Saturday, February 10, 2018

The Languages of Seaward, Part IV - Goblin, Plus Some Background on Language Development

  This one follows parts I, II & III.

  Someone asked me 'how is your son coming up with these? How collaborative is it?'
  So, sure - I'll tell.

  My father grew up speaking German and spent some of his time as a soldier during WWII translating foreign broadcasts and papers.
  As a young boy my mother's health was poor so I was partially raised by a nanny named Eva who spoke German.... but was Argentinian.
Yes, really.
  So I grew up speaking Spanish and German as well as English, although I "lost" most of both after a move when I was 6 and I ended up with no one to speak to in either (my father was a very busy doctor).
  When I started making Seaward in '79 I used a lot of German and Spanish and slowly changed it over the years to "sound" German or "sound" like a Romance language.
  Then I enlisted and became a linguist with the Army. I spent over a year studying Farsi full time and loved how different the language was. I lived in a barracks filled with people who were often multi-lingual already learning more tongues. A Navy seal in my class introduced me to Esperanto and I entered the world of conlangs, soon finally reading JRRT's writings on how he developed his languages.

  By 1987 I was developing root languages and modern languages for the various races and nations of Seaward and coming up with 'base sounds' and such to make things consistent, without going into full-on conlang work, although I edged up on it. In 2000 I broke down and began working on a complete Dwarven conlang, working on a grammar where there courtesy is expressed not with words, but by tense. My idea was dwarves find words like 'please' and 'thank you' empty and meaningless - they don't exist in dwarven! Instead the entirety of the words coming out of your mouth mean courtesy and deference or thanks and gratitude. All to explain the lower charisma to non-dwarves. To a dwarf,
   "give me your ale"
  is indistinguishable from
  "may I please have a sip of your beverage, sir?",
  leading to trouble.

  A very serious illness led me to drop the project.

  Jack has been fascinated by language and linguistics his entire life. His Latin (ecclesial) is very good and his classic Greek is getting there. He has read extensively in linguistics and attended university language events for years. He and I have discussed my ideas of language in general and the languages of Seaward his entire life. About a year ago I gave him my notes on Dwarven and, well....
  These articles are the result.

  While I certainly had an influence and built the bare foundation, these articles are certainly his.

  Now, finally:


In designing the goblin language, Maglubiyar, my goal was once again to create a harsh, savage, language, but it needed to be utterly distinctive from the previous Gurtok. To this end, the pronunciation, rather than being harsh on the ears, is slurred and wavering; the grammar, rather than being simple, is idiosyncratic, and easy to get a handle on but hard to master; and, just as an additional factor, the language is more of a dialect continuum, with different groups speaking versions of the language that are often radically different from the others. Hopefully, this will give English speakers a sense of crudity and alien intelligence from it, though in actuality, there are real languages fairly similar to this.

Just as a note to the readers, each language posted assumes that you read the languages and associated articles before it. If I covered a technical term in a previous installment, I may cover it again, but I also may not. If there's a term I haven't covered at all that you want to know about, just leave a comment, and I'll give an explanation a shot.


Maglubiyar can be, across all dialects, transcribed with the following letters: A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, I, J, K, L, M, N, O, P, R, S, T, U, V, W, Y, Z, Ny, and Sh. Additionally, all of the vowels are occasionally marked with a circumflex, as in Â.

The consonants are fairly easy to understand. They usually follow the expectations of an English speaker, except that J is softer, as it is in French; H is harshly voiced, as it is in some Slavic languages; Ny is identical to the Spanish N with tilde; and C is an unusual sound. C represents the palatal fricative, a sound accidentally produced by English speakers at the beginning of words such as "huge" or "human." Its presence near any vowel can be difficult to learn.

Dialect variation regarding consonants is fairly simple. Sh and J are pronounced like Ch and English J when they occur at the start of words in many Goblin and Hobgoblin accents. R is sometimes trilled by peripheral Goblin tribes, but this is uncommon. C sometimes falls back in the mouth to form a Kh sound in some environments, or, in the crudest Bugbear accents, at all times. And finally, a common trait of accents foreign to the Seaward region is for some syllables ending in Y to collapse into a single consonant that is pronounced like a Russian soft consonant, as in the word tuyego ("preserved meat") becoming tyego.

The vowels are much more difficult. A is normally pronounced like in "father" in stressed syllables and like in "ash" in unstressed syllables, but in some accents, especially among Bugbears, it may always be the first sound, and in some Goblin and Hobgoblin speech, it can neutralize when unstressed (see below). E is normally the vowel in "ray" when stressed, and the one in "bet" when unstressed, but in some dialects it is always the second sound, and in many, many dialects, it neutralizes when unstressed; in particular, in the most common Hobgoblin dialect, it is always neutralized, even when stressed. I is normally like the I in "machine"; in some dialects it is the one in "bit" when unstressed, but this is so similar to it being neutralized that it frequently goes straight there, instead. O is normally the O in "dole"; in some peripheral Hobgoblin dialects, it can be like the O in "omelette", but this is uncommon. Finally, U is normally like the vowel sound in the word "hook", but Bugbears frequently pronounce like the sound in "tune" instead, and in some dialects, it is like the sound in "bug" when unstressed. In some foreign accents, U can even neutralize, but this is very rare.

