Monday, September 21, 2015

Linguistic Asides: On Gargish

Alternatively, "Lingustic Dragon Geeks Out at the Chance to Actually Put His Degree to Use for Something."

As my choice of Dragon name might imply, my academic background is (mostly) in linguistics - it wasn't what I went into college for, but it's the degree I came out with. It's a broader subject than most people expect, but to put it in as succinct terms as possible, it's essentially the science of language. From sentence structure to how languages are related to each other and change over time, from how new words form and enter the common vernacular to etymology and local slang and dialects - they all fall under some branch of linguistics. Language and its uses fascinates me. I spent a half hour in a class once discussing the differences in the subtleties behind 'unlawful' as opposed to 'illegal' and loved every minute of it. My parents sent me a book on the Hawaiian language as a souvenir from a trip they took several years back, and I spent weeks poring through it for some fascinating tidbits (like the fact there's four separate words in the language for 'we', depending on how many people are in that 'we' and whether you're including the person you're speaking with). I've studied four languages besides my native English, though I'm not really fluent in any of them, and I analyze speech patterns and dissect accents about as naturally as breathing by this point.

All of this is to give a little perspective on exactly why I've been eagerly awaiting the right moment to do a little analysis in regards to Gargish. This is a complete side-post that has absolutely nothing to do (expect perhaps tangentially) with my playthrough, just a subject that I had too much to say on to leave it to a tangent on a normal post. So if that's what you're here for, feel free to skip this one. If watching a language nut nerd out over fictional alphabets is something you find particularly interesting, though, then read on!

My degree gave me a taste of most of the larger sub-fields of linguistics, but, perhaps due to the fact I'm a rather auditory person to begin with, two that clicked with me particularly well were phonetics and phonology. These are the branches that deal with the sounds of language - there's a considerable amount of overlap between the two, but loosely speaking, phonetics deals with individual speech sounds and the mechanics of their formation, whereas phonology is essentially phonetics 'in practice,' the study of the sounds of a language and how they interact with each other and shift in everyday speech. From pronunciation to syllable structure, everything that deals with the spoken word falls under some facet of these two subjects. So what I'm about to do is make a few conjectures on the subtleties of "proper" Gargish speech based solely on this:

This chart is probably familiar to any Ultima fanatic - the set of runes used to write anything in Gargish. Unlike the Britannian runes, they're always presented in this five-by-six tableau, never in the alphabetic order we English speakers are used to. There's also a good deal more double-character runes in the chart as compared to the Britannian runes. And there's very good reason for both of these facts - like Tolkien's Tengwar script used for the Elvish languages he developed, the Gargish runes form a featural alphabet, a script where the shape of the individual characters is representative of the characteristics of the sound it represents. Each symbol is representative of an individual sound, and the fact the design of the alphabet relies so heavily on the features of the sounds they stand for is what enables one to make a few educated guesses on how the language might sound without hearing a single word of it spoken. Whether they're accurate or not is another thing entirely - there's a whole branch of linguistics devoted to the study of how languages change over time, including phonological shift (English itself had a massive shift in vowel quality over the course of a few centuries, referred to as the Great Vowel Shift), but hey, that's the scientific method, right? Hypothesize, test, compare, adjust.

So let's see what I can do off of this particular data set, so to speak. In order to properly discuss the matter, though, we're going to have to spend some time discussing classification of speech sounds. And in order to do that, I'm gonna pull out a couple more charts for the sake of further visual aids. Allow me to introduce those of you unfamiliar to the International Phonetic Alphabet.

One of the marks of a linguist is the above chart (or similar ones) popping into your head when the acronym "IPA" is uttered, ahead of the beer. Think of it as a sort of standardized notation for the sounds of language. Languages may use the same alphabet, but there's no guarantee that they pronounce each letter the same way. Take the letter J - the French typically pronounce it 'zh,' whereas in German it's more of a 'y'-like sound, neither of which is how it's most often pronounced in English. With IPA, each individual symbol is indicative of one sound and one sound alone - that J becomes /d͡ʒ/ in English, /ʒ/ in French, and /j/ in German. (There's actually a distinction between placing IPA symbols in slashes, like /ʒ/, and between square brackets, [ʒ], but that's a finer distinction than I find necessary for my purposes here.)

