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Language in Azeroth, Part 2: Thalassian as Cultural Artifact

May 5, 2011
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(Several of you commented that Part 1 ended rather abruptly, and that I should have posted this all in one shot. I only had your interests – and your eyes – at heart, dear readers! However, the last thing I want to do is disappoint you, so henceforth I shall make all of my posts as wall o’ texty as possible. Remember, you’re only doing this to yourself.)

Earlier, I attempted to establish some groundwork for the important relationship between conlangs and immersion in storyworlds; in this post, I’ll be taking a crack at seeing what we can learn about elven history  by examining the Darnassian/Thalassian language family.

To begin, I’d like to build upon some of what Perculia has said on the topic of cultural memory. In her post, she dealt mainly with archaeology as it relates to material culture, stating:

The inhabitants of Azeroth are bent on twisting history to suit their own narratives—much is forgotten and obscured, but small things are strangely preserved.

I agree with Perc’s thesis here, and believe that it is applicable to more than just static, physical objects. Thalassian, the language of the high elves and blood elves, is a living example of how a cultural artifact can be altered to serve a particular race’s own agenda while still retaining vestiges that hint at a deeper truth–a truth that both Darnassian and Thalassian speakers have purposefully sought to forget. An example of this paradox is evident in the Lament of the Highborne, arguably one of the most well-known pieces of music from World of Warcraft. It has served many purposes in elven history, ranging from funerary dirge to a folk song sung by quel’dorei children:

Many players associate this piece with the blood elves – understandable given its incorporation into the zone music of Eversong Woods. This initial impression is deceptive, but we need look only at the title of the Lament itself  to be reminded that its origins extend well beyond the Fall of Quel’Thalas. After all, “Highborne”, or quel’dorei, is a word that has its origins in Darnassian, which is Thalassian’s parent tongue.

Keeping Perc’s above statement about Azeroth’s predilection for revisionist history in mind, let’s consider the implications of the word “quel’dorei” being retained in the Thalassian lexicon (and very visibly so, via a piece of music considered to be an iconic part of quel’dorei culture) despite the racial and ideological schisms that exist between speakers of Thalassian and Darnassian.  To a night elf, the term quel’dorei is associated with betrayal, loss of control, and lust for power. It conjures up memories of the Burning Legion’s arrival in Azeroth – an event that was the nadir of kaldorei civilization, and a way of life now considered to be anathema. To a Thalassian speaker, meanwhile, it is inextricably linked to his or her cultural identity; it is a badge of pride defining the very essence of what they are. Contained within the etymology of this single word are millennia of emnity and resentment – “loaded” doesn’t even begin to cover it.

Given this hostility, it should come as no surprise that both groups made concerted efforts to distance themselves from one another both geographically and in terms of social mores in the period immediately following the War of the Ancients. Upon settling in the Eastern Kingdoms, the quel’dorei chose to style their infant kingdom around a solar motif, rejecting the central tenets of the lunar-based culture which had forsaken them. Dath’Remar chooses to call himself Sunstrider,  Anu’belore dela’na (“the sun guides us”) was adopted as a common greeting, and their source of arcane power was no longer a moonwell, but the Sunwell.  However, the quel’dorei do not rename themselves. To do so would be futile as their language is inherently tied to Darnassian–any word would still be a throwback to their kaldorei ancestors. They cannot invent new words, so they invent new meaning and context for themselves instead.

This methodical excising of references to the lunar-based kaldorei parent culture where possible illustrates an awareness of the power that language holds, and the quel’dorei were indeed “twisting history” in the hopes of building a narrative that suits their agenda of defining themselves as separate and unique. However, this lunar/solar switch was in practice little more than a shift of focus, again a distraction from the fact that they cannot extricate themselves from their kaldorei forbears entirely.  The story of the Sunwell itself reflects the Darnassian/Thalassian relationship; the Sunwell is a weaker derivative of the Well of Eternity, and no amount of cleverly calculated wordplay can change that fact.  

