Monday, November 05, 2012

Linguistics in DARK•HERITAGE

I've talked before about my thoughts on linguistics in fantasy.  Linguistics and fantasy are no doubt forever going to be tied together, because of the influence of Tolkien, who's inspiration for writing The Lord of the Rings was, by his own admission, primarily linguistic.  I've also been a fan of linguistics and consider it a minor hobby to be at least somewhat conversant in some linguistic topics... but I'm certainly no professional linguist.  And, in fact, I've come to the somewhat reluctant conclusion that linguistics is better placed in the background, and better glossed over rather than brought to the foreground.

H. P. Lovecraft and Lin Carter both criticized Robert E. Howard for his linguistics--the notion of linguistic Scandinavians, Greek, Romans, Arabs, Egyptians, etc. in his Hyborian Age setting turned them off quite a bit; they thought fantasy names should sound fantasy-like, and not reflect any actual earth cultures.  Of course, in my opinion, this is a big mistake.  Reading a slew of unrecognizable and difficult to parse names in a fantasy story is likely to be meaningless to most readers, and possibly even confusing.  My kids and my wife already complain quite a bit about the similarities in names between Sauron and Saruman as it is when they watch the LotR trilogy.

But there's something to the notion that too much familiarity can ruin the tone and feel of fantasy as well.  Although Bob (and Robert) or Bill (and William) and a number of other names like Richard, or John, or Mark or Luke, have fairly old pedigree, and would have been perfectly common, acceptable, and work well in an actual Medieval story (a la Robin Hood, Ivanhoe, etc.) which is, in some ways, the inspiration for much of the fantasy genre today, I prefer to go with a slightly different feel, and then to twist it even a little bit more.

English fantasy fans are not as familiar with the sound of Mediterranean fantasy (at least not until somewhat recently) but Spanish, French, or Italian names are hardly unfamiliar, especially North America where much of our territory was once part of Nueva España or Nouvelle France, or at least has seen massive influx of Italian immigrants due to the Italian diaspora.  In fact, English speakers are sufficiently well-versed in those languages (or at least names that come from them) that they almost sound as familiar as English names.  So, while I like the Mediterranean vibe, I don't want to use actual Spanish, French of Italian for the same reason I don't want to use actual English names--they're too familiar.  And while English speakers may not be quite as familiar with the other "major" Romance language, Portuguese, I am kinda, because of one line in my own family tree that comes from the island of Madeira.  Plus, as the BRIC economies become more and more integrated into the global view, Brazilians are becoming more and more familiar to us as well.

Luckily, there's actually a long list of other Romance languages which are somewhat more obscure now, but which still linger, and which historically covered vast areas.  They sound very similar to Spanish or Italian (or occasionally French) but subtly different.  Exactly what I want.  Close enough to bring to mind associations--sometimes even subconscious ones--in the minds of readers (or players, since I'm doing better running games in DARK•HERITAGE than writing novels) but slightly "off" enough that it doesn't bring to mind too-familiar associations.  Catalan, for instance, is a language common on the east-coast of Spain, and due to nationalistic tendencies, is actually growing from a low point a few decades ago.  It seems to have a vibrant future, and is still heard (and seen on signs) frequently in places like Barcelona, Valencia or the Ballearic Isles, including Majorca and Ibiza.  Occitan, a hundred years ago or so, was more common in France than French, but has suffered greatly from the systemic imposition of the French language, to the point where its long-term survival is in doubt.  While geographically located in France (mostly), Occitan is much more closely related to Catalan than to French, and any "Frenchisms" in the language are mostly considered borrowings of words, structure or sounds rather than native elements. 

Ligurian is a north-Italian language, not especially close to Italian (in terms of the Romance language family) but is rather seen as a bit further east on the spectrum from Occitan (in fact, in areas where they border each other, some dialects struggle with labels.  Is the Niçardo dialect of Nice a Ligurian dialect heavily influenced by Occitan, or an Occitan dialect heavily influenced by Ligurian?  Jury's still out there.)  That spectrum would continue further south and east into the Tuscan dialect--which is the basis for what is today known as standard Italian.  Ligurian still is official in some areas, and its unclear whether it's in decline or not.  As the native language of Genoa and Monaco, it at least as some prestige.  It would also have been Christopher Columbus' native language, for whatever that's worth.