The above chart covers most of the consonantal sounds used in the languages of the world. Others exist beyond the ones listed on this particular chart (note the 'pulmonic' descriptor, which doesn't include such things as clicks), but these are essentially the more "standard," and it'll be enough for my analysis. Consonants are distinguished from vowels by a constriction somewhere in the vocal tract, and are described based on what sort of constriction it is and where that constriction is. The labels along the top of the chart indicate the place of articulation - this describes where in the vocal tract the defining obstruction is, such as the lips, the roof of the mouth, or the back of the throat. Down the side list the manner of articulation - how the sound is made around that obstruction, whether it's a full obstruction, forcing air over a partial obstruction, moving it through the nasal cavity instead of the mouth, and so on. And finally, there's a third feature used to describe consonants called voicing, which is basically an indication of what the vocal cords are doing when producing the sound. You can feel the difference by placing your hand on your throat as you make and prolong a 's' and 'z' noise in turn - the buzzing you feel beneath your fingers for the 'z' is the mark of a voiced sound, whereas its absence indicates a voiceless sound. In the chart above, when symbols are paired, the left is voiceless, the right voiced - so /p/ is voiceless, /b/ is voiced.

Vowels are also described by features, though a slightly different set, and as a result, they've got their own chart.

Unlike consonants, there's no obstruction in the vocal tract, which makes the classification of them a bit more nebulous. It's something of a fuzzy line as to where one vowel shifts into another, but generally speaking, vowels are described by the shape of the vocal tract and the location of the tongue to produce the sound. "Backness" describes how far forward in the mouth the tongue is - you can feel the difference between the 'ee' sound (/i/ on the chart) and the 'oo' sound (/u/), the former made closer to the teeth and the latter more toward the uvula. "Height" measures the other direction, and can easily be felt by how open your mouth is when pronouncing the vowel - your mouth is considerably more open when pronouncing the low vowel 'ah' (/ɑ/) as it is when pronouncing the high vowel 'ee' (/i/). And then there's "roundedness", which describes the shape of the lips when pronouncing the vowel in particular. Again, this is easy to feel the difference, as your lips are rounded when pronouncing 'oo' (/u/) as opposed to the unrounded 'ee' (/i/).

So putting all of this together, what have we got in regards to Gargish?

As mentioned before, the table is arranged entirely on the features of the sounds involved - try to ignore the letter transcriptions by each rune, and remember to think of them as sounds. The five rows on the table organize the runes by place of articulation (or backness, for the vowels), moving roughly from the front of the vocal tract to the back. The first row denotes the bilabials and labiodentals (articulated either by both lips or a combination of the lips and teeth), the second the alveolars (made at the roof of the mouth), the third the post-alveolars (just behind the roof of the mouth), and the fifth the velars and glottals (the back of the mouth and the throat). The fourth is a little harder to pinpoint, on account of these particular transcriptions not really representing sounds often used to an English speaker, but I'm inclined to mark these down as palatals, on account of them being between the post-alveolar 'sh' (/ʃ/) and the velar 'k'. At the same time, there's the palatal 'ny' (/ɲ/) in the third row, so it's also possible that these are retroflex sounds, made with the tongue curled back toward the back of the throat. I'm more inclined to call them palatals, as they're closer to the 'kl' and 'gl' the chart gives as a transcription, and perhaps the 'nl' is a retroflex proper (/ɳ/).

The columns, on the other hand, organize the table by voicing and manner of articulation. The first column are the voiceless stops or 'plosives' (sounds involving a complete obstruction), the second the voiced plosives, the third the nasals (where the air moves through the nasal passages rather than the mouth - you can see this for yourself by making an 'm' or 'n' noise and then plugging your nose while doing so), the fourth the voiceless fricatives (where air is passed over a partial obstruction), the fifth the voiced fricatives, and the last the vowels. In addition, affricates - sounds that are a combination of a plosive and a fricative, like 'ch' (/t͡ʃ/) are included in the first and second columns as appropriate, and the liquids or 'approximants', sounds with less of an obstruction than a fricative, are included in the fifth column. These columns are roughly in order of sonority, which is essentially a measure of how resonant they are - I say roughly because nasals are generally more sonorant than plosives or fricatives, and liquids more sonorant than nasals.

