Magic and tech: heating and cooling

Humans are virtually unique among species in altering their environment to better suit their needs. (How much they alter that environment is a matter of some debate, but that doesn’t concern us now.) No other species that we know of has created an artificial means of changing the ambient temperature of an enclosed area. Some animals and plants can regulate their internal temperature, but not that of their surroundings. We’re alone in that.

Heating things up is fairly easy. Fire is one of the oldest inventions of mankind, and it’s practically the standard marker for human habitation. Almost nothing in nature can cause fires—lightning is one of a very few examples—and wildfires are uncontrolled by definition. A tended fire, then, screams for a human interpretation.

Fire, of course, has been useful for many things throughout history. Cooking was one of its earliest uses, with pottery and metalworking coming along later. And as the ages have passed, our command of the flame has only grown. We’ve gone from open fires to furnaces and ovens and incinerators. We’ve changed from using wood to coal to electricity and gas and even lasers.

On the other side of the coin, cooling is much, much harder. Fans are old, but they’re awfully inefficient. Ice melts, and if you don’t have a way to make it, you’ve got to carry it in from elsewhere, losing some (or most) along the way. Some places had the ability to store food in the frozen ground, but that usually only works about two or three months out of the year. It wasn’t until the Scientific Revolution that we starting developing ways to create artificial cold, through vacuum pumps and air compressors. Today, we can reach somewhere around a billionth of a degree above absolute zero, the coldest possible temperature, but the vast majority of our ancestors were virtually out of luck.

Where we stand

So, the state of our magical world is, compared to ours, pretty dire. We’ll start with cooling technology. That’s easy, because there basically isn’t any. Without magic, we’re mostly limited to fans and (when we can find it) ice. Instead of modern air conditioning, houses were built to control the flow of heat. High ceilings allowed hot air to rise, effectively cooling the lower floor. Houses could be constructed to take advantage of the prevailing winds. And food that needed to be preserved could be salted or smoked or pickled. Or kept in cellars, where the temperatures are fairly steady and cool.

As in our world, heat is another matter altogether. Our created world has a good command of fire, even before you add in the arcane. They can work (some) metals, which requires great heat and, more importantly, control of that heat. Houses have hearths and fireplaces, and sometimes ovens. A few public buildings have something similar to the Roman hypocaust, a kind of central heating created by piping hot air underneath a raised floor and behind the building’s walls.

Magic’s helping hands

In fantasy stories, fire is typically the most destructive magical element, as well as the most “flashy”. The fireball is the sword-and-sorcery spell. As usual in this series, however, we’ll eschew the over-the-top explosions and stick to something more low-key, but much more effective in advancing the state of a civilization.

It’s still simple to command fire in our magical world, and it is most certainly given to militaristic and destructive uses, but more peaceful mages have investigated arcane fire for its more beneficial properties. A reliable fire-starter is merely the first of these. Starting a fire in older days tended to be…difficult, but the mages have created a solution. It’s a tiny magical crystal, of the same kind we’ve seen in previous entries, but attuned to fire and heat. Attached to the end of a short stick, it causes tinder to ignite within a few seconds. In modern terms, it’s a lighter.

Larger versions of this produce much more heat, but they’re more expensive and less efficient, making it less than practical to use them for home heating. Mages are working on that problem, however. A few richer individuals can afford the waste, and they do use these fire crystals to heat their homes in the winter. But even their cooks prefer the tried-and-true methods of a proper fire, even if it was started by magic.

Cooling is a harder problem, even for magic. That’s because, technically speaking, there’s no such thing as cold. There’s only the absence of heat. Making something colder requires taking away some of its heat. Fans, for example, work by causing a breeze; the moving air carries away the heat near your body, which has the effect of cooling it. That’s one strategy that can be exploited by magical means, and our mages have done so. Electric fans obviously need electricity, but arcane ones can be powered by the same force providers we’ve already met. Those are expendable—and thus costly—but they get the job done.

Besides these forms of crystallized magic, the wizards of our magical world have a few other tricks up their sleeves. Personal spells, of course, are very important. Mages can light their own fires at the touch of a finger and an arcane word. They can provide their own cooling winds. And some of them can even use spells to increase their own ability to withstand extremes of hot and cold.

Far and wide

But the biggest impact of this greater command of fire is in the knock-on effects it brings to the rest of the world. Starting fires is great, but they’re only useful if you, well, use them, and it’s hard to find medieval-era technology that couldn’t benefit from better ways of making heat.

Metallurgy is the obvious winner here. With magic allowing bigger, hotter, more controllable fires and sources of heat, it becomes possible to melt and boil metals otherwise impervious to the era’s tech. This leads to better, purer alloys, among other things. Steel, naturally, will be one of the first. Historical methods of production were largely limited to small batches until the Industrial Revolution.

Cooking advances with better heat, too. So do many manufacturing professions. And if magical methods of heating become easier and cheaper—this is not a given in our setting, but it could be in others—then wood and charcoal fall out of favor everywhere, because magic takes over. Environmentalists rejoice, because even this modest level of magic means that coal never becomes needed for heat. Nor does oil. The entire fossil fuel industry is obsoleted before it’s even born.

It’s counterintuitive, but better heat technology will also lead to a greater understanding of cold. Most of the early discoveries about cold had to wait until things like steam power and vacuum pumps arrived. Magic short-circuits that, though. Magical means of power generation take the place of steam engines, even in laboratory settings, potentially allowing the science of refrigeration to progress much earlier. Our magical kingdom is on the verge of such discoveries, with all they represent. The first true refrigerators and freezers may be less than a lifetime away. Even if they aren’t, nothing more than an easy way of producing ice is a century or more of advancement.

Next time

The next part of this series will move on from heating a house to building it. We’ll see how magic aids in construction, from building materials to architectural designs. For now, since summer has started, find somewhere cold and enjoy the fact that you can.

