Languages of the Otherworld: Virisai grammar overview

I don’t really want to get too deep into grammatical minutiae in this series, so I’ll instead make this post more of a high-level overview of the grammar of Virisai, the most central language of my Otherworld setting.

How it looks

As I’ve previously stated, I didn’t want this conlang to be anything too extreme. It’s spoken by humans, even if those humans aren’t from Earth. And while some parts of this world (the Americas, Australia, etc.) do indeed have some hideously complex languages, that isn’t necessarily a given. Especially with a literate language, there’s definitely a tendency to simplify. So Virisai doesn’t go overboard on the weirdness, and that’s by design.

Word order is about like you’d expect, broadly similar to, say, Spanish. Nouns come before most adjectives, verbs tend to sit between subject and object, and you’ve got a series of prepositions. But that doesn’t mean it’s a typical Indo-European language. Oh, no.

Virisai has no case for most nouns or adjectives, yet it does have different case forms for gendered nouns and pronouns. In the latter, it’s a bit like English: the triad of maa/maare/mei, for instance, essentially matches I/me/my. Gender, however, is only marked on nouns that represent humans and certain animals, typically those that have been domesticated. (Due to the timeline, Vistaan doesn’t have animals brought from the Old World, but it does have those that existed in America prior to the Quaternary extinctions at the end of the Ice Age, such as the American horse, faal, or even the saber-toothed cat, oceigal.)

Technically, Virisai recognizes four cases, but the accusative and dative are often merged, especially in the western dialect. The fourth case, the genitive, is even weirder. Instead of being marked on the possessor, as is normal for languages like Latin, the genitive marker -es appears as a suffix on the possessed, head, noun: he roun “the house”; he rounes vira “the man’s house”. Possessive pronouns don’t change this, either (rounes mei, “my house”), which points to it being a later development.

On the verbal side of things, there are a few other wrinkles. Virisai has no real progressive aspect (as in English “I am walking“); those cases where I write native speakers using it should be understood to use the more basic present—rather, non-past—tense instead. Concord exists, much to the dismay of students, and it comes in two forms, subject and object. The object concord markers aren’t strictly necessary, and are completely absent in the third person, but they’re considered a mark of formality.

Beyond that, I’ve got a mostly complete sketch of Virisai grammar, including a number of different derivational affixes, rules for adverbs, numerals, and prepositions, as well as much more. But I won’t bore you with that. Instead, I’ll give you an example of text in the conlang, and what better text than the one everybody uses?

The Babel Text

  1. Gyor, et graaten peis tei heis radvet ai et croin aat.
  2. Asta a besaalsar jaastal, hein danyetel he brel am e’taante Shinar, e sialanel trate.
  3. Asta hein radel almedenta a, “Jaasi! Vecrettei rouzin e peissar paitei heire.” E hein tei verouz mid vecaal, ai ciobren mid hamet.
  4. Asta hein radel a, “Jaasi! Esdeire sauteltei he tiran, ai h’alettis, vos mieses oos am et nin, e esdeire vecrettei he caar, a andeser deire fin kecoolit cie et damises et graaten peis.”
  5. A fied re virisin sauteleste e’tiran ai et alettis, et Laton ducselal.
  6. Asta et Laton radal a, “Fiesi! Hein saa heis mal, e tai heis radvet; asta heid pries saa et ilbares re yeten det h’id. Re raacen mos, gyor saa molyoris heire.
  7. Jaasi! Ducseltei, asta trate gulgortei et radvetes heiz, a hein mu cormenen ket et alrades almedin.”
  8. Hegis et Laton trate kecoolal heire cie et damises et graaten peis, e syukenel a sautel e’tiran.
  9. Hebal, oore fin carir Babel, ebra trate et Laton gulgoral et radvetes et graaten peis, e trate et Laton kecoolal heire cie et damises et graaten peis.

Orphans of the Stars setting notes 2

So I’m back. Since the last post about this series, I finished the draft of the second novel, Beyond the Horizon. It’s a little different, in that all the flashy space battle action is at the beginning. That, I think, gives it more tension, because you’re expecting more with each new step. I also left the story on something of a cliffhanger, which means I really should work on Book 3.

But that’ll come later. Today, let’s delve deeper into the setting of Orphans of the Stars. First, we’ll start on Earth. Home sweet home.

Lay of the land

After five centuries, you might expect Earth to be unrecognizable. After all, 500 years ago, there was no USA; there were barely even colonies in the Americas. China wasn’t communist, because communism didn’t exist. The Middle East was a different sort of morass than today. And so on. On the other hand, it’s a bit of a modern conceit to think that our current institutions are stable, that they’ll last forever.

For the Orphans setting, I’ve gone more towards that latter end of the spectrum. There are changes, but the broad strokes aren’t too different from what we know today.

First up, the US still exists in my version of the 26th century, and it has mostly descended into the corporate-controlled dystopia whose birth we’re watching in our era. California and New England remain bastions of liberalism (in both senses of the word), evangelical Christianity has lost a lot of its support, and the extreme polarization of nowadays has come and gone. Americans in the setting still hold both the First and Second Amendments in high regard, pointing to them as proof of American exceptionalism, even if they have been weakened severely through the centuries.

Across the pond, while the EU eventually broke up in my extrapolation, it reformed mostly along the same lines. Britain is in a curious spot, as it asserts its independence (Northern Ireland, I’m assuming, rejoined the rest of Ireland) and leadership of a Commonwealth trade pact, while also considering itself a member of this “new” Europe. Many of the other countries of the continent are in much the same position as today, if a bit more extreme. The Scandinavian nations, for instance, have an even heavier focus on quality of life. (Earth’s oldest living human at the time, as I mention briefly in the first chapter of Beyond the Horizon, is a Danish woman.)

Outside the Western world, things are a bit more hit or miss. Russia fell into decline, China gobbled up North Korea, some Pacific islands sank due to rising sea levels (and new ones appeared when the waters receded during a cold snap circa 2300), and so on. Essentially every equatorial nation profited from the rise of cheap, accessible spaceflight: Ecuador tried—and failed—to build a space elevator, while a spaceport in Luanda is the only reason most people even remember Angola exists. And the Middle East, well, it’s still the Middle East. Even 500 years isn’t enough time to fix that.

