Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Conlangs: Skyrim's Dragon Language

If you are a fan of video games, and RPGs in particular, then you should be familiar with The Elder Scrolls series of video games. The series is celebrating twenty years since the release of its first installment, The Elder Scrolls: Arena, while its massively multiplayer online (MMO) installment, The Elder Scrolls Online will be released later this year.

Other than the ability to slay dragons and generally be a total badass in a fantasy world, the fictional language of the dragons featured in the fifth game, Skyrim, known as the Dragon Language, was of particular interest to me as a language and games enthusiast. For those who haven't played it, the player is found to be Dragonborn, destined to slay the dragons in Skyrim that are running amok and generally being nuisances.

The dragons in Skyrim are a lot more menacing than this one.
While this kind of story is commonplace in fantasy literature and media, the means by which the hero unlocks their power is through learning "shouts", all of which are various words in the Dragon Language. The shouts in the game consist of three-word groupings (when fully learned) and amount to more of a mantra than a sentence. For example, Unrelenting Force, one of first "shouts" that can be learned by the hero, is made of the words for Force, Balance, and Push, rendered as Fus Ro Dah. Though the language only comes into play during the game's main quests and fleetingly in a few side quests, there are extended moments of the language's use, including dialogue between dragons.

Whilst the language has a fairly key role in the main story of the game, its use is somewhat sporadic and inconsistent, especially when it comes to pronunciation. Perhaps I'm being overly critical here as for the most part, its native speakers (the dragons) are fairly consistent within their use of the language and the non-native characters seem to pronounce words from the language in their own accent.

The grammar almost mirrors that of English, in such a way that word-for-word translations will almost always provide perfect translations, meaning it really should be classified as either a cant or language game. If you happen to be a dragon it could even be used as a shibboleth to oust non-dragons.

The Cuneiform script which served as
the basis for the alphabet of the
Dragon Language.
The alphabet of The Dragon Language is made up of 34 characters, 25 of which correlate directly to the English alphabet with the exception of the letter "C" as the letters for "K" and "S" replace the phoneme it represents. The remaining 9 characters represents digraphs "aa", "ei", "ii', "ah", "uu", "ur", "ir", "oo" and "ey".

The design of the alphabet is also based on the Cuneiform script, one of the earliest writing systems discovered. Cuneiform was in use from the  3rd Century BC until the 1st Century AD and changed drastically during that time. The Dragon Language's alphabet resembles the latest variation in Cuneiform as it was used before its extinction.

Though based on Cuneiform, the alphabet is stylised to appear like the claw marks of dragons. Obviously since the dragons are the native speakers, it would make sense that they would also make use of the written form. As a result, none of the characters feature more than three scratches and a dot.

Whilst the Dragon Language does not have a lexicon as extensive as Tolkien's conlangs, particularly Elvish, or the ever-popular Klingon from Star Trek, the game features around 500 common words in the language. Fans of the series and the language have also documented the words used in the game and began adding their own in order to build up the lexicon at Thuum.org.

Given its somewhat limited lexicon, for nouns the Dragon Language also makes use of compounding, much like in German, meaning that newer longer words can be constructed in order to create words that do not currently exist in the language.