Weird (but human) languages

Artists like the weird and the wild. Most people do, if you think about it, but only they are in the position to show off their love of the strange to a wider audience. And conlangs can be a form of art, as we know. So as you’d expect, many conlangers want to produce a language that is…weird.

This can take many forms. Some are languages so complex that they are essentially unlearnable, like Ithkuil. Others are minimalistic to the extreme, as with Toki Pona. A few are truly alien conlangs, in that they have some quality that renders them impossible for humans to speak or comprehend. If you’re into that, it can be quite fun. Or so I’ve heard; I’ve never actually tried it myself.

For the purposes of this post, we’ll ignore the alien segment of the weird and focus on what can plausibly be considered a human language. That means sticking to the IPA, not violating (too many) linguistic universals, and so on. Even with those restrictions, we can get something completely out of the ordinary, so let’s see just how weird we can make things.

Eye of the beholder

Weirdness is subjective. We can’t really measure it, but we can feel it. But the threshold for being weird is different for different people. For example, I find Irish orthography to be impenetrable, and I don’t know how anyone can keep the honorifics of Japanese straight. Clicks baffle me, and I want to throw up whenever I try to pronounce some of the sounds of Arabic. But each of those four is considered “normal” by millions of people.

Likewise, it’s tempting to jump straight to the extremes. Yes, an overly complicated phonology and grammar will make a conlang weird, but probably not in a good way. Some of the best satire comes from taking a proposition to its logical conclusion. Weirdness in a language can be accomplished in the same fashion. Instead of throwing in a hundred phonemes and forty cases, it can be better to work with smaller sets used differently. But extremes can be good, too.


Phonology is probably the best place to experiment with the boundaries of human language. A conlang’s phonology determines its “sound”, and what sounds weirder than mouth noises you’ve never heard before?

Every sound or distinction on the IPA chart appears in some human language, but that doesn’t mean they all appear together. Most languages have phoneme series. You’ll have, say, a voiced velar stop and a voiceless one, and then there might be a velar nasal and a fricative. Weirdness can come with an isolated sound, one that doesn’t fit the pattern. Maybe a retroflex approximant, or a uvular trill, or a single vowel that can be nasalized.

You can also get weirdness out of a distinction that doesn’t normally occur with a certain set of sounds. Voiceless nasals are an obvious candidate, as nasals are very weak sounds that tend to assimilate in every conceivable way. Giving them a voicing dichotomy is odd, but it does happen in real life—Icelandic and Burmese are but two examples.

Unfamiliar sounds are another way of making a conlang feel outlandish. Many African languages have consonants that are doubly articulated, pronounced as a labial and velar at the same time. (The Igbo language even has one in its name.) But those sounds are virtually unknown in Europe and North America. Click sounds are probably at the far end of this line of thinking; they’re mostly limited to a single language family, so they’ll sound weird to just about everybody else.

And, of course, what discussion of phonological oddity would be complete without the extremes? Those click languages I just mentioned have some of the largest phonemic inventories in the world, some containing over 100 different consonants. The max for everybody else is 80, a record held by Ubykh, which went extinct in 1992. As if that weren’t bad enough, Ubykh also sets the mark for the fewest phonemic vowels: two, /a/ and /ə/. (Thankfully, that number jumps to ten or eleven if you add in allophones.)

At the other end of the spectrum are Hawaiian (about 13 phonemes, depending on who’s counting), the Rotokas language of Papua New Guinea (11 phonemes and maybe a length distinction in vowels), and the conlanger’s darling Pirahã, a language of the Amazon (10 or 11 phonemes and two tones). All of these are about as low as you can go and still be reasonably human.


For grammar, strangeness comes from making unexpected decisions. We still need a good framework—we’re making languages that could theoretically be learned, remember—but we’re looking for ways to twist it into something outrageous. Fortunately, the real world offers plenty of examples.

Case is the big one here, and look no further than Finnish and its relatives for inspiration. (Conlangers love baroque case systems, and that love is not limited to “weird” languages, even if that’s where it belongs.) Need a case that describes a changing away? A dialect of Finnish has it: the exessive.

Other grammatical categories can similarly be abused. Gender doesn’t have to be masculine-feminine. It could be human-inhuman, or a class system like Swahili’s. Quite a few languages have a dual number, representing two of something. A small number of them also have a special form for three.

On the verbal side, the past, present, and future are the basic tenses, but why not go wild? Maybe your weird conlang has two tenses: “now” and “not now”, a merger of the past and future. Or maybe it has ten, with distinctions for yesterday and tomorrow and whatever else you can think of. That’s not too far out there, and the same goes for aspect and mood and whatever else you can think of.

If you’re the type to like WALS, look for the categories it says are rare, yet still attested. That’s where weirdness—if not madness—lies.


Lexicon is a bit harder to make weird, if only because English has such a huge vocabulary that there’s probably already a word for anything you can imagine. If not, then some other language has it, and you can just borrow that.

Your best bet here might be to try for subtlety. Change the connotations of words so that they align imperfectly with their English counterparts. If your conlang allows any sort of compounding, offer lots of idiosyncratic constructions. Make words with fine shades of meaning that nonetheless seem to pop up all the time. Just be different.

If you like extra work, you can even delve into the odd world of taboo. Some languages, for instance, go as far as having a separate lexicon that must be used in certain situations. In more familiar territory, slang can become standard, obscenity commonplace. Imagine a language where the most widely-known idioms can only be translated as something horribly offensive. (Okay, that one’s not even that far-fetched. I live in the South, remember.) Conversely, a language full of euphemisms for even mundane objects and tasks would sound just as strange to our ears.

The outer limits

Weird languages are all about exploring the farthest reaches of what makes our speech human. Languages are learned, so they have limits, but the linguistic space must be vast enough to encompass every natural language that exists or has ever existed. Conlangs, unconstrained by the need for evolutionary plausibility, can fill any part of that space.

