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Thursday, January 19, 2012

Languages of Pellatarrum: Orcish

Think of the vilest insult possible, one that would incite in the listener a murderous rage born of righteous indignation. This is how orcs say "hello".

As was stated earlier,
Every encounter with an orc must be treated like a battle, because it is. Even in a peaceful situation, an orc will use vile insults, belligerent language, threatening gestures and anything else that will cow the listener into accepting the subservient role.

For orcs, everything -- even conversation -- is a contest to see who can make the other flinch first. If you flinch, you prove yourself a weakling, and therefore must submit to the stronger without question. 

This has resulted in a very direct form of diction and vocabulary. It is highly specific about what you are going to do to whom, and into which orifices you are going to shove which objects. As can be surmised, Orcish has a refined set of grammatical objects, and the passive voice is used only in the sense of "this person or people used to do these things, but they don't any more, because they are dead or enslaved."

Interestingly enough, Orcish lacks nearly all forms of pronouns*. Names are used exclusively; if needed to refer to a group, then the tribe name or species name is used. Therefore, when Grashnargh says "Orcs kill humans!" he really does mean ALL orcs (or at least those he can accurately speak for) will indeed kill ALL humans (that they can get their hands on). There isn't much room for conditionals among orcs, other than the classic "if you X, then I will Y" statement.

* Chief exceptions being demonstrative (This, these, that, those) and interrogative (who, which, what) in nature.

Grammar structure is very basic and is perfectly suited for the battlefield. It can be spoken quickly, with a minimum of effort (necessary when shouting commands), and is immediately understood by even the dimmest warrior. Very few words are polysyllabic, and these are mostly proper names. The words themselves are harsh-sounding, containing many hard consonants and spitting sounds -- if it sounds like something is burning, it's likely Orcish.

Imagine what it would sound like if a Samurai warrior were to shout in Swedish at the top of his lungs. The results would sound much like this, and be a good example of spoken Orcish:

There are two things a non-native speaker of Orcish must keep in mind. First, when negotiating with an orc, do so from a position of either superior strength or extreme psychosis. If you immediately submit, you declare yourself a weakling and therefore deserve to be dominated. If you debate vigorously but stoically, a fight will probably break out because neither of you will back down and the words are seen only as a pre-fight posturing. And if you attack, well, the conversation is over.

Your best approach is to think of it like two dogs trying to determine dominance, or two swordsmen in an iaijutsu duel before they strike. There is a brief moment between posturing and violence where one of the parties can potentially realize the other is capable of inflicting such a sound thrashing that it's preferable to surrender and deal with the loss of stature/honor. In short, it's all  about presenting a strong enough first impression that it is immediately clear that violence is not likely to end well for anyone, so you might as well just talk.

The second thing to know is that there isn't a single Orcish language. Due to their mercurial nature and fractured society, their language mutates and shifts with each new group or tribal offshoot, until one tribe has difficulty understanding the other (the differences aren't quite as extreme as those between Mandarin and Cantonese, but close). Therefore, each time a new branch of Orcish dialect is encountered, the speaker needs to make a Linguistics skill roll in order to comprehend what is being spoken, and to speak in the new language. This applies to orcs and native Orcish speakers, which is another reason why so many orcish tribes go to war with each other.

Far left: One version of contemporary written Orcish. Far right: Old High Orcish.

This difficulty in communication also extends to the written word. Unlike other languages, Orcish is pictographic in nature, much like ancient Cuneiform. However, due to the shattering of their culture and the loss of much of their heritage, their written language has actually devolved from complex to crude. In addition to these devolutions being nearly incompatible between tribes, whatever information remains in Old High Orcish is incomprehensible to them (and in fact to most sages, barring either magical interpretation or consulting ancient elven or draconic sources).

Special thanks to both Von and Mxyplk for their help and though-provoking questions.

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