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My first Monster Language

Early in 2015, I was sitting in my office, reading a student’s thesis, and the phone rang. It was a TV company, with an odd request. “Could you”, the producer on the line asked, “make up a language or two for us?”

The TV series was a version of Beowulf, the Old English Epic, which ITV was turning into a major fantasy series. They needed, as is almost de rigeur these days, languages for their otherworldly creatures, and for some human tribes that the heroes and heroines were to interact with.

I jumped at the chance, of course. When I was a Master’s student, in Edinburgh, I’d made up a language for a friend, Ricardo Pinto, who was writing a series of epic fantasy novels. I rather stupidly made this language (Quya) fiendishly complicated, a decision which came back to bite me as Ricardo asked for translations of various chapter titles and bits of poetry over the next decade. These took me ages.

Forearmed by this experience, and quite a bit more knowledge about how language works than I had over twenty years ago, I developed two languages for the series, one for the monsters and another one I’ll come back to in later blogs. As Beowulf  is about to appear on UK TV (the opening episode is on the 3rd January 2015), I thought I’d blog a little about the language and why I designed it the way I did.

The trailer features some monstrous creatures, bounding across a beach. Some of the creatures in Beowulf, the Warig, have their own language, and that language, Ur-Hag Hesh (literally, Not-Food Speech), now has a fairly large vocabulary and a reasonably complex grammar. In this blog, I’ll just talk a little about the sounds of Ur-Hag Hesh.

If you watch the trailer, you’ll see that the creatures have little that you could call real lips. So I decided that the language would lack consonants that are made with the lips (labials). This means no sounds like p, or b, or m. I originally wanted to make up for losing these sounds by increasing the range of sounds made at the back of the throat (the producers wanted a ‘guttural’ sounding language). Unfortunately, these turned out to be too much to ask of the actors, so my plan to have a series of uvulars and pharyngeals was quickly scuppered.

So the system of sounds I came up with in the end looks as follows. I’ve given the transliteration I used for the producers, with the International Phonetic Alphabet symbol, where different, in parentheses.

Glottals: the glottal stop, ʔ; and the glottal fricative, h

Velars: the velar stops, k, g; the velar fricative, kh (x); and the velar nasal ng (ŋ)

Palatals: the palato-alveolar fricatives, sh (ʃ) and zh (ʒ); the palatal glide y (j)

Alveolars: the stops, t, d; the fricatives s, z;  the approximants r, l; and the nasal n.

Vowels: a, e, i, u (though given the lack of lips, the u should really be the unrounded back vowel ɯ). I suggested that the actors could grimace when they were pronouncing the language to get rid of all lip rounding, but I’m not sure if they did!

I also allowed combinations of a stop plus a following fricative to act as essentially single sounds, giving the following combinations.

kkh, ksh, gz, gzh

ts, dz, tsh, dzh, tkh

So that’s the sound system, and here’s a bit of Ur-Hag Hesh for you to listen to.