Ultimately, it would seem that the only way that the elves (of any flavor) know how to cope with the linguistic ties that bind them is to bury their heads in the sand. The following quotes, taken from Blizzard’s official encyclopedia, illustrate this point:

There are, however, strong ideological differences between the night elves and their distant kin. Thus, a linguist must take great care in drawing comparisons between Darnassian and its two cousin languages. Night elves tend to consider such comparisons offensive. (source)

So far, linguistic scholars have opted to err on the side of caution in documenting Darnassian terms and phrases that are also considered part of the Thalassian language. Certainly this issue, however delicate, merits further research. Nevertheless, addressing a high elf or blood elf with a Darnassian-specific word or phrase can be considered offensive or at the very least rather foolish, and so the speaker must handle the situation with care. (source)

Physical artifacts can be mutilated or destroyed, the stories within them lost. Words–and the things their histories reveal–are far harder to erase.

*If you need a refresher on elven evolution, Anne Stickney has a handy chart for reference here at WoWInsider.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. May 5, 2011 11:14 am

    AAAAAAAAAAAAH!

    My love for you knows no bounds. While I can never quite get my head to think things this clearly, SO MUCH YES. I always loved poking at the languages Tolkien created for Lord of the Rings, and I’ve always wished there were MORE of the Azerothian languages. And stuff like this is just…

    AUGH. WORDS. LEARNINGS. I HAS THEM NOT.

    But I really really like this post.😀 *settles in for every other post ever omg*

  2. May 5, 2011 11:33 am

    /blush

    I’m glad you thought it was clear, because I’ve been staring at it for a bit too long and thought it meandered a bit!🙂

    Was there anything you wanted me to clarify that maybe I glossed over in the post?

  3. May 5, 2011 11:40 am

    I am continually surprised by how much thought goes on behind the scenes of this man-made universe. Kudos to you and your group for exploring it, helping us all to appreciate it.

  4. May 5, 2011 11:58 am

    It’s a joy and pleasure for all of us, I assure you!😉 I love that I can put on my Interdisciplinarity Hat and use it to analyze the game world. I think sometimes it’s easy to take certain aspects of WoW for granted or not realize the significance they hold, particularly with regards to MMOs as a new/evolving art form.

    It’s great to hear there are others who are interested in hearing our thoughts. Until recently, they were largely limited to overly long email chains!

  5. May 5, 2011 1:26 pm

    One of the frustrating things about WoW lore are all the various sources that occasionally conflict with one another. In the War of the Ancients books, it’s implied that Sunstrider is Dath’Remar’s proper surname (or at least that’s what my memory is telling me), yet we have an in game lore source telling us it’s a name he chose.

    Though I suppose the two aren’t mutually exclusive. It’s entirely possible (from what I know) that Dath’Remar could have chosen the name Sunstrider before Tyrande became more personally acquainted with him during the War. A subtle distinction perhaps, but sometimes it’s the little subtleties that hint at the greater mysteries. Then again, the lore book is a history text and history can be ‘tainted’ by the historians personal views or beliefs.

  6. May 5, 2011 1:37 pm

    I came across that inconsistency myself when I was researching for this post, so you’re not losing it, don’t worry. And canon definitely contradicts itself – Red Shirt Guy, anyone?😉 There are people at Blizzard whose job is pretty much to keep all this stuff straight, after all!

    I’m putting my tinfoil hat on now, but it could equally have been a convenient coincidence that Dath’Remar chose to exploit towards his own ends when he settled in Quel’Thalas. I don’t know, honestly.

    When you say ‘history text’, are you referring to Knaak’s novels or the ingame book?

  7. Lani permalink*
    May 5, 2011 4:24 pm

    The Sunstrider thing always seemed fishy to me, too. In the War of the Ancients trilogy, Dath’remar is described as looking significantly fairer than other kaldorei, Tyrande notes in particular that he’s a redhead, which is pretty much unheard of among the night elves.

    I always wondered if maybe “Sunstrider” was a nickname for Dath’remar, or something along those lines. My tinfoil hat version has been that maybe he was the night elf equivalent of a “night owl,” only, uh, a “day bird” or…something. Like, night elves were nocturnal, but maybe he liked to get up late and work into the wee noon hours, instead, hehe. But I also agree that the origin of the Sunstrider name is likely something that has become historically corrupted, given how politically important it would have been for the Sunstrider dynasty and the High Elven culture as a whole to have a strong sense of identity behind the name.

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