January 8th, 2015

  • whswhs

language games

I've just finished Michael Flynn's science fiction novel On the Razor's Edge, the fourth in a series that began with The January Dancer. It's set many centuries from now, in a future where humanity has expanded out through the nearby stars, at first with sublight drives and then with superlight drives. One of its pleasures is that Flynn plays with the future evolution of human languages.

For example, the star map in the front of the book lists such star systems as the Century Stars, Dao Chetty, the Groom's Britches, and the Serious Star. There is also New Vraddy, which appears to come from Bharat, the Hindu name for India. (Some of the correspondences are given in a chapter of this book.) On Earth there are continents called North Mark and Yurp; and on the west coast of North Mark there's a city called Prizgo.

Flynn also gives us words whose evolution from current languages can be guessed at. A group of immigrants have the custom of meeting in the evening for a "gaffgläsh." At various points men are called "snor," and once a young woman is called "snorcha." During a discussion of politics, someone refers to official truth as "frawtha," and a page later the strategy of granting limited reforms to prevent future uprisings is called "fairezdroga"; not long after someone responds to a proposed objection by saying "nishywah." In the same chapter there is mention of an official who failed in his duty and committed "spookoo." I find all this clever, just challenging enough to be fun.

One that I found a lot harder than that was repeated references to "Tantamiz" (with dots under the nt and what looks like a hacek over the z; there's mention at one point of the words "Strine Omnischool" written in Old Brythonic in the Tantamiz script. I had no idea what this referred to, until yesterday it occurred to me to try googling, ignoring the diacritical marks; it looks very much as if this is a Tamil name for the Tamil language, with the under dots indicating retroflow consonants and the z being a "zh." Apparently in this future history there were periods when Earth was ruled first by China and then by India, after the fall of an American/European/Australian empire, the Audorithadesh Ympriales.

It's a pleasure to see an SF writer playing with future languages in such a quirky and plausible way.