Yet there are lines which cannot be crossed without leaving the realm of human language. For those, you’ll have to wait for future posts.


Let me be frank: I don’t have a lot of good things to say about fathers. Mine left over 20 years ago, about a month after my 12th birthday. I haven’t seen him in over a decade and a half, and I’ve only spoken to him once or twice in that same period. The life-changing event of his departure colors all my earlier memories, as well. I only hope that I someday have the chance to prove to myself that I can do a better job.

That’s not to say I know nothing of the subject. I have a stepfather, and that tie that binds us has lasted essentially my entire adult life. For that reason, however, I’ve never seen him as a father in the parental sense. In my mind, the relationship between us is closer to equal.

My grandfather, who passed away in 2012, was also like a father to me, as much as he was to his seven children and the other descendants. Again, though, it’s not the same. He was far older (62 years, to be exact), so I didn’t feel the same bond that exists between parent and child.

In the media, fathers fall into a few broad categories. There’s the abusive alcoholic, the saintly sage, the blue-collar buffoon, and the vaguely man-shaped void that appears far too often in life and art. Characterizing a real, living man in such a way diminishes him, though. I understand the needs of the medium, but how hard is it to give depth to such an integral part of a family, especially in a story centered on that family?

I can’t say I’m an expert on fatherly affection. It’s something I’ve been denied for so long that I’ve all but forgotten what it’s like. But that doesn’t mean I can’t hold opinions on what it should be. Fathers should be leaders. They should be knowledgable, strong of body and spirit, yet also sympathetic. Perhaps it’s outdated to say that a father is the head of a household, but he still holds one of the top positions, no matter where you fall on the political spectrum. He should act like it. Fathers have less attachment to their children by design—they didn’t spend nine months carrying them around—but “less” doesn’t have to mean “none”.

If you’re writing a story about fathers, now’s a good time. Yesterday was a day for them. The other 364? They should share them with their sons and daughters.

Let’s make a language – Part 16c: Time (Ardari)

As before, we have a decision to make. Ardari is a bit more difficult, but I’ve chosen to place it in the same “alternate” Earth of Isian. It’s a few thousand miles removed, however, being located in a forgotten part of Western Asia, around the southern Caucasus. This is an area with plenty of space for a “lost” culture, but one that could plausibly have contact with historical civilizations. And it makes things easier for me, because I don’t have to do as much worldbuilding, meaning I can focus more on the conlang itself.

The time of day

The Ardari word for “day”, jan, is totally not the same as Isian ja, despite their visual similarity. But it’s equally central to the Ardari culture’s notion of time. Being an Earthbound language, it’s 24 hours (uld) long, and each hour has 60 minutes (weyn), each of which contains 60 seconds (timi).

Days officially begin at olongoz “midnight”. From midnight to 6:00 AM is the gozoza (roughly speaking, the “late night”). (Dawn, or ärchi, comes at different times throughout the year, as does khowchi “dusk”, so these periods are approximate.) After dawn is the chèrni “morning”, which lasts until noon, called either inyi or the more formal olonyan. The next six hours are the nèchinyi “afternoon”, while the period from 6:00 PM to midnight is the sulta “evening”.

A period of a few days is a vach “week”; this has historically been anywhere from 5 to 7 days, but outside pressure has forced Ardari to standardize on a seven-day week. Months are literally “moons”, using the same noun: duli. Ardari speakers keep a lunar calendar for certain holidays (tsijan), but this is linked to a solar calendar used to calculate the avèch “year”.

This same solar calendar tracks the seasons (zedra). There are four main seasons: kyof “winter”, tingli “spring”, sadya “summer”, and kadyll “autumn”. These can also be divided into smaller periods, such as a harvest season, but those have no specific names.

Human time

Time (tänölad) is also considered important in human terms, particularly the notion of age, or pòdymat. People can be jers “young” or pòd “old”, and those older ones are often granted higher standing, becoming dämbar “revered”.

Histories speak of the past (pèls), but the present (brogh) is also on Ardari speakers’ minds, and many are always looking to the future (dwanar). Today (zalyan) is the day when things happen, but yesterday (birjan) is the time that was, and tomorrow (kwanyan) is what will come.

Some things are always (zalajch) the same, while others never (dulajch) are. Actions begin (sòto-) and end (jop-), and they sometimes abruptly stop (uq-). And we are often (vurtän) left to wait (rhèta-).

Next up

It’s fun to ponder time, but now we must depart for the future. The next part of this series will delve into the workings of the human body, and we’ll come out with close to a hundred new items in our lexicon, covering us from head to toe.

Word List

As with Isian, the choice of words comes from the Universal Language Dictionary, a great resource for lexical ideas. Instead of walking you through which word belongs to which part of speech, I’ll assume you’ve read previous entries in this series.

Relative terms

  • early: ächem
  • eventually: nèchdwanar
  • future: dwanar
  • late: zolz
  • long ago: jöghpèls
  • now: nyas
  • on time: motön
  • past: pèls
  • present: brogh
  • recently: jöghnyas
  • soon: nèchnyas
  • today: zalyan
  • tomorrow: kwanyan
  • yesterday: birjan

Units of time

  • century: grusö
  • day (period): jan
  • decade: kyänsö
  • hour: uld
  • minute: weyn
  • moment: win
  • month: duli
  • period: gracha
  • second: timi
  • week: vach
  • year: avèch


  • afternoon: nèchinyi
  • date: jënäl
  • dawn: ärchi
  • day (time): tulyana
  • dusk: khowchi
  • evening: sulta
  • fall (autumn): kadyll
  • holiday: tsijan
  • middle of the night: olongoz (or gozoza “deepest night”)
  • midnight: olongoz
  • morning: chèrni
  • night: goz
  • noon: inyi (or olonyan “midday”)
  • season: zedra
  • spring: tingli
  • summer: sadya
  • winter: kyof


