not-dialga asked: Mr. Peterson, you are awesome. I just saw "Thor 2" for the second time, and I loved your work on the Shiväisith language. I'd love to learn more about it! Kirimvose!
I ended up really liking what I did with Shiväisith, which is unfortunate, because it probably won’t enjoy use again (i.e. it’s hard to imagine that section of the Thor universe being explored in any format in the near future. It’s too specific). I tried to just create it and forget it, so I wouldn’t get attached, but it has a really charming sound to my ear… I really liked recording it (almost as much as Irathient, which is my favorite), even though it ended up being more difficult to use than I intended.
This whole thing got started because the director of Thor: The Dark World, Alan Taylor, had “worked” with me on Game of Thrones (i.e. he directed a number of episodes, several of which featured Dothraki). He liked the effect it produced, and thought it would add a unique element to the Dark Elves for Thor. In discussing the language, both of us, I think, kind of had the same idea. The main mythos of Thor and Asgard is based on Norse mythology, which is North Germanic. If there’s going to be an “other” in this universe, the most likely source would be Finnish (think Finland in Scandinavia and the World). Linguistically, that’d be Uralic (or Finno-Ugric). The languages of the Dark Elves, then, should be reminiscent of the sound of Finnish or other Finno-Ugric languages (right down to the romanization system), just as the Asgardian names are all reminiscent of Scandinavian.
The easiest way to accomplish this I thought was to straight-up copy the Finnish vowel harmony system. I’m a big fan of vowel harmony, and while I would’ve wanted to do something slightly different, there’s only so much you can do when you’re limited to the vowels English speakers can produce (I was pushing my luck by including [y] and [ø], which probably didn’t always come out just right, anyway). For a refresher on that system, go here. Essentially, you can only ever have vowels from one of these two sets in a word:
- Standard Grade: a, e, i, o, u (short); aa, ee, ii, oo, uu (long)
- Fronted Grade: ä [æ], e, i, ö [ø], y (short); ää, ee, ii, öö, yy (long)
If there’s a difference between the Finnish and Shiväisith systems, the neutral vowels e and i can trigger regular vowel harmony in some words. I’m not sure if that can happen in Finnish… It probably can.
After that, though, I had some fun. It’s somewhat rare to see a synchronic, across the board intervocalic spirantization rule, so I did that. Thus, the stops p, t, d, k and g become f, th [θ], dh [ð], h and h, respectively, in between two vowels, and also at the end of a word and between an approximant and vowel (though to cut down on the h's, I had phonemic h disappear in between vowels before spirantization occurred). This is the type of sound change that’s relatively common at some stage in a language’s development, but it rarely sticks around. It’d be fun if it did, though, and this language was fun. :)
Another fun sound change that has no place in Finno-Ugria is sibilant harmony, which Shiväisith has. Sibilant harmony is a kind of consonant harmony which has the sibilants agree in a word. Thus, if a word has an s in it, it will only have s's; never sh [ʃ]—and vice versa. Sibilant harmony occurs in certain Amerind languages, but is pretty rare crosslinguistically. To give you an example, though, here are some nominative-genitive pairs:
- säli~säliäs “cave”
- päsh~päshäsh “stone”
- näinä~näinäs “state”
The last pair demonstrates a neutral example, where you can see that the underlying consonant in the genitive is s. Conlangers may also notice a reference to Sally Caves, creator of Teonaht, and fans of amusing fiction may also spot a reference to my writer friend Nina Post. Because fun is fun.
Astute observers may be wondering, “If this language has sibilant harmony, has is the name of the language Shiväisith?” First, it’s actually interesting to note that a number of language names actually break the rules of the language they come from (one of the oddities of language), but in this case, it’s because the word is a compound, and so the harmony doesn’t jump the break. In Shiväisith, shive means “soft” and äisith is “speech”. Thus the language name means “the soft speech”.
There are a number of other phonological rules at play that cause mischief (e.g. s becomes sh in between rounded vowels), but they’re largely situational.
Grammatically, the language has a bunch of cases (though not as many as Hungarian), is largely head-final (SVO word order), uses an auxiliary combined with two verb stems to produce 10 different tense/aspect combinations, and is exclusively suffixing.
The cases are fairly easy to use, and are as follows:
- Grammatical: Nominative, Accusative, Dative
- Relational: Genitive, Comitative, Instrumental
- Exterior: Adessive, Allative, Ablative
- Interior: Inessive, Illative, Elative
- Equative: Essive, Translative, Benefactive
(Spellcheck doesn’t like the word “essive”. Deal with it, spellcheck!)
The bold terms are names I’m trying to come up with to tie each subgroup of cases together. Morphologically the subgroups make sense. The three cases in each subgroup are built off a different stem (in the grammatical, it’s the root; in the relational, exterior and interior, it’s the dative; in the equative, it’s the accusative). In the plural, subgroups are distinguished by the ordering of the plural and case suffixes (a nod to the Mari languages and the work of Jim Blevins and Farrell Ackerman).
For the verbs, to give you an example of the stem alternations, there are two stems: perfect and imperfect. The imperfect is the base stem, and the perfect is formed by making a disyllabic stem with a long consonant or vowel from that. Here are some examples:
- vur- ~ vuuri- "see"
- hööth- ~ hötte- “breathe”
- poha- ~ pooha- "call"
- deinä- ~ dennä- “burn”
And with that last word, how could I make a Finnish-like language without making a Sonata Arctica reference! Impossible. Anyway, these stems combined with tense morphology to produce ten different tense/aspect combinations—including a hodiernal, which was an old anterior (ha). Never ended up using that.
Here are some sample sentences not from the film (note: dj = [ɟ]; tj = [c]):
- Kira liljal nol. “I love you.”
- Kir dahar nole. “I curse you.”
- Geilää liivinith vathe jöhär. “The warrior attacked him with a knife.”
- Vään domonavil djossasle. “They were watching from a pit.”
- Nöönä äth ruthihi veleme. “You all will feel the darkness.”
- Äskärdhiksel livil nyrihi. “The Asgardians aren’t sleeping.”
- Lengeril mavvavil läinilevii mouhela. “The humans sent their children to the enemies earlier today.”
- Vath äth mänih vanki. “He is my former husband.”
- Jen hööthäjel köyfe käntjeriäshlä. “We always breathe air.”
- Kir ervesiinär govave. “I poisoned his blood.”
And these are the sentences that it seems most natural to me to craft… One thing I can’t for the life of me remember is whether or not this language is pro-drop. It’s probably not (I remember writing vath äth a lot), but it could be.
Anyway, there’s a bunch of other stuff, but that’s the gist of it. It was a fun language to work on, and a fun project. It seems like of all the Marvel series going on right now, Thor is the most playful. Iron Man is the funniest, and I thought Captain America was the best (maybe aside from the first Iron Man), but Thor feels like it was made for Tumblr. I’m still crossing my fingers for Thor 3: Thor and Loki’s Day at the Beach. I’d watch that. I’d watch the funk out of that. But that’s Shiväisith in a nutshell. Thanks for asking!
(And, no, I totally didn’t forget this was an ask like halfway through this post. Why would you think that?)