The Linguistics of “The Sinking City” and “The Call of Cthulhu (2018)” Part 1


  • Tried to fix some spelling errors, but WP won’t accept my apostrophes.
  • Fixed a grammatical error (I “there’d” it up so much, I fucked up a “their”)
  • Put in subheaders, because readability

And this is the inaugural post.

Finally – as an aside, between you and me: Getting a blogging habit going is… somehow difficult. There’s always a lot of hoovering to be done…

But I finally escaped from my 1950s housewife identity and broke free, just as Farrokh Bulsara wanted that I do (Farrokh Bulsara is my equivalent to Brian Griffin’s Samuel Clemens, as in The only celebrity whose legal given name I know)

So, enough with the pretentious droning on Mark Twain, Freddie Mercury and Seth McFarlane, let’s get to some linguistics, Kay damnit!

The local accent of Oakmont

One thing that is immediately noticeable in The Sinking City is the local dialect. And we notice it immediatly, because the game tells us to notice it. Namely the main character, Charles Reed, marvels the use of ve’ra meaning “fine” or “so be it” and is told by Mr. Throgmorton that the dialect is somewhat strange.

Verbatim, he says: “You had better get used to the Oakmont dialect, outsider. That is, if you want to fit in. It is a fascinating blend.”

Norwegian influence

Later on, we hear other words of the Oakmont dialect used, such as fisk meaning “fish” and borg meaning “city, town”. Both these words are easily traceable to Norwegian. Other Scandinavian languages such as Danish or Swedish would also be perfectly possible, since in those cases the all write it exactly the same (As a sidenote, all of these have somewhat archaic semantic notion of a city, being the walled part of a settlement. How the word would be understood in any of these languages nowadays, I could not say with certainty. In my native German, the cognate “Burg” is pretty cut and dry and denotes only the main building, though giving a concrete translation is difficult with three German words Burg, Festung and Schloss to only two English ones “castle” and “fortress”). I thought Norwegian, because Norwegian settlers to the Northern United States and Canada were ubiquitous, much more so than Swedish and Danish settlers.

The trouble with the sea – mair

We also hear the word mair used, meaning “sea”. Where that comes from is a bit harder to tell. The spelling isn’t suggesting any specific language as a donour, and I rather suspect it is used predominantly to have less confusion with a word like “mare”. Now, Latin has a root mar-, of course giving us the word mare meaning, well, “sea”. German also has a word that stems from the same root (as do many Indo-European languages) as does Dutch both spelled meer, showing a sound change from [a] or [ɑ] to [e], as the reconstruction for the Proto-Germanic word is *mari.

As a first aside to this: German does have a cognate for “sea”, written See. Now, if you use it in feminine – die See it actually means “the sea”, but it is a very literary ductus and you will likely find it more readily in writing (Though I don’t live near the German coast and the dialects there are more prone to influences from Frisian and Low German, so I can’t say for certain that’s true everywhere). The masculine der See actually means something different, namely, “the lake” (If you’re studying German, learn your genders, kids…). That one is not at all literary, it’s commonplace to use it like that. Concurrently, it has more possible forms, such as a plural (die Seen – don’t confuse a singular feminine with the general plural, kids…). So usually, when talking about the sea, we will say das Meer.

So German might be the source of that word. But we still have Dutch, for one. I looked it up and apparently in Dutch the whole thing is flipped. There meer (written with a minuscule at the beginning, as Dutch does) seems to mean “lake” and zee seems to mean “sea”. Confused yet? ‘Cause I am.

But we get another bout of whiplash, as archaic Dutch has the same meaning as in German. If that’s true, then I think that the more likely source, seeing as Dutch immigrants play a part in the Lovecraftian cosmos, whereas Germans generally don’t (Although I vaguely recall a story set on a Nazi submarine). Johannes van der Berg has the name to tell the story, since it is a typically Dutch formation. German would either be von Berg or vom Berge (this is in dative case with an archaic ending, sometimes used as such in medieval poetry, such as Lanzelet vom See). The word stemming from the that source would be a perfect fit, but remember the Ve’ra?

A possible Latin substrate?

Well, the only etymology that I can come up with, plausibly, is a Romance origin, meaning it is either French or Latin. I’d discount Italian, Spanish and Portuguese, since they all have words featuring pronunciation that would have given rise to a different form than mair. Latin does, too, incidentally, but I wouldn’t discount that since it is a dead language and has been for a while, so it is likely a loan from scripture (Yes, scripture – it was likely biblical in origin then). If it came from French, where the word is mer, that would also explain the origin AND spelling of ve’ra. The French word for “true” is vrais, pronounced [vʁɛ] – Yes, there ISN’T a vowel between those consonants. That leads to people inserting vowels (You might know that from stereotypical Japanese accents). That might in time have given rise to a pronunciation as [və’rɛ], then [vɛ’rɐ] and finally shifting the stress to the first, and newly minted, syllable – [‘vɛrɐ]. You might wonder – but why the apostrophe? Well, when writing English vernacular there is a thing called “apologetic apostrophe”. This is usually used to denote that something is missing, rather than something else intruding, such as contractions:

