Tuesday, January 30, 2018

The Languages of Seaward, Part III: Elven

After Dwarven and Orcish my oldest has moved on to Elvish.

The Elven Language

The Complete Book of Elves is a highly divisive book, amongst the world in general and the OSR in particular, and I myself find it to have some pretty problematic sections. Some of these I take issue with in a common way, but in others, my complaints are very idiosyncratic. A prime example is this passage, describing the Elven Language:
          "When spoken by non-elves, Elvish seems strangely brutalized, although it is hard to define exactly why. Elves know that this is because the subtleties inherent in Elvish only full translate for them (or for those using magic to communicate). Elves, because of their keen hearing, perceive an additional current in their tongue, one which also conveys emotion should the speaker wish."

I find this passage irritating, because whoever wrote it did not seem to grasp the fact that the subtleties inherent in any spoken language can, and often are, so fine as to be almost imperceptible to the uninitiated. Conversely, if a sound can be made by a humanoid throat or mouth, a human will be able to distinguish it, given enough practice, regardless of how precise it truly is. The Nilotic language family of Eastern Africa typically conveys nearly all tense and aspect information about verbs via tone of voice. Australian Aboriginal languages have been known to distinguish up to three sounds which all seem to be a normal T to non-speakers. Swedish, Danish, and Korean are all major world languages used in modern governance which have aspects of pronunciation so precise that decades of study by professional linguists have failed to adequately define what they are. Unless elves communicate primarily in high ultrasound, their language will be intelligible to humans. It's simply a fact.

It is with that, and the subsequent overview of the Complete version of Elven in mind, that I have created this language, Quarosh. In both grammar and pronunciation, Quarosh differs significantly from English, yet its seemingly-incomprehensible nature is actually fully in line with multiple real-world languages. In fact, it's not even that difficult, in global terms. This is to show that real people can grasp even the most obtuse and complicated languages imaginable, or nearly so. Ancillary design objectives were to maintain the beauty that elves should really have in the spoken word, and to make an elegant and powerful grammar allowing the expression of both breadth and depth of meaning in a very quick time. Enjoy!

The pronunciation of Quarosh is significantly more complex and difficult than the two languages previously covered, and each aspect of it must be treated on individually and at length.

Vowels in Quarosh can be divided into two groups. The first is the so-called strong vowels, A, as in father, E, like the sound in "ray", I, as in machine, O, as in bone, and U, as in tune. The second group is the weak vowels, transcribed with accent marks: ä as in bat, ë as in bet, ï as in bit, ö as in omelette, and ü as in but. There is also an eleventh vowel, an unrounded version of U (familiar to any Spanish speakers in the audience, but rather alien to English), which is transcribed as Uh; depending on the grammatical analysis, this is either a weak vowel with no strong counterpart, or a vowel that is neither weak nor strong, though it behaves like a weak vowel, in any case. Long vowels of double normal pronunciation length are distinctive, but only for strong vowels. Long O is often pronounced openly, just like ö, and with a correct accent, weak vowels are pronounced more quickly than strong vowels in all circumstances. Diphthongs are common in Quarosh, with au and ai in particular being widespread.

Unlike the other languages covered (and the languages that the reader most likely speaks), the core contrast of Quarosh stops is not in a voiced/unvoiced divide, but rather, in an aspirated/unaspirated divide, much like in Mandarin Chinese. An unaspirated consonant at the beginning of a word sounds very much like a voiced one to an English speaker, so they are transcribed the same. The core stops are thus P, B, T, D, K, and G. Additionally, Quarosh has many labialized stops; the English Q is merely a labialized K, and Quarosh has a more complete set, transcribed as Dw, Tw, Q, and Gw. Notably, Quarosh also has a letter W, and sequences of D, T, K, and G followed by a W are distinctive from the labialized consonants; these sequences are spelled with the letters separated by an apostrophe (e.g D'w, G'w), and thankfully, only occur during word change, not as part of a word stem.

Quarosh nasals are slightly unusual. They are M, N, Ny (like the Spanish N with tilde), and Ng (like the sound of the N in, "ink"). All four of these may occur in any position, and do not assimilate into each other; for example, an N before a K does not become an Ng. N before G and Y is separated by an apostrophe for ease of reading when necessary, but this is very rare. On the softer side of sounds, R, Y, and H all exist and behave just as they do in English. F, V, and Th are also present, although F and V are formed without use of the teeth by native speakers. Contrast between voiceless Th (like in, "thigh") and voiced Th (like in "thy") was lost to linguistic drift long ago, but in some proper nouns, the latter sound is preserved, spelled Dh. S, Z, Sh, Ch, and J all also work just as their English counterparts do, with the addition of the now-familiar Ts and a Zh sound, which sounds like the French version of J. 

The last odd aspect of pronunciation before the most notable topic is the presence of a sound called the glottal stop. This is a sudden cessation of breathing and voice, such as what separates the two I's in, "Hawaii," and is distantly familiar to English speakers as the sound in the middle of the exclamation, "uh-oh." It is spelled with a dash, -, and never appears at the beginning or end of a word; places where it did in the root language have been lost to linguistic drift. 

Finally, the most noticeable and distinctive aspect of Quarosh pronunciation is the proliferation of what English speakers would consider variants of the letter L. Besides the bog-standard L, there is also Lh, which is pronounced like the Welsh Ll in "Lloyd," and Ll, which is a voiced version of the same sound, familiar to anyone who's heard any noticeable amount of spoken Navajo. Additionally, the second two sounds also form affricates, Tlh and Dll, which are highly distinctive. As with the all other affricates, these are distinct from stop-fricative sequences that arise through word change, which are divided with an apostrophe. 