  • again: jejan
  • age: pòdymat
  • already: päntös
  • always: zalajch
  • ever: manölajch
  • interval: lon
  • irregular: unonall
  • long (duration): tur
  • never: dulajch
  • new: vän
  • often: vurtän
  • old: pòd “old”; dämbar “revered, ancient”
  • rarely: bintän
  • regular: nonall
  • short (duration): nèr
  • still: jodös
  • time (abstract): tänölad
  • time (instance): tän (or lajch “time of day”)
  • to begin: sòto-
  • to continue: sovo-
  • to end: jop-
  • to pause: plada-
  • to stop: uq-
  • to wait: rhèta-
  • young: jers

Still recovering

I’m not quite over the sickness I described last week. I’m feeling a lot better, but not yet 100%. So, rather than force myself to come up with three new posts to fill out what should have been status reports on that game I was making, I’ll just leave the remaining Wednesdays in June empty. Code posts will resume on July 6, beginning with a new installment of Software Internals.

On marriage in fiction

For about as long as humans have had any sort of community, we’ve had the concept of marriage. What it means has changed greatly throughout the ages, but the basic idea of people bonding for the rest of their lives has endured. It’s so ingrained in our collective mind that it almost has to be inherited from our ancestors, a “civilized” response to some innate need. But it’s also one of the more ritualized parts of our society, and that has also endured throughout history.

In fiction, however, marriage serves a different purpose. It’s often an event, a set piece, an excuse to move the story along. It can be a time for great upheaval (e.g., the Red Wedding of Game of Thrones), and that’s fine, because the real thing is, too. Just in a different way, hopefully.

For exotic or alien cultures, however, the process of marriage itself can lead to an interesting story arc. From romance and courting to the arranged marriages popularly shown in medieval fantasy, the possibilities for drama are easy to see. Yet the worldbuilding aspects are just as important for marriage in unfamiliar or nonexistent locales. Marriage, like so many other things, is inherently tied to a culture. By making a fictitious culture’s marital wrappings different, unusual, you make that culture unique.

Popping the question

We’re all pretty familiar with the “common” Western marriage. Two people (a man and a woman historically, but it can be just about any two adults nowadays) who love each other decide to get married, for whatever reason. This may follow a lengthy period of dating and engagement, or it can be a spur-of-the-moment thing. One way or another, though, they take the plunge.

There’s some bureaucratic paperwork to fill out, since we live in a society where these things are regulated. Then, the bulk of the work is in planning the wedding. That ceremony can be religious or secular, and it can range from a simple, perfunctory proclamation by a justice of the peace all the way to a lavish church ceremony with hundreds in attendance.

However it works, the core of the wedding is, effectively, a contract. In theory, it’s a binding oath on both participants, a formalization of what biologists call pair bonding. Once this contract is confirmed—the “I do” part—the two are, for all intents and purposes, married.

But it doesn’t end there. Many cultures have ritualized the hours that come after the initial bonding. Most of the scenes we see of dramatic weddings, such as throwing rice, have some significance that has been lost to time. But all of it meant something at some point. The reception, the honeymoon, the “first night”—everything had a meaning, even if it doesn’t anymore.

Answering the questions

Marriage, as we understand it, is built on assumptions. In non-Western or non-modern cultures, some of those assumptions are invalid. So, by changing some of them, we can create a distinct “flavor” for the concept of marriage and its concrete aspects. You merely need to know which assumptions you can work with.

Who gets married?

Until very, very recently, most of the US defined marriage as between exactly one man and exactly one women. The fallout of dissolving that definition is still playing out as we speak, but it doesn’t matter much for our purposes. That’s because, for the vast majority of human history, the formal pair bonding that is marriage has been between men and women. It’s the little details that have changed.

Monogamy is our “default” for marriage: a person can have a single spouse. It’s codified into law in most places, and it’s a cornerstone of the Christian tradition. But that’s an assumption that doesn’t have to hold. A few societies in the past have embraced multiple spouses; this is traditionally called polygamy, though the more general term polyamory is appropriate when you’re talking about something other than “one man, multiple wives”. Polygamous sects exist today, but they’re in the minority, and the practice is usually highly stigmatized, if not outright illegal.

In a polygamous society, marriage might be less of a spectacle, simply because it’s more common. For the “lesser” side (the one where there can be many spouses), it may not hold the same glamour that it does for us monogamists. A hierarchy would develop on the “many” side—usually the wives—where some would have more prestige than the others. And, of course, this sort of culture readily accepts the less-savory aspects of marriage.

Besides “how many”, the other assumption we can challenge is “who”. Same-sex marriage gets all the limelight today; it’s as simple as changing “man and woman” to “adults”. But there can be other restrictions on who can marry. If, as gay-marriage opponents profess, the whole purpose is procreation, then are seniors allowed to marry? What about impotent men and infertile women? If sex is the reason for marriage, then are people with STDs condemned to the single life forever? (This last one is not an academic question, especially in Renaissance times.)

And then there are the related questions of age and, well, relation. Our modern age of consent of 18 is a bit on the high side, historically speaking, but most jurisdictions don’t use it as the minimum for marriage. However, “minimum” is just that. Not everyone will get married the minute they come of age, whatever that age really is. Historians can point to data showing that “commoners” in centuries past tended to get married in their early to mid twenties, just like today. To counter that, we have stories of children wedding, but those cases were not the norm, and they were arranged specifically for political or financial reasons, as we’ll see below.

Blood relation (consanguinity, to use the technical term) is another factor. Everyone’s related in some way, if you go back far enough, but it’s only the really close ones that bother people. Broadly speaking, the size of the community will help determine which degrees of relation are acceptable, but other reasoning, such as the need to keep a “pure” bloodline, also come into play. Marriage between first cousins is acceptable in some places, taboo in others, while closer relatives are generally forbidden everywhere. In older days, the bar could be set higher, banning second or even third cousins. This naturally presented a problem among the medieval and later nobility, who became so intertwined that it was nearly impossible to find someone who fit the consanguinity criteria.

