Fun With History and Language

The collision of history and language is a whole lot of fun for a writer (it’s fun for other folk too, but damn does it ever make good world-building fodder). I got reminded of that this week when I stumbled over one of Eric Raymond’s posts  talking about how creoles form. Of course I immediately jumped on the classic Torpenhow meaning Hill Hill Hill (with each syllable meaning hill in a different language) (with the optional extra of Torpenhow Hill to make the place hill hill hill hill just for fun) and promptly ran into a whole list of tautological place names.

Then there are the place names that sound tautological and aren’t, like Townsville in Australia (named in honor of a gentleman by the name of Towns) and many of the place names derived from native languages (Wagga Wagga and friends) because many of the tribal languages don’t have intensifiers like ‘very’ and so on: instead the usual manner of indicating that something is important is to say it twice. So the most important person is the big big man. The local language translates the name as “many crows” with “wagga” for crow being repeated to indicate that there are a whole lot of them.

This of course can lead to more interesting place names and richer backstory embedded in one’s fiction, as well as the option of some Pratchett-esque scenes in which the representatives of the invaders, doing their survey for the equivalent of the Domesday book, head over to the village and ask one of the locals (speaking slowly and loudly, of course) what the name of that hill over there is. While pointing at it.

Local probably says “hill” in whatever his language is. We’ll say he says ‘tor’, which is one of the Celtic family of languages. Invader (for the sake of argument, Cumbric because that’s the language of origin for ‘pen’ meaning hill) duly notes the feature as ‘tor pen’.

Fast forward a few generations, or a few dozen, and the invaders have married in, the dialect spoken by the locals has shifted to something that’s not really either of the origin language (a creole, in other words) and everyone thinks of their hill as ‘torpen’. To many of them, it’s not really something they think about, it’s just what the place is called.

Then the next set of invaders, this lot Norse, come by to survey their new territory. So we go through the point and ask in a slow, loud voice, and the local says the invader is pointing at ‘torpen’. So our Norse invaders inform their leader that this is the village at Torpen Howe. There’s our three hills.

The other interesting aspect of this is that apparently when multiple language merge into a creole because these people are living effectively next door to each other and need to communicate, the result tends to be simpler than either of the origin languages, and the pattern of simplification is to ditch specialized grammar and use the position of the word in the sentence to indicate its role (otherwise known as subject-verb-object).

Yeah. This is why English has near-synonyms for everything (usually with different class connotations, generally following the rule that the fancy, upper-class one is of French origin and the lower-class version is the Old English version), and why English has managed to drop the idea of gendered nouns as a formal part of speech (although we haven’t simplified to the point of not having grammatical gender in pronouns – yet) as well as the notion of changing the spelling of the word depending on whether it’s the subject or object.

Some languages do that to people’s names. The Manx Gaelic form of my name is spelled Katreeny if it’s the subject of a sentence, and Chatreeny if it’s the object. This English speaker would have hell’s own time with that. Mix that in with the languages that have formal address and intimate address (English dropped that one 400 years or so back: thee/thou/thy etc was the intimate address, you/your the formal), or worse multiple layers of address that draw distinctions most USAians wouldn’t consider worth making (like hell I’m going to address my lead with a more formal pronoun just because he’s my lead) and you’ve got something that’s going to sound and feel very different, and will give the impression of a much deeper culture.

I’ll leave it to you to work out how to convey that in English, which has largely discarded all of that in favor of becoming what’s probably the world’s most advanced trading language.


    1. I’m monolingual – unless you count American English and Australian English. My vaguely remembered high school German from eons ago is just enough that I remember the horrors of declinations and gendered nouns.

      1. Snicker. I am fluent in both Brit and American English. Which served me well on one of my freelance jobs in Korea. And of course, in taking on “voices” of 19th century English and American characters in my own books.
        But I have to say – I never really got a grasp on English grammar, until I had done a couple of years of German.

        1. I was never *taught* grammar. I’ve picked up some along the way, mostly in my stainless steel lint trap method of accreting odd tidbits.

  1. One of the things that makes anime hilarious is the formal/informal modifiers. I don’t know why, but they always make me laugh.

