On Language Viruses and Mutants

Well, that’s about as compelling a title as I can come up with for what will probably be a very dry and dull post.

Would you like to know one of my deeper, darker secrets?

As a writer, as someone with a love of language, as someone who grew up heavily influenced by the linguistic mastery of Tolkien, as a person with a deep and abiding love for world history and the most esoteric and obscure stories you can uncover around the globe… I’m absolutely atrocious as other languages. I, in the words of the great philosopher Korben Dallas, only speak two languages: English and Bad English.

This is not for lack of trying. I took several years of Spanish back in high school, all of which I promptly forgot as soon as my last test was done because I was in the whitest state in America. I remember more Latin than I do Spanish because at least I make use of the root words on a regular basis. My German is limited to lyrics from Rammstein songs that would probably get me assaulted if spoken in mixed company, my French is nonexistant outside of je suis désolé, je ne parle pas francais and my attempts at conversing with other (more observant) Jewish people inevitably end up like the end of that scene from Curb where Larry tries to speak Yiddish. I think if there’s any real world language I can kind of puzzle out it’s probably Japanese after a couple decades of watching fansubbed anime, and even then I’m lost outside of people yelling out their attack names.

This crops up as a bit of a problem when you want to write non-western fantasy stories, I find. Those happen to be my favorite kind of fantasy stories to write. Now, there is a certain amount of leeway you are granted as a writer. There’s a widely accepted idea that your story is being translated from the native language of the land into English, and that’s how you end up with books where Germany doesn’t exist but men still use cologne, because readers are far more willing to put up with thinking that the author is translating whatever that world’s version is into something more easily understandable than they are with reading “and then Lord Smeepberg doused himself with fragrant oils decanted from the far off lands of Utvar” every time the character is washing up in preparation for a social event.

Where it does trip the aspiring storyteller up is in the names.

I get really weird about names. They stress me out more than they should. I have a pathological fear of being that guy who writes a doorstopper fantasy novel about Nephthys, Uffe and Dave. Nothing drags me out of a story faster than having randomized names that don’t make any kind of sense in the setting and don’t even look like they’ve come from similar languages, especially if they’re in an isolated tribe or kingdom under a dedicated theocracy, the kind of insular culture where you really are going to go through the same name listing over and over again with a lot of juniors or Dude, son of Dude type situations.

There are two workarounds to this problem and I make use of both.

The first one, and I feel very lazy when I use it even though I haven’t ever gotten a complaint from a reader about it, is that I tend to use a lot of port city settings. Ports are natural melting pots where you will end up with all kinds of people passing through, all kinds of personal encounters, kids being born heir to multiple cultures and that wonderful fusion that happens in the real world. Yeah, there will be a lot of segregation and neighborhoods claimed by one group or another, but it’s a great way to put a lot of people from different backgrounds together and have it come off as very organic. Organic is good. I’ve lived in and traveled through enough coastal cities that it doesn’t tweak my suspension of disbelief at all. It can say a lot about the character of a city when you do have a disparate group of naming conventions coming together and interacting on a day to day basis, it deepens the worldbuilding well.

The second way is a bit more complicated, and it’s one that I’ve tried to use more and more as I’ve gotten older and started to challenge myself more as a writer, tried to climb out of my comfort zone.

Human beings all came from somewhere. General consensus is we stumbled out of Africa and split off into various smaller groups that spread across the globe. Once languages started to develop, every split resulted in the newly-formed groups taking those languages in different directions, even with shared heritage.

If you’re a visual person like I am, language tree illustrations are your absolute best friend here. They will save your proverbial life.

As a writer, and taking my history background into that, what I like to do is identify an origin point for the humans in my story and then trace how they come to be in the various places they are when the story narrative begins. This requires me to know which languages are influencing each group so that I can backwards engineer them down the tree, find the divergence points, and take a stab at how long it took the real world equivalent to become separate languages instead of regional takes on the same language. I would say the bulk of my worldbuilding is like this, because people tend to make the world and every event you mention in your history should have a long chain of events leading up to it, a lot of them started by people.