  • should not -> shouldn’t
  • there is -> there‘s
  • or the odd missing letter: nothing – nothin’

I wouldn’t be surprised if people starting writing with an apostrophy as an “apology”, if you will, when inserting something. There is also a thing called the “greengrocer’s apostrophe” denoting an apostrophe used where it shouldn’t in fact be used, such as it’s when meaning “its” or banana’s when meaning “bananas”. In this case, it could be a combination. The good (or rather “good”) people of Oakmont use an apostrophe, because the realise that something is “wrong” with their pronunciation and they need to mark it, thus using a superfluous apostrophe. But truthfully… I can’t find an English example where that happened. Crosslinguistically you can see different sets of rules (in Dutch, the plural IS in fact often accompanied by an apostrophe). But other than that, I honestly got nothing.

Alas, the use of ve’ra as “fine” just screams its Romance origin at me. Though, it deriving from Latin would leave us with the same troubling apostrophe. Meta-textually, it could be to telegraph its pronunciation to the voice actors, but even then it’s a stretch, since the apostrophe in transcription is used to show that the succeding syllable is stressed, but Throgmorton clearly says ve‘ra not ve’ra.

Who is Kay and why can’t I take his name in vain?

Another difficult one is the above-mentioned Kay. It is used as a substitute for God, such as by Kay, when you would expect “by God”. My mind, upon hearing it, jumped to “Ah Kay, like Cthulhu”. And yes, it took a while for my mind to back off and go “Wait a minute…”. I’m also not sure whether the in-game lore supports the notion. The inhabitants of Oakmont don’t really know of Cthulhu, or rather Cthygonnaar, the game’s analogy. Only people who have come in contact with the cult really do. Maybe it is an archaism that stayed in the language, but I’m not entirely sure here.

Since we have already established the Scandinavian, probably Norwegian influence, it could be the shortened form of Christ, where Kristus actually does begin with a k. None of those actually satisfy me very much.

There is another long-shot – The character of Throgmorton is based on a story by Lovecraft titled Facts Concerning The Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family. The climax of the story suggests that the titular character traces his lineage back to a city in the Belgian congo inhabited by white apes of a kind with Gorillas, but possessing human mental faculties. As much is revealed about Throgmorton.

Now, the story is said to be influenced by Edgar Rice Burroughs, who wrote the Tarzan novels. Specifically, William Fulwiler suggests two novels as the influence – The Return of Tarzan (1913) and Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar (1916). Now, Tarzan has a son, Korak. I think you see where I’m going with this? Could Korak be the fabled Kay? Throgmorton says time and time again that his family is a pillar of the community. Maybe they revered Korak as a quasi-deity? Well, it’s a nice thought, but really there is no connection between Korak and the city of Opar, which was very likely the inspiration whence Lovecraft took his own city of human-like ape beasts.

“Where’s the rest of you?” – Grumpy old guy on Family Guy

Now, you might at this point have noticed that we are talking about the Oakmont dialect only in terms of words, or linguistically spoken, in lexical terms. Well, that’s since apart from the odd strange word, there isn’t a clear throughline in terms of dialectal features. The Oakmont dialect seems to be rhotic, meaning the r’s at the end of syllables are pronounced, but that hardly seems an indication of dialectal influence. Most Northeastern American dialects (or rather accents) are in fact non-rhotic, like New York or Rhode Island accents. And the produce very interesting vowels due to that. Nothing is noticeable about that. Or the vowels of “cot” and “caught”. Some turn into a long “ah” /ä/ as they do in Boston or sometimes a kind of double-o /ɔə/ as they do in New York.

There are also no grammatical changes, as you sometimes see in very insular (both literal and figurative) communities. When I was studying Norse language and literature, a co-student told me that the Shetland dialect (he didn’t specify if Scots or English) contained a form to be atland of sth. meaning “to want sth.” from an Old Norse ætlar. I think that would be seriously cool, but sadly there’s no trace in the papers on Shetland Scots that are available for free. So, I don’t know. Other things in the papers though: T-V-distinction (meaning, in essence, that there is another “you”, one exclusively for singular), use of “to be” to mark the perfect (I’m gone to signify “I have gone”, rather than “I vanished”) and different distribution of “I can” versus “I know”.

None of this, however, is apparent in the Oakmont accent.

A brief meta-textual rumination

Now, that isn’t meant a criticism. It is always a stretch how much you can alter the spoken text without alienating people and constructing those features would necessitate an incredible amount of time and effort, not to mention a vocal coach for every voice actor using that accent. That is, quite simply, too much for a production of the size of The Sinking City.