Slip the surly bonds

An adventure story set in space really needs places to go in space. And, since I’ve already established that Earthlike planets are common in the galaxy, and that FTL travel exists and doesn’t cause any ill effects to the universe at large, it’s only natural that humans would eventually begin to build colonies away from the mother planet.

First of those is Mars. The oldest and largest Martian city, in my setting, is actually named Tesla. (Because of course it would be Elon Musk that started it.) There are others, started by offshoots of the initial colonial push or later ventures. Terraforming remains a distant, if obtainable, goal. (For Mars, it’s considered okay, because there’s no discernible native biosphere.)

The Moon, by contrast, doesn’t have much of a permanent population. It’s more like Antarctica today, or offshore drilling platforms. People live there for a time, mostly to run experiments or oversee resource extraction, but they don’t stay there. That’s partially from the lunar dust problem, but also because of the known existence of other terrestrial worlds. Our nearest celestial neighbor just isn’t prime real estate.

The same really goes for most of the other parts of our solar system. Jupiter’s moons are interesting, the asteroids are valuable, and Titan continues to enchant those who ponder its mysteries, but my setting (as opposed to, say, The Expanse) makes interstellar journeys possible before in-system colonization really gets off the ground. Thus, most of the Sol system is left to automated mining and collection, with a few manned research stations and the occasional torus or O’Neill cylinder construction for those who really do want to live in space.

Economics of colonialism

That, more than anything, is my main assumption. With the galaxy (or at least our little corner of it) open to humanity, wars over living space really have no need to exist. Rather than fight a bloody war with only the barest hope of success, separatists, if they don’t mind packing up and leaving, have any number of places to go. Which brings us nicely to the colonies themselves.

Human colonization of the stars, in this setting, proceeded in waves. First, the initial push was more of a “can we do this?” kind of thing. Terrestrial planets in the Alpha Centauri and TRAPPIST-1 systems (I hope nothing in the next few years makes these impossible!) were first, because they were known quantities by that point, as well as good testing grounds. A few others then followed, once good news came in. This, I assume, would be in the latter half of the 23rd century.

Next were the profit-seekers. Larger corporations in our time have values exceeding the average country’s GDP; in future centuries, absent a revolution in the way we think, I see no reason why that would change. Thus, private spacefarers began setting up their own colonies in the systems that looked most profitable, a land grab and gold rush combined. For the most part, they would stay somewhat close to Earth, if only for the ability to easily escape if things went wrong. But one colony, named Marshall, was founded specifically to be on the frontier.

For the most part, the early 25th century continues that trend, though the attacks on Marshall (the prologue of Innocence Reborn) ultimately result in a 50-year moratorium on claiming new planets. Instead, new colonies are only allowed on worlds which already have a human presence. They’re big enough, after all.

The end of that ban, however, changes the game just a little. Now, instead of one group running off to take a new planet entirely for themselves, Earth’s governments (national, corporate, and larger organizations like the UN) have agreed to restrict the practice to partnerships. That’s why Malacca (the main “base” colony for the second half of Innocence Reborn) has not one colonial government, but five.

That’s the “current” era of colonization, in terms of the setting. It ends up being slightly cheaper overall, so the corporate bean-counters like it, and there’s less risk of a catastrophe, so risk-averse types feel a little better. And that opens up the many worlds to smaller groups. Marginalized sects were some of the first: Palestinians, Rohingya, Marxists, supremacists of every stripe. Utopia-seekers also joined in, as well as experimentalists who wanted the chance to try out different social philosophies.

I specifically designed Malacca to house one of each type of colony, purely to illustrate that. Rosaria, where the orphans make their new home, is a fairly typical corporate state, a company town projected into the future. Yuan Yang is the (Chinese) government-run colony, which keeps both its culture and economy very close to home. Windmore is a social experiment run by Brits wanting to try out direct democracy; it has the most distinct cities, but they’re all much smaller, and that’s how they like it. Pele is the research center, run by North American universities, with the feel of a college town. And Little Eden, though it hasn’t appeared on screen just yet, showcases the utopia option—specifically, that’s a retro-revival of older forms of Christianity.

All in all, with hundreds of colonies in existence at the time of the “main” storyline, there’s plenty of room for a writer to play around. And I fully intend to. I would like to do a few shorter stories set in different parts of the Orphans setting, those not touched by the all-kid crew of the Innocence. And I wouldn’t really mind if others wanted to do the same. Just ask, and I’ll be happy to help.

This is the end of this part, but not the extended postmortem that is this series. I hope to be back soon, because there’s still so much left to say.

Orphans of the Stars setting notes 1

With the recent Patreon release of my novel Innocence Reborn, I want to take a closer look at the setting I’ve created for the series as a whole. After Otherworld, it’s second in terms of level of detail, and being a futuristic science fiction setting means it requires a completely different sort of worldbuilding. So here we go. This may or may not become a regular miniseries. We’ll just see where it takes us.

By the way, this post is obviously going to have major spoilers for the book, so you can’t say I didn’t warn you.

Timeline

Although it’s never explicitly stated in the text (mostly because I don’t want it to be too obvious when I get it completely wrong), I do have a sketch of the setting’s timeline. The Innocence Reborn prologue, for instance, is supposed to take place in the year 2432, while the main body of the story is set over a century later, in 2538. Plenty of time to develop technology, etc., but not so much that humanity is completely unrecognizable. That was what I wanted, though I did have to make a few assumptions to get there.

Almost all of those are currently backstory, and we’ll get to them a bit later. Before that, I do have to mention one of the most fundamental conceits of the setting. See, it’s intended to be slightly “harder” than a space opera, in that most things are within the laws of physics as we know them. There is faster-than-light travel, because that’s central to the story I wanted to tell. And that causes a bit of trouble with causality and even basic timekeeping. So 2432 is the time on Earth, but current physics tells us that ships traveling FTL would effectively be going back in time, which makes things difficult.

Well, that’s because of relativity, and the handwaving for Orphans of the Stars is that relativity isn’t quite correct. You’ve got a few loopholes, so to speak. (Behind the scenes, the story universe is, in fact, a simulation that explicitly or accidentally allows such “exploits”. The characters don’t know this, of course.) It also means there’s something like a universal or preferred reference frame, which may or may not solve the timing problems.