Why are they getting married?

Today, we expect people to marry for love or companionship. Historically, that wasn’t always the case. Marriage is intimately associated with inheritance, so when inheritances grow to be very large, it stands to reason that some would want to influence them. Arranged marriages are a common feature of many cultures in many times. Typically, it’s the parents who make those decisions, and the children are expected to follow along out of filial duty. (When they don’t, there’s sure to be drama.)

Other arrangements can also work. In smaller societies, it could be a tribal or village elder who does the matchmaking, or possibly a cabal of the older members of the community. Religious leaders work, too, if the society leans that way. In a fantasy setting, it could even be fate, magic, or the gods.

A looser sort of arranged marriage can happen in clannish cultures. This ties in a bit with consanguinity, in that the arrangement is “no one in our clan”, and clans are arranged along family lines. Depending on the specifics, this can be a little more open than a fully-arranged pairing, in that the matchmakers only operate at a “higher” level. In other words, you’ll marry someone from that clan, but you can pick who it is.

And then there are the forced marriages. Our modern sensibilities associate this with repressive societies, with slavery and barbarism. But then there seems to be a growing subculture devoted to fantasizing about non-consensual relationships, so there you go. In my opinion, it’s hard to disconnect the idea of a forced marriage from rape and plunder, but it’s also closely tied to polygamous cultures. That makes sense, if you think about it. Why force yourself to be forever stuck with someone who likely hates you?

How does it work?

How these people—whoever they are and however they got together—actually get married is the big question. Wedding ceremonies may be the second oldest and second most important of any human festivity. (Funerals are almost certainly first.) I’ll admit that I haven’t studied every culture in the world, but I’ve never heard of one that didn’t do something special for marriage.

Designing a fictional wedding is a massive undertaking. (I do know this one from experience.) The best guides here are the necessities of the story and a few sociological factors that appear to be mostly universal. The ceremony is supposed to be the symbolic joining of two (or more) people in matrimony. Even if marriage isn’t religious in nature—and it probably is, given what history shows us—symbolism will be rampant.

We talk of “tying the knot”, and that’s basically a symbol for the pair bond of marriage. We throw rice as a symbol of fertility and prosperity. The bridal veil, the white dress? Symbols of purity and chastity. Throwing the bouquet is symbolic as a passing of the torch of womanhood. The groom carrying his bride across the threshold symbolizes the support he’s expected to provide as the head of the new family, as well as the threshold itself directly referencing the “new life” the couple has begun.

For worldbuilding purposes, that’s what you’re looking for. You probably won’t want to copy the Western features directly, as they evolved from our peculiar set of circumstances. But the things they symbolize are the things our ancestors considered most important in a marital union. Figure out what your invented culture values most, then find ways to represent those values in the wedding itself.

And finally, since you’re writing a story, remember not to write yourself into a corner. You might need a reason for the prospective spouses to back out at the last minute: “Speak now, or forever hold your peace.” And then there’s the question of what happens after the wedding. But that, as they say, is another story.

Let’s make a language – Part 16b: Time (Isian)

I’ve been putting this off for quite a while, but now I have to make a decision for both of our example conlangs. The subject matter of this part is too tied to culture and history to ignore the problem any longer. Something has to be done.

So, here’s the dirty secret I’ve been keeping from you for the first 15 parts of this series: Isian and Ardari are languages spoken by ordinary humans. These humans live in an alternate version of our world, one about 100 years behind us in technology, but whose only other major difference is the existence of these two languages and their (entirely hypothetical) relatives. In particular, Isian fits somewhere in Central Europe, in a remote area untroubled by most of history.

Keeping time

How does this affect the language’s vocabulary of time? Well, it simplifies our job, first of all. We can assume that Isian’s speakers fit into a relatively familiar culture, one influenced enough by Western civilization that it has adopted most of our notions of how time is counted.

Isian timekeeping is centered around the day, or ja. For most, this period is divided into jamet and choc—day and night, respectively. The day starts at sidamay “dawn”, continuing through marchi “morning”, jalo “noon”, and meshul “afternoon”, before ending at sidesto “dusk”. The night begins then, with its first period the evening, or daga. This is followed by choclo “midnight”, and the nebulous, unnamed time until the next dawn.

On a more scientific level, an Isian ja contains 24 eprani “hours”. Each epran is subdivided into 60 indes, and each inde is made up of 60 tofani. (Tofan “second” is also used for the ordinal numeral “second”. This is what’s called a calque or loan translation: Isian speakers borrowed the term from the West, but translated it into their own language.) Smaller units of time aren’t yet needed.

The Isian calendar is a Western one, with a week, or eg, of seven days. Months, or nolosi, are of differing lengths, from 28 to 31 days, just like our own. There are twelve of these in a year, or egal. Two other terms are compounds made in imitation of Western practice: the polegal “decade” and the camboregal “century”, literally “10-year” and “100-year”.

More important than the individual months are kechoni, the seasons. Like many living in temperate climates, Isian speakers divide the year into four of these. Following Western tradition, the year starts in gulis “winter”. In order, the others are lalis, khehas, and awash. And all the seasons have a nice set of holidays, or deljat.

The order of events

The adverb nec refers to “now”, roughly the current time. A number of other adjectives and adverbs exist in Isian to speak of periods relative to this moment. We can, for instance, talk of past, present, and future events: tesman, dandas, and imbas, respectively. Something could have happened opani “recently”, or it may instead occur ebani “soon”.

Most people are marni “on time”. Some lucky few, however, are ker “early”. And we all know someone who is habitually falor “late”.

Today is always neyja, no matter which day it actually is. The day before that, yesterday, is perja. Conversely, tomorrow will ever be boja.

