Thursday, January 25, 2018

The Languages of Seaward Pt. II: Orcish

  My son Jack continues his work developing the languages of my campaign world.


In the last article, I introduced this series with an overview of the Dwarven language, Dethen. My goals in designing that language were to give it a harsh, guttural sound, as a dwarven language must have; to give it straightforward, direct grammar with a heavy emphasis on traditional social structure, as suits stock dwarven societies; and to make it moderately difficult, but eminently learnable for a human. 
My goals in creating the Orcish language, Gurtok, are totally different. It still needs to sound harsh, but in a totally different way from Dethen. The grammar needs to be not just straightforward but overly-simple and idiomatic, yet still reflecting orcs' lawful natures. Most difficult of all, it needs to have overt elements of savagery while still being a complete, legitimate language that could be used by humans and elves just as well. Hopefully, I have succeeded at least partially in all of these, but I leave that to the judgement of the reader.
The Language
The orcish language is called Gurtok, and is oddly standardized and lightly varied, as humanoid languages go. For assorted cultural reasons, orcs are very linguistically conservative, and have a high degree of mutual intelligibility. What few dialectical and archaic variations there are will be listed at the end.

Gurtok may be transcribed into English using the following letters and digraphs: A, B, D, F, G, H, I, K, L, M, N, O, P, R, S, T, U, W, Ch, Sh, Kk, Ts, and Hr, plus the very rare trigraph Tts.
Normally, each vowel has only a single pronunciation: A as in father, I as in machine, O as in bone, and U as in tune. The diphthongs ai and oi occur natively, and some others occur in loan words. The Gurtok vowel system is notably simple and small, causing orcs to have a distinctive accent in most other languages.
The consonants generally conform to the expectations an English speaker would have, but the unusual digraphs and the trigraph should be addressed. Ts stands for an affricate noise, like saying a T and an S simultaneously. This may not sound like it deserves to be considered a separate sound, but it really is distinctive, and occupies the space of one consonant within a syllable, including being used to start a word. Hr stands for a voiceless version of R, audible only due to loud aspiration; within Gurtok, this letter is fairly rare, and usually comes only at the beginning of a word. Kk is the letter that generally gives foreign speakers the most trouble. It is an ejective K, like those mentioned in Dethek in the previous article. It has a very distinctive sharp sound, and is found only at the beginning or end of a word in Gurtok. Finally, Tts is by far the strangest sound in the language: an ejective version of the Ts affricate. In Gurtok, this letter occurs only at the beginning of exactly six words, of which four are restricted in use to chieftains, and two have religious significance. The unusual nature of the sound leads some to believe that it originates as a loan from diabolical or subterranean languages, an argument that the orcs, tellingly, do not dispute.
The letters L, R, S, and Hr can geminate, meaning that the length they are held for is audible and can distinguish between words. For example, “wolakk” (meaning “wicker basket”) versus “wollakk” (meaning “storm cloud”). Geminated S is very rare.
Finally, Gurtok pronunciation is also notable in that, unlike any other language in the region, it can contain liquid consonants (R and L) standing in the place of a vowel within a syllable, much like they can in certain slavic languages. For example, the word "chrsh" (meaning "small stone") and the famous tongue-twister "tsltlkk" (meaning "horseshoe"). Otherwise, Gurtok syllable structure is very similar to English, even a little simpler; the word, "strengthens," would be just slightly too complex for a Gurtok speaker.