    1. I just re-read the Maison Ikkoku manga, and while they missed a few things in translation (that I only know because of online footnotes), they did have one whole chapter dealing with the formal/informal split. Basically, the protagonist, who is in love with the apartment manager but who has no right at this point in the story to call her by an informal style of address, ends up taking care of his friend’s cat—who has the same name as the manager, in the informal style. They rendered it in the story as “Kyoko-baby,” which of course means she gets lost, and he’s going around the apartments calling for Kyoko-baby.

      It’s a Rumiko Takahashi manga, and she’s very gifted with expression. It’s definitely the sort of thing where people ask what you’re laughing about.

      1. It’s damn near impossible to render the informal/formal address differences in English without resorting to all manner of verbal contortions.

        1. That’s why it’s occasionally nice to go find out the footnotes. I think “Kyoko-baby” was a decent way to show it, though they screwed up the nomenclature a bit early on in the series.

  2. There was a book out recently (Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue by John McWhorter) that IMO makes a case for English being a creole after the Angles, Saxon, Jute invasion.

    There are elements in English that don’t match any other Germanic languages or French or Latin.

    These elements could have been the result of the overlords trying to be understood by their Celtic underlings and the reverse.

    It’s not always shown by the written language dating from that time but written language doesn’t always match what the “common folk” are saying.

    1. esr writes about, and Kate seems to allude to the theory that English was in fact formed by three rounds of it, not just the one.

      1. Nod, it’s obvious about the French, the Danes and Latin from Christian missionaries but McWhorter was thinking that the Celtic Languages were a factor very early.

        1. esr, IIRC, speculates that the Celtics originally came in, conquered, and formed a creole with someone.

          1. That was pretty much the post, yes. And there are plenty of English words where each meaning of the word has a different language of origin. (“pen” is one of them. Pen = hill from Cumbrian. Pen = enclosure from something else. Pen = writing instrument via a word for feather from a different language again)

            1. “Pen” is also “head”, as in “Pendragon”, which could mean “Dragon’s Head” or “The Head Dragon”, depending on who you ask.

    2. I second the recommendation. It’s a fun book, and even if you don’t agree with his hypothesis, it is a very interesting take on how to look at language histories in a new way (grammar instead of just vocabulary).

      1. AKA good writer fodder. I’m going to have to get a copy just for that aspect. AS well as what sounds like a chronicling of the way English mugged every language imaginable for simpler grammar and more vocabulary.

        1. You’re welcome. I want to read his other books, but they are a little steep for my “just curious” book budget.

    3. I saw it put as “English is three languages stacked on top of each other inside a trenchcoat”.

        1. I’ve got a t-shirt with a depiction of a mugging that reads “English doesn’t borrow from other languages. It knocks them down in dark alleys and goes through their pockets, looking for loose grammar.”

  3. Then there’s the comic possibilities, too . . . for example:

    VEGETARIAN: Native American word meaning “lousy hunter”.

    VEGAN: Native American word meaning “lousy vegetarian”.


    1. There is – reputedly – no truth to the rumor that Australia’s capital Canberra means “place of hot air” in the local tribal language.

  4. Etymology and acquisition of language are fascinating subjects. I took an Anthropology of Linguistics course many seasons ago and loved the subject. Not much need for it out of academia, alas.

    1. Actually… For a writer they’re gold. Knowing enough about linguistics and etymology really helps make worldbuilding feel more solid.

    1. Yup. As well as every river in South Western Australia that ends with -up. (Yes, this is why Bugarup is used as a town name in parodies. The tribal languages in that region use -up to indicate places with water. So Manjimup, Ongerup and so on mean [something] lake or [something] river.)