Assumptions

Now, on to those assumptions. The other ones, I mean.

As I said, FTL travel is possible in the Orphans universe. It’s not instantaneous, but it is possible. That opens up the galaxy to human exploration and colonization. And that leads to the next big assumptions. First, Earthlike planets are relatively common, especially around G, K, and M stars. This is a simple extrapolation of current findings; estimates using data from the Kepler mission indicate that the Milky Way could host billions of terrestrial planets, with a fairly good percentage of stars having them in the habitable zone. And that’s not counting those slightly smaller than Earth orbiting medium-size stars like ours.

Second, and less supported by the data, is the idea that life is also relatively common in the universe. The vast majority is single-celled (or the equivalent); sentient, advanced aliens are considered fiction even 500 years in the future. Spoiler: boy, aren’t they surprised?

Other assumptions include simple, workable fusion power, ramped-up manufacturing capabilities (including orbital and deep-space), ubiquitous computing, usable cryogenic suspension, and quite a few other technological improvements. On the other hand, I assume that genetic engineering doesn’t become a huge thing—it’s mostly used for treating diseases and disorders rather than making wholesale physiological changes—and AI never gets to the “destroy all humans” stage. Yes, there are expert systems, and automation has made many jobs obsolete, but human decision-making still beats that of computers. It’s just that AI simplifies things enough that even a bunch of kids can fly a spaceship.

More importantly, there are a few sci-fi staples that don’t exist in this setting. Chief among those is artificial gravity: when the Innocence (or any other ship) isn’t accelerating, the people inside are weightless, and that causes problems. Well, problems and opportunities, because we are talking about a bunch of kids. Also absent are tractor beams, shields, transporters, and other such “superscience”. Terraforming is possible, but it’s been avoided so far out of respect for native biospheres. Antimatter is horrendously expensive, and more exotic particles are as useless commercially as they are today. Nanotechnology hasn’t advanced quite as much as one would expect, and cybernetic augmentation, including direct neural interfaces, ultimately turned out to be a fad.

Reasoning

I could have gone all out on this setting. I could have made it one of those where it’s so far into the future that it’s effectively magic. But I didn’t. I didn’t think I could pull it off.

Mostly, this series started out as an idea I had when writing Lair of the Wizards, a fantasy novel I’m putting out next month. That story is set in a borderline-Renaissance world where people with advanced technology existed, and they left some of it behind. It’s Clarke’s Third Law, but seen from a different point of view, one where we are the sufficiently advanced race. By and large, the characters are children, adolescents, or young adults, and that made me wonder if I could write an adventure-filled, yet still scientific, space drama revolving around characters of similar age.

As it turns out, I can. Maybe it’s not good, but I like it, and I’ve always said that I write stories primarily for my own enjoyment. The same is true for the settings themselves. Just as Otherworld is my linguistic playground, the Orphans universe (I still need a catchy name for it) has become my futurism playground. It’s where I get to play around with the causes and effects of science and technology, then go and write books about what happens when a bunch of kids get involved. And that’s what I’ve done. In fact, two days before writing this, I finished the sequel to Innocence Reborn, titled Beyond the Horizon, and I’m already coming up with ideas for Book 3.

Settings can be as deep as you want to make them. With this one, I’ve found one where I just want to keep on digging, and so I will.

Languages of the Otherworld: Virisai Phonology

With this post, I’d like to begin taking a closer look at Virisai, the first of many constructed languages I created for the Otherworld setting. Along the way, I would also like to justify some of the design decisions I made, but we’ll take that as it comes.

The speakers

Within the confines of the setting, Virisai is the effective national language of the kingdom of Vistaan. Its speakers, numbering about a million, are genetically similar to modern-day Native Americans, though there are a few changes here and there, owing to the 10-12 millennia of separation. They are, however, fully human; this is not an alien language, as far as that goes. Thus, none of the sounds are impossible for human mouths to pronounce, and the general grammatical concepts are close enough to those of Earth languages to be recognizable.

Externally, I started the language in 2013 as part of the “linguistic playground” that was my original vision for the Otherworld setting. For the most part, I always intended it to be the “base” language for the story, the one that would be met earliest and most often. (At the beginning, I also envisioned a kind of pidgin or creole variant, but I scrapped that as I developed the conlang.) The idea of multiple fantasy-like—yet still human—races inhabiting the same world also arose around that time; Virisai is thus the primary language of the “normal” humans of the main story area. As I have expanded my worldbuilding to encompass other areas, I’ve had to revise my original outline, but the core has remained the same, and this conlang has stayed at its center.

As I have said, I wanted to make something that seems natural enough that it doesn’t strike the reader as obviously constructed, but also simple enough that a group of ordinary American college students could achieve a decent comprehension after no more than 80 days of immersion. Most of them are monolingual, with their only real exposure to learning another language coming in high school, but a few are different. Sara is fluent in Spanish, for instance, and Ramón obviously is as well. Jeff, of course, is the “token” linguist character; his job for most of the early series is that of the translator, the interpreter, and he doesn’t always pull it off.

Everyone, though, is basically starting from scratch. The vocabulary of Virisai bears no resemblance whatsoever to English or Spanish. Or, for that matter, Japanese (Alex likes manga) or even Navajo (Lee’s great-grandfather was a code talker in WWII). That means that, early on, there’s a lot of pointing and grunting, the kind of first-contact stuff that most TV shows and movies gloss over. But the characters eventually get past that, and they start to learn a bit about the speech of their new world.

Sounds

All told, Virisai isn’t that complex in terms of phonology. It has 31 phonemes in total, which is fairly average. Twenty-one of those are consonants, and only one of those would really be considered “odd” to English speakers. Here’s the whole list in IPA:

Stops: /p b t d k g/ Fricatives: /s z ʃ ʒ h/ Affricates: /tʃ dʒ/ Nasals: /m n ɲ/ Approximants: /β̞ l ɹ j w/

In general, most consonants can show up anywhere, but the palatals (/ʃ ʒ tʃ dʒ ɲ/) are mostly forbidden from ending a word. An exception is the “good morning” greeting araj, which is a colloquialism. An English analogy might be yeah, which ends with a vowel not normally found word-finally.

