One of the occasional pitfalls I see in genre writing is the awkward use of constructed vocabulary, usually in the production of names, sometimes in the development of bits of exotic dialogue. This is usually to suggest the living language of a fantastic culture. Unfortunately, many authors are careless about this and seem to come up with their constructed vocabulary at random, so we end up with “Qadgop the Mercotan” or something equally silly. (Five kudos to anyone who recognizes the source of that name, which did in fact appear in a piece of genre fiction. At least in that case the author was trying to be silly.)
The world-building challenge is to produce an actual constructed language from which names and bits of vocabulary can emerge organically. There’s something aesthetically pleasing about this when it’s well done. The human brain seems to recognize the internal logic of a well-constructed language, even if we’re not fluent in it. J. R. R. Tolkien, of course, was the past master at this, but a lot of other authors (and hobbyists) have had a crack at it over the years.
For The Curse of Steel, I’ve decided to build at least one constructed language, mostly for naming purposes. Since I tend to insist on doing things the hard way, I’m actually building an “ur-language” and producing my primary language by applying a consistent set of sound-changes. In the back of my mind, I have half a thought that I may need a second constructed language, one that feels related to the first, rather as (e.g.) Greek and Latin are both members of the Indo-European language family. If and when I go that far, I can generate words in the second language by applying a different set of sound-changes to the ur-language roots I’ve developed.
The past few days have been fairly productive in this area. I seem to have finally developed a work-flow that actually functions, without getting me snarled up in unnecessary details of semantics, grammar, or phonology. In particular, I decided to write some text in English and “translate” that, developing new vocabulary and bits of grammar as needed. At the moment, I have about sixty words of vocabulary, several rules of inflection and word morphology, and about a page of notes on semantic structure. Enough to produce an actual paragraph of text:
Esi degra tremárakai múr kresdan. Esi kráva degraka bendír. Augrinír tan esa nekám velka devam. Enkorír skátoi taino. Antekrír skátoi tainmuro, dún begrír tan múr bákha. Vóki degra velka kresdani, dún tarthámi da skátoi. Verti kráva ked saka kó márai. Asgáni skátokai kestan, dún verti dó an atrethen degra. Rethi kráva arekhton saka padír, dún verti sa múr skáto. Dághi kráva aspera rethen skátoka klávo; esi dó kresdághen, dún esi dó degraka danpreta.
A rough back-translation into English would read something like this:
Lion was a great warrior of the Mighty People. Raven was Lion’s daughter. One night they visited the Wolf-clan. Orcs attacked the hill-fort. The orcs broke into the stockade and threatened to do great harm. Lion summoned the Wolf warriors, and opposed the orcs. Raven slew many with her bow. A chieftain of the orcs came forth, and slew Lion in single combat. Raven fought to avenge her father, and slew the great orc. After the battle, Raven took the orc’s sword, as a spoil of war and as Lion’s weregild.
You’ll recognize that as a one-paragraph summary, in pseudo-epic style, of the first chapter of The Curse of Steel, posted a few days ago here.
A few notes:
The convention in this language is to tell stories in the present tense, which is how the untranslated passage is written. In English, of course, narrative is normally framed in past tense.
The language has a very strict verb-subject-object (VSO) sentence structure. VSO languages are uncommon, although not unheard of; notably, many of the Celtic languages use that structure. It seemed appropriate, since I have a sense that Kráva’s people resemble the ancient Celts in many respects. Using a very strict word order helps with the design, since strongly positional languages don’t need quite as elaborate a system of noun or verb inflections.
I’m using a system of word roots very similar to the reconstructed Proto-Indo-European vocabulary, although in most cases I’m deliberately selecting different roots. The result should be a language that sounds as if it would be at home in the Indo-European family, without actually bearing more than a superficial resemblance to any one IE language.
A few pieces of vocabulary I’m rather pleased with:
skáto “orc” is from a word root that means “to hate,” with a noun suffix that implies a “thing” rather than a living creature or human being. Essentially, a skáto is a “thing that hates,” and notably not a person that hates. Yes, Kráva’s people really don’t like orcs.
There’s a whole vocabulary around the word kresa “war,” including kresdan “warrior” (or literally “war-man”) and kresdághen (“plunder, spoils,” literally “war-taking”). Some cultures have a hundred words for snow, but I suspect Kráva’s people may have dozens of words for armed conflict.
arekht- literally means “to set straight,” but it also carries the meanings of “to make right,” “to carry out justice,” and “to avenge.” Which probably is another clue about this culture. Related to that is the word danpreta “man-price,” or more appropriately “weregild.”
Now that I’ve been able to produce one paragraph, I can probably develop more as needed, hanging more bits of vocabulary and syntax onto the partial framework I have. I think the next piece of this project will be to start assembling a map for the story, and coming up with names for terrain features and settlements. Not sure whether I’ll do that immediately, or get back to working on Architect of Worlds again . . .