languages


So, one of the conlangs I worked on this year was Sehimu Thinara, the magical language for the card game Serpent’s Tongue.  The game is now shipping, so go buy a couple dozen.

st-logo

The game’s head sorcerer, Christopher Gabrielson, approached me with kind of an emergency request– they had some people working on it but there was a disconnect, and they needed something fast.  So I reworked the vocabulary they already had and worked out the grammar.  Christopher and Jeremy Scherer did a lot of the initial work and carried on my stuff.

The game attempts something I wouldn’t have thought possible: it makes people speak in a conlang!  Sehimu Thinara (ST) is the secret language of the universe, you see; spells are orders spoken in the language.  I’m told that players take to the idea pretty well.  The game itself only makes you say words that are on the cards, but they wanted a whole language to generate them reasonably, and for later use.

They had developed an alphabet and phonology, so I worked with that.  Anyway, since gamers will be expected to say these words, it wasn’t a good idea to make them learn unusual sounds.  (As for the alphabet, the Serpent’s Tongue folks have access to far better artists than me!)

They had also worked out a vocabulary which divided the letters of the alphabet into six spheres (zokrul): quantum, soul, mind, biology, force, matter.  Now, this is the sort of non-naturalistic feature probably only a non-linguist would create, but I went with it, because a magical language should have some strange but satisfying features.  I think it’d be really disappointing if the secret language of mages built into the structure of the universe turned out to be just like Dutch or Jaqaru or Luo.

I added another such feature: reversing the phonemes in a word reverses the meaning.  E.g.:

  • ketig fire / gitek ice
  • devop acid / poved base
  • fekhar woman / rakhef man
  • sauhu war / uhuas peace
  • zhowa circle /  awozh point
  • pivda easy / avdip difficult

(The word construction method uses a lot of the possible phonological space, and generates words that sound very non-Latinate, like avdip above.  It’s interesting that simply using more voiced stops makes for words that seem very odd to an English speaker.)

The language is optimized for casting spells, which are in effect imperatives addressed to the laws of magic.  So ketig as an utterance is actually a command for something to be on fire.  An object can be specified, of course: rakhef ketig, set the man on fire.

As should surprise no one who knows my languages, there’s quite a bit of derivational morphology.  You can make a root into a noun with -a, or after a vowel -ra; thus thina ‘know’ > thinara ‘knowledge’. The general adjectivizer is -i, or after a vowel -li, thus ketigi ‘fiery’ or ‘flaming’, zhowali ‘circular’.  With verbs -u has a passive meaning: ketigu ‘flamed’ or ‘set on fire'; sehim ‘hide’ > sehimu ‘hidden’.

A cute touch, I think: syllables belonging to each of the six spheres serve as derivational infixes.  E.g. -da- belongs to the Matter sphere, and names substances or objects: gayit ‘move’ > gadayit ‘vehicle’.  Or -na- belongs to Mind and names persons, so bo-w ‘cast a spell’ > bonaw ‘mage’.  There is no 1st person pronoun, but bonaw generally serves in its place, along with ezhow ‘self’.

There is a 3rd person pronoun for each sphere, to be used for referents in that sphere, which is effectively a gender system.  Not something I’d normally impose on beginners, but as the spheres are basic to the game and to the vocabulary, it seems fair.

Ordinary sentences can be distinguished from spells by the use of a tense/aspect/mode prefix, such as u- present, is- past imperfect, me- past perfect, yau- irrealis.  Thus Rakhef u-ketig ‘the man is on fire'; Rakhef yau-ketig ‘the man may be on fire’.

There’s also a pure aspect particle bab which can be modified iconically in various ways to express the precise nature of the action: e.g. ba expresses that the action started but didn’t stop; ab that it stopped; baba that it was repeated; baab that it was prolonged.

The syntax is SOV; subjects and objects are separated by the clitic an-. Thus Bonaw an-rakhef baba me-ketig ‘the mage kept setting the man on fire’.

Here’s one more glimpse, a more complicated sample sentence:

Suya saukh-da imi-pabodez me-dimsu imi-obawta, ezhow an-ulani-ra lo depav-a u-abu.

SUB every-object in-world PERF-lose IN-day / self SEP-hope-NOMN and strong-NOMN PRES-be

When all is lost in the world, I am hope and I am strength.

Edit: The whole grammatical sketch is here.

The Conlanger’s Lexipedia is now available at Amazon.

http://www.zompist.com/lexipedia.html

The paperback is out now; the Kindle will be available in a few days.

Perfect for conlangers, conworlders, language freaks, firefighters, actuaries, Methodists, snipers, spies, baritones, lepidopterists, Mind Flayers, and gnolls!

So, where’s the book? I ordered the proof copy today. As soon as it comes, I’ll do some intensive editing and correcting, and then GET IT OUT THE DOOR.

Each step seems to be taking just a little longer than I expect. But the end is near. Tell all your loved ones to buy you a copy!

