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.


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.