Speaking in Tongues

I kept thinking, after I wrote about my doubts in writing the sequel to Starfall, and I decided finally to go for it: On November 1, I began writing. And even with a couple days encumbered by sour and bitter feelings, I’ve written a few thousand words every day since. In fact, I expect I’ll hit 50,000 words today–but the story is still far from complete, and as I predicted back in 2012, it’ll need a third book to finish this tale.

(What can I say? Tolkien made trilogies fashionable.)

And then, just a few days ago, I decided to try my hand at mapping out the world–and my first attempt came out pretty well, if horribly off scale (catch it after the jump).

Then I realized: once you have a map, you’ve gotta start naming things.

Map of Athua-1

Athua (which, more or less, was first imagined in 2001, in the third age of Athua, depicted here as known during the first age of Athua, in which this story takes place)

Until I had a map (and even when I first drew it), I referred to all places (with only a handful of exceptions) by the name of the deity whose descendants live in the area–hence the kingdoms of Cekellan and Solkahn in the map above, as well as the cities Beelia, Enaana, Daqen (multiple), Behedad (same), and Kimeron.

And in the first book, in which the Company (forgive me, I’m reading The Fellowship of the Ring again) travels from Beelia to Enaana to Behedad (north), this worked alright. Now, however, they’re digging deeper into the world and going to the hearts of Solkahn and Cekellan and the city-states in the south. This, obviously, begs for better names.

So I brainstormed and finally settled on a few. Here’s how it happened:

For the capital of Solkahn, a sun god, I looked up the names of solar deities (thank you, Wikipedia!) and picked bits and pieces of ones I liked, then put ’em together: Ethesue.

For the capital of Cekallan, I looked back at the earth god’s name itself, as well as an honorific I had previously written in the first book: Tekaltek.

For the three rivers in the south, named after daughters of the sea god Behedad, I looked up translations of the word “river” in different languages, as well as the names of water and river gods, and smooshed them together (or just read them backwards), and then polished them up with some phonic transformations: Affonvai, Radisama, Mazu-Kamri.

It’s a time-consuming and, frankly, derivative process, necessary as it is, but with a plethora of unnamed figures standing in the margins, waiting to break into the text, I can’t go on like this. I need a better system, a logical method of generating names, something rational and also internally consistent. I need my Quenya and Sindarin.

Interesting aside: Tolkien actually started with his languages, which were fleshed out so completely that they’re almost conversational, before he wrote his stories.

So, in comparison, I’m going at it backwards.

But not without valiant efforts! When I first began imagining this series of stories, back somewhere in the region of 1999 and 2000, especially coming to fruition in 2001 and 2002, I was set on creating my own language as well. I even have the lexicon of vocabulary to prove it. But the words were garish and brash, letters strewn together with no rhyme or reason (well, sometimes they did rhyme, I suppose), with hardly any regard for grammar, syntax, phonemes, morphemes, and the other important linguistic things.

Back in maybe 2004 or 2005, I gave up trying to write my own language. The story would suffice, and if anyone asked, everyone speaks Common. That’s why it’s called Common.

Then, in 2009, I took a semester of sociology in college, and inspired by what I learned, I began fleshing out the various cultures of the third age (which was, in fact, the first part of the story I imagined, before the first two ages came to me), and now, in Starfall, I’m writing about the ancestral lineages of these cultures before any of them existed.

That’s a lie. Two of them already existed in the first age. The others did not.

Anyways. Rambling tangents, I digress. The pendulum has at last swung back to strike me: Now that my cultures are distinct, so must their languages be. Thus naming things is hard. I wonder how Adam decided to name all the things back in the Garden of Eden…

For days, I’ve been meaning to categorically define each culture’s language–I’m not making up a dozen languages, mind you, but merely outlining how they should sound. I don’t need to fully understand Hebrew, Spanish, Greek, or Gaelic to be able to tell a name’s origin when I hear it: there are just some sounds and letter combinations that arise in one tongue that don’t exist in another. Hebrew and Spanish don’t have the “ch” sound, for example, while English doesn’t even have the letter enye in it’s alphabet.

My methodology was simple, and quickly completed over lunch: Write the names I’ve already crafted from each culture and then identify the most prominent letters (for example, in English, “e” is the most used letter). Next, I decided if the language has any special rules to consider: Enaana uses the letter combination “cz” for the “ch” sound, and in the language of Cekellan, not only does the “c” always have a hard (“k”) sound, but a silent “k” (masculine) or “l” (feminine) is added between repeated vowels. Therefore, “Cekellan” is rightly pronounced “key-el-lan” rather than “seh-kel-an.” Finally, I (somewhat randomly) selected letters that would be excluded from each tongue: “J” was a common exclusion, for some reason, and Cekellan is devoid of all consonant digraphs (“sh,” “th,” “ch,” and “wh”), while Solkahn has no use for the letters X, Y, Z, and B.

So there it is: six languages in little more than sound, but enough to work with.

Now I’ve gotta get back to the story. I think the next dark star is finally going to appear.

If you had to craft a language, what sounds would be most prominent or excluded?


Post-script. I promise my main story takes place in the third age of Athua for distinctly different reasons than Tolkien’s third age of Middle Earth. This story has always stretched out infinitely in either direction since I first started trying to write it (a point a friend once called “the Silmarillion syndrome,” because between any two points is an infinite amount of story to be told, yet again owing homage to Tolkien), and over the years, it’s progressively gone deeper into the past. The very first parts of the story were (and still are) set in modern times, more or less, while the third age was imagined as the necessary history to give that story its foundation. But then that story lacked foundation, so I worked back as far as possible: I wrote my own creation story. Three times, in fact, because one creation is never enough. (In my defense, the third telling is only two sentences, so it’s quite short.) At this time, I thought the initial story (now the third age) would merely be the second age, but then I realized I was wrong, a revelation occurring in 2012 when I first began writing Starfall, thinking it would only be a single story. This is the first age, the war of stars, in which the rivalry of light and darkness is kindled and the element of metal is first cast out from the elemental sextuple (which was a staple point of the very first story, the one with the contemporary setting). Then there’s a time between this story and the next: here the cultures that are established in the third age come into being, and here also occurs the Death of Magic. It’s metaphorical, mind you, because after the first age the gods depart from their earthly homes, thereby causing the ambient magical power to dissipate (making magic far more uncommon and wondrous in the third age), so it’s a very natural second age leading up to the start of the Great War of Athua, begun when Isabel, descended from the heroes of the first age, is abducted by a rogue faction of the first age’s villains, and falls in love with their prince, Derek.

So, naturally, it all comes together.

And now I really need to go write this story.

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