One aspect of Virisai that makes it a little more difficult is the wide variety of consonant clusters it allows. These are no more than three consonants at a time, and at most two at the beginning or end of a word, but there’s an awful lot of them.

Vowels, by contrast, are relatively simple. “Standard” Virisai only has five of them, and they’re the basic five you know and love: /a e i o u/. There is a length distinction, which is tough to master, but I didn’t go with anything outlandish here. Mostly, that’s personal preference, as I find it hard to consistently pronounce about half of the IPA vowel chart; I don’t mind saying the characters have the same problem.

I did, however, add an extra wrinkle. Every language has dialects. One spoken in a pre-industrial society, where mass media is absent, the printing press hasn’t been invented, and 50% is a high literacy rate for adults, is bound to develop them more readily. So it is here. The western part of Vistaan (coincidentally enough, exactly where the story begins) has a slightly altered dialect. There, a set of front rounded vowels has developed from combinations of /j/ + /o/ and /u/, and this is reflected in the orthography. (For example, one native character, Nuelossin, has his name shortened to Niel by those who can’t pronounce [ɲyːˈlosin].) A few words are also different, but this hasn’t really come into play just yet in the story.

Justification

All in all, I think Virisai succeeds at the goals I set out for it. We’ll go over the grammatical details in a later post, but just from the phonology, I hope you can see what I was trying for. This could have been something complex, baroque, nigh unpronounceable, but I just didn’t go there. And that’s for multiple reasons.

First off, I don’t really like languages that I can’t pronounce. I don’t like throwing in a hundred consonants and fifty vowels just because they look cool. Give me something relatively simple (though it doesn’t have to be too simple), something that makes sense. If there are weird sounds in there, give them a reason to exist. That’s what I did with the Virisai /v/, which is usually realized as [̞β]. It’s there, and it’s a little odd, but I rationalize that by saying it was lowered from /β/ at some point in the past; at some point, it also merged with /ɸ/, but that came after the language’s script was created. Hence, some words are actually written with an initial f, but it’s pronounced like /v/.

Second, this mundane phonology makes Virisai easier to understand for those who aren’t used to having to listen to an unfamiliar language. I know how difficult that can be, and I know that adding in sounds you don’t recognize only makes it harder. (I’ve seriously tried listening to Arabic, for example, but it just doesn’t make sense to me, and I’m hopeless with tones.)

Finally, keeping the phonology of this most common and most important conlang simple makes it easier to write. I did give the orthography a few curveballs, like how the long vowels are written (aa ei ie oo ou) or the way the palatals come out (ci j si zi, except before /i/ or /e/). Sometimes, that even trips me up, and I’ve been playing with this thing for five years now. Story-internally, I handwave that as Jeff being inconsistent; externally, I just wanted something that looked different without resorting to diacritics.

I like to think I succeeded, with that and with the other aspects of this conlang. Later on, though, I’ll start looking at the grammar, and I may revise my opinion.

Languages of the Otherworld: Philosophy

The main storyline of Chronicles of the Otherworld follows a group of eleven college students who are transported from an archaeological site in Mexico to a planet inhabited by descendants of the original settlers of the Americas. Over the course of eight books, 64 chapters, and some 400,000 words, they learn to live in this new world, and one of the primary barriers they run into is that of language. For this land is not Mexico, and the speakers use a language wholly unknown to our world.

Let’s talk

As the Otherworld setting originated as a linguistic playground, it stands to reason that I would place heavy emphasis on the speech of its natives. And I did. The first native words appear almost as soon as the first native shows up, in Chapter 8 of Out of the Past. (That’s the main reason why Jeff, the linguist character, has the perspective for that chapter.) As I write this, I’m a couple of weeks removed from finishing the 19th story in the setting, and new words and phrases are still popping up.

This is by design. It’s not that I’m trying to make the story hard to read, but it follows my preference for limited-perspective narration. The characters don’t always know what these words mean, so I leave them untranslated. Once they start gaining comprehension, the fake language slowly shifts to English. As the books progress, the native terms become fewer and farther between. Entire conversations can pass without them, but the reader is aware that the Earthlings are talking in a decidedly unearthly tongue.

Sometimes, they mix in Americanisms, and I’ve made this a plot point on a few occasions. “Okay” is such a common word that college-aged men and women use it liberally, and the dialogue reflects that. As they use it, though, the natives begin to pick it up, and the same goes for words for other concepts they wouldn’t have, like “phone” and “science”. (In the few cases where I’ve had native points of view, this gets a bit trickier, I’ll admit. There, the only words left untranslated are mostly those that don’t easily map to English equivalents.)

Speaking the truth

To make this somewhat more believable, the primary language of the setting—at least in the area where our story is concerned—couldn’t be too complex. Indeed, it has to be fairly simple, which led me to a conundrum. As you may know, the indigenous languages of the Americas are widely regarded as some of the most complex on the planet. They use unfamiliar sounds, unusual grammatical categories, and distinction that Indo-European languages either ignore or gloss over. Even if I did know enough about them (and I don’t), I doubt I could create something derived from, say, a Mayan language, let alone something a few kids in their twenties could pick up in less than three months.

Fortunately, that’s where the backstory helps me. The languages of the Otherworld don’t have to be derived from existing Amerind languages. They don’t even have to come from their ancestors. Because I placed the divergence point so far in the past, I consider myself to have almost free reign. After all, the last connection between our world and that one was at the end of the Ice Age (as confirmed in A Peace Shattered, Chapter 7). That’s about twice as much time as you need to evolve the whole Indo-European family.

Given that many centuries, anything can happen, so I felt comfortable creating something entirely from scratch. And thus we have what the natives call Virisai, the speech of the Virissea. In the next post, I’ll start going into greater detail about the language itself, but I’ll finish this one with a bit more philosophy.

First off, I’ve been adamant that the conlangs I make for Otherworld need to be written, and written easily. These are books, novels, and I feel that throwing in a cacophony of diacritics is just going to turn people completely off. (Yeah, because the story wouldn’t.) Also, I want something that isn’t too hard to pronounce, both for the characters’ benefit and because I imagine Chronicles as a TV series. Media conlangs aren’t complex, unless they’re Klingon.

