Fictional Languages in Worldbuilding – A Thousand Words for Snow

This post is about something that’s been bothering me over the course of my research. Often times I come across books and essays offhandedly claiming that “the Eskimo have thousands of words for snow” somewhere when talking about various aspects of language. For one, that seems like an over generalization when the term is commonly used to refer to a whole swath of northern native American cultures, not to mention the fact that it’s commonly seen like a derogatory term. But is there any truth to the statement? Let’s investigate.

The most commonly spoken Inuit language is the Greenlandic Kalaallisut, with 57,000 speakers, followed by Inuktitut as spoken in Eastern Canada (34,100 speakers) and then Inupiatun as spoken in Northern Alaska by 13,500 speakers. These, plus other variations spoken by less than 10,000 people appear to be somewhat similar (although not exactly mutually intelligible, as in the case of Mediterranean languages) as they all descend from a language once spoken in northeastern Siberia. AboutWorldLanguages offers a list of all the words for snow in Inuit languages: aniu, apijaq, aput, isiriartaq, katakartanaq, kavisilaq, kinirtaq, mannguq, masak, matsaaq, natiruvaaq, pukak, qannialaaq, qannik, qiasuqaq, qiqumaaq.

Not quite a thousand, yet still an impressive amount of words to describe a single thing. But is it a single thing? McWhorter points out in The Power of Babel that English has different words for snow, too: snow, sleet, hail, slush, powder, thaw, flurries, frost, and so, excluding composite words that use the word snow somewhere like snow bank. So, as it turns out, a culture that lives in one of the coldest climates on Earth has developed a lot of names for snow, describing different states and consistencies of it. But on the other hand, many languages that developed in Western cultures have those, too, such as the case in German with Schnee, Frost, Schneematsch, Schneedecke, Firn, Schneeregen, Weiß, etc.

Sources: http://aboutworldlanguages.com/inuit
John McWhorter, The Power of Babel.

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Fictional Languages in Worldbuilding – Types of Writing Systems

With a language often comes writing – granted, not all cultures throughout history who speak or spoke languages (ie, all of them) have developed or adopted writing systems, however it’s undeniable that writing is a prerequisite for a civilization to advance (Coulmas, 1989). Some of the most commonly known writing systems are, of course, the latin alphabet, the Chinese pictorial writing, Arabic writing, Egyptian hieroglyphs and the Japanese hiragana. Then there are the less frequently seen writing systems (as extrapolated from the point of view of the author, of course, you’d be seeing a lot more Burmese if you lived in Burma) like the Greek alphabet or the Cyrillic alphabet.

What fascinated me doing some research on this is the fact that different writing systems work in entirely different ways, much more so than I initially thought. For example, the Hebrew alphabet belongs to a group of writing systems called Abjads, which use letters to represent consonants but not vowels. So the word “worldbuilding” becomes something more akin to “wrldbldng”, where the reader just fills in whatever vowels should go there. I’m simplifying a lot, but that seems to be the basics of it. The Japanese writing systems hiragana and katakana (one used for Japanese words, the other as a way of alliterating foreign words) both syllabic systems in which a “letter” stands for a set syllable, similar to a script called Linear B that was used in ancient Crete.

Linear B, retrieved from: http://www.omniglot.com/images/writing/linearb.gif

Even more fascinating are a family of writing system referred to as Abugidas (Daniels, 1996), which are systems in which letters depicting consonants are given vowels by modifying the letter slightly. Examples of this are Thai, Tibetan, Inuktitut (my personal favourite, aesthetically) and the fictional language Quenya, also know as the inscription on Sauron’s ring.

References:

Coulmas, F. (1989). What Writing Is all About. In The Writing Systems of the World (pp. 3-16). Basil Blackwell.

Daniels, P. T. (1996). The World’s Writing Systems. (D. T. Peter, & B. William, Eds.) Oxford University Press.

Fictional Languages in Worldbuilding – Scoping Down

After some revision and more research, it seems a much better approach to this topic will be to focus more on the research of language in fictional use rather than to attempt to validate rushed findings with an invented language. As such, I’ll be scoping down and focusing much more on existing examples and attempt to comment on how and if at all languages that exist in the lore of released games, the 24 languages spoken across the world of Nirn in the Elder Scrolls series being a good example of languages that exist primarily in worldbuilding but have little impact on gameplay (with, perhaps, the exception of Dovahzul which is the language of the dragon shouts in Skyrim).

As such, a better outline of topics to cover may be as follows:

  • What is Worldbuilding
  • Examples of Fictional Languages as Worldbuilding Tools
  • Examples of Fictional Languages as Game Mechanics
  • The Evolution of Language (an Overview)
  • The Evolution of Writing Systems (an Overview)
  • Writing Systems in Games
  • Critique of Language Use in Games

Fictional Languages in Worldbuilding – The Idea

Fictional languages tend to play a large part in worldbuilding, inside and outside of games. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be diving into a research project of analyzing how languages are used in games as worldbuilding elements and as mechanics, how real languages work and I’ll attempt to use my findings to construct a fictional language for a culture of my own invention. After doing a whole lot of reading (mostly The Power of Babel by John McWhorter, a book about the evolution of language that is informative and entertaining despite the occasional outdated pop culture reference), I’ve settled on a number of facets I’m going to focus on that should hold enough potential to be engaging for 6000 words:

  • What is Worldbuilding
  • Examples of Fictional Languages as Worldbuilding Tools
  • Examples of Fictional Languages as Game Mechanics
  • The Evolution of Language (an Overview)
  • The Evolution of Writing Systems (an Overview)
  • Writing Systems in Games
  • Introducing a Fictional Culture
  • Synthesizing a Language
  • Analysis