Language, Language

If you’ve read this Monday’s short story you may have noticed that Dmitri uses the term “Palatinus” to refer to the high ranking official he turns his case over to once his work is done. I have to admit, I was leery of using this term for reasons that are at once very simple and very complex. But before I can talk about that, I need to step back and admit something about the way Dmitri talks and his home in Terra Eternal.

If you’ve read the two stories I’ve done on Dmitri – Monday’s and this one from last summer – along with the Terra Eternal world building posts – here and here – you’ve probably realized that Terra Eternal speaks a language with heavy Latin influences. I made this choice for very simple reasons. Generally, when you’re telling a story, it’s best to give the audience what they expect.

Yeah, sure, you can defy expectations but if its not something that’s central to your story then your failure to live up to them will just be a distraction. Popular culture today associates Latin with magic and fantasy, elements that are central to the ethos of Terra Eternal. Yes, I could have made up a bunch of words of magic, people do that all the time when building fantasy worlds. But part of the schtick is that Terra Eternal isn’t a totally different world, it’s another version of our world. The Endless Horizons are really just echoes of the same world with fundamentally similar people in superficially different circumstances. It’s logical that the languages would be similar as well.

In fact, Sophers that study language in Terra Eternal work by this principle. All the languages they’ve encountered fall into one of sixteen different groups based on the basic rules of sound and grammar involved. These groups are called phonemes (a real word I’ve given a different meaning, another part of writing in this setting) and most public officials like Dmitri understand the basics of at least two of them – their native phoneme and the First phoneme, which is the Latin equivalent of the Throneworlds. The only things that really vary from world to world is vocabulary and pronunciation. Barriers, to be sure, but not as insurmountable as entire different languages.

This is why terms like Regulus, Praetorian and Century are scattered liberally through stories about Terra Eternal. While an empire that touches all or part of fifty two worlds is bound to wind up with a melting pot of a language, and Terra Eternal has stolen a plethora of terms from other cultures as they were assimilated, the bones of the First phoneme is Latin in nature.

That brings me to palatines. I’ve mentioned once or twice that I work in a Genealogy department and one category of records we have is an index of palatines who came to America. When I started there I’d never heard the term before but I quickly learned from context that palatines were some kind of high born people and the word had a good ring to it, so when I started building Terra Eternal I was thinking of using it as a term for a high ranking official. But I wasn’t sure what kind of official they should be so I started doing some research into the term and I discovered I had heard the word before, just with a different pronunciation.

You see, most fantasy geeks would spell it paladin.

Palatines were officials in many European courts, but the most powerful of them was probably Charlemagne’s Holy Roman Empire. Some poet wrote a verse about who twelve of these palatines, the Peers of the Realm, and their great feats upholding the empire and this later became the archetype for the holy warrior, made mighty by his devotion to truth, justice and righteousness. I’m not sure whether the spelling was changed deliberately or accidentally but over time this particular meaning became associated with the spelling paladin until Gary Gygax basically enshrined it with his Dungeons and Dragons role playing game.

So what’s this all mean?

Basically, I’d adopted a linguistic conceit, that the powerful, magic-driven culture spoke a Latin-based language because it was what the audience would tend to expect. But the word palatine was closely associated with the idea of holy warriors by that same audience and that was a concept I wanted to avoid focusing on with Terra Eternal. On the flip side, palatine was a real word with concrete meaning and that’s a resource that shouldn’t be quickly cast aside. I wanted most of the basic social structure of Terra Eternal, the empire’s superstructure if not the local governments, to have Latin terminology and palatine was a part of that. But I didn’t want to give false impressions either – the palatines are just high level bureaucrats, not holy warriors.

Looking back on it the answer should have been obvious but as is so often the case it took me a while to get there. The actual Latin word is palatinus, which is different enough from paladin that I didn’t think confusion was likely. And that is how the character of Palatinus Sollenberg came to have his title and I came to wish that I’d chosen some other language for the basis of an interdimensional empire.

Like sign language.

The lesson for today? Worldbuilding has a lot more to it than you’d ever expect.

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