So Virisai doesn’t have a horribly baroque phonology. As a matter of fact, it’s quite tame, especially compared to its supposed relatives in our world. There’s no /f/ sound, but that’s not too unusual; actually, my oldest active conlang, Suvile, has the same restriction, so maybe it’s a personal thing. The main /r/ sound is more like that of American English rather than, say, a Spanish-like trill. About the only real sticking points are the long vowels—it’s a proper length distinction, one of quantity rather than quality—and the odd realization of /v/, which does come out closer to Spanish ([β̞], in case you were wondering).

Grammar-wise, it’s also nothing too out there. I could have thrown in antipassives or some other bizarre (compared to Europe) ideas, but I didn’t. That’s not to say there aren’t oddities. Virisai does have a case system. Its genitives are head-marked, which is fairly weird. There’s a suffix -te used for things like naming, and that can catch the unwary.

All in all, though, I’ve endeavored to make this a beginner-friendly conlang, something that wouldn’t be too difficult to pick up. The vocabulary is entirely unlike anything anyone on Earth knows, but that’s probably the hardest part.

Later on, we’ll delve more deeply into that, as well as the other languages of Otherworld. For now, enjoy “The Code Breaker” and the rest of A Bridge Between Worlds.

Languages of the Otherworld: Introduction

In this new year of 2018, I think my “Let’s Make a Language” series can be retired. Maybe it’ll come out of retirement at some point down the line—that’s all the rage these days, isn’t it?—but it’s at a good stopping point, in my opinion.

But that means I need something else to write about, something to do with constructed languages. Well, since I’ve been writing so much on my own fiction, and one of my main settings involves heavy use of conlangs, why not use that? So here we are. This is another one of my sporadic post series, and it will focus on the languages I have created for my Otherworld setting. So far, I’ve put out 8 short novels (or long novellas, if you prefer) over at my Patreon, with another 6 shorter novellas coming this year. All told, I have plans for a total of 50 stories in the “main” course of this setting, and the languages are a key element. They’re pretty much the reason I started Otherworld in the first place. (That, and because Stargate Universe got canceled. The one thing I can thank Comcast for, I guess?)

So here’s how this is going to work: I don’t know. Seriously. I’m just going to write, and we’ll see what happens. I do want to talk about the creation of languages in general, using my own as both inspiration and example. I want to show off a little, too, and I hope you don’t mind. Most of all, I want this to be a kind of “behind the scenes” set of posts, a producer’s commentary for one element of the Otherworld.

Lay of the land

For this introductory post, I won’t go into too much detail about the languages themselves. Instead, I’ll give a broad overview of my thought processes going into the creation of the Otherworld setting.

First off, when I started Otherworld back in 2013, I had a goal in mind: to create a believable world. I’m not opposed to the kind of generic fantasy that gives no thought to its own backstory, but my preference is verisimilitude. I like a “realistic” world, one that I can imagine myself visiting, living in.

Thus, when making the languages of Otherworld, I didn’t set out to create anything too outlandish. The core conceit of the setting is that the fictional world is inhabited by a parallel development of humans that branched off from the first inhabitants of the Americas at the end of the Ice Age. Given the time and distance differences separating them from our familiar Old World languages, I felt comfortable creating those of the Otherworld from scratch. Too little is known about the protolanguages of America to disprove me, but that also means I didn’t really have much to work with. No matter. I prefer the a priori approach.

Early on, one of my ideas was a multiracial world, though one where the races were superficially similar to those of fantasy literature. So I needed at least one language for each race, because we’re dealing with a pre-modern world that wouldn’t have the normalizing elements of TV, radio, and other mass media. To preserve my sanity, though, I’m only fully detailing the most prominent examples of each. I justify this in text by simple expediency: the protagonists are too far away from other examples. They’re placed in an area that sees members of other races, but doesn’t always recognize their internal differences. So they consider the “Arassea“, for instance, to have a single language, and they name that language after its only known speakers.

My main concession to bias, I suppose, would be the mild stereotyping I’ve done with some of these languages. The Fassea race, to take one example, inhabits islands and coastal regions, and I drew heavily on Polynesian grammar and phonology for them.

All told, Otherworld has nine living races, and thus nine main conlangs. The tenth belongs to the Altea, mythologized forebears that, I must admit, are heavily inspired by the legends of Atlantis. They were human, but highly advanced, and they were the ones who originally colonized (and, for that matter, terraformed) the Otherworld itself. The timing just barely works, based on current archaeological evidence and theories.

So that’s our jumping-off point. Next time, we’ll get to looking at “Virisai”, the common tongue of the main story area. It’s by far the most well-developed of the Otherworld set, so it’s only natural that it gets top billing. Later on, I’ll work the others in where possible.

Future past: steam

Let’s talk about steam. I don’t mean the malware installed on most gamers’ computers, but the real thing: hot, evaporated water. You may see it as just something given off by boiling stew or dying cars, but it’s so much more than that. For steam was the fluid that carried us into the Industrial Revolution.

And whenever we talk of the Industrial Revolution, it’s only natural to think about its timing. Did steam power really have to wait until the 18th century? Is there a way to push back its development by a hundred, or even a thousand, years? We can’t know for sure, but maybe we can make an educated guess or two.

Intro

Obviously, knowledge of steam itself dates back to the first time anybody ever cooked a pot of stew or boiled their day’s catch. Probably earlier than that, if you consider natural hot springs. However you take it, they didn’t have to wait around for a Renaissance and an Enlightenment. Steam itself is embarrassingly easy to make.

Steam is a gas; it’s the gaseous form of water, in the same way that ice is its solid form. Now, ice forms naturally if the temperature gets below 0°C (32°F), so quite a lot of places on Earth can find some way of getting to it. Steam, on the other hand requires us to take water to its boiling point of 100°C (212°F) at sea level, slightly lower at altitude. Even the hottest parts of the world never get temperatures that high, so steam is, with a few exceptions like that hot spring I mentioned, purely artificial.

Cooking is the main way we come into contact with steam, now and in ages past. Modern times have added others, like radiators, but the general principle holds: steam is what we get when we boil water. Liquid turns to gas, and that’s where the fun begins.

