The layers of language in The Babylon Eye

Several people who’ve read The Babylon Eye have asked about the languages used in the book. I put quite a lot of thought and research into that aspect of the world building. This explanation of my process will probably make more sense if you’ve read the book!

I wonder how many readers picked up on the fact that while the book is written in English it is really, as it were, translated from whatever language the characters in this alternate world actually speak. They never refer to their own language as English. One clue is that every now and then one of them will consider another character to be rather “anglo”, suggesting that they don’t think of themselves as anglophone. This is my own private joke, as I have an allergy to people who think of English as the default language, and consider all other languages to be foreign, no matter the country or context.

I decided early on in the planning process that the world I was creating would be very similar to ours but that its history would have some significant differences. These differences don’t have a direct impact on the plot but they do shape the world and especially the names and words used.

For example in the world of the book, Germany  won the First World War and the United States doesn’t exist, being a collection of smaller countries. The Second World War never happened and  at the time the story is set in, Prussia is still one of the dominant powers although some of the American countries have been gaining influence over the last decades.

Closer to home, South Africa (called Nieu Batavia in this world) was never a British colony but stayed Dutch until it gained its independence. This had an impact on the names of places and people.  The character names tend to be Dutch or Germanic rather than British, for example the main character Elke is diminutive of Adelheid which is a German name and her surname is Dutch. Some of the place names are Malay (this is more apparent in the second book, The Real). Dutch titles like mejuffrou (which means miss) and meinheer (the equivalent of mister) are used for ordinary people, while the high status Prussian characters retain their German “Frau” and “Herr”.

The names for the different castes of Strangers, (the people from the other world), are all words that mean “ghost”. Geist is Germanic, glim is middle English and eidolon is Greek.  This suggests that these terms were chosen by people from our own world rather than being official strangeworld titles, probably chosen to match some the unpronounceable strangeworld equivalents.

The first Strangers who contacted people from our world used a form of Latin. This is a clue that there must have been contact between the worlds before, and that the Strangers’ culture is not utterly alien to our own. Of course, Latin wasn’t necessarily their mother tongue, but a bridging language they knew we would be able to understand. Many of the names of things in the Eye itself are influenced by Latin, for example the dexter and sinister states of the Eye, and the soluster, the chandelier-like light that lights up the main levels of the Babylon Eye. Even the cubbies, the tiny living quarters of most of the population of the Eye, is rooted in the Latin word cubile.

On the other hand, the slang and the swearwords used by the working people in the Eye is a little different. For that I mixed in a lot of Polish, Zulu, Afrikaans, Russian and Spanish, based on the idea that the mechanics, cleaners, drivers and other workers would have come from all over the world.  Since the Eye has quite a communal culture and was, originally at least, to have a open and non-hierarchical structure, the working people had a say in the running of the Eye and its customs. This is reflected in the official terminology. For example the court, the body that is responsible for hearing legal cases, is called a “stolik” which is the Polish world for “table”.

The names people call themselves differ from what other people call them and reflect their status. The lowest of the Stranger castes, the untattoed ones, are called “weeds” and “blanks” and other rude names by those who shun them, but they refer to themselves as Fugado, the fugitives. Using “blanks” (in this context, referring to somebody without tattoos to signal their status) as a insult was another in-joke, a play on “blanke”, a term which has a completely different meaning in Afrikaans, being a term for a white person and which is not usually considered and insult.

I could go on! There is so much more. I’m busy with the third book in the series now and have a whole new universe of titles, place-names and slang to figure out. I’ve been digging around in Somalian, Arabic, Assyrian, Yiddish, and some of the other ancient languages for inspiration. Only a small part of this shows in the finished book, of course, but I hope that it helps to make the world feel richer and more real.

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