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.