Beowulf, Canterbury Tales, Chaucer, Christopher Tolkien, conlang, Danian, David J Peterson, Dothraki, Elvish, English, Game of Thrones, Hamlet, Ilkorin, James Joyce, Jane Austen, language, Noldorin, Pride and Prejudice, Qenya, Shakespeare, Star Wars, Telerin, The Art of Language Invention, The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien, Ulysses
Welcome, as always, dear readers.
In 1977, the more observant viewers and critics commented upon the look and feel of a new film. Instead of a world in which everything appeared newly-produced and sparkling, this was one in which it was clear that people had lived for a long time and many different peoples, at that.
Even their vehicles had a scratched and dusty look.
We had been told, of course, in the very opening sequence that this was an old place—
but actually seeing its used look was that much more convincing
as was seeing—and hearing—its peoples,
who sometimes even required subtitles, as if the audience were watching a foreign film.
In time, as the success of this film produced not only more films, but mountains of other material, from novels to graphic novels to spin-off series to toys and t-shirts and kitchen ware,
a whole literature appeared about this world—or, we should say, worlds. Its geography and even its extremely-varied animal life.
And, along with all of the other material, information about its languages began to appear.
What prompted this posting, however, was something odd about one of those languages, that spoken by a character in what would, in time, become the sixth in the series.
This was pointed out to us by David J. Peterson
in his 2015 book, The Art of Language Invention.
As a child, what had puzzled Peterson was that the character (who is subtitled), says only “Yate, yate, yoto, ei, yato, cha”—in total, only six different words, but they are translated as everything from “I have come for the bounty on this Wookiee” to “50,000, no less”. (This is quoted and discussed on pages 3 to 5 of Peterson’s book—which is, by the way, one we would recommend, if you’re as interested in languages as we are.)
How could so few words mean so many different things? As an adult, looking back, Peterson had his doubts and we would agree—especially when reading about the world in which Peterson lives, the world of “conlang”, which is short for “constructed languages”. Peterson is the creator of Dothraki, the language of the nomadic Dothraki people,
one of the numerous races which inhabit the landscape of George R R Martin’s Game of Thrones, first novels, then a huge, elaborate, and engrossing television series.
The difference between “yate”, etc and Dothraki is that those few words are there to suggest that someone is speaking in a language different from the language spoken by the majority of the characters—which is the method employed throughout not only this film, but its two immediate successors.
What Peterson set out to do was to create the shape of an entire language (something he has done more than once). Here’s a LINK to the Wiki site, which, as usual, leads to other sites, which lead to other sites, which lead… if you’d like to learn more.
As worn-looking buildings and vehicles, different peoples and flora and fauna, and at least the suggestion of other languages create a bigger, deeper picture of the setting of an adventure, so, too, does the suggestion of great age. Over time, the huge pile of material for the film series we first mentioned showed, in detail, that what we were seeing was, in fact, only the latest phase in a whole galaxy of civilizations over many centuries—after all, “For over a thousand generations, the Jedi Knights were the guardians of peace and justice in the Old Republic”.
Another way to suggest that great age is a much less dramatic one—perhaps even a nearly-invisible one–practiced by one of our favorite authors and the subject of innumerable postings, and here is one of his efforts.
What we’re seeing here is JRRT working out the history of sounds throughout a series of Elf languages, Qenya, Telerin, Noldorin, Ilkorin, and Danian, part of his immense and immensely-detailed work on the tongues of Middle-earth. All languages change through time, of course—here’s a rough version of the succession of periods of English—
Old English (the opening lines of Beowulf, 700-1000AD,
Middle English (the opening of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, c.1400AD),
Early Modern English (the beginning of the first scene of Shakepeare’s Hamlet, 1603),
early 19th-century English (the first lines of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, 1813),
and early 20th-century English (the opening of James Joyce’s Ulysses, 1922).
And Joyce even attempted to suggest the procession of those periods in Chapter 14 of Ulysses, “The Oxen of the Sun”, where the story is told through paragraphs which sound like earlier versions of the language gradually moving towards modern English. (The novelist Nabokov, who played with language constantly, actually found this chapter boring, perhaps because it seemed to him like a one-off, not really in aid of the plot and its characters in general, but rather just a piece of private fun by and for the author?)
JRRT, however, goes one better. Like other creators of big adventures, he used lots of means to deepen his story, from an extensive and detailed map
to describing the remains of earlier times still standing in the landscape of Middle-earth of the present,
to adding detailed historical appendices and chronologies (and his valiant son, Christopher, has added many volumes more),
but using intricate sound changes and their logical development takes the idea of depth into new regions, especially because it would probably go unnoticed by most readers—there’s an awful lot of detail in those appendices—but whose meticulous creation is not in the least surprising for someone who once wrote, “The ‘stories’ were made rather to provide a world for the languages than the reverse.” (Letters, 219)
Thanks, as ever, for reading.
Ah yes—the nearly-inevitable post scriptum—if the normal world/s of the films we first mentioned are “scruffy-looking” (to quote a character about another character), we notice that the world of the villains—the soldiers of the Empire and their surroundings—are hard and clean and shiny—which makes us feel a little better when we wonder when we may last have shined our shoes.