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

Edit:

  • 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.

Making Meaning

Writing seems to be a very ubiquitous way of combatting depression or general feelings of smallness or being inconsequential.

Why? I don’t know.

Alan Moore, well-know author, lesser-known magician, was once asked for writing advice for aspiring authors and said “Treat writing as if it were a god”. His idea was essentially that great works (or workings, depending on your perspective) were already produced by writing and any young writer is partaking in that grand tradition. And this very grand tradition was to be honoured. By writing, you become a part of a pantheon and you should be worthy of that place

Is that why we flock to writing in hours of need? Do we find solace in at the altar of writing? Maybe.

Maybe it is just the idea that something of us stays behind. Writing is, in a way, crystalised speech. We take a thing that is ephemeral, fleeting and momentary, and make it solid. Speech is ephemeral, writing is solid. Do we want to do something against our own epheremerity by writing?

I honestly don’t know.

But I felt like starting to write things down. I felt like sending something in the aether. I find solace in it. And maybe, you will read this and find solace in it, yourself.

Alan Moore also considers writing an act of magic. And both Ken Liu and Stephen King have also seen the transmission of thoughts across time and space as a magical property of writing (if not as literally as Alan Moore).

You can now read my thoughts. You are not alone, for a moment. That must be good for both of us, right?