We also have a few time-related verbs to introduce. A specific action can begin (nawe) and end (tarki). Sometimes we have to pause (gahi) it, only to continue (etenawe) again later. Finally, too much time is wasted when we have to wait (holca).

Word List

Instead of a big table containing all the words, I’m formatting these in a series of lists, each covering one broad segment of this post’s topic. The Isian words and phrases are in italics. Also, these words are chosen from Rick Harrison’s excellent Universal Language Dictionary; I’ll likely be using it for future posts in this vein.

Relative terms

These are words which identify a time with respect to another, usually the present. Many are adjectives, and these are regularly converted to adverbs by using hi, as seen in Part 9.

  • early: ker
  • eventually: imbasgo hi
  • future: imbas
  • late: falor
  • long ago: tesmango hi
  • now: nec
  • on time: marni
  • past: tesman
  • present: dandas
  • recently: opani
  • soon: ebani
  • today: neyja (hi)
  • tomorrow: boja (hi)
  • yesterday: perja (hi)

Units of time

This set of words specifically represents amounts of time. Grammatically, they are all nouns.

  • century: camboregal
  • day (period): ja
  • decade: polegal
  • hour: epran
  • minute: inde(s)
  • moment: mim
  • month: nolos
  • period: sudad
  • second: tofan
  • week: eg
  • year: egal


These are terms referring to parts of a day or year. Most are nouns, and a few are compounds formed in the manner described in Part 14.

  • afternoon: meshul
  • date: jani
  • dawn: sidamay
  • day (time): jamet
  • dusk: sidesto
  • evening: daga
  • fall (autumn): awash
  • holiday: delja
  • midnight: choclo
  • morning: marchi(r)
  • night: choc
  • noon: jalo
  • season: kechon
  • spring (season): lalis
  • summer: khehas
  • twilight: jachoc
  • winter: gulis


This is a set of “other” time words. I didn’t really discuss many of these in the body of the post, but Isian is supposed to be familiar, so most are fairly close in connotation to their English glosses.

  • again: jon (or et-)
  • age: res
  • already: nenumi
  • always: sotanum
  • ever: esenum
  • interval: num
  • irregular: anuritan
  • long (duration): lum
  • never: anum
  • new: ekho
  • often: nungo hi
  • old: afed
  • rarely: nuchi hi
  • regular: nurit
  • short (duration): wis
  • still: numida
  • time (abstract): khorom
  • time (instance): num
  • to begin: nawe
  • to continue: etenawe
  • to end: tarki
  • to pause: gahi
  • to stop: tarca
  • to wait: holca
  • young: manir

Godot game, part 2: Abort, retry, fail?

I don’t believe in fate. Problem is, fate doesn’t seem to care.

The week started off just fine. I got a bit of work done on the game late Wednesday night and early Thursday morning. Then, disaster struck.

For most of the next few days, I was almost totally bedridden, shivering and sweating in turns, coughing my head off, getting dizzy every time I stood up, and generally feeling awful. I figured it was nothing more than the usual allergy flareup of late spring/early summer at first, but as the days wore on, I suspected something more was afoot.

It was my mother’s idea to take me to the ER yesterday evening. I’m a poor, white man living in the rural South, so that’s effectively my only option, and it’s one I only like using as a last resort. When I go, it’s more to find out exactly what’s wrong with me than out of any hope that they can fix it. The ease of mind is just as valuable as the diagnosis and treatment.

After a 20-mile drive down there (again, rural South) and about half an hour of waiting, the doctor gave the verdict: bronchitis. Nothing worse than that, thank goodness, but that’s already bad enough, if you ask me. In the grand spirit of American doctors, he gave me a round of antibiotics (for what is probably a viral infection, naturally) and some lovely opioid-based cough syrup that is about as appealing to me as the coughing itself. Honestly, I can’t complain too much; I know from experience that there’s only so much you can do for bronchitis, apart from letting it run its course. But my mind is at ease, and that’s a far better medicine.

What does this mean for my grand “Godot Game Month” project, you ask? Well, total failure. Nothing less. Even if I felt 100% better today, I doubt I could work hard enough to catch up on the days I’ve lost. And I don’t feel much better. (Just as I wrote that sentence, I had another mild fit of coughing. Fortunately, nothing bad came of it. Correction: more bloody mucus. Yay.)

I know my limits. I know how far I can push them. I hate to admit defeat, but I am well aware when something is beyond my capability. This is one of those cases.

So, to sum up, the game is on hold, indefinitely. Once I get at least somewhat healed, I’ll start working on it again, but as a long-term project, something I do in my spare time. I tempted fate with this idea, and she slapped me down for it. I’ve learned my lesson; it won’t happen again.

As for the other posts, I have a nice queue full of them, enough to take me through the middle of July. Those will proceed as scheduled. Hopefully, by the time I need*to write again, I’ll feel like doing it.

Writing World War II

Today, there is no more popular war than World War II. No other war in history has been the focus of so much attention, attention that spans the gap between nonfiction and fiction. And for good reason, too. World War II gave us some of the most inspiring stories, some of the most epic battles (in the dramatic and FX senses), and an overarching narrative that perfectly fits so many of the common conflicts and tropes known to writers.

The list of WWII-related stories is far too big for this post to even scratch the surface, so I won’t even try. Suffice to say, in the 70 years since the war ended, thousands of works have been penned, ranging from the sappy (Pearl Harbor) to the gritty (Saving Private Ryan), from lighthearted romp (Red Tails) to cold drama (Schindler’s List). Oh, and those are only the movies. That’s not counting the excellent TV series (Band of Brothers, The Pacific) or the myriad books concerning this chapter of our history.