  5. German distinguishes between formal and informal address with the words “Sie” and “du.” Years ago, I had an Austrian co-worker some years older than I was, and I’d occasionally practice my German on him. At some point he suggested that since we’re in America, we just drop the silly “Sie” rigamarole and go to a more matey “du.” And I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. I had internalized at least that much, and it seemed just plain *wrong* to call someone older than I was “du.”
    Japanese is much more complicated with different forms of address depending on the relative status of the people involved. I was struck by one anime series (“La Corda d’Oro,” about a high school classical music competition), in which the heroine was called different things by different people based on where they stood with her. My Japanese is next to non-existent, but I’d picked up on that, and I could tell that a straight-up English translation with just her given name lost all the nuances.
    “Kimagure Orange Road” was striking for the fact that the high-school age hero is deeply in a love with a girl he can call only by her family name (“Ayukawa!”). I forget the reasons now, but I seem to recall one explanation was that it was about the most neutral possible form of address when the hero didn’t dare express his true feelings about her. The series itself even made a bit of a joke about it when the girl finally asks him when he’s going to start calling her by her given name. (SPOILER ALERT: It’s in the second movie, some years after the main series, he has finally won her heart, and let’s just say it’s not an occasion when I’d be thinking about proper forms of address.)
    I’m glad English mostly doesn’t bother with such things (well, there’s calling somebody Mr. Freer, say, as opposed to just Dave), but they can be important.

    1. I’ve heard that this is one of the reasons English is the default language for pilots and air traffic control. It’s because being *unable* to use a formal mode beyond “Mr. So’n’so” tends to encourage a more equal communication between pilot and copilot, which in turns tends to make the copilot more likely to override when necessary.

      It would certainly make it easier to tell the relative status of people in an unfamiliar group, but I grew up in an aggressively egalitarian culture. I *like* the presumption that everyone is of equal merit and you address them as such.

      1. Having grown up in a setup where being formal was required (and respect deeply ingrained), I actually couldn’t make myself NOT call Rhys’ parents without ‘Uncle’ and ‘Aunt’ when I first visited Australia. It took time before I could do that. (I can’t undo the habit though, of using ‘sir’ or ‘ma’am’ when talking to someone older, especially with people I DO respect very much.)

        Even though he’s not blood-kin, I insisted that the children refer to Aff as ‘Uncle Aff/ Uncle David’ – because despite his not being blood, he’s family, and how am I supposed to divide normal adult from ‘adult you should trust and respect and listen to more’ without some kind of mental indication that he is different from ‘everyone else’ at least from the child’s perspective? And also to help teach them respectful behavior. (There’s been a bit of the “I don’t have to listen to you” because that seems to be a very pervasive attitude with children their age, but that got slapped down VERY fast with accompanying loss of computer game privileges, to highlight that yes, you don’t, but that also means that Uncle Aff doesn’t have to make sure you can use your computer for games and make sure they still run! The incoming teen years’ pissing contests should be …fun.)

        1. Oh, you do have so much fun to look forward to. But you’ll be amazed (and somewhat ego boosted) at what comes out the other side.

          I’m of the American generation that always called an older person, or an authority figure, “Sir” or “Ma’am.” Egalitarianism is good, and all that – but I have to admit that I think those days were somewhat better in many ways.

    2. Generally though, Ayukawa was supposed to have told him at some point to call her her first name, Madoka.

      On the flip side, in xxxHolic, Watanuki chides Doumeki that he and his fiancee call each other by their surnames with the -san honorific, when they’re getting married the next day. Doumeki replies they got used to it, so keep on doing it, though there are a few times that she (who Doumeki marries is a spoiler) does call him by his first name, Shizuka.

      A minor plot point is how the child-exorcist Kohane is not called by her name by her mother for years; and Watanuki, being older, affectionately calls Kohane ‘Kohane-chan’ without thinking (as this is normal for an older person to do) and she stares at him. Thinking she is offended (they haven’t known each other that long) he apologises and offers to refer to her more formally. She refuses, saying she was just so surprised hearing someone else call her by her first name again with affection, and asks him to keep doing so. He in turn gives her the permission to call him by his first name, Kimihiro. (She appends the familiar -kun suffix.)

    1. That’s a very short one. “Mention character has an accent. Do not render phonetically unless you want your book thrown out the nearest window.”