Even farther to the east, we have languages that are kind of off the spectrum, having been interrupted by the influx of Slavic speakers during the expansion of the Slavic languages near the end of the first millennium A.D., making up the Romanian branch.

In DARK•HERITAGE, I've borrowed much of my names from either Catalan/Occitan, Ligurian (or Piedmontese) and Romanian, and made handwavy gestures to the fact that the Catalan/Occitan is the standard in the southern area of the Terrasan sphere of influence, Ligurian/Piedmontese is more common in the north, and Romanian represents dialects from the farther east--not too unlike the actual geographic distribution of the languages, to be fair.  Of course, I also often handwave all that away, and just take a Spanish word that I know from my time in Argentina (I'm a bit rusty, but I used to speak Spanish fluently enough that I could convince people I was a native. Mostly gullible people, but still...) and tweak it a bit to not sound too Spanish.  My city of Iccleza is basically the Spanish word iglesia made to sound more vaguely Italian-like.  The actual Italian word for church (I've since looked it up) is chiesa.  And the Mezzovian Sea is taking the concept of the Mediterranean and the Italian word mezzo which anyone who's learned to read music should know, and turning it into a semi-made up word too.

What brings this up to mind today?  Curiously, on Saturday I went with my daughter and my wife to a Church activity for young women (my daughter is 14) in which they celebrated some of the accomplishments of young women in our stake--an administrative unit in our church similar to a diocese in the Catholic church, which may be more familiar to my readers.  The meeting itself would have been an equivalent of sorts to a Boy Scout Court of Honor... just for young women rather than young men, and their accomplishments in the program that we have for them.  Two other girls on the program from within our stake but not our ward (similar to two parishes within a diocese) were on the program--sisters--who had a last name which caught my eye and piqued my interest, because it coincided with my linguistic fascination with these south European Romance languages.  Lorenc.  Hey, I've used that name before for a character!  Or at least one very like it, the Catalan name Llorenç which means, basically, Lawrence.  I had thought that maybe it was an Occitan name, or something similar. Since the c-cedilla is unlikely to be retained by a family that's lived in the US for a few generations, I could see it being rendered as simply c.  Curiosity piqued by a linguistic puzzle in my own hobbyist area of linguistics, I did some digging.  The modern Occitan version of the name is actually Laurenç, which is even more distant than the Catalan version, but the Old Occitan language version--the language ancestral to both Catalan and Occitan and dating from the later Middle Ages, was Lorenç.  I had found the name!

Or, well... maybe not.  Another quick search on Google just to confirm suggests that the name is actually from a Polish/Czech spelling of their version of the name Lawrence--which is of course very common throughout all the languages of Europe, and which comes from a Latin name Laurentius, which means "man from Laurentum."  Laurentum may have its linguistic roots in being associated with the laurel tree, but more proximally, it was considered by the ancient Romans to have been the original capital of the Latin people, before the founding of Rome itself.  In legendry, it was where Aeneas came after the Trojan war, where he met with King Latinus, and provided the genesis of what would become the Roman people.  But back to the linguistics, in terms of spelling, the only difference between the old Occitan and the west Slavic is the cedilla on the c--which probably wouldn't be written in English anyway. 

So, another linguistic caution--don't be too eager to declare your solution without taking a broader, bigger-picture look.  My first "solution" seemed obvious and correct, but it looks like it was not.

Completely off topic, I thought the Lorenc girls seemed pretty cute, I was impressed with the presentation one of them made, and they seem to come from a good family (not that I know them really, but still.)  I'm going to tell my 16 year old son he should check them out and get to know them.  He won't listen to me of course, but I'll have done my duty as a parent regardless.

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