What is meant by the neutralization of a vowel referred to above is the process of marginalizing unemphasized vowels so heavily that their distinctive articulation is totally lost, converting them to a perfectly neutral sound known to linguists as the letter, "schwa." This sound is familiar to English speakers as the A in "about" and the U in "supply". Some Maglubiyar dialects don't do this at all, and others treat it as a full vowel; where schwas are present is one of the most distinctive elements of Maglubiyar accents.

Finally, syllable stress (or emphasis, as we say in English grammar) is critically important to Maglubiyar. Normally, it falls on the penultimate syllable of the word, and can move if the morphology of the word changes the syllable count; however, for some words, it is fixed on a specific syllable, which is marked by a circumflex over the vowel. In extreme cases, this can result in sets such as bogadashi ("to cut/sever") versus bogâdashi ("to twist/contort, transitive") versus bôgadashi ("to brag").


Maglubiyar is a heavily fusional language, although it sometimes borders on being agglutinative, so the majority of grammatical information is conveyed through word change. Nouns change case (function within the sentence) via highly predictable change of suffix, entering the nominative (subject), accusative (direct object), dative (indirect object), genitive ("of the noun"), instrumental ("using the noun"), and locative ("at the noun") cases. Conversely, they transition to plural number by duplicating the first consonant and vowel at the beginning of the word. For example, the word "sêbag" ("knife") pluralizes to "sesêbag." This sometimes causes collapse of the underlying word, such as the word for goblin, gobon, pluralizing to gogbon, but this is unpredictable and varies by accent.

Continuing on, Maglubiyar's default word order is subject-verb-object, as in English, but this is highly variable, and the strongly pro-drop tendencies of the language mean that the subject is very frequently omitted. Similarly, it is normally head-initial, but there are a few words that must come before the head, and the ordering is flexible, in any case. Like most languages in the Seaward region, Maglubiyar has articles, but in an unusual way; there is an indefinite article, juz (like the English, "a/an"), but its use is never mandatory, and an unmarked word may be either definite or indefinite, ambiguously. The verbs are also somewhat atypical. Besides agreeing with the subject of the sentence in number and person, thus enabling pro-drop tendencies, verbs track indicative (real), infinitive, imperative, subjunctive (unreal or hypothetical), optative (desired), and jussive (self-abasing) moods, although the last two are uncommon; as well as perfect, imperfect, imperfective, and habitual aspect (thus indicating the completeness of the action in the verb in great detail). Particles spoken before the verb can mark it as past, future, or, when combined, near-future tense, but these are not mandatory, and tense is normally ambiguous. 

Another distinctive element of Maglubiyar is the handling of prepositions. Prepositions are very heavily used in all speech to convey information of location and relation, but there are only six prepositions in the whole language. However, each of these can use each and every noun case as its object, changing meaning based on said case; for example, "yaya katun" means "within the castle", but "yaya katutin" means "under the castle." Furthermore, by repeating a preposition again after its phrase, turning it into what is called a circumposition, the meaning changes again; "yaya katun yaya" means "surrounded by the castle". Thus, there is really a total of 72 prepositions, and the instrumental and locative noun cases are used in place of many others found in English, enabling the preposition system to function well.

As is common for humanoid languages, Maglubiyar also has an extremely complicated and detailed vocabulary for titles and authority. The list of words that all mean different variations of chieftain, sub-chief, squad leader, slave, underling, king, peasant, wife, concubine, husband, and priest is very extensive, and the standard in formal speech is to use these in place of personal pronouns. When speaking to an overchief, it is almost mandatory to insistently refer to one's self as a wretched slave, while the overchief will state that he is the owner of his listeners in almost every sentence.

Most of the dialectical variation in Maglubiyar has already been described, but the noticeable differences in vernacular between major groups bear mentioning. The day to day vocabulary of different accents can be quite different, especially across racial boundaries, occasionally causing real difficulties in communication.

Ancient Maglubiyar is very poorly attested and understood. The writing system has diverged significantly over time, and most older text remains obscure. It is known that the modern language is originally a creole of older languages, but it appears that it is not true that there were once distinct goblin, hobgoblin, and bugbear languages. The exact provenance of modern Maglubiyar, the precise nature of Ancient Maglubiyar, and the characteristics of its antecedants are thus hotly disputed by the few sages that care to look into it.

Five Sample Words
Pusel   -the word meaning "tooth" in its standard form.
Nyazukreg   -the verb for "to clean" in the third person singular habitual indicative. Roughly translates to, "he cleans."
Adca   -one of the prepositions. Most of its meanings pertain to purpose or result.
Brîyark   -an exclamation indicating abjection or obedience. Commonly heard shouted by surrendering goblins.
Zizizolb   -a very distinctive profanity often borrowed by other humanoids. It is always in the locative case, and is used exclusively to answer unwanted questions of "where". Can be approximated as a very pithy, "in hell, that's where."

And that's everything you need to make goblins sound gobliny! Up next, I'm finally going to tackle Common, which is, rather counterintuitively, the hardest of the languages I've done yet.

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