World War II, then, is practically a genre of its own, and it’s a very cluttered one. No matter the media, a writer wishing to tackle this subject will have a harder time than usual. Most of the “good” stories have been done, and done well. In America, at least, many the heroes are household names: Easy Company, the Tuskegee Airmen, the USS Arizona and the Enola Gay. The places are etched into our collective memory, as well, from Omaha Beach and Bastogne to Pearl Harbor, Iwo Jima, and Hiroshima. It’s a crowded field, to put it mildly.

Time is running out

But you’re a writer. You’re undaunted. You’ve got this great idea for a story set in WWII, and you want to tell it. Okay, that’s great. Just because something happened within the last century doesn’t get you out of doing your homework.

First and foremost, now is the last good chance to write a WWII story. By “now”, I mean within the next decade, and there’s a very good reason for that. This is 2016. The war ended right around 70 years ago. Since most of the soldiers were conscripted, many right out of high school, or young volunteers, they were typically about 18 to 25 years old when they went into service. The youngest WWII veterans are at least in their late 80s, with most in their 90s. They won’t live forever. We’ve seen that in this decade, as the final World War I veterans passed on, and an entire era left living memory.

Yes, there are uncountably many interviews, written or recorded, with WWII vets. The History Channel used to show nothing else. But nothing compares to a face-to-face conversation with someone who literally lived through history. One of the few good things to come out of my public education was the chance to meet one of the real Tuskegee Airmen, about twenty years ago. The next generation of schoolchildren likely won’t have that same opportunity.

Give it a shot

Whether through personal contact or the archives and annals of a generation, you’ll need research. Partly, that’s for the same reason: WWII is within living memory, so you have eyewitnesses who can serve as fact-checkers. (Holocaust deniers, for instance, will only get bolder once there’s no one left who can directly prove them wrong.) Also, WWII was probably the most documented war of all time. Whatever battle you can think of, there’s some record of it. Unlike previous conflicts, there’s not a lot of room to slip through the cracks.

On the face of it, that seems to limit the space available for historical fiction. But it’s not that bad. Yes, the battles were documented, as were many of the units, the aircraft, and even the strategies. However, they didn’t write down everything. It’s easy enough to pick a unit—bonus points if it’s one that was historically wiped out to the man, so there’s no one left to argue—and use it as the basis for your tale.

And that highlights another thing about WWII. War stories of older times often fixate on a single soldier, a solitary hero. With World War II, though, we begin to see the unit itself becoming a character. That’s how it worked with Band of Brothers, for instance. And this unit-based approach is a good one for a story focused on military actions. Soldiers don’t fight alone, and so many of the great field accomplishments of WWII were because of the bravery of a squad, a company, or a squadron.

If your story happens away from the front lines, on the other hand, then it’s back to individuals. And what a cast of characters you have. Officers, generals, politicians, spies…you name it, you can find it. But these tend to be more well-known, and that does limit your choices for deviating from history.

Diverging parallels

While the war itself is popular enough, as are some of the events that occurred at the same time, what happened after is just as ripe for storytelling. Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle (based on the Philip K. Dick story of the same name) is one such example of an alternate WWII, and I’ve previously written a post that briefly touched on another possible outcome.

I think the reason why WWII gets so much attention from the alternate-history crowd is the potential for disaster. The “other” side—the Axis—was so evil that giving them a victory forces a dystopian future, and dystopia is a storyteller’s favorite condition, because it’s a breeding ground for dramatic conflict and tension. And there’s also a general sense that we got the best possible outcome from the war; thus, following that logic, any other outcome is an exercise in contrast. It’s not the escapism that I like from my fiction, but it’s a powerful statement in its own right, and it may be what draws you into the realm of what-ifs.

The post I linked above is all about making an alternate timeline, but I’ll give a bit of a summary here. The assumption is that everything before a certain point happened exactly as it did, but one key event didn’t. From there, everything changes, causing a ripple effect up to the present. For World War II, that’s only 70 years, but that’s more than enough time for great upheaval.

Most people will jump to one conclusion there: the Nazis win. True, that’s one possible (but unlikely, in my opinion) outcome, but it’s not the only one. Some among the allies argued for a continuation of the war, moving to attack the Soviets next. That would have preempted the entire Cold War, with all the knock-on effects that would have caused. What if Japan hadn’t surrendered? Imagine a nuclear bomb dropped on Tokyo, and what that would do to history. The list goes on, ad infinitum.

Fun, fun, fun

Any genre fits World War II. Any kind of story can be told within that span of years. Millions of people were involved, and billions are still experiencing its reverberations. Although it’s hard to talk of a war lasting more than half a decade as a single event, WWII is, collectively speaking, the most defining event of the last century. It’s a magnet for storytelling, as the past 70 years have shown. In a way, despite the horrors visited upon the world during that time, we can even see it as fun.

Too many people see World War II as Hitler, D-Day, Call of Duty, and nukes. But it was far more than that. It was the last great war, in many ways. And great wars make for great stories, real or fictional.

Let’s make a language – Part 16a: Time (Intro)

Time may be relative, or an illusion, or even on our side. However you think of it, it’s an important part of any culture. And culture is reflected in language, so every language is going to have ways of talking about time. Unlike many of the possible semantic categories, time is so vital that it’s often reflected directly in the grammar, as verb tense. But this part of the series will focus on how time affects a language’s lexicon. And to do that, we must first look at the calendar.


Humans have been recording time for thousands upon thousands of years. After hunting and preparing food, some of the oldest tools we’ve found are instruments for recording the passage of time. This obsession has continued to the present day, where we’re treated to stories of new atomic clocks so precise and so accurate that they’ll only lose a second or two throughout the rest of our planet’s lifetime.

But let’s go back to those earlier days, because that’s when language was born. Our distant ancestors didn’t have atomic clocks or wristwatches or anything of the sort. They did, however, have the sun and the moon. Those celestial bodies aren’t perfect timekeepers, but they’re good enough for coarse measurement. Later, as civilizations arose, better methods of marking time became a necessity. “Better” in this sense means more accuracy (kept time is closer to “real” time) and precision (counting in smaller and smaller divisions).

