Creating the Languages of Elantris
I am not a linguist. I have some understanding of morphemes and the history of language, but only enough to avoid looking like a complete idiot. That’s all right. I am not Tolkien; it was never my intention to create viable languages in Elantris. I was busy enough crafting the story without worrying whether or not someone will be able to someday release an Aonic transition of Hamlet.
That isn’t to say that the languages in my books are not important. In fact, they’re vital. A novel, at its basest level, is constructed of words—and words, at their basest level, are constructed of sounds. The sounds of names and phrases give the first subconscious clue to a character’s motivations and origins. Before you know a man’s thoughts in a book—before you see him act—you often know his name. The sound of that name is your first impression.
Like many fantasists, I use linguistic themes to give characterization to the cultures in my books. Even for the best author, containing an entire world in the meager 200,000 allotted words of a novel is a difficult task. We can’t afford to use names and languages lightly—they must give clues to the nature of the cultures involved, otherwise we might as well call the hero ‘Tom’ as opposed to ‘Raoden.’
I take several approaches to constructing languages for my works. The first thing I ask myself is how much I’m going to be using this language. How many characters will speak it? Will the setting take place in a land native to that tongue? How important, overall, is language to this particular book?
In Elantris I realized that Aonic was going to be an integral part of the novel. The magical power of AonDor was once accessed through the form of the Aon characters. In this culture, language is a very literal power, and the practice and use of it would denote royalty, high-breeding, and even divinity.
The other languages included were of varying lesser importance. Fjordell—the language of Fjorden’s priesthood—would be second in importance, for it was to be the native tongue of the only non-Aonic point-of-view character. To Hrathen, language was to become a symbol of purity and of the chosen race. It had religious significance, and was to be a subtle model of the elitist culture from which Hrathen hailed.
The languages of Duladen, Svorden, and JinDo were of least significance. They had important characters representing them, but no major point-of-view characters. With the weight of Aonic and Fjordell already bulking up the linguistic part of the novel, I decided I wanted these three languages to provide flavor only. I wanted their representative words and names to give an instant clue to the nature of the society, and then add variety through the novel without becoming unwieldy.
In the initial stages of Elantris‘ development, Aonic was one of the more difficult elements to construct. The Aons themselves—then still unnamed—were to become a major part of the novel. I wanted all of the Aonic names—including the names of two POV characters—to include references to the language. In addition, the magic system had complex connections with the Aons, influencing their actual forms and design. Furthermore, one of the greatest puzzles in the novel—that of Elantris‘ mysterious fall—was intimately tied to the power and shape of the Aons.
I began looking for sounds and themes. Usually, when I construct a language, I try to develop something with a few basic sound patterns that are easily recognizable. When a reader runs across a name in the book, I want them to be able to instantly determine which country that name came from. However, the names can’t be too similar, otherwise they will become a jumbled mess in the reader’s mind.
So I started, as I often do, with a couple of names. The first one I devised, I believe, was Raoden. The sound “Rao” (both vowels are pronounced in their long form) struck me. One of the things I wanted from Aonic was resonance with ancient classicism. I wanted the reader to reference a culture with a great, majestic history. Golden age Greece or imperial Rome—lands were gods were very real, and were thought to interfere with the workings of mortals. To the modern mind, these cultures bear a weight of age.
Rao. (Pronounced Ray-Oh). I liked the repeated long vowel sounds—they seemed to bear the weight I wanted. From there, I constructed other morphemes. Ene. Ashe. Dio. I started combining these, constructing a language that references modern Japanese with its combination of a natural tongue and imported Chinese characters.
The result was the Aonic language. Each name or word contained an Aon—a two-syllable morpheme that contained two log vowel sounds—and a non-Aon prefix or suffix. Raoden, for instance, contains the Aon ‘Rao’ with the non-Aon suffix ‘den.’ Seon contained the Aon ‘Seo’ with the suffix ‘n.’ The accent in these words is always placed on the Aon.
Then, like any good modern language, I was forced to bend a few rules. The name of the city was very important to the book, as I intended it to be in the title. I played around with several different words, including one that stayed through the entire rough draft of the novel—a word based on the Aon ‘Ado.’
In the end, however, I grew very partial to the word ‘Elantris.’ Again, this was for connotative reasons. It brought to mind ancient cultures without actually being too similar to any names I knew. The word seemed to have mythic import. Unfortunately, it didn’t contain an Aon. In the end, I went with it anyway. Any good language has sound-changes and broken rules. Elantris, therefore, is based off of the Aon ‘Ela,’ which is a very Aonic sound. When combined with its suffix, however, the secondary vowel is weakened—though not completely. When I say the word in my head, the ‘a’ sound is stronger than it probably is to most readers.
