conlang, Sagaia, Writing Process

On Words and Names in Sagaia

This is a shortened version of a longer post available for Patreon subscribers here.

Wá Balréal i Sagaia, Balréal i Sagaia i cóné.
Once a Queen in Sagaia, always a Queen in Sagaia.

Né láal dam á.
He is not a tame lion.

When I began thinking about the redemption of Narnia, one of the first things I grappled with was C. S. Lewis’s words and names. Unlike Tolkien, Lewis wrote very quickly, and did not give a great deal of thought to the background and history of his lands and peoples. The result of this was a tendency to snatch names out of the air. “Narnia”, for example, appears to be taken from the name of a random Italian town.  Instead of weaving a tapestry of interrelated languages, words, and names, Lewis stitched up a patchwork. I don’t want to disparage this way of working. If the author has a good ear, a quilt of carefully chosen names can have a powerful aesthetic effect. Ursula LeGuin seems to have operated this way, crafting names out of serendipity, wordplay, and an unerring ear. It’s lovely and clever, but there is no coherent constructed language here; it is all simply beautiful sounds placed alongside each other in a pleasing pattern.

But personally, I can’t work like that. For me, binding the names into history and culture creates the inner consistency of reality, giving stories living heartbeats.

In Middle-Earth, you can see the effect of a well-woven world. Some of the major countries are named “Arnor”, “Gondor”, “Mordor”, and “Eriador”. Consciously or not, the reader recognizes the common suffix (“n/dor”) and might even infer that it means “country” or “land”, and they’d be right. The same thing happens with “Andiun”, “Bruinen”, “Morgulduin”, and “Barandiun” (“-duin“, river). Meanwhile, in Narnia, the major countries are “Narnia”, “Archenland”, and “Calormen”; while the rivers are the “River Narnia”, “River Calormen”, “River Rush”, “North River”, “Winding Arrow”, and “River Shribble”. The Narnia names are at best evocative and interesting; but they do not create the illusion of reality. They may grant Narnia a storybook, dreamlike feel, but it can also create a childish nursery-story atmosphere.

And from a social justice standpoint, it’s my firm conviction that the more that a world is fleshed out and given inner consistency, the more it’s likely to reflect the most pressing issues of reality. You can see this in Tolkien’s own work. When he started writing the dwarves in the Hobbit, he oftentimes fell back on folklore and anti-Semitic stereotypes. But the more he explored Dwarvish culture as he wrote the Lord of the Rings and reworked the Silmarillion, the more his Dwarves developed a rich, three-dimensional culture, outgrowing the stereotypes and becoming their own thing.

I wanted to write a grown up story, a feminist story with real spiritual and ecological depth. What was to be done?

Clearly I’d have to rebuild the culture of Narnia from the ground up. And that meant new languages, and new names.

Donald Churwick and C. S. Lewis

I needed some way to explain why the names, events, and peoples in all the Narnia books were so different and wrong. Why were all the names changed? Why were some things realistic and vivid, and others shallow, stereotypical, or nonsensical?

Well, suppose the Narnia books were not written by C. S. Lewis at all, but by a professor named, say, Donald Churwick. Churwick really did go to a secret fantasy land — Sagaia — at least once. And he talked extensively with the children who also visited that land while they were staying in his home. But Churwick wanted to protect the children’s’ identities, and his own reputation. And he wanted to try and protect Sagaia as well. So he changed all the names and details throughout. He called himself “Digory Kirke”, and he changed the children’s names from “Patrick” to “Pevensie”, and changed Sagaia to “Narnia”. And while he was at it, he tweaked things and altered events to make them conform better to his own rather misogynistic and racist early twentieth century worldview.

So, for each of the Narnian names, we have to imagine (1) what would the real name have been? And (2) why would Churwick (Kirke) have changed it?

Below are a sample of some important names, and where they come from: Sagaia, Cúrt Pára Bál, and An-Láan.

Sagaia

When the world was created by the song of the Lion, He gave the power of speech to many animals. But what language did they speak? In Sagaia the animals were not given speech but the capacity for speech. Like human children, they can learn a language, but they have to take the time and put in the work.

Some of them did begin to learn English from the human children there (Donald Churwick, his uncle, and Patricia Purler) but in fact most of them, in time, learned Irish. This is because their king, Finn (called Frank by Churwick), had grown up in Ireland, and had only learned English himself when he moved to London in the early 1890’s to become a cab driver. His wife Léan was even less familiar with English, so they used Irish in their household. Naturally the animals learned the language of their king.

