Sunday, 10 June 2012

The Languages of Undreamed Shores

Several readers have commented on the languages of Undreamed Shores, and asked how I devised them. This set me worrying. How long before we find either a disgruntled philologist complaining about them or, worse still, someone making a false claim for me along the lines of “Mark Patton has reconstructed the language of the builders of Stonehenge?” I have done no such thing. It’s a trick, just like the ones that Paul Daniels performs on stage. Magicians don’t generally divulge how they perform their tricks. Writers can be a little more free, because our craft does not depend on illusion as such. What we create is fiction, fictional by design, and not by accident.

Semona and Kritenya are fictional languages spoken by fictional characters. To actually reconstruct the language of the builders of Stonehenge is probably impossible. Certainly I would not attempt it. I do have to base the languages on something, however, in order to make them believable. Simply written Jibberish would not be.

The protagonist, Amzai speaks a language that we hardly hear, since the book is entirely narrated from his viewpoint, and the book is, of course, written in English. The names and greetings are based on Basque. Why Basque? It is one of the few pre-Indo-European languages that still exists (Margaret Elphinstone also uses it for her characters in The Gathering Night, and I had to change all my names when her book appeared, so that they didn’t all overlap).

Kritenya is based loosely on Proto-Indo-European, a language ancestral to most European and Indian languages. Archaeologists and philologists cannot agree on when this language group spread into this part of the world, but those who follow the debates will be unsurprised that I (an archaeologist, trained at Cambridge under Professor Colin Renfrew), place it at the time and place I do.

Semona is based loosely on Proto-Celtic, the language ancestral to Welsh, Gaelic, Breton and Cornish. Again, archaeologists and philologists cannot agree on the date at which they spread and frankly, your guess is probably as good as mine.

I make no claim that these were the languages actually spoken, but I do want to give an impression of what it might have been like to arrive in a society where different ethnic groups were mingling for the first time, speaking different languages, in order to explore some of the tensions that must have been involved. I didn’t feel the need to develop a complex “conlang,” like Tolkien’s Elvish or Star-Treck’s Clingon, only to give a flavour of linguistic diversity.


  1. I think choosing names for a historical set long ago is a very challenging task. Writing a new language, as you say, is much more so. Because they are different from usual 'English' names, any newly invented ones can slow the reading pace down- but it's not authentic enough if you don't try. For my Celts/ Roman historical I used a Gaelic names site to find ones that seemed to fit my purposes.

  2. It is a challenge. Clearly Andy and Nancy wouldn't have done, but I chose equivalents that gave a balance between readability and the sense of their being from a totally alien culture. Nanti's full name (a minor Celtic goddess who gets a ship named after her in the next book) is a mouthful, but it's rarely used.