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Letter from Robert Jordan on the Old Tongue

November 21, 1994

Dear Bruce, et al.,

Your questions are complex, or at least their answers are, and I'm afraid that the time I put into answering letters is time not put into writing, but I will try to answer you. Though I suspect not as fully as you would like. (I have 60 letters to answer today.)

What language is the Old Tongue based on? Gaelic, Russian, Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, Arabic and some additions of my own. -- bridging material, if you will. Grammar and syntax are a blending of English, German and Chinese, with some influences from a set of African languages, read about long ago and all but the oddities of structure long since forgotten. There are inverted constructions, for example (As in Mordero dagain pas duente cuebiyar! -- Literally, Death fear none holds my heart!) and places where the article is omitted, especially where the word is a title or has gained enough importance to now incorporate the article; the absence of article indicates that it is the important or special meaning of the word that is intended. Though even then, it is not a hard and fast rule; the same inconsistencies of English are incorporated here. I am attempting to create a language which has grown, not one which was made.

Actually there is an Ogier Language, though the Ogier all speak the human language for the simple reason that they are a distinct minority. I began with a huge list of possible words, and adapted as I went. Partly this was based in the sound. To any native speaker of a language, the sound of it is right: it seems to have the correct rhythm and flow. One thing that makes a language sound "foreign" is that the rhythm and flow sound "off." I wanted the language to sound foreign, but not too foreign. For the purposes of the books, no other of the worlds languages have been necessary so far, but they do exist.

As for Common, Plain Chant, and High Chant: Common is ordinary speech, of course; telling a story as one man in the street might tell another. Plain Chant adds a rhythmic half- singing to poetic imagery; nothing is ever described plainly; conveying emotion is as important as conveying description. High Chant is sung, really, as though Benedictine monks had been brought up in a tradition of Chinese music; the rhythms are more precise, and emotional content is more important than mere description. High Chant can be all but unintelligible to those who are not used to it; it is a form used only by court bards and the like. I should point out that Common, Plain and High are not language names, but names used by bards for different forms of recitation.

The series was a series from the beginning, the only question being how long it would take me to conclude the major story lines in the way I wanted, include the major points that I wanted, and reach the final scene, which was in fact the first complete scene to come to me.

The world is nationalistic, jingoistic as you put it, because people have belly-buttons. They are human. Look at the conflicts between different parts of France between the fall of Rome and, say, the Sixteenth Century; they all spoke the same language, differing only in accent, but the Normans and Burgundians, among others, were ready to kill one another at the drop of a hat. For that matter, look at out own Civil War, and various regional differences before and since. We all speak the same language, yet do you believe that a perfect state as achieved totally by local vote would be the same in say, California, Oregon, Georgia and Maine? The differences might not be as large as they once were, but that is largely an effect of radio and TV homogenizing our culture.

There are basic rules for drift, based as you say on slurring etc. Largely it boils down to the fact that after a word is used long enough, it begins to soften and be simplified in actual use, with the written language catching up later if at all. The degree to which this happens varies from word to word. Also, from place to place. For example, Seanchan have to listen closely to understand people from our heroes side of the ocean because the language sounds too fast, too hard and clipped. Conversely, our heroes often find Seanchan hard to understand because they speak in what seems a soft, slurring manner with an odd rhythmic quality.

The apostrophe was a compounding device, though simple combination is used also. It also signifies a slight pause; a distinct break in the word, but less than the break between two words.

Adding an 'n' is one way to make a plural, with words ending in a vowel, but some words change form in plural and some are identical in plural and singular; including but not limited to most words that end in 'n' in the singular. The word "mai" means "maiden" or "maidens." One word for spear is "dareis," but its plural is "darei." Another way of making a plural is adding an "i," as in "shar -- blood" and "Shari -- Bloods," or an "in" -- seeker is "mahdi" and seekers is "mahdi'in." This is all of course complicated by the fact that some words change form depending on modifiers as well, and also sometimes to indicate increased importance. (a'vron versus Ma'vron for 'watchers.')

"Ye" means "I." "He" is "sin," "she" is "sar," "you" is "asa," and "it" is "aso."

One of the difficulties is context and flexibility: for example, "al" can mean "the" or "of the." The word "cuebiyar" can mean simply "heart," or "my heart," or when capitalized, "the heart" as in the heart of a people or nation. The word "moridin" means "grave" or "tomb," but when capitalized it means "the grave," standing for "death." It is intended to be a language of subtlety, where the meanings of words can change to a great extent according to context. Remember Moiraine's comments on the difficulty of translation.

The Fourth Age titles are not Old Tongue, though influenced by it. Some common names are from the Old Tongue, and some aren't. Sorry I can't go into more detail, but we're talking a treatise.

Well. I am going to have to cut this off, now. Thanks for writing. Keep me posted on your deductions. One of these days, maybe I'll have time to give congratulations on the hits and point out the misses. One clue to some: sometimes when words are combined and the end of the first word is the same as the beginning of the second, they overlap.

With best wishes, I am,

Etc, etc.

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