Theory

The ideal gas law tells us how an ideal gas behaves. Now, that’s not entirely appropriate for gases in the real world, but it’s a good enough approximation most of the time. In algebraic form, it’s PV = nRT, and it’s the key to seeing why steam is so useful, so world-changing. Ignore R, because it’s a constant that doesn’t concern us here; the other four variables are where we get our interesting effects. In order: P is the pressure of a gas, V is its volume, n is how much of it there is (in moles), and T is its temperature.

You don’t need to know how to measure moles to see what happens. When we turn water into steam, we do so by raising its temperature. By the ideal gas law, increasing T must be balanced out by a proportional increase on the other side of the equation. We’ve got two choices there, and you’ve no doubt seen them both in action.

First, gases have a natural tendency to expand to fill their containers. That’s why smoke dissipates outdoors, and it’s why that steam rising from the pot gets everywhere. Thus, increasing V is the first choice in reaction to higher temperatures. But what if that’s not possible? What if the gas is trapped inside a solid vessel, one that won’t let it expand? Then it’s the backup option: pressure.

A trapped gas that is heated increases in pressure, and that is the power of steam. Think of a pressure cooker or a kettle, either of them placed on a hot stove. With nowhere to go, the steam builds and builds, until it finds relief one way or another. (With some gases, this can come in the more dramatic form of a rupture, but household appliances rarely get that far.)

As pressure is force per unit of area, and there’s not a lot of area in the spout of a teapot, the rising temperatures can cause a lot of force. Enough to scald, enough to push. Enough to…move?

Practice

That is the basis for steam power and, by extension, many of the methods of power generation we still use today. A lot of steam funneled through a small area produces a great amount of force. That force is then able to run a pump, a turbine, or whatever is needed, from boats to trains. (And even cars: some of the first automobiles were steam-powered.)

Steam made the Industrial Revolution possible. It made most of what came after possible, as well. And it gave birth to the retro fad of steampunk, because many people find the elaborate contraptions needed to haul superheated water vapor around to be aesthetically pleasing. Yet there is a problem. We’ve found steam-powered automata (e.g., toys, “magic” temple doors) from the Roman era, so what happened? Why did we need over 1,500 years to get from bot to Watt?

Unlike electricity, where there’s no obvious technological roadblock standing between Antiquity and advancement, steam power might legitimately be beyond classical civilizations. Generation of steam is easy—as I’ve said, that was done with the first cooking pot at the latest. And you don’t need an ideal gas law to observe the steam in your teapot shooting a cork out of the spout. From there, it’s not too far a leap to see how else that rather violent power can be utilized.

No, generating small amounts of steam is easy, and it’s clear that the Romans (and probably the Greeks, Chinese, and others) could do it. They could even use it, as the toys and temples show. So why didn’t they take that next giant leap?

The answer here may be a combination of factors. First is fuel. Large steam installations require metaphorical and literal tons of fuel. The Victorian era thrived on coal, as we know, but coal is a comparatively recent discovery. The Romans didn’t have it available. They could get by with charcoal, but you need a lot of that, and they had much better uses for it. It wouldn’t do to cut down a few acres of forest just to run a chariot down to Ravenna, even for an emperor. Nowadays, we can make steam by many different methods, including renewable variations like solar boilers, but that wasn’t an option back then. Without a massive fuel source, steam—pardon the pun—couldn’t get off the ground.

Second, and equally important, is the quality of the materials that were available. A boiler, in addition to eating fuel at a frantic pace, also has some pretty exacting specifications. It has to be built strong enough to withstand the intense pressures that steam can create (remember our ideal gas law); ruptures were a deadly fixture of the 19th century, and that was with steel. Imagine trying to do it all with brass, bronze, and iron! On top of that, all your valves, tubes, and other machinery must be built to the same high standard. It’s not just a gas leaking out, but efficiency.

The ancients couldn’t pull that off. Not from lacking of trying, mind you, but they weren’t really equipped for the rigors of steam power. Steel was unknown, except in a few special cases. Rubber was an ocean away, on a continent they didn’t know existed. Welding (a requirement for sealing two metal pipes together so air can’t escape) probably wasn’t happening.

Thus, steam power may be too far into the future to plausibly fit into a distant “retro-tech” setting. It really needs improvements in a lot of different areas. That’s not to say that steam itself can’t fit—we know it can—but you’re not getting Roman railroads. On a small scale, using steam is entirely possible, but you can’t build a classical civilization around it. Probably not even a medieval one, at that.

No, it seems that steam as a major power source must wait until the rest of technology catches up. You need a fuel source, whether coal or something else. You absolutely must have ways of creating airtight seals. And you’ll need a way to create strong pressure vessels, which implies some more advanced metallurgy. On the other hand, the science isn’t entirely necessary; if your people don’t know the ideal gas law yet, they’ll probably figure it out pretty soon after the first steam engine starts up. And as for finding uses, well, they’d get to that part without much help, because that’s just what we do.

Future past: Electricity

Electricity is vital to our modern world. Without it, I couldn’t write this post, and you couldn’t read it. That alone should show you just how important it is, but if not, then how about anything from this list: air conditioning, TVs, computers, phones, music players. And that’s just what I can see in the room around me! So electricity seems like a good start for this series. It’s something we can’t live without, but its discovery was relatively recent, as eras go.

Intro

The knowledge of electricity, in some form, goes back thousands of years. The phenomenon itself, of course, began in the first second of the universe, but humans didn’t really get to looking into it until they started looking into just about everything else.

First came static electricity. That’s the kind we’re most familiar with, at least when it comes to directly feeling it. It gives you a shock in the wintertime, it makes your clothes stick together when you pull them out of the drier, and it’s what causes lightning. At its source, static electricity is nothing more than an imbalance of electrons righting itself. Sometimes, that’s visible, whether as a spark or a bolt, and it certainly doesn’t take modern convenience to produce such a thing.

The root electro-, source of electricity and probably a thousand derivatives, originally comes from Greek. There, it referred to amber, that familiar resin that occasionally has bugs embedded in it. Besides that curious property, amber also has a knack for picking up a static charge, much like wool and rubber. It doesn’t take Ben Franklin to figure that much out.

Static electricity, however, is one-and-done. Once the charge imbalance is fixed, it’s over. That can’t really power a modern machine, much less an era, so the other half of the equation is electric current. That’s the kind that runs the world today, and it’s where we have volts and ohms and all those other terms. It’s what runs through the wires in your house, your computer, your everything.

