Eroded Language in “The Strange”

My favourite part of world building — the process of creating a setting for a story — is making sure that any words or names I have to make up are convincing. Most of us have a keen an intuitive sense for when a word is “fake”, and when you come across a name for a place, a person, or even a type of food that seems obviously made up, it pulls you out of the story. I wrote about the layered use of language in The Babylon Eye here, to explain how the words, titles, and place names reveal the history and hierarchy of that world. In The Strange I had an even bigger challenge, creating not  just one, but an entire universe of alien worlds. These worlds had to feel deeply foreign and, well, strange, without being so distant, removed, or alien that they don’t evoke an emotional response.

For example, consider Orm Embar, the name Ursula le Guin chose for one of the dragons in her Earthsea series.  We don’t know the etymology of this name but  to me, “Embar” evokes “ember”, a quiescent seed of fire that might flare up if breathed upon, and “Orm” has echoes of the word “orb”, which seems large, timeless, and ancient. Both are appropriate for the dragon they describe.

I could never create this kind of resonance with completely made up language, so my Strange World had to use words that sounded familiar, and drew on existing languages from our world. The names and terminology also had to show evidence of history. For example, in our world the names of letters, numbers, the days of the week are from ancient cultures that used to have great influence but have now faded into obscurity. The symbols and names that remain are the teeth, the bone fragments, the stone beads that are left behind when the body itself has been eroded away.

As was hinted at in The Babylon Eye the Strange is not a single world but a network of many places that have been conquered, colonised, freed, vanquished and re-colonised. Multiple civilisations overlapped, blended and erased one another. Some places have multiple names, old names, drawn from ancient language like Aramaic, Accadian and Somali, as well as the newer names given to them by conquerors. The newer names are often latinate, as Latin was a bridge language between warring foreign cultures in the Strange.

Traces of this history can be seen in the architecture of places like the Gremium (the Gremium is another Eye, a sort of hub between the worlds), where ancient infrastructure is layered on top of even older carvings. But its history is also evident in the name itself. “Gremium” is the new name, and is derived from the Latin word for “lap”.  The old name was Samad Uurka, which is a warping of the Somali words for “Sky” and “womb”.

There are many worlds, all with names, and all the world names are preceded by  the word “Dhulka” which is Somali for “ground” or “soil”. So for example, the Strangeworld name for our world is Dhulka Serragio. “Serragio” was derived from the Latin word for sawdust, a substance used in arenas to mop up the blood of gladiators. That name seemed, to the Strangers, appropriate for our world. The people in my stories tend not to use the word “dhulka” for “world”. They refer to the various worlds as “niches”, which evokes an entirely different attitude and set of associations.

There are many examples of this layering throughout the book. Titles of petty prison officials are derived from numbers in ancient, twelve-base systems: esseret is Accadian for “ten”. Military titles are from the more modern Latin-base languages: for example the para-military slave-train guards in The Strange are called pugios, which is Latin for “dagger”.

Why are the prison-officials’ titles rooted in the language of the older, conquered civilisation, while the enslaved slave-guardians bear titles in the language of the conquerors? I can guess, but I’m not sure, just as nobody can every really be sure of the etymology of many of the words and titles in our own world.

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