Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Languages of Pellatarrum: Elven

Imagine the sound of water: sometimes flowing, sometimes raining, sometimes crashing. Sometimes it is the gentle lapping of waves against the shore; other times it is the thunderous roar of the tsunami.

Always, though, is the universal constant of motion. Trapped water is unnatural, either artificially constrained (by man) or of dubious health (a still pond where nothing lives).

So it is with elves; so it is with Elven. Always moving, always fluid, be it a babble or a murmur or a roar. A still elf is a dead elf, and a silent elf is either dead or trying to kill you.

"Patience, Corwin. Sequence and order, time and stress! 
Accent, emphasis... Listen." -- Brand, Sign of the Unicorn

Spoken Elven is a syntheticmoraic language, delivering syllables in a manner different from English. Stressed syllables are pronounced for a longer period of time (and with a higher pitch) than unstressed syllables. So while an articulate speaker might put stress on some syllables, the timing for each mora remains the same regardless of the stress or pitch.

    Elven has three "dialects": field, familiar and formal, used for hunting/combat, relations with friends and family, and the polite language of court and law, respectively. The spoken versions are a strictly atonal moraic double-marking fusional languages and use a dizzying array of prefixes, infixes, simulfixes, transfixes and suffixes, although only the field language uses duplifixes (children may occasionally use duplifixes in the familiar speech; it is considered a mark of immaturity, much like human children saying "me want" instead of "I want"). All three versions are atonal, however, and use virtually no stresses to distinguish between different words. 

While the language is atonal, tonality may be used for other purposes. Usually it is decorative embellishment to make the spoken word more pleasing to the ear, but tonality can also be used to cast a spell's verbal component while chatting about a completely different thing -- it is often said that elven sorcerers can cast glibness before they've stopped saying "Hello"). In battle it can also be used to frighten and terrorize the enemy, and it is no coincidence that most banshees are elven. All of this makes it very hard for non-native speakers to gauge tone or intent, which leads to the common conception that all elves are even-spoken madmen who can go from calm to murderous without raising their voices. 

    Elven poetry has a smooth, flowing sound, but their spoken language is more like waves against rock, or dripping water with a steady and definitive (sometimes even hypnotic) rhythm. Most non-elves regard it as "beautiful but boring", and more than one famous political soliloquy has been mistaken for a lullaby.  The elves think that the idea is ridiculous, to the point that a frequent elven proveb on ignorance -- in fact, the sentence that non-elves hear the most when in contact with elves --  is "To hear the wind and think it water." 
        Conversely, this confusion also means that human poetry is also meaningless to elves ("What's a pentameter?" "Syllable weight." "Huh?") and explains why they consider humans to be artless savages. Elves are capable of understanding the art of dwarven verse (highly structured, like haiku or old Norse poetry), but consider it dull and formulaic.
              Elves are practitioners of circular breathing, and because of this they can talk for what others races consider an abnormally long time. Indeed, it is a common rhetorical practice for elves to talk at the same time as their opponents, obscuring the debate with a torrent of conflicting verbs. Skilled elven courtiers are able to listen to both sides simultaneously, positioning themselves such that each debater speaks into a separate ear. This makes elven debates a physically fluid affair, as a debater maneuvers for position such that his audience can only hear his argument; his opponent doing likewise; and the listeners jockeying for the prime position between the two. Human diplomats have observed that an elven debate is somewhere between "an opera and a soccer match, with no way to keep track of the score until the audience indicates who won." 
                  This long-windedness serves them well when dealing with other races: they talk over their opponent until he has to take a breath, in which case the elf dominates the conversation. The only race on whom this does not work are the dwarves, who simply wait with the patience of stone for the elf to exhaust himself after talking for hours and then make their point. Unfortunately, by this time the elf is too fatigued to listen, and so the conversation accomplishes nothing. After too many such failures, both sides created ambassador races, designed specifically to communicate more effectively with the others. 
                      This decision served the elves far better than it did the dwarves, as no elf wanted to be an ambassador to the orcs or the dragons;  orcs had a distressing tendency to strike (or kill) the diplomat in a fit of anger, and dragons were either amused by the longwinded audacity of elves and refused to take them seriously, or exercised their fearsome presence and scared the elves into quietude. 
                          It is believed by many (mostly dwarves, but some humans as well) that Elven is madness in a linguistic form, an insanity that is transmitted by reading or listening, and that if they learn the language, it permanently alters the brain, leading to erratic (chaotic) behavior. While there is no physiological reason why dwarves cannot learn Elven, there is tremendous social and psychological pressure to shun it, and so they tell themselves that they are physically incapable of speaking or understanding it, and thus will not abide it in their presence.

                        Specifically, there is no real-world language similar to Elven. There is no such language on earth, or anything even remotely close to it. The closest approximation is "imagine the drunken love child of Gaelic Irish and French, with perhaps a bit of Hindi and/or Arabic thrown in."

                        Written Elven, on the other hand, is strictly analytic. In order to conserve space (and because the reader can go back for clarification if necessary), any grammar notifications are done at the beginning of the sentence. Needless to say, elven use of punctuation is also maddeningly complex, and non-natives tend to feel a bit dyslexic when reading it. Reading it aloud is nearly impossible for reasons which are difficult to explain, but can be illustrated by means of analogy -- look at the picture below and try to read it aloud without first studying it:

                        Written Elven shares the same root words as spoken, complete with field/familiar/formal dialects. What is most curious, however, is that elven culture despises writing. Like Celtic bards and druids, elves view the written experience as something that can never come near the oral presentation. As suchs they only write down instruction manuals, legal documents, and the like. Their sacred texts are never written down, nor is any of their art; the former would be profane, the second barbaric. However, this has not stopped non-native speakers from making such transliterations.

                        Visually, Elven bears a strong resemblance to Diwani Arabic, and is notable for three defining characteristics:
                        1. There are no straight lines within its script.
                        2. It is "more cursive than cursive," in that there is no need for the writer to ever pick his pen off the paper, even for punctuation. Letters never have dead-ends or dots or crosses; everything loops. 
                        3. It utilizes the boustrophedon style of alternating sentence direction. There is no standardized starting direction of written Elven and is a matter of individual preference; reading direction is indicated by the position of grammar notifications at the beginning of the first sentence. 

                        This concludes the "Languages of Pellatarrum" series. 

                        This article would not have been possible without the contributions of Demonic Bunny. 

                        The answer to the sentence diagram shown above is:  "Using a new kind of stroke rehabilitation therapy, scientists have shown for the first time that the brain can be coaxed into reorganizing its circuitry so that people regain nearly full use of partially paralyzed limbs, even if the stroke happened years ago."


                        Nathan Tamayo said...

                        I like that the whole concept is true to the theme of water, this is a very well thought out and cohesive invention and it makes my head hurt in a good way. :D

                        Toastrider said...

                        Interesting. Reminds me of how the elven language (Sperethiel) functioned in Shadowrun.

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