        1. Twain is fine. Unfortunately, 99.999999999% of authors who try to do what he does aren’t Twain.

        2. Twain wrote for an era where people were much more accustomed to reading aloud – and when doing so, the accents flow pretty well. When reading silently, they’re a lot harder to get through. It’s a culture change as much as a style change, and these days, it’s much harder for most modern readers to stay immersed in the story if they have to parse the accented speech.

          I’ll go one further than Kate, though – not only can you mention character has an accent, but you can also use grammar choices to render the accent. For example, Russian doesn’t believe in articles (a, an, the). So a Russian character consistently not using those in English will come across as thick accent, even without phonetics.

          “This gun doesn’t have a safety!”
          “Is gun. Is not safe.”

          As in all things, moderation; too much of anything is just too much.

            1. Fortunately, we live in an era where you can stream podcasts, BBC News, sports commentary, movies, and so on from the country in question. There’s a rhythm to every language; a little slang, some sentence structure, and you’ve gone a long way toward accent without ever having to get into phonetics. Didn’t say it was easy, just that it’s easier than before the internet. (Especially podcasts, because they give you a real local voice who’s not trained in formal pronunciation. But even movies are good for showing you how screenwriters and actors conspire to carry the lilt, the rhythm, and some slang while still making the lines intelligible.)

              1. That’s the path I prefer to take. I’ll pick a small subset of rhythm and key words, and use those consistently. I’ll also have those less familiar with the current language speak it in very formal (aka “has been taught it but doesn’t use it every day”) registers.

          1. I play with the grammar to show when Joschka is being especially formal (or trying to hide that he’s fluent in the current language-in-use.) Move the verb to the end = German, at least to many readers.

          2. Like Leith Laumer’s Groaci. Their sentence structure was basically long complex nouns.

            In the later works he seemed to get lazy, and everything was an infinitive; but early on it was fun. Like this:

            “The absolute importance of my errand, and the inflexible time constraints associated with it!”

            “The utter impossibility of any appointment before the afternoon of the third day from now!”

            “The possibility of violence as emotional release in the event of continued frustration!”

            “Indifference to violence, confidence in my martial abilities, and the regard of a friend on the local police force!”


          3. Also, in the time before talking pictures, it was a way to immerse the reader further. Like the detailed descriptions of settings and scenery. Our present taste for brevity of prose is partly due to a habit of imagining fed by generations of movies and tv.

            By the way, one of the most “egegrious” examples of written dialect was Joel Chandler. A friend of mine once ran into a black man who was trying to find the Wren’s Nest. Turned out he was African, and a language student. Joel Chandler was a hero to him–he’d preserved the slave accents and dialects so well that specific characters (or their ancestors) could be “traced” to specific regions in Africa. Uncle Remus and his friends were a treasure trove of African and American anthropology…

            1. I’m certain that they were — but I tried to read the Br’er Rabbit stories early on, and was utterly defeated because … I couldn’t make head or tail of the dialect…
              Probably my Scots-Irish-English privilege showing there – but I could and did read Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s “Sunset Song” Trilogy – because when I read it, I could “hear” the characters talking..

              1. In the time, that wasn’t a problem, apparently. Kipling devotes a chapter of STALKY AND COMPANY to the arrival of UNCLE REMUS at the school. (A friend told me *all* about it–I haven’t read it myself.)

                I gather the boys spent some time going around conversing in dialect, and ended up building a Tar Baby on campus (to catch whom, my friend never told me).

                1. Maybe it had to do, as suggested above, eith the habit od reading aloud back then. Dialect is a lot easier to follow with your ears…

      1. THIS. Michael Crichton wrote 13th Warrior in some sort of pseudo dialect that was unreadable. Loved the movie; couldn’t get 2 pages into the book.

  6. Steven Brust played with the place names in his Dumas spoof—Bengloarafurd Ford, if I recall correctly. And his narrator is fairly pompous and spelled it out in much more detail than you did.

    1. I may have chosen poorly, but *every* Steven Brust I’ve read has a rather pompous narrator.

      1. Heh. Different form of pompous. The Dumas pastiches have a stuffy, circumlocution-using wannabe scholar, and the Taltos books have an arrogant wisecracking ball of barely-suppressed anger.