About ten minutes ago, I finished revising the second part of The Conlanger’s Lexipedia. (There are two parts because Word, bless its malfunctioning heart, cannot handle the entire text.)

So, I need victims readers! If you think you could read the whole thing in a relatively short period (the next 2-4 weeks) and offer some feedback, drop me a line at markrose at zompist dot com.

There’s a fair amount of physics and biology and an ungodly amount of Greek, Latin, and Chinese, so if you have expertise in those areas, please mention it.

(I’ll revise it and then need some more reactions, so if I get enough responses you may be in the next batch of readers.)

Today I got through Axel Shuessler’s Chinese dictionary, so I have a load of Chinese etymologies for the Conlanger’s Lexipedia.

The general procedure was admirably arcane:

  1. Look up the English word in the English-Chinese dictionary– say,  ‘friend’, which is péngyǒu 朋友.
  2. Find péng in the Chinese-English dictionary.  Um, what was the radical again?  Oh, ‘flesh’.  OK, there it is; it means ‘friend, acquaintance, companion.’
  3. Look up yǒu… er, what was the character again?  Dunno what the radical is, but that looks like 女 in the lower half, that’s easy to look for.  OK, it means ‘friend.’
  4. So the derivation of péngyǒu is ‘friend-friend’?  Ha, no, this is yet another case of Mandarin zeroing in on a meaning, amid its host of homophones, by giving two closely related words.  This is where Schuessler comes to the rescue.  Look up both words– fortunately these are some of the few that don’t have different traditional forms.
  5. Here’s   朋– the original meaning is ‘pair, set of two’, and he helpfully explains that this led to the meaning ‘friend’ (you and your friend make a pair).
  6. And here’s 友– ‘be friendly’, but listed alongside words meaning ‘aid’ and ‘(on) the right’– a friend is your right-hand-man.

(Note… if you were chuckling because is really ‘moon’ not ‘flesh’… the joke’s on you, 朋 is actually neither– Karlgren says it’s a picture of a bird’s wing.  To look up words you only need to recognize the radicals, not name them… I still think of ⾣ as ‘π in a box’.)

So in this case we’ve got two interesting etymologies for the price of one.  Often enough a word is missing from Schuessler, or matches an Indo-European etymology I already have, or doesn’t have any meaning change– e.g. the word for ‘wine’ is 酒 Jiǔ whose earliest meaning is… ‘wine’.

Chinese is like an old hoarder’s apartment: nothing is ever really thrown out.  So a given character may have half a dozen meanings; the earliest meaning (which Schuessler gives) is usually not evident.  Even more fun is when a different original meaning can be teased out from Sino-Tibetan.  E.g. Chinese words meaning ‘pleasant’, ‘glad’, ‘relax’, and ‘rob’ are all related to a Sino-Tibetan root meaning ‘loosen, relax’.

So, what’s next?  I’m still adding etymologies; the next step will be to put all the text together, convert it to 6″ x 9″, and get all the formatting right.  After that I’ll be ready to ask for some readers to see if I actually have something useful and readable.

Stand.  It’s the root of assist, insist, resist, base, basis, constant, distant, instant, exist, stable, stage, state, station, statue, stance, stay, steady, understand, (the) rest, restitution, substitute, subsist, substance, stanza.  And stand.  Plus Czech prst ‘finger’ and Greek oura ‘tail’.

Which is to say, I’m doing etymology right now, for my next book.  I want to have multiple etymologies for about a thousand words, as food for thought, and so I’m reading a lot of small print and abusing the Unicode generator.

The text for the book is kind of done except for this.  Meaning, I think most of what I want to say is covered, only I will certainly discover it isn’t and keep writing more.  There’s a point where a book is mostly present but highly fluid, and this is it… I keep thinking of new things I should add.

Also I had an idea for another book.  Though it will require even more research… I should go finish Diary of the Prose Wars just so I can simply make up stuff instead.

But for now, back to etymology.  Why is it that just about all the Indo-European languages decided that the inherited word for nose was just fine, but head needed to be changed?  I wonder if some of these patterns [from 'defender'] extend ['stretch out'] to other languages ['tongues'].

I’m working on my Lexipedia, and I’d like to have many examples of semantic divisions that are different from English.  Things like this:

  • French doesn’t bother to distinguish ‘city’ and ‘town’, making do with ville
  • Japanese divides ‘water’ into mizu ‘cold water’ and yu ‘hot water’
  • Guugu Yimithirr speakers don’t point out things as left/right, but as north/south/east/west
  • In some languages there are not four cardinal directions but eight (that is, directions like northeast have their own names not derived from the main four)

But the more examples I have the better, so if you have some, lay ‘em on me (markrose at zompist dot com).  Note that what I’m after is not just different words, but different categorizations of the world– places where a semantic field is mapped out differently (even if trivially), as in the above examples.

Naturally, I’ve accumulated quite a few examples already, from various languages, but they’re mostly things I’ve run into randomly, and you alert readers may well know some that I’ve never heard of.  (If it’s in Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things, however, I’ve heard it.)

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