The bigger units are mostly astronomical in nature. A day is the time it takes the Earth to rotate once on its axis. (Later, we figured out the difference between solar and sidereal days.) It doesn’t take much to realize that a day has two major components, day and night—some languages have different words for the two senses of day, but many don’t. The boundary periods can also be important: in English, we have dawn and dusk, plus the collective twilight. We’ve divided the two halves into finer portions: morning, afternoon, evening, etc. And a couple of times, noon and midnight, get special mention.

The month, as its name suggests, is loosely based on the orbit of the moon or, to put it in “ancient” terms, its phases. It averages a little over 30 days for us in the West, but other calendars do things differently. And the moon brings its own host of vocabulary. It waxes and wanes, and it can appear as new or full, crescent or gibbous.

Longer periods of time are based (unwittingly, at first) on the Earth’s orbit. The seasons come about from a planet’s tilt. We’re used to four of these, winter, summer, spring, and fall or autumn, but some cultures divide things differently. In the tropics, the temperature difference between the seasons isn’t so great, and rainfall is the deciding factor, so a culture in that region might speak of wet and dry seasons instead. Likewise, the monsoon is regular enough that places where it appears might consider it its own season. And non-tropical cultures will undoubtedly mark the equinoxes and solstices.

One full orbit of a planet around its star is a year, of course, and that also marks a full circuit of the seasons. Longer periods of time usually come from derivation. For decimal-based cultures, something akin to the decade, century, and millennium will likely appear. Non-decimal languages would instead develop similar terms for a dozen years, a gross, or whatever is appropriate. In addition, a few terms for larger amounts of time are based on the human body, such as generation and lifetime, while others (era, epoch) are historical in nature.

Switching to the other side of the coin, it wasn’t too hard to divide the day into hours. The specific number of them is culture-dependent, and this is a case where decimal numbers failed. Subdividing the hours was harder; talking minutes and seconds as anything other than theoretical requires the technology to measure them. But those terms are old enough to show that theory was around long before practicality. Our modern intervals of milliseconds and smaller come from the metric system, but moment and instant have a longer history, and heartbeat stands as a “legacy” unit of time.

The order of things

The units of time are important for precision, but just as useful are the nebulous terms of relative time. We can speak of the past, present, and future, for instance, and other cultures (especially if their languages have different tense systems) will have their own scheme. Something close to aspect also enters the vocabulary. Things or states can be temporary or permanent. They can begin and end, pause and continue. Some actions occur at regular intervals.

When something happens relative to when it should is another rich area of vocabulary. Someone can be early or late or, more rarely, on time (also prompt or timely). We can hurry to catch up with time, or we can wait if we’re ahead.

Mixing relative and absolute time also creates more possibilities for words. An event can take place today or tomorrow, but it also could have been yesterday. Or we can be more specific: phrases such as this morning and last night could be represented as a single lexeme in some languages.

Naming the calendar

The week is an outlier, and its vague definition illustrates that fact. It’s seven days for us, but that’s not a constant throughout history or the world. Anything between about four and ten days has been a “week” somewhere and at some point. It’s purely cultural, and it probably originated as a way to organize markets and the like.

With so few “moving parts”, it’s a simple thing to give each day of the week its own name. We did, after all. In English, we’ve got one named after the sun, another after the moon, four for Germanic gods of ages past, and somehow Saturn found his way in there. Other languages do things differently, though. The Romance theme is Roman gods, obviously, with a shout-out to Christianity on Sundays. Some cultures instead use a rather boring scheme of “first-day”, “second-day”, and so on. Still others can be more pragmatic, naming, for example, the market day as a compound meaning “market-day”.

Months can also have their own names. Our Western list is a mess, mixing in gods (January), emperors (July and August), and numbers (October, misnumbered because of a quirk of history). But that’s evolution for you. Tempting as it is to go all agglutinative here, other forces may intervene.

Specific days of the year can also get their own names: the holidays. These are highly sensitive to cultural aspects, especially religion. Some of them, though, become important enough to be lexicalized. Today, we talk of valentines in February and Easter eggs, Thanksgiving turkeys, and Christmas trees. Those are all noun-noun compounds that have become fixed in form and meaning over time, and they wouldn’t mean anything outside the context of our Western calendar.

Other units of time probably won’t be named, unless the culture has a reason for doing so. We have a few phrases like wee hours, witching hour, and leap year, but those are transparent compounds. We also give numerical or descriptive names to decades, centuries, and other periods: the Nineties, the 20th Century, the Middle Ages. These, however, aren’t lexical.

Making time

In a conlang, you’ll most likely want to start with the “relative” time terms, like before and future. Those are easy, and they cover enough ground to give your language a good amount of “meat” in its vocabulary. Some of them may even suggest themselves from the grammatical elements, such as tense and aspect markers or prepositions. Or you could go the other way, deriving new terms from the basic words of time. That’s how English got before, to name one example.

The “absolute” words are harder, because you need to develop at least a rudimentary outline of a culture. You need to understand the people who speak your language. Obviously, an auxlang has the easiest time here, since it will just copy the sensibilities of its “host” cultures. Artlangs need a bit more care. (If they’re on alien worlds, then they need a lot more care, but that’s a different post.) Remember who you’re dealing with, too. Ancient herders aren’t going to have a word for “nanosecond”, and a far-future spacefaring race might not use, say, weeks.

Finally, don’t forget that many words that seemingly have no connection to the passage of time are, in fact, derived from temporal terms. It’s thanks to time that we have words like tide, daisy, periodical, perennial, and menstrual, among many others.

Into the future

Next time (pardon the pun), we’ll be looking at how Isian speaks about time. Then, it’s Ardari’s turn. Beyond that, the future is less certain. But time and tide wait for no man, so we’ll get to them eventually.