The second bent rule references Sarene’s name. Originally, her Aon was ‘Ana,’ with two long ‘a’ sounds. Unfortunately, ana looked too similar to the word ‘anal’ to me. Eventually, I changed her from Sarana to Sarene. Still, in my head, I pronounce this word ‘Sar-Aynay,’ though the Aonic usage of the name would be more appropriately rendered ‘Sar-eenee.’
With the Aonic language finished, I could easily fill in the names of side-characters and places. I threw out a few sounds—there is no ‘u’ sound or ‘th’ sound in Aonic—and from there could construct hundreds of names from Aonic combinations of sounds. I designed a few of the characters for referencing in the book, and the language grew from there.
The Fjordell language was a little more formed in my head in the pre-writing stage than Aonic was. I already had an idea of what I wanted this culture, and its language, to represent. I’ve always been fascinated by the rise of the Roman empire, first in military power, then in theological power. Latin and Catholicism fit very will with Rome’s logical, almost bureaucratic, culture.
I wondered what would happen if a similar train of events had led a more war-like, barbarous culture to power. What would happen if the Scandinavian tribes had been able to unite and conquer all of Europe? The answer was simple, in my mind—they didn’t have the bureaucratic skill to run an empire. It would have collapsed.
And that was where Fjorden came from. I imagined three distinct periods in its history. First, the rise of a war-like tribe to imperial dominance. However, once the empire was established and it ran out of foes to conquer, I imagined the new empire struggling to maintain control. Eventually, the First Empire collapsed under its own weight.
However, this experience taught the Fjordell leaders what it was they did wrong. They learned order, organization, and—most importantly—they learned patience. Under the leadership of an inspired ruler, they abandoned their conquering ways and focused instead on Shu-Korath, a newly-budding religion that combined their ancient pantheistic beliefs with a more modern sense of theological order. This religion, which held the power of forced unity as one of its major themes, appealed to the warrior sense of the Fjordell.
With that, the Second Empire was born. Now, instead of an army of warriors, Fjorden had an army of priests. The empire learned to lead more subtly, using its doctrines to control, rather than its swords.
This country had to sound Scandinavian—the more like Beowulf the better. I had Hrathen’s name from almost the beginning, though I quibbled a little more on Fjorden itself. (I realize the name itself is a little gimmicky, but so far I’ve had good reactions from it.)
Fjorden is defined in my mind more by its sounds than by any specific set of linguistic characteristics. The language prefers guttural sounds. ‘U’ sounds, ‘F’ sounds, ‘H’ sounds, and ‘G’ sounds. I added in a Hebrew ‘Y’ sound in the form of a ‘J,’ and placed emphasis on the ‘Hr’ combination. From this language, we get names like Dilaf, Jaddeth (pronounced yah-death,) and Sycla.
Duladen, Jindoeese, Svordish
Duladen is a language purely of tonal convenience. My only rule for this language was to use that which ‘sounded right.’ It seemed wrong, in a way, to force any firm linguistic constructions on the Dulas. In addition, Galladon’s use of Dula slang was to become a major mood element of the book. I didn’t have enough time in the book to develop the language in detail, but I needed its sounds to give atmosphere.
Duladen implies a laid-back, loose culture. Its words flow smoothly, and even have a hint of ridiculousness to our English-accustomed ears. Even the Dula word for Hell, ‘Doloken,’ has a kind of rhythmic nonchalance about it. Ironically, the part of the Dula language I was most unsatisfied with was its lead character’s name. I eventually changed it from “Galerion” to “Galladon” to make it fit better.
JinDo is probably the least original of the languages in the book. It is an unabashed rip-off of Chinese, as can easily be distinguished. I did this with some hesitance. I worried that I had too much of a ‘learning curve’ in the setting of the book already, especially with the strange circumstances Raoden was going to be forced to endure. When it came to the JinDo language and culture, I feared that stuffing too much development into such a minor part of the book would make it unwieldy.
JinDo is most important for the philosophers it spawned, three men who eventually became the religious foundations of the continent. I chose an Oriental culture to mimic in this case because of the mystical way in which most western cultures regard Asian-sounding names. Simply by calling something “JinDo” gave it an instant sense of foreign-ness.
I went, perhaps, too far by making the adjectival reference for the nation ‘Jindoeese.’ I probably should have gone with simply “JinDo” as both noun and adjective. Other than that, I am satisfied with the culture, despite its lack of original sounds.
The final language, Svordish, was almost an afterthought. I wanted to make it a dialect of Fjordell, something I could point out to show that all of the nations beyond the mountains weren’t just one big stereotype. By giving Svorden a minor identity of its own—with a side character and the ‘sv’ pattern of sounds—I hoped to give a bit of roundness to the unseen Fjordell empire.
That is about it for the languages in Elantris. There are books for which I’ve spent a lot more time on the languages, but there are also books for which I’ve spent far less. Overall, I like how the sounds in this book add to the feel of the various nationalities, though I realize that Aonic names (in particular) are difficult to pronounce at first. If you have your own way of saying them, well that’s just fine. I do the same thing with books I read.