As an example, one of the stories I’ve brought up before deals with a planet where the “old world” has its roots in Akkadian and Sumerian, with the supernatural backbone of the continent gaining most of its terminology from languages based off of those. The divine beings of the setting either got their names from tribes using those languages, or gave those languages to the primitive people they encountered and took on as followers. Eventually their descendants would have something based partly off the Ottomans, in a 1910s-1920s technological metropolis and vast empire with colonies on other continents. That’s doable. That’s not super difficult. I’ve given myself a lot of time and space on a land mass to play around with language variations and can follow the original tribes coming out of their place to absorb the fantasy equivalent to some steppe nomads and settlers, with similarities to the Oghuz, some of the Slavic regions, just that nice little blend that allows for a wide but believable naming palette. Neo-Aramaic works in there, I have plenty of little pockets and splinter groups and can mark when each one is either conquered or voluntarily joins in.

I should take a second to note that language and names are a great source of societal tension in a story, too. I might demonstrate that for being such a broad and culturally rich empire there’s still a lot of inequality and allusions to a caste system by having some of the most orthodox characters discussing the divine language of the old gods and the founders of the empire, and despairing over how that language has been infected by these smaller virus-tongues that muddle the godly power of the old words. And if that old language is rich in magic spells that no longer work, maybe they’re right in the metaphysical realm while still believing it for bigoted rather than academic/magical reasons.

If we lived in a world where miracles could happen with a spoken verse and all of a sudden they stopped working, how long do you think it would take some enterprising nationalist to whip people into pogroms by saying “you know, maybe we wouldn’t be suffering and losing our magic if we hadn’t accepted THOSE people”?

I do digress a little bit.

The problem I ran into was that my “new world” setting needed to have a Arabian-inspired group already quite predominant when the continent is discovered and the colonies start popping up.

Now, given that Arabic has similar semitic connections to, say, Hebrew, it is actually a closer kin to the Akkadian/Sumerian ancients in this setting than those same ancients have to the more Turkish/Slavic/melting pot culture that make up the empire. That has to mean something, and I only realized it after I was hip deep in the story. One of my worse “oh, shit” moments and scrambling to retroactively justify the narrative choices I was already making, but it worked out for the better because it means that those tribes need to have come from the same continent, and somehow gotten from there to here while maintaining naming conventions based off of East/South-Central semitic roots. These people need to have somehow gotten across the sea during a very primitive technological era either shortly before or shortly after the divine beings made first contact with humanity.

It actually worked out in my favor and to strengthen the story. I was drawn to Arabic and Bedouin backgrounds for these new world tribes because I love the sound of the language and the shape of the names, and the conventions for familial names and titles are really perfect for nomadic groups I want to focus on for a bulk of the story. Once the reader is familiarized with the naming system I have a very quick and unobtrusive way to impart a lot of information about a character’s background, history and region just in how someone addresses them. And having them originally come from the old world in the way that they did filled in a lot of plot blanks I had been struggling with up until that point, deepened the mythology of the setting and let me expand the scope of future stories I’d like to tell there.

If nothing else is was an excuse to consume a huge amount of new historical texts I otherwise might not have seen. Apparently the early Turkish tribes almost gave the Mongols a run for their money and might have become the terror of the steppes if they hadn’t ended up sweeping down into portions of what would become the Levant and discarding the nomadic lifestyle in favor of more typical empire building.

owskull.pngFor my review today I’m going to cheat and not do a book or a show like I have been doing, instead I’d really like to point to a long article called Scientists Trace Society’s Myths to Primordial Origins. It is probably the best article I’ve read this year, possibly in the last few years, and it’s very much in my wheelhouse. It’s breaking mythology down into common trends and memetics, which has been done before but never on this scope, and then tracking them with the spread of human civilization and cultural offshoots and so much more. It’s like a more advanced take on the Monomyth and exploring why certain elements show up at certain times across the landscape of humanity instead of just trying to find a common narrative shape to the whole thing. The bits about certain twists on the cave monster myth correlating to groups of people spending more and more time on animal husbandry, the section about the cosmic hunt as a recurring theme… It’s just really good and I can’t do it justice in a review, you should go read it for yourself immediately. It’s not all Jung and collective unconscious theories like you might imagine either, it’s much more grounded and less dreamy.


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