Gurtok is, at its heart, a fusional language, meaning that words change form with the addition of small chunks to convey most meaning, but has a strong analytic aspect, as well. It is not pro-drop, and is head-final and prepositive, as in English. There are two noun cases: nominative, used as the subject of verbs, and oblique, used in nearly all other contexts. Verbs conjugate very simply, changing only to the three forms of infinitive, past tense, and non-past tense. The imperative (commanding) and subjunctive (conditional/hypothetical/indirect) forms are made by combining the infinitive with auxiliary verbs, koshu (“to merit/deserve”) and narhu (“to wait to”), respectively. Thus, telling someone to go literally translates as, “you deserve to go,” and saying that you wish you could fly literally translates as, “I’m waiting to fly.” Verbs also have a simple but powerful system of participles formed using prefixes, which can be used to express purpose and result with great clarity.
Nouns change form only to transition between the two cases, but number is still marked carefully through the use of articles. Gurtok is a heavily arthrous language, with mandatory article use even in circumstances where they may be omitted in English, and a singular/plural distinction for both the definite (il/ish) and indefinite (fol/fosh) articles. There is also a partitive article, hra, used to indicate a non-specific amount of an abstract quantity, like the “some” in the phrase, “some water.”
In addition to these general details, there are two mechanics unique to Gurtok that should be mentioned. The first is the two productive prefixes, ai- and bog-, which are heavily used in everyday speech. Prefixing a noun with ai- feminizes it, which can make it a female version (fashad [slave] vs aifashad [female slave]), or, due to orcish culture, weaken and degrade it (drunsh [warrior] vs aidrunsh [coward/deserter]) or intensify it (wolot [wife] vs aiwolot [concubine]), and can even result in entirely unforeseen meanings through the use of idiom (irrab [axe] vs airrab [halberd]). Prefixing a word with bog- indicates that it is a leader or chief, with authority over others of its kind (kkarha [wolf] vs bogarha [alpha wolf]); notably, in orc military parlance, a bogrunsh (“chief warrior”) is an NCO, and a boguruk (“chief orc”) is an officer.
The second unusual aspect of Gurtok is that certain words indicate the level of authority of the speaker. Most of the vocabulary is unremarkable, usable by anyone at any time, but there are also many words whose use indicates that the speaker claims authority over those listening, and a few more words whose use indicates that the speaker is subservient to those listening. At the heart of the language are several key verbs that have a three way distinction of these forms, as in dumangu, “to take,” vs koilu, “to take (authoritatively),” vs wanfu, “to take (please sir).” Native speakers take these distinctions very seriously, and it is difficult to understand orcish culture and communication without respecting this system.
The rest of the language’s grammar is fairly unremarkable. There is a heavy emphasis on prepositions to convey meaning, an often inflexible use of a word order to match infinitives, participles, adjectives, and other phrases to their correct oblique nouns, and an unemphatic word order of subject-verb-object that can easily be changed for emphasis. Humans, dwarves, and goblins find the basics of the language very easy to learn, although elves often struggle with it until they’ve had heavy practice.

As previously stated, dialect variations in Gurtok tend to be extremely minor. Orcish speakers of distant dialects tend to only use certain words more or less than each other, but there are some distant tribes pronounce every S as a Sh, and/or every Hr as an R, drawing great derision and mockery from more mainstream speakers. Some also have a partially collapsed authority system, with many normally authorized or subservient words being unmarked in their usage, which also draws great mockery from most orcs.
The biggest variations come in the dialects spoken by ogres and hill giants. These creatures have a tendency to merge nouns with certain prepositions in an attempt to duplicate the dative, genitive, and instrumental cases of the giant languages, and tend to utilize many loanwords with vowels and uvular or glottal consonants not found in normal Gurtok. However, it takes only a little bit of training for speakers of one dialect to understand the other, and this is thus not normally a barrier.
Due to the very weak scholarly and literary tradition of orcish society, not much is known about archaic versions of Gurtok. Some shamans maintain the ability to read it, but they have no interest in pronouncing it. However, what few reconstructions there have been seem to indicate that older dialects did not have the letters S or Hr, merging them with Sh and R, respectively, and had a greater number of more freely used ejectives. These ancient forms also declined nouns for number, and conjugated verbs directly for imperative, subjunctive, and the now-obsolete optative moods, rather than using auxiliaries. It also seems that the authority system used to recognize more layers of distinction, but the exact nature of the old system remains totally obscure.

Five Sample Words
Ttsukmai-"Formal commendation." This is an authoritative word used only by chieftains in congratulating their underlings.
Shawigoif- the verb meaning "to start a fire" in the past tense.
Aigrts- a common profanity used in insults, formed by attaching the feminizing prefix ai- to the word "grts" which means "genitals"
Wun!- an interjection indicating surrender, subservience, or extreme embarrassment.

And that is the complete summary of Gurtok. Stay tuned for the next article, where I will give a summary of the Elven language, Quarosh, plus a rant about my frustration with 99% of attempts to make an Elven language by people that aren't Tolkien.