Monday, December 9, 2013

New Languages for a New Setting

I don't have a name for the new setting yet, and one of my first priorities is developing a naming scheme so that I don't have to keep calling this names like "New Setting 2013-2,"  "Eastern Isles" and "Big Island." Because that just sucks.

I believe that names are crucially important to establishing the suspension of disbelief in any kind of fantastic setting. They are the interface, on the front lines between the material and its users. There are a number of different ways to approach naming, including just repurposing historical names (as Howard largely did,) but I find myself too immersed in real history to be comfortable with that, and I think it less appropriate to setting design for gaming as opposed to straight fiction, where you can get by with a rather low number of suggestive names in any particular piece. The gaming setting needs a lot more names.

Fundamentally, of course, names are made from languages. The full-throated classical approach (because this is the way old Tollers did it,) is to design languages and work the names out from those. For most people, though, this is overkill unless you have a specific interest in constructing languages, or in texts that might be written in those tongues.

I do have such an interest and have in fact done substantial conlang work in the past, especially on a language called Draványa for my setting of Ytherra. This language is worked out in some detail, but I do not want to go to those lengths here. However, knowing what I know, the names of the new setting will feel false if I don't design them with linguistic considerations in mind. Too, I don't want to cut off any potential future options by making a hash of the names now and then deciding later that I want to work out additional details. Even a small handful of names picked out before the language is laid down can create enormous headaches for the language builder later, as he or she tries to figure out just how that glottal stop ended up in that city name where no such thing exists in the language spoken there. Disorganization of this kind can result in interesting revelations; it happened to Tolkien and he spent a lot of time working out detailed etymologies of words developed using earlier iterations of his languages and which didn't quite fit with his then-current understanding. Not entirely without profit but not something I want to stress over very much on this project.


Therefore we will be creating a modest number of what we call naming languages, not designed to be developed much past the point where we can use them to reliably construct names. This requires much, much less work, to the point where I can outline the basics of the process in a series of blog posts, of which you've already read much of the first.

Having worked out a skeletal history of the so-called "Eastern Isles," which I posted earlier, I have a solid idea already of the number of languages I will need: eight. This seems like a lot, but I'm trying to keep the work to a minimum; at the end I'll have a naming guide for each language that should take up well under a page but which will give me the tools to create unique yet consistent names in the setting.

I will sketch the languages out thus:

Cythric is the archaic language of the native human inhabitants of the Eastern Isles. It is not spoken as such any more, aside from a few religious invocations, but daughter languages are spoken by some tribal peoples and most of the places on the eastern half of the Big Island (east of the so-called D/C line) derive from Cythric. It is actually a family of related languages brought to the isles by several waves of humans that migrated to the isles deep in antiquity.

I intend Cythric to look and sound vaguely Celtic with elements of Old English and Basque. Keeping the idiosyncratic spellings of Welsh out of it for sanity's sake, we'll see letter combinations like ch, dd/dh and rr/rh. The letter c will always be hard, while y will always be a vowel (corresponding to the sound of i in "will".) There will be oe and ae dipthongs but I probably will not use the digraphs.

Darisceni is the blanket name for a variety of related languages spoken by Dariscene invaders. Many place names west of the D/C line are derived from Darisceni, including almost all places on the Smaller Island, where the Dariscene invaders overwhelmed the native Cythric peoples almost completely. Darisceni as such is no longer spoken on the Isles but there are related tongues spoken on the continental mainland to the west.

My plan is to give Darisceni a Romance sound — without making it sound too much like Latin. The entire language will be developed from that one word Dariscene in mind, so there will be silent letters and phonological elements resembling those in French or Italian.

Skörkaga is the language of the natives of Skörvard, north and west of the Isles. There are colonies of Skörhagen on the Big Island's craggy northwestern shore and they are frequently seen as raiders or merchants throughout the Isles, but distance prevented them from establishing a major presence like the historical Danelaw.

Skörkaga will of course be inspired by Norse with elements from German and perhaps Russian. Long vowels will be denoted by umlauts and heavy compounding will be possible.

There is a Common Tongue, as yet unnamed. It is built on Cythric with a large number of loanwords from Darisceni and elsewhere, including Elven and Skörkaga words borrowed from traders. Both place and personal names will tend to be from the predecessor languages, however.

Of the non-humans, Halflings speak the Common Tongue, as do Dwarves except in private. Dwarven will be Tolkien-inspired and therefore Semetic in structure; I intend to do very little with it. Old Elven, on the other hand, will strive to have a cold, remote and inhuman feel, that of a tongue Man was not meant to speak. Even the native Elves of the Isles no longer speak it. Fully voiced, vowel-rich and with no non-final stops, it will have a moaning, alien quality.

I'm most excited about Orcish and am thinking of eventually developing it further. While stereotypically guttural, it will have very simple nouns but complex verbs. Highly agglutinative, its development will fully embrace the Sapir-Whorf idea that culture influences language and vice versa. While phonologically influenced by the Black Speech the real inspiration for Orcish is a line by Dunsany: Orcish is not a language of things, but a language of doing and of having done.

With each language briefly sketched, what else do I need? For the naming language to be fully useful, I need to know the following:
  • What sounds are available in the language? This is called the language's phonology. We don't need to a full phonetic inventory, but it needs to be at least a sketch thereof. If it isn't going to be denoted in the transliterated names it can be safely ignored here. Rosenfelder will tell you that you need a complete phonological inventory.
  • How do those phonemes assemble into morphological elements like word roots and affixes? How do the language's sounds get put together to make up the pieces of words that we call morphemes?
  • How do morphemes build actual words? This can occur by inflection or by other means.
  • We'll also need to know a few things regarding grammar: word order, how adjectives are use and whether there is compounding or not, and other details.

Once those are determined we will have grounds upon which to proceed, which we'll do in the next post.

Before we get to that, though, I should recommend that if you are interested in designing languages for your games, do check out the Language Construction Kit, which lays out the steps of language design very simply and understandably. If it had been around when I created Draványa I would have less gray hair today. There is also a significantly expanded book version that I wholeheartedly recommend.