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.
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.