The first name of their country, then, was “Tír na n-Ainmhithe Labhartha”, the Land of Talking Animals.

However, that was not how it was spelled. The Sagaians developed their own alphabet based on English phonetic spelling. The name of the country was thus Tér na Nánvé Lauarha.

But English and Irish were not the only linguistic influences in this new world. The Witch was from the world of Osterra, first settled hundreds of years ago by Latin-speaking Roman legionnaires from Earth. The Witch called herself Viridisaga (the “Green Seer”), which seems to have been the basis of Churwick’s name for her, “Jadis”. When she was banished to the snowy northlands, she changed her name to Alpasaga (White Seer).

When she at last descended on Tér na Nánvé Lauarha and conquered it, she forced its inhabitants to speak Latin as well. She renamed the country after herself: Sagaia, the Land of the Seer.

When Churwick was deciding on a pseudonym for Sagaia, he remembered the Norns — the powerful seers of Norse myth — and found them to be a pleasing inspiration for a new name: Narnia.

Cúrt Pára Bál

The Sagaians naturally named their king’s court in Irish: “Cúirt Péire Béil” (Cúrt Pára Bál), the Court of the Two Mouths, named after the two rivers’ mouths that created the peninsula upon which the castle stood. Churwick, inspired by the name but going for an Arthurian feel, succeeded with “Cair Paravel”: the King Arthur tales were a mix of Welsh and French folklore, and “Cair Paravel” likely comes from Welsh caer (“fortress”) and Old French (par aval, lesser, lowest).

An-Láan

The Sagaians simply knew him as “the Lion”, that is in Irish “an Leon”, or as they wrote it, an láan. (There were other lions in Sagaia at the time, both speaking and non-speaking, but it was usually clear from context which lion was meant.) But over the first few hundred years of Sagaian history, the Irish they spoke underwent quite a few changes.

The masculine / feminine distinction disappeared, replaced by a grammatical marking of speaking vs. “dumb” creatures. Definite nouns indicating speaking creatures sported the articles “an” and “na” for singular and plural respectively (inherited from Irish’s definite article). Indefinite nouns referring to speaking creatures were followed by the word “fál” (which is derived from the Irish reflexive “fein”, i.e. “self”).

Meanwhile, plural marking on head nouns became optional or disappeared entirely, replaced by the determiner “rilt” (from Irish “roinnt”, meaning “some”). Meanwhile, the suffix –sha was adapted from the adverb seo (“this”) to indicate definiteness in non-speaking animals.

Together these changes created this paradigm for marking plural, definiteness, and sentience. (In this list, speaking animals are marked with capital letters in the English glosses.)

  • an láal: the Lion
  • na láal: the Lions
  • láalsha: the lion
  • rilt láalsha: the lions
  • láal fál: a Lion
  • rilt láal fál: some Lions
  • láal: a lion
  • rilt láal: some lions

Note that the Sagaians reduced the final “n” of láan to “l” láal, but not for the name of the Lion himself; He remained An-Láan, and this is the form Churwick took as his inspiration for using the Turkish Aslan.

I hope it’s clear how thinking about these names carefully gives rise to a much richer and more interconnected world. We see how the critical distinction between speaking and non-speaking animals is reflected in the Sagaian language; we see another dimension of Alpasaga’s brutal rule of Sagaia, stripping the inhabitants even of their native tongue. These distinctions and injustices echo injustices in our own world, creating not only a richer inner consistency, but increasing the reflections and echoes of our own world in Sagaia.

Fár má amax góvúr ágnasha dowinsha, agas qid vó dá amidaxtsha feshil, le foir i rilt lahanax rilt lawi.
Found I out COMP-be wisdom-DEF world-DEF, and portion large of-its folly-DEF also, with find in PL page PL book.
I discovered that the wisdom of the world, and a great deal of its folly also, is to be found in the pages of books.
(Original Irish: Fuair ​​mé amach go bhfuil eagna an domhain, agus cuid mhór dá amaideacht freisin, le fáil i leathanaigh na leabhar.)

La ain bá tú shol góló xul rilt sholshhál a lám aésh.
Day one be-FUT you old enough COMP PLURAL old-story to read again
One day, you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again.
(Original Irish: lá amháin beidh tú sean go leor chun seanscéalta a léamh arís)

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