In closing, I am glad of the things that they did and I will go over more details spefically of the R’lyehian language that actually made it into both games, but I’ll need a bit more research first and this post ran crazy long as it is.

6 Replies to “The Linguistics of “The Sinking City” and “The Call of Cthulhu (2018)” Part 1”

  1. ’s load screens that the game will be tackling issues of prejudice rather than acting like they don’t exist. Turning Lovecraft villains into desperate immigrants discriminated against because they look different and follow a different faith is a clever twist, but it would be more powerful if the Innsmouthers didn’t still have the tendency to kill and kidnap people. are, the game drowns in its open world ambitions. The sprawling town is navigated on land or with the help of a painfully clunky to steer motorboat when you need to take to water, with fast travel points making it easy to jump between quest objectives once you’ve explored enough. It’s a bleak space, perpetually gray and rainy whether you’re in the grungy dock district filled with rotting fish or the stately homes where the town elders hold court. But there’s not enough that you can actually interact with.

    1. Yes, that was a clever idea, but you are right, it does muddle up the racial predjudice that Lovecraft’s writing is inspired by with individuals painted narratively as villains, to the point of being problematic (Sorry, it’s just the most fitting word, if a bit played out at this point) in its own right.

      It does very much, that is one thing that The Call of Cthulhu circumnavigated by being linear, with forks in the path. And Quantic Dreams-esque pseudo forks in the road. The Sinking City tries very hard and parts are great, like traversing the canals with all the floating debris, even if the controls are a bit hamfisted (if we’re being charitable).

      When you say its a bleak space, do you mean that as a criticism? Because I agree, but I quite liked the atmosphere, it was grimey, dreary and at times claustrophobic in its sameness, but I kinda wanted that. Though it does not hit any real low notes in that way, it much more sorta… wallows in its greyness.

      Did you do many side missions? Because I found some of them highly engaging. Granny Weaver was a bit of New England witchcraft, the monster missions were nice lore bits with cues from body horror and positively drenched in Lovecraft references. Then again, the mechanics of it are sometimes a chore and that is never a good thing, especially in a horror game.

      I think Noah Gervais mentions this in his Outlast or F.E.A.R. video essays. Mechanical frustration is a postive atmosphere killer.

      Also, I must apologise, I behaved horribly in taking so long to reply, but WordPress just yesterday let me know. I am truly sorry.

      I am however, even more grateful, that you left a comment! Very cool, you are the very first. Wicked cool.

  2. where Reed must don an old timey diving suit to follow in the footsteps of an ill-fated deep sea expedition. While walking across the ocean floor I witnessed a massive cephalopod drifting by. Reed’s declining sanity bar let me know that it was hurting him to look at the creature, but it was too beautiful to look away. I had the same response in general to playing in abandoning combat altogether and just used its larger space and considerably more nuanced investigation system to tell a great story. But it seems I’ll have to keep waiting for the perfect Lovecraft game.

    1. You’re absolutely right, that was quite a sight. It had a horrific majesty to it.

      There is a very fine German metal band by the name of Helrunar and one of their lyrics is:
      Das schrecklichste Geiwtter ist nur lärmendes Schauspiel gegen diese todesstille Majestät

      Which translates to something (very roughly, they play with certain parts of speech):
      “The most terrible thunderstorm is nothing but noisy spectacle against this deathly still majesty”

      They describe a glacier (and a political stagnation, if I’m not mistaken), but the beauty and lack of ability to hold something in one’s mind in one piece is, to me, very reminiscent of Lovecraft’s horror. Being small and unimportant when compared to the staggering, overwhelming greatness of things that might as well be alien gods. Also, maybe you read The Kraken by China Mièville? It’s fantastic and one line that stuck with me was the description of a predatorial squid as an “alien hunter god”. I don’t know if that comes close to your emotion in being confronted with this leviathan, but I certainly share the feeling.

      Also, I found myself thinking about the roaming thing in King’s The Mist with the “flies” sticking to its underbelly. Trampling through our world via a portal of which it understands as little as we do and begetting horrors in its wake. And yet it’s just a huge animal, a behemoth to Lovecraft’s and The Sinking City‘s leviathan, no more evil than a hippopotamus or rhinoceros defending its little patch of land against hunters.

      And I agree, the combat was lacking, especially in the beginning. The friend I played with and I found ourselves avoiding it where possible. There is a certain grit to it, but the disconnect is too large. In case you haven’t seen it, I wholeheartedly recommend Lisa: The Analysis by H. Bomberguy. He talks at length about disconnect between gameplay and story, or, more precisely, the gap between narrative and ludonarrative (A term I didn’t know before).

      Thanks so much for your comment, highly appreciated!

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    1. Hey,
      Thanks for the offer, but I’m okay by myself. This isn’t really a business venture, it’s just a small space for me to write.

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