So now that we've gone over the general organization of the Gargish alphabet, we can determine a bit more about the quality of the individual sounds. For example, let's examine the Gargish R. The English R is /ɹ/, an alveolar approximant. The Gargish R, however, is enumerated with the bottom row of characters, which makes me more inclined to think of it as the more throaty version used in a language like French or German - either the uvular approximant /ʁ/ or its associated trill /ʀ/. (if you can roll your r's, that's the trill /r/, typically used for the Spanish or Italian R). Then there's the vowels - since U is in the first row, with the most forward sounds, I'm more inclined to think of it as closer to a /ʉ/ or possibly even a /y/ rather than the typical 'oo' (/u/) sound we English speakers are used to. Then there's the dot over the symbols in the first three columns - it's possible that this is a diacritic of sorts, although I'm more inclined to think of it as simply a part of the letter, like the dot over an i or j. However, it does differentiate the bilabial /p/, /b/, and /m/ from the labiodental /f/ and /v/ in the first row, as well as the velar /k/, /g/, and 'ng' (/ŋ/) from the glottal /h/ and the probably-uvular /ʁ/. And if this is the case, it may be indicative of 'frontedness,' which would imply the Gargish /t/ and /d/ to be dentals rather than alveolars, made with the tongue against the back of the teeth rather than at the roof of the mouth and therefore giving it more in common with the Italian T and D rather than the English ones.

We can make a few other conjectures on the nature of Gargish pronunciation by extending analysis to the Gargish vocabulary we have access to - since it's a featural alphabet we're working with, we can draw a few conjectures based off the choice of spelling in certain words. For example, 'summ,' meaning 'honor' - why is this spelled with two 'm's? The presence of double-consonants in the spelling of a language using a featural alphabet suggests to me that the language makes use of what are called 'geminate' consonants - essentially the consonantal equivalent of a prolonged vowel sound. It's something that comes up frequently in Italian - compare /papa/, the Italian word for father, with /pappa/, the word for pope. The latter's a geminate consonant. (Pairs of words like this, that differ in only one sound, are referred to as 'minimal pairs,' and are what's used to identify a speech sound as distinct in the set of speech sounds, or 'phonemic inventory,' that a language uses, rather than simply a variant of another sound used in the language, or an 'allophone.') In addition, take a Gargish word like 'beh' or 'kah' - in an English pronunciation of these words, those h's would probably be silent, but for a language involving a featural alphabet, I'm more inclined to take this as a mark of aspiration, which is a sort of breathyness added to a vowel - if you distinguish the pronunciation of 'witch' from 'which,' then you can hear what I'm talking about. 'Witch' begins with an unaspirated W, whereas 'which' starts with an aspirated W.

There's a couple other things that some more time and perusal of the Gargish vocabulary might suggest to me upon closer inspection, but I think what I've got here is a good taste of what all's involved in my field of choice. How accurate am I with these conjectures? Well, there's... not really a good way for me to tell. Pretty much the only example of spoken Gargish we have in the series is a few bits in Ultima IX, and... well, I don't really think that's enough to go on to do a completely proper phonological analysis, especially considering much of what I've said above is probably a much more in-depth look at the phonological basis of Gargish than was probably meant. At the same time - am I really going to pass up a chance to take a closer look at a fictional language? If nothing else, it gives me a few things to go off of while I practice my Gargish accent!

I mean, I do have a pretty decent microphone. Maybe recording a few practice phrases down the line isn't out of the question?

(For interactive charts - with audio, so you can actually hear the sounds I'm describing! - you can find a pretty good one here. I've only scratched the surface of the ins and outs of phonetics and phonology here, and I'm a huge advocate for Learning New Things! If you find this or other language-analysis topics interesting - or just linguistics in general - hit me up, I can try to point you in the right direction. There's a contact box over to your right, I'd be more than happy to chat.)


  1. Excellent headcanon - the recordings of Gargish would be very cool.

    You might want to have a word with Herman Miller (who designed the alphabet) - I am betting he would love to hear about it from a linguist planning to record some of it. His address that you see around the net is probably dead now, but last I saw he was working at Insomniac Games in Burbank: you could also hit him up on LinkedIn.

    You might also be interested in the section on Gargish in Michael Adams' "From Elvish to Klingon: Exploring Invented Languages" - you can read the relevant section in Google books, though I'm betting you'd want to read the whole book :)

    1. Oh HECK yes I would! Picked up an eBook version to pore over while I'm in transit this week - there looks to be a lot of good material in there, pretty comprehensive looking from early glances. Thanks for the recommendation!