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.

Bel Nemeton Q&A: Part V

The following installment concludes my Publisher’s author interview for the short story “Bel Nemeton.” The template for my upcoming novel of the same name, “Bel Nemeton” can be found in the anthology After Avalon, from 18th Wall Productions.

Q) Your story features brief scenes with Merlin in the distant past. What
were those like to research and write? In fact, your story builds itself from a complicated web of real historical fact.

How was the whole research journey?

It is possible I did just enough research to get into trouble. If hope any archaeologists, historians, or linguists that happen to read “Bel Nemeton” will forgive my errors in the interest of narrative license.

With that caveat, it was a wonderful opportunity to research and highlight many interesting things occurring in the Sixth century.

Giving life to the complex and cosmopolitan civilizations along the Silk Road, such as Sogdia, was particularly enjoyable.

It was my goal to transfer the delight of that research and discovery directly into the narrative itself through the eyes of Vivian and Jake.

Readers who enjoyed that aspect of “Bel Nemeton” will be happy to learn the upcoming novel significantly expands the attention given to Merlin’s wanderings and exploration of the world of the Sixth century.

Please check out earlier answers in previous blog posts. Follow Jon at @BlackOnBlues on Twitter.

Bel Nemeton Q&A: Part IV

The following is part of my Publisher’s author interview for the short story “Bel Nemeton.” The template for my upcoming novel of the same name, “Bel Nemeton” can be found in the anthology After Avalon, from 18th Wall Productions.

Q) Tell us more about your two leads, their relationship, and what
inspired them.

Dr. Vivian Cuinssey is a professor of Celtic linguistics. Jake Booker is a two-fisted treasure hunter. While the “academic” and the “man of action” are common archetypes of contemporary pulp, one of the great joys of writing “Bel Nemeton” was playing both leads against type. Vivian comes to the table with considerable moxie and a willingness to dust it up with the bad guys. Conversely, as the story progresses, Jake reveals that, underneath his action hero exterior, beats the heart of a nerd.

Initially an alliance born of convenience, Vivian and Jake’s relationship evolves into a symbiotic partnership rooted in mutual respect – none of which prevents the obligatory barbs and banter which are de rigueur for an action-adventure duo.

Interestingly, I began writing “Bel Nemeton” without plans for romantic tension between the leads. Regardless of intentions, as I wrote, it was clear there was chemistry between them. While it’s not heavily emphasized in the story, it is definitely there.

I have been blessed to have a lot of strong, capable women in my life, many of whom are academics. As cliché as it is to say, especially my mother. These women provide much of the raw material for Vivian Cuinnsey. Jake Booker emerged more organically. I began without a strong conception of who Jake was and he gradually revealed himself through the process of writing.

Drop in on Friday for the interview’s conclusion. Please check out earlier answers in previous blog posts.

Follow Jon at @BlackOnBlues on Twitter. ,

Knit-Picting

Book Two in the series isn’t due until May 2016. Nevertheless, I’ve already begun my research. The story will feature the Picts prominently. Delving into what is known about the Picts has been both fascinating and challenging.

Of all the Celtic peoples (acknowledging of course, that even the term “Celt” is anachronistic) of the Isles, the Picts are arguably the most enigmatic. Aside from archeological evidence, almost everything known about Picts comes from other peoples … and even that is not a large corpus of information. So it might appear to be an open question, what was a Pict?

In the absence of a large volume of hard data, it appears many people have treated the Picts as a blank canvas on which to project their own ideas, hopes, and fears. Often, this leads to depiction (no pun intended) of Picts as a kind of uber-Celt, with every trait common associated with Celts exaggerated. Others portray Picts as the ultimate “other,” ignore solid evidence as they portray Picts as non-Indo-European (to say nothing of Celt) and an outlier or exception to much that is commonly understood about human society.

Popular conceptions of the Picts … as technologically primitive, socially primitive, and extremely warlike appear deeply ingrained in both popular consciousness and mass media – from Robert E. Howard to the 2004 Clive Owen/Keira Knightley film “King Arthur.” There may be a kernel of truth in the last aspect, sources from multiple cultures describe Picts as notorious pirates and, certainly, they were one of the barbarian groups troubling Rome and even southern Britons. It is difficult, however, to build a case they were more “barbariany” than other barbarians. Conceptions of technological and social primitivism, however, are utterly erroneous. Archeological evidence supports that Pictish material culture and technology were on par with their other Celtic and Saxon neighbors. In fact, in some areas, notably metal working and artistry (Pictish art tended toward the naturalistic, in contrast with the stylized forms of their neighbors) a case could be made they were slightly ahead of the curve. Socially, while Pictland apparently lacked the larger settlements of southern Britain, its political and religious systems were also on par with their neighbors.

At this point, as presented in my story, the Picts will adhere strongly to the model supported by archeology and other scholarly research … while also featuring a nod to those more fanciful conceptions of myth and legend (especially of the Robert E. Howard variety).