Theory

The study of current, unlike static electricity, came about comparatively late (or maybe it didn’t; see below). It wasn’t until the 18th century that it really got going, and most of the biggest discoveries had to wait until the 19th. The voltaic pile—which later evolved into the battery—electric generators, and so many more pieces that make up the whole of this electronic age, all of them were invented within the last 250 years. But did they have to be? We’ll see in a moment, but let’s take a look at the real world first.

Although static electricity is indeed interesting, and not just for demonstrations, current makes electricity useful, and there are two ways to get it: make it yourself, or extract it from existing materials. The latter is far easier, as you might expect. Most metals are good conductors of electricity, and there are a number of chemical reactions which can cause a bit of voltage. That’s the essence of the battery: two different metals, immersed in an acidic solution, will react in different ways, creating a potential. Volta figured this much out, so we measure the potential in volts. (Ohm worked out how voltage and current are related by resistance, so resistance is measured in ohms. And so on, through essentially every scientist of that age.)

Using wires, we can even take this cell and connect it to another, increasing the amount of voltage and power available at any one time. Making the cells themselves larger (greater cross-section, more solution) creates a greater reserve of electricity. Put the two together, and you’ve got a way to store as much as you want, then extract it however you need.

But batteries eventually run dry. What the modern age needed was a generator. To make that, you need to understand that electricity is but one part of a greater force: electromagnetism. The other half, as you might expect, is magnetism, and that’s the key to generating power. Moving magnetic fields generate electrical potential, i.e., current. And one of the easiest ways to do it is by rotating a magnet inside another. (As an experiment, I’ve seen this done with one of those hand-cranked pencil sharpeners, so it can’t be that hard to construct.)

One problem is that the electricity this sort of generator makes isn’t constant. Its potential, assuming you’ve got a circular setup, follows a sine-wave pattern from positive to negative. (Because you can have negative volts, remember.) That’s alternating current, or AC, while batteries give you direct current, DC. The difference between the two can be very important, and it was at the heart of one of science’s greatest feuds—Edison and Tesla—but it doesn’t mean too much for our purposes here. Both are electric.

Practice

What does it take to create electricity? Is there anything special about it that had to wait until 1800 or so?

As a matter of fact, not only was it possible to have something electrical before the Enlightenment, but it may have been done…depending on who you ask. The Baghdad battery is one of those curious artifacts that has multiple plausible explanations. Either it’s a common container for wine, vinegar, or something of that sort, or it’s a 2000-year-old voltaic cell. The simple fact that this second hypothesis isn’t immediately discarded answers one question: no, nothing about electricity requires advanced technology.

Building a rudimentary battery is so easy that it almost has to have been done before. Two coins (of different metals) stuck into a lemon can give you enough voltage to feel, especially if you touch the wires to your tongue, like some people do with a 9-volt. Potatoes work almost as well, but any fruit or vegetable whose interior is acidic can provide the necessary solution for the electrochemical reactions to take place. From there, it’s not too big a step to a small jar of vinegar. Metals known in ancient times can get you a volt or two from a single cell, and connecting them in series nets you even larger potentials. It won’t be pretty, but there’s absolutely nothing insurmountable about making a battery using only technology known to the Romans, Greeks, or even Egyptians.

Generators a bit harder. First off, you need magnets. Lodestones work; they’re naturally magnetized, possibly by lightning, and their curious properties were first noticed as early as 2500 years ago. But they’re rare and hard to work with, as well as probably being full of impurities. Still, it doesn’t take a genius (or an advanced civilization) to figure out that these can be used to turn other pieces of metal (specifically iron) into magnets of their own.

Really, then, creation of magnets needs iron working, so generators are beyond the Bronze Age by definition. But they aren’t beyond the Iron Age, so Roman-era AC power isn’t impossible. They may not understand how it works, but they have the means to make it. The pieces are there.

The hardest part after that would be wire, because shuffling current around needs that. Copper is a nice balance of cost and conductivity, which is why we use it so much today; gold is far more ductile, while silver offers better conduction properties, but both are too expensive to use for much even today. The latter two, however, have been seen in wire form since ancient times, which means that ages past knew the methods. (Drawn wire didn’t come about until the Middle Ages, but it’s not the only way to do it.) So, assuming that our distant ancestors could figure out why they needed copper wire, they could probably come up with a way to produce it. It might not have rubber or plastic insulation, but they’d find something.

In conclusion, then, even if the Baghdad battery is nothing but a jar with some leftover vinegar inside, that doesn’t mean electricity couldn’t be used by ancient peoples. Technology-wise, nothing at all prevents batteries from being created in the Bronze Age. Power generation might have to wait until the Iron Age, but you can do a lot with just a few cells. And all the pieces were certainly in place in medieval times. The biggest problem after making the things would be finding a use for them, but humans are ingenious creatures. They’d work something out.

Future past: Introduction

With the “Magic and Tech” series on hiatus right now (mostly because I can’t think of anything else to write in it), I had the idea of taking a look at a different type of “retro” technological development. In this case, I want to look at different technologies that we associate with our modern world, and see just how much—or how little—advancement they truly require. In other words, let’s see just what could be made by the ancients, or by medieval cultures, or in the Renaissance.

I’ve been fascinated by this subject for many years, ever since I read the excellent book Lost Discoveries. And it’s very much a worldbuilding pursuit, especially if you’re building a non-Earth human culture or an alternate history. (Or both, in the case of my Otherworld series.) As I’ve looked into this particular topic, I’ve found a few surprises, so this is my chance to share them with you, along with my thoughts on the matter

The way it works

Like “Magic and Tech”, this series (“Future Past”; you get no points for guessing the reference) will consist of an open-ended set of posts, mostly coming out whenever I decide to write them. Each post will be centered on a specific invention, concept, or discovery, rather than the much broader subjects of “Magic and Tech”. For example, the first will be that favorite of alt-historians: electricity. Others will include the steam engine, various types of power generation, and so on. Maybe you can’t get computers in the Bronze Age—assuming you don’t count the Antikythera mechanism—but you won’t believe what you can get.