        Note that I read things like Dumas, Dickens, and Victor Hugo for fun, so my stylistic preferences are fairly tolerant for long-winded asides.

  7. Here’s a fun bit I found on Wikipedia the other day:

    One interesting and humorous example is the name of Nowata, Oklahoma. The word nowata is a Delaware word for “welcome” (more precisely the Delaware word is nuwita which can mean “welcome” or “friend” in the Delaware languages). The white settlers of the area used the name nowata for the township, and local Cherokee, being unaware that the word had its origins in the Delaware language, called the town Amadikanigvnagvna which means “the water is all gone gone from here” – i.e. “no water.”

    1. Heh. This makes me wonder what, in some distant future, some poor soul will make of Australia’s multiple places named Mount Misery.

  8. Suzette Haden Elgin once tossed off an alien race whose entire language changed–predictably–based on the relative social status of those conversing. Think of musical transposition–except instead of a circle of notes, the ENTIRE FREAKIN VOCABULARY was on the circle.

    Some oppressive male regime (as with everything she wrote, it was all about the message) was trying to trade with them, and kept nearly starting wars every time they said hello. One of their Poets* (female, of course–see above) finally figured it out, and they used a computer to compose a speech to someone whose rank they absolutely KNEW–explaining that they were mentally retarded and begging for help putting together a pidgin.

    *Poets had a semi-devine standing in their culture. And their process for awarding the status made Chinese bureaucrat testing look like anarchy.

      1. My reaction precisely. I suspect if she’d been so indiscreet as to carry the story further, she’have had to describe a beehive or termite hill. Fortunately, she only cared about the Evil of the Oppressive Human Males.

        1. More accurately, nothing past the Evil Professor’s lecture on Omnipotent Sapir-Whorf was readable–even Vance couldn’t find any humor in it.

          The description of Paonese certainly worked, though. The only way to say “A man chops down a tree” translates back as “A man is in a state of exertion, with an ax as connecting instrument to a tree which is under attack”??!!!

          1. Pratchett did it better in the Discworld books – he had the sense to make it comical.

  9. For those wanting a quick and dirty guide to this I recommend The Language Construction Kit. It should come with a “this rabbit hole is very deep” warning label but is layered (need a naming language, here you go is the first 4-5 pages of the print version) so you can choose how deep you go.

      1. Me too. Although I’ll have to investigate to figure out whether it is useful for alien languages. (Probably so, the basic principles are the same – and humans are rather odd in the number of different sounds we can produce.)

        1. You might end up with a limited spoken vocabulary, with lots of inflection and body language. Or pheramones to convey certain things. And a really, really complex written language in order to incorporate all those gestures and scents and pitch/stress changes.

          1. What tickles me from time to time is the thought that, while we have high-bandwidth input devices, we don’t have high-bandwidth output.

            What would a high-bandwidth output device for a creature be like and how would those of us with limited bandwidth output communicate with them?

            1. Would a computer data connection count as a high-bandwidth input?

              A while back, I was working on a story concept around a cyborg who’s job duties involved being a go between for humans and semi-sentient machines not capable of human-friendly communication. It was both fun and mentally exhausting to mock up a simplified reader-friendly communication protocol and then explain it in human terms. As an example that I can remember, the machine version of “How are you?” was two separate queries, “Are you functioning normally?” and “Are you on schedule with what you are working on?”

            2. Check out Niven’s Puppeteers. Two separate heads, each capable of independent, high bandwidth sound creation. One character’s name is described as the sound of breaking glass.

              They communicate with us using human speech (Spanglish?), because both species can pronounce the sounds.

          2. Being someone who could easily go hog-wild on this – I’m approaching it with extreme caution. I keep in mind that too much drives away readers.

            I see so many complaints about Dave Weber’s Safehold books – and those are just expectable language shifts. Or the heavy use of Czech in one of the Honorverse books. I personally think those give a more realistic flavor – but for many, they get in the way of story.

        2. I know the book version has some discussion. The book also has a sequel, The Advanced Language Construction Kit that has more details on that if memory serves (I can look up later at home if you’d like).

