Ishnu’alah, Lok’tar Ogar: Language in Azeroth, and Why it Matters (Part 1)
(This post evolved into a mahoosive two-parter, so I’ve decided to split it up. The first half will be examining why the invented languages of Azeroth matter, and the second will discuss some ingame examples that illustrate their importance in practice.)
I live near a major city, so I commute to work via public transport. I’ve got something of a love-hate attitude towards this arrangement, as it effectively gives me an eleven hour work day. On the other hand, it’s allowed me to start making a substantial dent in my “books I really should have read by now” list, the most recent of which has been Frank Herbert’s Dune.
This is relevant to Warcraft, I promise.
I began thinking about invented languages (or conlangs), and how they enhance immersion into fictional worlds after about the third or fourth time I found myself checking the glossary to see what “gom jabbar” or “Shai-hulud” meant. Now, I’m certainly not the first person to indulge this train of thought–get out your bingo cards, readers, because I’m about to make this post’s token Tolkien reference. Not only is Tolkien the 800-pound gorilla of modern fantasy literature, but he was also a philologist who understood the relationship between storytelling and language intimately, as evidenced by his choice to build Middle-earth from its languages on up.
As with Middle-earth and several other works in the fantasy genre, plenty of conlangs exist in the Warcraft universe–Blizzard even made an attempt to collate them formally via an encyclopedia entry at one point. Sadly, this project seemed to have met an untimely end, as Darnassian and Thalassian were the only two pages that ever existed, and there is no evidence of anything similar existing on the current WoW website at the time of writing (the pages I have linked are cached). However, despite the relatively sparse framework that has been provided in canon by Blizzard, fans have still managed put forward some serious efforts to piece together a functional, working language.*
Language has a critical role in cultural immersion, and the fact that fans have chosen to engage with it in order to better understand the nuances of Azerothian society speaks to the robustness of the world (lowercase w!) of Warcraft itself. Now, I’m not a linguist or an anthropologist, so I’m going to leave it to the experts by borrowing a point from the essay An Issue About Language to clarify:
We might say language transforms our world . . . That is, we are not talking about the cosmos, which preceeded us and is indifferent to us, but of the world of our involvements, including all the things they incorporate in their meaning for us . . . Something has meaning for us in this sense when it has a certain significance or relevance in our lives.**
I argue that Azeroth is, in a sense, a ‘world of our involvements’. It is to an extent one step removed from Taylor’s example in that it is an invented world, but I believe the idea that examining the conlangs of Azeroth (regardless of whether or not they are fully functional languages) can still shine light on its inhabitants’ cultural priorities and values.
Lani has already done a brilliant job at analyzing the MMORPG as an emerging medium for storytelling, and as illustrated by the reference I made to Tolkien above, conlangs play no small part towards achieving that end. After all, the etymology of how a single word acquired its meaning can speak volumes about the history of its parent culture–regardless of whether that parent culture is real or fictional. English is actually a great real-life example of this in action–as a Germanic language heavily influenced by Romance loanwords, it reflects the cultural melting pot that was Britain over the centuries (Saxons & Vikings & Normans, oh my!) rather nicely. AND SO, THUS CONCLUDETH PART ONE OF THIS POST. (In part two, I’ll be looking at how the Darnassian/Thalassian language tree does precisely the same thing for the elven cultures of Azeroth. Among other fun topics.)
*One example of this on the interwebs is the Darnassian speculation entry on wowpedia, which I adore simply because it contains the phrase “Darnassian subjunctive” in an entirely serious context.
** Charles Taylor, in Language, Culture & Society: Key Topics in Linguistic Anthropology, p. 27.