Friday, November 24, 2017

The Languages of Seaward, pt 1: Dwarven

  My oldest son was kind enough to begin writing up the details of the various languages of my AD&D 1e campaign.


The standard dwarven language is assumed to be Dethen as spoken by an educated Granite Dwarf with a neutral accent borne of native dwarven lands. Dialectic variations and some aspects of the ancient Dethek are mentioned separately.

Dethen may be transcribed into English using the following letters and digraphs: A, B, D, E, F, G, H, I, K, L, M, N, O, P, Q, R, S, T, U, V, Z, Gh, Th, Kh, and Rh.
Each vowel has only a single pronunciation: A as in father, E as in bet, I as in machine, O as in bone, and U as in tune. Diphthongs do not natively occur.
Consonants match up to their normal English versions except as follows. Q and Gh signify unvoiced and voiced uvular stops, respectively, as in the Arabic ‘ayin and Farsi “swallowed G (geyn).” R represents the guttural R, like the second sound in, “croissant,” while Rh stands for a more English-like R; these two sounds standing in contrast is one of the more distinctive feature of the language.
Additionally, Dethen fricatives should be spoken of specifically. The language has three fricatives, V like in van, Th like in thy, and Kh like the modern gamma, the first sound in the name of the gyro sandwich. At the start of a word, these devoice, becoming F like in fan, Th like in thigh, and kh like the sound at the end of loch. These sound different, and the first is transcribed differently for intelligibility, but native speakers consider them the same letter, just like most English speakers spend their entire lives doing with the two forms of Th.
Dwarven syllable structure is highly fixed. All syllables have a core of a consonant and a vowel, as in gu-, to which one can add an ending consonant, as in gut-, and either form of R at the very beginning, as in rhgut-. Additionally, a word may begin with only a vowel, and a syllable may begin with a nasal before the consonant if it is not at the beginning of the word (as in the word, “isambar,” which means, “pearl”); note that these nasals are always assimilated (i.e “-and” is possible, but “amd” is not). Finally, the clusters bz, dz, and gz may occur in the consonant position. Thus, the maximal Dethen syllable is, “rhbzonk.”

Dethen is largely an analytical language, like real-life Mandarin. Words only change form if they are pronouns or if they are verbs conjugating for politeness; otherwise, all meaning is conveyed strictly through additional words and word placement. Sentences follow a strict verb-subject-object order, though prepositions, indirect objects, and so on are flexible in position. Verbs do not explicitly track time, number, or anything else except politeness. Similarly, nouns and adjectives do not track gender, number, or anything else, unless they are pronouns.
Moving on to other details, the language is not pro-drop (meaning that in Dethen, words whose presence can be inferred cannot be ignored, like in English, where, “I am,” cannot be shortened to just, “am”), and is head-initial (the noun comes before its adjectives, like in Spanish), and postpositive (meaning prepositions follow their word, instead of proceeding it). The only article is the definite article, kus, which is not actually mandatory even when the object in question is definite; a noun being unmarked could mean it’s indefinite, or could mean that the speaker is not asserting its definiteness.
A major part of Dethen grammar which flummoxes foreign speakers is the politeness of verbs. Verbs conjugate into 6 levels of etiquette: unmarked (the unmodified verb, used when speaking impersonally to large groups, or when making statements of fact or simple commands to those on intimate terms. Its use elsewhere is considered dismissive), familiar (used normally with those on intimate terms. Too informal elsewhere), colloquitive (used in normal conversation and discussion in formal environments. Odd and stilted if used incorrectly), requesting (used to make polite commands and inferences to one’s superiors. Also used to express general hope and wish, when begging one’s equals, in self-deprecating humor, and in similar contexts. Literally gibberish if used incorrectly), laudative (used to express thanks and praise. Also used to reply to or affirm certain questions, requests, or commands, and is the default level for certain obscure contexts, such as speaking to someone of high religious rank. Improper use is very likely to create a major faux pas), and imperious (used when speaking from a position of official authority, and implies that the speaker bears the full weight of the law behind him. The imperious and requesting levels can be mixed in certain situations that imply familiarity within this context. Improper use is not just pretentious, but actively deluded). These mix with a few basic grammatical words to form a very complex dwarven concept of etiquette, which tends to not be understood by other races, and tends to be the only form of etiquette they ever learn.
Pronouns, similarly, actually decline for person (1st, 2nd, or 3rd), number (singular, plural, or dual), gender (masculine, feminine, or mixed), and clusivity (if the speaker and one spoken to are in the pronoun together, or not).
Otherwise, Dethen tends to be fairly easy to understand. Except for a family of particles bearing emotional content, the grammar is somewhat simple, and not dissimilar from other languages in the region.

The above pronunciation is the standard accent of Iron Dwarves and educated Granite Dwarves. Provincial or colloquial speech amongst Granite Dwarves has a few variations. For example, fricatives often also devoice at the end of a word, and some bumpkin-sounding groups pronounce them voicelessly in all contexts. It is also very common to assimilate r to rh before labials and dentals and rh to r before uvulars; not doing so is one of the biggest markers of an upperclass accent. Many Granite Dwarves have also imported a letter y from human loan words.
Conversely, some Mithril Dwarves voice the fricatives even word-initially, but this is an improper hypercorrection. The other common indicator of the Mithril Dwarf accent is the retention of Ws; the letter W existed in archaic dialects, but vanished some time ago. Its use is retained by some upper crust speakers, thus lengthening some words. In a similar vein, the ancient language had a uvular fricative and a uvular nasal in addition to the uvular stops. These are still spelled, but are now pronounced as Ns, Vs, or khs, depending on the context. Some snooty aristocrats and scholars continue to pronounce them correctly, however.
The biggest divide between dialects of Dethen, however, arises from vocabulary, not pronunciation. While the three major divisions are mutually intelligible, they have some differences that can lead to confusion and loss of meaning. For example, most speakers decline the second person pronoun from the stem *rom-, but many Mithril Dwarves use the older *rhuq-, instead. Another, more humorous instance is the use of the word gzumi, meaning iron or metalwork. In colloquial Granite Dwarf usage, this word is obsolete, and the word gzurhkan is used instead. However, gzurhkan originally referred to pig iron or shoddy metalwork, a usage it still sees amongst Iron Dwarves, and in Mithril Dwarf circles, it has become a profanity used to insult poor worksmanship, thus leading to embarrassment when Mithril and Granite Dwarves mix.

Ancient Forms
In addition to W and the uvular nasal and fricative as listed above, Dethek had an ejective (emphatic or “spat” form) consonant at each point of articulation, p’, t’, k’, and q’. These fell completely out of the language centuries ago, and are unpronounceable to all but the most learned of scholars and clerics.
Much more severely impact understandability, however, is the radically different verb and pronoun structure of the ancient language. Originally, the dwarven languages had no declining or conjugating parts. Dethek used a family of dozens of particles marking formality, station of speaker, station of listener, social context, and sentence content that, over the millennia, collapsed into the modern politeness and pronoun system. Thus, formality in Dethek is even harder to understand, and some ancient texts remain obscure to even the most knowledgeable of scholars.

Five Sample Words
In addition to the words here and there above, here are 5 more words to give readers an idea of the sound of the language:
Karadig: the name of the ancient dwarven pagan religion. A Mithril Dwarf would say it, “Kawaradig.”
Nobze: spear.
Rhnogadiz: first person dual inclusive feminine pronoun; literally, “us two women.”
Lomvano: a verb meaning, “nurture/heal/respect.”

  Khut: an interjection, meaning something along the lines of, “hark/attention/look out!”