          At that point you’re well into black hole territory and buying his recommended book on introductory phonetics which has exercises to teach you how to pronounce all the phonemes, even the ones not in your spoken languages.

          1. I saw that. Probably a later acquisition for the Advanced book. The phonetics one – oooh! I’ll pick that one up just for curiosity. I have a very limited pronunciation ability for non-English phonemes.

      2. Given the cost I heartily recommend buying the book version and its sequel either in Kindle or print (I did print).

        In particular the Advanced one has a good layout for doing a more comprehensive grammar. I bought it for that alone as it made getting started much easier and I was merely going for naming languages.

      3. Bookmarked for sure. I’ve got bits of my language and it would nice to have enough to be able to rattle off a few more things in it from time to time.

    1. And the vocabulary. I’m not sure there are any languages English hasn’t… culturally appropriated along the way.

      1. To be honest, I don’t think there is a language that hasn’t incorporated some appropriated terms and phrases. Ever.

        I said “Bonne fin de semaine” to my French teacher (in France) because we were learning that sort of thing, but she hadn’t covered that, and she corrected me, saying that the proper farewell was “Bonne Weekend.”

        And that cheeseburger was still cheeseburger.

        AFTER we’d gone through ‘magnetoscope’ and ‘l’ordinateur.’

        1. Well, I always heard that France had an Institute that decided that “foreign words should not be part of French”.

          But it appears that the French don’t listen to that Institute. 👿

            1. Reading about it on Wiki, it appears that the Academy has no power to enforce their decisions. 😉

              The Wiki Article didn’t say what the average Frenchmen think of their efforts.

          1. There was an Asterix comic mocking that aspect of French culture. The druid was going around scolding the Gauls for using Latin (the language of our oppressors!).

        2. In Quebec, french fries used to be “patat frit,” on signs everywhere, before the odious Bill 101 language law passed. Patat frit is not French, but it is what everybody says. These days the signs say some other “pomme de terre” circumlocution, but everybody still says patat frit, or just frit.

          The 101 law is odious due to having “Language Cops” come around and issue fines for having words like “spaghetti” on a menu. Some old Italian dude took them to the Supreme Court over that one.

        3. Every language does it but the difference between say, French, and English is the difference between youth soccer and Manchester United 🙂

  10. My favorites in English:
    1. The constant dropping of singular second-person: thou, you, y’all, and all y’all.
    2. Repluralizations: child, childer, childeren, childrens (“chillins”)

    I liked “QX” in Lensmen for “OK”.

    1. Yup. And the ongoing trend to ditch all the irregular tenses and replace them with either word+ed or the ring/rang/rung pattern. (I ring, I rang, I have rung – and the endless fun one can have with words that don’t fit dais pattern)

      1. Then there’s “dig”. At one point it followed the word+”ed” pattern; you can find “digged” in Shakespeare. Now, though, the past form is universally “dug”.

  11. Readers will recall that English still has a small number of gendered nouns, material objects that are properly “she” or “he”. For some reason I think there are a half dozen of them, making it slightly more common that the list of English words in which the vowel is “w”.

  12. And, sort of related, it took a while for me to realize that the salsa roja we put on the steak burritos at work was really red sauce. 😉

    1. And then there’s ‘Cairns’, which is pronounced “Cans”.
      How the Aussies came up with that one, I don’t know.
      At least there’s Hog’s Breath cafe.

  13. Long ago on the Boston NG mailing list corrected a troll who used “thee” and “thou” and did so in a grammatically incorrect way. After correcting his grammar I corrected his manners in using the familiar form with a general mailing list of people he did not know (having learned about it from MZB via the SCA long ago).

    For the longest time I was nicknamed “Miss Gothic Manners” due to that bit of linguistic trivia.

    I never thought about how it could be useful in writing.

  14. Re: Katriny — it is not the spelling that is changing; it is the pronunciation. Case markers are the first consonant. Ch is an H sound. The problem is that lenition is different for different opening consonants.

    1. Yeah – true. The spelling change is used to signify the pronunciation change rather than being a rule. It was about that point that my brain broke and I gave up trying to make sense of how it all worked.

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