How Harvard Grad Adam Aleksic Went Viral for Making a Dolphin Language

There are a lot of words that can be used to describe Adam Aleksic: frenetic, energetic, curious, smart, clever, obsessed. Above all else, he’s restless. During our conversation via Zoom, the recent Harvard University grad never sat still for more than a few minutes before getting up to grab something across the room or simply to pace with laptop in hand—all the while expounding on a topic that has been his life for years: language.

Aleksic goes by EtymologyNerd on Instagram and TikTok, the latter of which has amassed a healthy following since he began posting in March 2023. While many of his early videos focused on the etymology of words—the development and evolution of a word’s meaning over time—he’s since hit his stride by taking his viewers into the world of constructed languages, also known as conlang, the practice of creating a language out of whole cloth.

Think The Lord of the Rings’ Elvish, Game of Thrones’ Dothraki, or Star Trek’s Klingon. Rather than building a language for a fantastical, fictional world, though, Aleksic takes a more offbeat approach to conlanging.

He’s created a squeaky and clicky dolphin language, a whistle-based bird language, and even a spit-take filled lobster language based on the fact that “lobsters pee out of their eyes.” In addition to his conlanging, he’s also transcribed the Minecraft villager sound into the phonetic alphabet, etymologically deconstructed the minion language, and translated William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet into his bird language.

Aleksic’s videos are more than just fun, meme-ified exercises in linguistics. It’s an opportunity to share his passion for language and the history of words to a broader audience—mostly young Gen Z and Millennial viewers who might not otherwise think about where the words they use come from.

“How our words came to be tell us a lot about who we are right now,” Aleksic, who graduated with a degree in linguistics but currently works as an educational consultant, told The Daily Beast. “I think that’s really cool.”

Aleksic sat down with The Daily Beast for a quick chat about his love of language, going viral on TikTok, and how he started his own cult while at Harvard.

(This interview has been edited for clarity and length)

How did you get interested in linguistics in the first place?

I got super into language about six years ago now. I read this book called The Etymologicon by Mark Forsythe. He’s a British linguist who wrote this really, really good introductory book and he got me interested in explaining the circuitous nature of language. He goes into different words and shows how they’re connected—and I thought that was so cool. And then I just started reading a bunch of more books like The Art of Language Invention by David Peterson. He was the guy who created the Game of Thrones Dothraki language.

After that, I started out just blogging on the internet about language. [Earlier this year] I thought I’d start educating on TikTok, which has been really cool.

Your presence on TikTok has really blown up in just a few months. How’s that experience been for you?

It’s been really exciting. I used to make a lot of infographics [about language] on my Instagram, but this is the first time I started making videos, which is like a whole other step of putting your face out there.

And I think what’s part of what makes my TikTok successful is I take linguistics and I make it chaotic. That’s the kind of Gen-Z spin on it. There’s a lot of potential there for pushing the boundaries of what we might expect from language—and that raises a lot of interesting questions as well. Is it really possible to make a language out of whistles? There’s only one way to find out. Is it really possible that a word coming from a certain source can teach us something? One way to find out. That’s what I’m interested in making.

What is it about language and linguistics that makes it so chaotic?

Every linguist is a little chaotic at heart. What I’m interested in is testing language and pushing the boundaries. Every language is so different from one another and there’s so many options for how language can be constructed. How words can be ordered, how the vocabulary is organized, how words are put together.

All these little puzzle pieces can be so broad ranging that you can combine them in many new ways to make anything ranging from minimalistic or something super expensive, or something just kind of different. Each language has its own rules and the great thing about making your own language is that you can make your own rules.

That’s something we saw pretty well with your bird language. What was the process of creating a language out of whistles like?

So there are languages that are communicated through whistling already. In Turkey, there’s one called the Turkish bird language. There’s also a register of Spanish called the Silbo Gomero, which is spoken in the Canary Islands across long distances. A “register” communicates the language but isn’t actually the language themselves like how Morse code is a register of English.

My idea with the bird language was to ask, “Can we take a language, keep the tones and remove everything else?” Technically, it could be done in any musical instrument, right? I like whistling, so I thought this is a fun chance for me just to whistle on the internet. It’s also just another example of a crazy linguistic experiment: Can we make a language that’s just whistling and isn’t based on any other language?

Why do you think people have glommed onto this type of language content so much? I wouldn’t expect that TikTok and etymology necessarily go together.

I think people just like weird things—and I think this is about as weird as it gets. We think of language as just learning rigid rules like in Spanish class. So the idea of turning the study of language and something so academic to making your own rules out of it, and then throwing in a whole other factor like whistling or a dolphin language that’s just a series of vowels and glottal stops, brings it to a whole new light.

I’ve gotten some really positive feedback with comments from people saying, “You’re inspiring me to go into linguistics.” Of course, I tell them to make sure they have employment prospects lined up. But overall, the positive comments are really exciting.

I’ve also got a chance to meet David Peterson, who made the Dothraki language; and Mark Oakland, who made the Klingon language. [The conlang community] is very small. Everybody’s aware of each other’s work and they’ve all been inspirational to me. I hope that, at this point, other people who are involved in conlanging or even just interested in language may have found my work and be interested as well.

One other thing I wanted to ask you about is the cult you created while you were at Harvard. I find that so interesting because I think it captures this idea that, like you said, linguists are all chaotic at heart. What drives you to do these things?

That’s all me asking, “How can we change reality a little bit?”

Can we take what we know about a language and just flip it on its side? Can we just take all sounds out of a language making whistling? Can we just make every week a week like with the Choosening Cult? Why not?

Also, I just really like to see weird things like this. I’m personally advocating for more people to make weird things.

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