How to “Dr. Frankenstein” Extinct & Poorly Documented Languages for Fiction

The Pictish language (or dialect, see below) was spoken in what is now northern and eastern Scotland approximately between the Fourth and Tenth centuries, when it was eclipsed by the language which evolved into modern Scotts Gaelic. Very few records of Pictish language have survived, mostly as brief mentions in Irish or Welsh sources.

That presents certain difficulties for one of my w

orks in progress, a novel tentatively titled Caledfwlch, the second book in my historical fantasy/progressive pulp series Bel Nemeton. The Picts feature very prominently in Caledfwlch. As part of bringing that people and their land to life, I wanted to be able to use some “Pictish” in the story.

I’ve turned that quest into a blog post not only because some of my readers may find it interesting but also in hopes it might be useful to other writers seeking to use a poorly documented extinct language in their work.

First, a few caveats on the scope of my project. I am not so ambitious as to try to go Tolkien/Star Trek on the problem and create a fully functional language. My goal is much humbler, to be able to drop the occasional word or phrase into the text for effect. Also, I am not attempting to recreate the actual, historical Pictish language. With such a miniscule sample size, that task has proven beyond the abilities of the world’s best linguists. I know I have no hope of doing so (nor do I have the time or inclination). Rather, my objective is creating plausible facsimiles of fragments of Pictish for use in fiction.

Here is how I tackled the problem.

I began by looking at how Pictish relates to other languages, living and dead:

Yes, there are a few claims that Pictish was a non-Indo-European tongue…or other outlier hypotheses. But the overwhelming academic consensus is that Pictish was an Insular Celtic language and a member of the Brittonic/Brythonic (P-Celtic) sub-family. From there, opinion appears about evenly divided whether Pictish was a dialect of or a sister language to Common Brittonic. Either way, that means the surviving languages descended from Common Brittonic (Breton, Cornish, and Welsh) are the closest living relatives to Pictish.

From there, I made an assumption (a well-reasoned one, I hope): geographical proximity suggests, of those three living languages, Welsh is likely to have been the most similar to Pictish. That geographical argument is strengthened if one considers the now extinct Cumbric dialect of Welsh, which was spoken in northern Britain and southern Scotland.

So I used Welsh (Old Welsh or Middle Welsh when available) as my jumping-off point for Pictish. There are a number of sources for Old and Middle Welsh online. When I couldn’t find relevant Old and Middle Welsh information, I turned to the plethora of Modern Welsh resources as well as good ol’ Google Translate.

Locating a Welsh translation for the word or phrase I wanted, sometimes I used it directly as Pictish. Other times I shifted a few sounds. Again, I understand this is not a linguistically sound way to actually recreate an extinct language. But I am hoping it creates a plausible, if utterly fictitious, facsimile that helps bring that fascinating people to life in my novel.

So, my solution to using a poorly documented extinct language was to identify the closest living language (or nearest well documented extinct language) and use it as inspiration for the language I was trying to recreate.

So, yes, at the end of the day, I am not so much trying to “Dr. Frankenstein” the language as I am making a hand puppet out of the corpse’s fist and hoping that will engage the suspension of disbelief of my readers. Nevertheless, I hope this has been entertaining and possibly useful for my readers.

Follow Jon at @BlackOnBlues on Twitter.

Writing a Sixth Century Road Trip

I am still doing research for “Caledfwlch” and will be for many more months. I have, however, also begun writing. As with “Bel Nemeton,” the second book in the series features a split perspective with part of the action split between a contemporary time frame and a Sixth century Arthurian one (other, shorter, perspectives may also be introduced, I haven’t decided).

Part of the Sixth century storyline involves Myrddi (Merlin), Bleys (Blaze), and Arthur (for reasons of aesthetic preference, I’ve kept the king’s name in its familiar form rather than reverting to its Celtic versions). Traveling overland from a nebulously placed Camelot (there are so many suggested locations for a historical Camelot, none of them terribly convincing) to Pictland.

It would be entirely possible to fast forward through all that and simply resume narrative upon arriving among the Picts. If this was a short story, I certainly would. In a novel, however, I can afford to give some detail to their travels, using the opportunity to bring the world of Sixth century Britain to life, provide some character exposition, and insert a little derring-do.

The research underpinning this part of the story has been every bit as challenging as the research into the Picts (see my previous post). There is, of course, no authoritative map of Britain in the early-to-mid Sixth century. Even determining what lands and kingdoms Mryrddin and his party would pass through on their journey requires sifting through vague and contradictory information before making my own assumptions (possibly shaded a little by dramatic potential).

To the best of my ability, their travels will take the thrio through Powys, Pengwern, Elmet, Reghed, Damnonia, and Dal Riata before entering Pictland.

Along the way, each of those lands will get a little bit of color, if not a small story. Pengwern contains an abandoned Roman city whose name appears to be a Latinization of the Britonnic term for “City of the Werewolf” (really). How could I not play with that? Elmet, I think, will be Bleys’s home turf, good for some exposition about the history of Myrddin’s tutor. Reghed is often considered to be the “Gorre” of Arthurian legend, which gives some hints about what I may do there. Unlike the previous lands, which were are all Brittonic or Welsh, Dal Riata is the land of the Scoti (Gaelic speaking invaders from Ireland from which the name “Scotland” is ultimately derived). So there’s some good opportunity for cross-cultural tensions and, I think, maybe a bar brawl.

After that, it’s into Pictland and Sixth century Wally World (just kidding, mostly).