The grammar of Quarosh is, like its pronunciation, complex and very difficult for an outsider to learn. In real life terms, it is similar to a fusion of Finnish and Basque.

Quarosh is a highly agglutinative language (meaning it expresses meaning by attaching affixes to words), and borders on being polysynthetic (a polysynthetic language is one where entire sentences may be expressed as a single, highly modified word). It is an ergative-absolutive language, a term that has little meaning for someone without linguistic knowledge. Its least emphatic word order is subject-object-verb, although this is extremely flexible, and, similarly, the language weakly defaults to a head-initial pattern. Its nouns track singular, dual, and plural numbers, though gender is usually not marked. Its verbs are also fairly complicated in basic form, tracking past, present, and future tenses; imperfect, perfect, and unmarked aspects; active, passive, and middle voice; and indicative, imperative, infinitive, and subjunctive moods. Unusually for languages in the region, it is totally anarthrous, possessing no articles at all. Also unlike the last two languages described, it is indeed pro-drop.
The most severe aspects of its complexity, however, come from two very notable systems. The first is that all verbs conjugate for the number, person (1st, 2nd, or 3rd), and, in the 2nd person, informal, formal masculine, and formal feminine forms, of the subject, direct object, and indirect object. All verb changes are totally predictable and unvaried, making this seemingly-unwieldy system fairly learnable in practice, but this still means that all verbs tend to be a mouthful. This also means that simple sentences in every day speech can often be said as a single word, since one heavily conjugated verb can contain meaning up to, "You should have given these to the two women, sir."
The second is that, like the real world's Uralic language family, Quarosh largely substitutes changes in noun case for prepositions entirely. Instead of a phrase like, "in the house," Quarosh would change the word house to a form including that meaning. This means that nouns decline for a tremendous number of cases. The full list, without explanations due to space constraints, is: for grammatically important cases, ergative, absolutive, genitive, and dative; for locative cases (containing information on location or movement), inessive, ellative, illative, adessive, ablative, allative, terminative, and dellative; for other cases that would normally be understood as prepositions, essive, translative, instrumental, abessive, and comitative. With declension for number, this means that each noun has a total of 51 forms, though number is marked separately from case, making this much easier than it seems. Along with the verb system, this means that even a very complex sentence is easily expressed with just a few words. It also means that the language has a very truncated system of prepositions, with only a scant handful of limited-use prepositions existing at all.

Besides these highly distinctive features, the grammar, while elegant and distinct, is not as intimidating. Imperatives can be expressed in the second or third person, and have the same multi-person agreement as other verb forms, allowing highly complex commands to be delivered very quickly. Many qualities that other languages use adjectives for, such as good, strong, or hot, are expressed as verbs in Quarosh, which matches well with the complex verb structure, just as in imperatives. The actual adjectives are saved for more complex concepts, which often have a great deal of gradation and nuance. Unlike some other elven dialects, etiquette is fairly simple, with formal forms and a slight preference for indirect statements being all that's necessary. All in all, while it is somewhat difficult to use, Quarosh allows one to convey a great deal of meaning in a short time, and has a loose, lush sound to it, giving it a more-or-less deserved reputation as the most cultured of local languages.

Dialect variation in Quarosh is usually slight at best, as the culture of the speakers heavily emphasizes correct, standardized form. That said, some drift is acceptable. The wood elf language, Galglaen has a heavily divergent pronunciation from other elven languages, and even fluently bilingual wood elves often trill their Rs and convert normal sibilants to affricates. The Marglaen language maintains the more complex etiquette system of the root language, and those bilingual in it often prefer to use their own pronoun system while still in Quarosh. In any case, Quarosh itself has drifted so heavily as to lose all intelligibility with the elven root language, Quenya, which had a very complex pronoun and etiquette system, verbs that were simpler in grammar but had form changes so subtle that even most elves consider it obtuse, and even more differentiation between different forms of L and S. The fact that Quarosh has simplified greatly is something that the Mountain Elves, who maintain a living usage of Quenya, will not let the other elven races forget.

Eight Sample Words
Due to the general lack of example words in the preceding description, here are 8 examples to give one an idea of how Quarosh sounds:
Suu-enyë   -a noun referring to a fern or small bush. It is grammatically unmarked, as it would as the singular subject of a sentence.
Uhzhowemölhi   -the noun, "uhzho," a type of low-ranking noblewoman, in dual number and adessive case, meaning something like, "towards the two baronesses."
Quiingzairoshaul   -the verb "kwiing" meaning, "to be hot" in the form of, "I am hot" and an implication that is true continuously at the present time.
Dlloitwämrothïsyul   -the verb, "Dlloi" meaning, "to give" in the form of, "I had given it to you." or thereabouts.
Mëlë   -a common interjection of surprise. Analogous to, "huh?"
Dwaujërea   -one of the few actual prepositions in the language. Means, "after the manner of" in a purely cosmetic sense.
Eehan'giz   -the adjective, "eehan" meaning, "fearsome" in a confrontational but non-violent sense, as it would be as the plural object of a sentence.
Urudhaudaad   -a profane insult. Formed from the word for orc and an archaic slang term that meant a rapist, it carries the connotation of being a worse criminal than the vilest of orcs. Note that the word is grammatically unmarked here.

I hope that this was an interesting exercise, that this language will serve at least some people well, and that it does get some thoughts about the upper limits of complexity and precision in languages, real and fictional, flowing. Coming soon, the harsh, chaotic language of the Goblinoid races.

And, if anyone wants a language that's actually so complicated it would take superhuman hearing to decipher, just complain in the comments, and I'll try to push the envelope with a description of Quenya.