Land of the Lost's Lost Language

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It's easy to forget, with the release of the dino-pee-soaked Will Ferrell comedy, that Land of the Lost was unusually sophisticated Saturday morning fare... complete with the first artificial language ever created for a TV show.

The Los Angeles Times caught up this weekend with Phillip Paley, who played the caveboy Cha-Ka in all 43 episodes of the 1974-76 series. Paley earned the role thanks to a childhood spent learning gymnastics and karate; he studied under Chuck Norris and was a black belt by age nine. Today, he's 45 and working at a law firm in Santa Monica, and he tells the Times that, while he no longer has his Cha-Ka costume, he still has the dictionary of the Paku language created for the show that Cha-Ka and his people spoke. Years before Klingon appeared as a full-fledged language of its own in the 1980s in the Star Trek films and on Star Trek: The Next Generation, Land of the Lost hired a UCLA linguist to invent a complete language for Paley and his fellow Pakuni.


Series co-creator Marty Krofft, speaking to British magazine SFX in 1997, said the initial impulse to create an artificial language for the show came from the network, which, hoping to appease the FCC, wanted to ensure that the kids' show had a positive educational component. Sid and Marty Krofft hired linguist Victoria Fromkin to create the language.

In the same issue of SFX, Fromkin said that she developed the language to be revealed over time in the series, so that kids watching could learn new words every week the same way Will and Holly did in their attempts to understand Cha-Ka, by picking up the Paku vocabulary and grammar in context as Cha-Ka used them. (Unfortunately, Fromkin said, the episodes would frequently air out of sequence in reruns, spoiling her lesson plan.) "Since I did a lot of work on West African languages, particularly Akan, the major language of Ghana, Paku appears to be in the Kwa family of Bantu languages," she said. "Or at least if some linguist 2000 years from now would find excerpts of it, through reconstruction methods they would probably conclude that."


Not only was Paku the first artificial language created for a kid's show (according to Stephen Corley and Tim Cain's Encyclopedia of Fictional and Fantastic Languages), but it was also the first instance of a television show hiring a professional linguist to develop such a language. Fromkin went on to invent the far less extensive vampire language spoken in the 1998 film Blade.

Fromkin created a 200-word vocabulary for the Pakuni. A good chunk of which survives in this Pakuni-English dictionary reconstructed by LOTL fan Nels Olsen. So if you're watching the reruns again on SyFy, you can consult the list and learn not to confuse an aganka (iguana) with an agamba (dinosaur).