_Box showed up and had figured it out in full. One of the more difficult things about the phonetics was figuring out the allophones," Anand_G said.
"Allophones are sounds that seem different, but are interchangeable. Looking through the voice lines The_Dialog_Box found many very similar words, and a common thing across all of them was that they differed by switching the 'a' to an 'e'. The discovery of these had a big impact on the written text, as it changed how many symbols needed to be made."
To most of us, all this talk of allophones and logography might just be reminiscent of a stressful school language lesson, but for people like Anand_G and The_Dialog_Box, all this work has been one interesting mystery after the next to figure out.
Unfortunately, Anand_G's planned D&D session that inspired all this never ended up happening, but as a consolation he's discovered how many people in the community want to get involved in this sort of work.
"The most fun part for me was actually hearing how many people wanted to help, and how much cool stuff that they had already figured out. For example, The_Dialog_Box piecing together how branching worked was absolutely amazing.
"I never expected so many people to want to join in! And I don't think we would have figured out half of the stuff we did without having multiple people."
Essentially, this is all very in depth talk explaining how a group of strangers on reddit have made an entire language, based on gibberish, from a video game about exploring a lost bug civilisation. The Hallowscript team is a testament to how dedicated the Hollow Knight community is, and even now they're still tinkering with the language they've made.
"I haven't thought about what I might do with language once it's done," said The_Dialog_Box. "I'm in it for the experience-and of course, for the fun. After all, this is a perfect intersection of two things I'm really passionate about: Hollow Knight lore and conlangs. What more could I ask for!"