Envious, meet Spider

The epic fantasy series The Wheel of Time features a rich world of characters and history, including a language spoken approximately 3000 years prior to the action of the story, called by modern folk the old tongue (the OT). There is also a group of about a dozen evil villains from that same time period. After a war that ended 3000 years ago, they were imprisoned in a timeless sleep, but escaped (I think) a few decades or so prior to the main action. One could complain (nitpick) about the plausibility of a single world language, and the likelihood that an entire continent would still speak mutually-intelligible dialects descended from said language, even 3000 years later. But anyway, that’s not the point.

These old school villains (the “Forsaken”) have all adopted for themselves names given them (in scorn) by those they fought so many years ago. For instance, in the prologue of The Eye of the World, we learn that Elan Morin Tedronai is now called Betrayer of Hope. This works out to Ishamael in the old tongue. Based on other words in the OT, we know that mael is ‘hope’ and isha has something to do with ‘destroyer’, but it’s unclear if these are bound or free morphemes, whether this is more like a compound (hope destroyer?) or a name-ified phrase. Anyway, that’s how it goes. In the OT, these baddies have names like “Spider” or “the Envious” or “Daughter of the Night.”

Now, there are some scenes in which these Forsaken talk amongst each other, and one can surmise that they use the old tongue. For instance, in the prologue of Lord of Chaos (p57) we have the point of view of one of the Forsaken

She felt the first spinning of saidar a moment before the glowing line appeared and became a gateway.

Modern day people speak of weaving, not spinning, saidar. There are a couple other things like this, I think. of course it could be that they are actually speaking a modern language, but using lexical items from their own time period. But it’s not clear why they would do so. Maybe to keep up their language skills? But these Forsaken have in general such a poor opinion of modern people that it seems they’d relish any opportunity to abandon the parts of their language, culture, etc that they had to adopt in order to fit in.

Yet, in contrast to the Prologue of the very first book (where a good guy, speaking the OT, says “Betrayer of Hope”), the thought and language of the Forsaken, in every other part of the series, uses the OT names untranslated. The line after the one quoted above reads,

Graendal stepped out, …

where Graendal means something in the OT (though not known to mere mortal readers). This is to be contrasted with the italicized saidar, another OT word, probably complex but no gloss has ever been given. So, the generalization here is that, with the exception of the first prologue of the first book, chapters from the POV of an OT speaker look linguistically just like POVs from modern speakers, with some lexical items switched out to remind us we’re dealing with really old people here.

From a certain point of view this makes sense. It would probably be rather difficult and confusing to make the OT/modern differences more apparent. And while it might satisfy some geeks, it could well take away from the storytelling proper. And for another thing, it might be pretty darned hilarious to read

The Betrayer of Hope wondered what could be keeping Spider. She and the Envious always worked together, but surely they would not openly show their alliance…

Which brings up the next question: do these guys ever feel funny talking to each other with these names? I realize that analyzable names pretty quickly become opaque to casual thought (how often do I wonder about the creek in Walnut Creek? Almost never). They do, from time to time, mull over the suitability of their names, but I guess it’s mostly in the background of their thoughts. So, maybe the rendering of their names as non-italicized old tongue (amidst what we can imagine is translated OT) is a way of representing that.

Final note: in The Eye of the World, on pages 619-20, you can find another example of the whole worm/wyrm/Worm thing. I never noticed it the first time through, but after rereading the book a few weeks ago, I found it chuckle-worthy.

“They were scared off by worms?” Mat said incredulously. [...]

“A Worm” — there was a sharp difference in the way the Warder said it from the way Mat had — “can kill a Fade, if the Fade hasn’t the Dark One’s own luck with it.

What I wouldn’t give to know what that sharp difference was.

The polysemy of ancient and/or faerie languages

This is not what I promised in an earlier post, but the topic is basically the same.

Now, I’m not widely read in (epic) fantasy novels, though it is often my preferred genre. Nonetheless, I think I can make a tentative generalization, which is that in any fantasy world where some either exotic or ancient race speaks a language unintelligible to contemporary folk, then there is somehow an inordinate amount of polysemy, connotation, or complexity to the words and sentences involved. Or, alternatively, it is approximately the same amount as in the modern language (usually “English”), but it is highlighted in such a way as to make it seem rather different from anything that might be familiar.

Just to pick a couple examples from Tad William’s book Shadowmarch (which I’m currently in the middle of reading; no spoilers):

The lady’s high house was called Shehen, which meant “Weeping.” Because it was a s’a-Qar word, it meant other things, too–it carried the intimation of an unexpected ending, and a suggestion of the scent of the plant that in the sunlight lands was called myrtle–but more than anything else, it meant “Weeping.”

…all the way down to the thrice-blessed fence that the mortals called Shadowline, and that the Qar themselves called A’shish-Yarrit Sa, which meant “Storm of Silence,” or, with a slightly different intonation of voice or gesture of the hand, “White Thoughts.”

I suppose that the second example is supposed to be significantly different from, say, tonal languages like those found in China and Africa. In this case, we are supposed to understand that the two meanings for A’shish-Yarrit Sa are somehow semantically related (in some deep way incomprehensible to mere humans). Either that, or somehow we’re dealing with a pun, or maybe just some philosophically interesting near-homophony which, perhaps, native speakers of Qar don’t even care about.

Now, this sort of thing is not in and of itself completely horrible. But for me, without an actual system apparent behind the words and their meanings, which could, with time, be discerned by the reader (and yes, this requires many more tokens in the books), it just seems…well, laughable.

Languages in fantasy

Something about language in fantasy novels is bothering me again, though I can’t quite formulate it yet. This is coming from a recent purchase, Shadowmarch, by Tad Williams. It’s sort of an interesting book, publishing-wise. Much (some?) of it was originally published as an online serial (on shadowmarch.com) back in 2002, along with a user forum and other interactive tools. It was a nice experiment, while it lasted.