Every post in the series will be divided into three main parts. First will come an introduction, where I lay out the boundaries of the topic and throw in a few notes about what’s to come. Next is a “theory” section: a brief description of the technology as we know it. Last and longest is the “practice” part, where we’ll look at just how far we can turn back the clock on the invention in question.

Hopefully, this will be as fun to read as it is to write. And I will get back to “Magic and Tech” at some point, probably early next year, but that will have to wait until I’m more inspired on that front. For now, let’s forget the fantasy magic and turn our eyes to the magic of invention.

On eclipses and omens

(I’m writing this post early, as I so often do. For reference, today, from the author’s perspective, is July 17, 2017. In other words, it’s 5 weeks before the posting date. In that amount of time, a lot can happen, but I can guarantee one thing: it will be cloudy on August 21. Especially in the hours just after noon.)

Today is a grand day, a great time to be alive, for it is the day of the Great American Eclipse. I’m lucky—except for the part where the weather won’t cooperate—because I live in the path of totality. Some Americans will have to travel hundreds of miles to see this brief darkening of the sun; I only have to step outside. (And remember the welding glasses or whatever, but that’s a different story.)

Eclipses of any kind are a spectacle. I’ve seen a handful of lunar ones in my 33 years, but never a solar eclipse. Those of the moon, though, really are amazing, especially the redder ones. But treating them as a natural occurrence, as a simple astronomical event that boils down to a geometry problem, that’s a very modern view. In ages past, an eclipse could be taken as any number of things, many of them bad. For a writer, that can create some very fertile ground.

Alignment

Strictly speaking, an eclipse is nothing more unusual than any other alignment of celestial bodies. It’s just a lot more noticeable, that’s all. The new moon is always invisible, because its dark side is facing us, but our satellite’s orbital inclination means that it often goes into its new phase above or below the sun, relative to the sky. Only rarely does it cross directly in front of the solar disk from our perspective. Conversely, it’s rare—but not quite as rare—for the moon to fall squarely in the shadow created by the Earth when it’s full.

The vagaries of orbital mechanics mean that not every eclipse is the same. Some are total, like the one today, where the shadowing body completely covers the sun. For a solar eclipse, that means the moon is right between us and the sun—as viewed by certain parts of the world—and we’ll have two or three minutes of darkness along a long, narrow path. On the flip side, lunar eclipses are viewable by many more people, as we are the ones doing the shadowing.

Another possibility is the partial eclipse, where the alignment doesn’t quite work out perfectly; people outside of the path of totality today will only get a partial solar eclipse, and that track is so narrow that my aunt, who lives less than 15 miles to the south, is on its uncertain edge. Or you might get an annular solar eclipse, where the moon is at its apogee (farthest point in its orbit), so it isn’t quite big enough to cover the whole sun, instead leaving a blinding ring. And then there’s the penumbral lunar eclipse, essentially a mirrored version of the annular; in this case, the moon doesn’t go through the Earth’s full shadow, and most people barely even notice anything’s wrong.

However it happens, the eclipse is an astronomical eventuality. Our moon is big enough and close enough to cover the whole sun, so it’s only natural that we have solar eclipses. (On Mars, it wouldn’t work, because Phobos and Deimos are too tiny. Instead, you’d have transits, similar to the transit of Venus a few years ago.) Similarly, the moon is close enough to fall completely within its primary’s shadow on some occasions, so lunar eclipses were always going to happen.

These events are regular, precise. We can predict them years, even centuries in advance. Gravity and orbital mechanics give alignments a clockwork rhythm that can only change if acted upon by an outside body.

Days of old

In earlier days, some people saw a much different outside body at work in the heavens. Even once a culture reaches a level of mathematical and astronomical advancement where eclipses become predictable, that doesn’t mean the average person isn’t going to continue seeing them as portents. How many people believe in astrology today?

And let’s face it: an eclipse, if you don’t really know what’s going on, might be scary. Here’s the sun disappearing before our very eyes. Or the moon. Or, if it’s a particularly colorful lunar eclipse, then the moon isn’t vanishing, but turning red. You know, the color of blood. Somebody who doesn’t understand orbits and geometry would be well inclined to think something strange is going on.

Writers of fantasy and historical fiction can use this to great effect, because a rare event like an eclipse is a perfect catalyst for change and conflict. People might see it as an omen, a sign of impending doom. Then, seeing it, they might be moved to bring about the doom themselves. Seven minutes of darkness—the most we on Earth can get—might not be too bad, but a fantasy world with a larger moon may have solar eclipses that last for an hour or more, like our lunar eclipses today. That could be enough time to unnerve even the hardiest souls.

Science fiction can get into the act here, too, as in Isaac Asimov’s Nightfall. If a culture only sees an eclipse once every thousand years or so, then even the memory of the event might be forgotten by the next time it comes around. And then what happens? In the same vein, the eclipse of Pitch Black releases the horrors of that story; working that out provides a good mystery to be solved, while the partial phase offers a practical method of building tension.

Beyond the psychological effects and theological implications of an eclipse, they work well in any case where astronomy and the predictive power of science play a role. Recall, if you will, the famous story of Columbus using a known upcoming eclipse as a way to scare an indigenous culture that lacked the knowledge of its arrival. Someone who has that knowledge can very easily lord it over those who do not, which sets up potential conflicts—or provides a way out of them. “Release me, or I will take away the sun” works as a threat, if the people you’re threatening can’t be sure the sun won’t come back.

In fantasy, eclipses can even fit into the backstory. The titular character of my novel Nocturne was born during a solar eclipse (I wrote the book because of the one today, in fact), and that special quality, combined with the peculiar magic system of the setting, provides most of the forward movement of the story. On a more epic level, if fantasy gods wander the land, one of them might have the power to make his own eclipses. A good way of keeping the peasants and worshippers in line, wouldn’t you say?

However you do it, treating an eclipse as something amiss in the heavens works a lot better for a story than assuming it’s a normal celestial occurrence. Yes, they happen. Yes, they’re regular. But if they’re unexpected, then they can be so much more useful. But that’s true of science in general, at least when you start melding it with fantasy. The whole purpose of science is to explain the world in a rational manner, but fantasy is almost the antithesis of rationality. So, by keeping eclipses mysterious, momentous, portentous occasions, we let them stay in the realm of fantasy. For today, I think that’s a good thing.