Sunday, December 20, 2020

What’s in a Name? Behind the Origin of the Ox-Yew Language

The real story: When I first started working on the language, E, O, W, X, and Y were the only Latin letters I didn’t use in its orthography, so I thought it would be funny to make the name of the language out of those overlooked letters. (I’ve since started using W, X, and Y in the orthography as well, but that’s a different story.)

Those of you who know me know that I am not much in the way of a con-worlder. I create language, and sometimes just enough detail to make the language work, or make it funny, or make it strange. In this case, the in-world explanation for the name is that a team of linguists sent to study the language inquired about its speakers at a village near where they supposedly lived. This is maybe, vaguely, somewhere in China or Mongolia or eastern Russia (because that's how precise a con-worlder I am), and the linguists were only passably proficient in the local official language; furthermore, the inhabitants of the village they visited spoke a minority language that the researchers didn’t speak at all. So, through garbled second and third languages on both sides, they managed to communicate who they were looking for and find directions. The precise conversation is lost to history, but the researchers’ interpretation was this:

“Oh, yes, the people who live past that mountain. Go there [points]. They are called the Ox-Yew people.”

What the villager actually said:

“Why would you want to go see those people, past that mountain? [gestures] There’s nothing there but cows and trees.”

Large Magical Creatures

Sometime around two millennia ago, word reached the East Germanic people of a mysterious giant magical creature from the south which they called ulbanduz. By the time Gothic rolled around a few hundred years later, the Goths decided this must refer to the only large animal from the south they had encountered at that point, and ulbandus was the name they gave to the lowly camel (specifically to the dromedary, as they had never seen a bactrian camel at this point). 

 After “immigrating” to Rome, where they saw all sorts of things they had never imagined back in the forests of Eastern Europe, they quickly realized that there was another kind of ulbandus which had two humps instead of just the one, and they called this one kamilus after the Greek fashion. 

 Gradually it became clear that neither the dromedary nor the bactrian camel were actually representative of the mysterious ulbandus, and that it must necessarily be some other giant creature from the south. But because the language was changing quite rapidly at this point, a division emerged, and we end up with two words: uvlandus ‘rhinocerus’ and luvandus ‘dromedary’. 

 As the soon-to-be-former Goths were exposed to words like Latin elephantus and Greek ἐλέφᾱς, it was evident that ulbandus was actually an elephant, but by the time that became clear, that semantic ship had sailed, so they just stole the word fíll from the Vikings (because the Vikings had so very many elephants!) and from Late Old Valthungian times, ‘elephant’ has been fīls. Well, the African elephant, at least, though the Vikings’ word fíll was taken from Arabic فِيل‎ (fīl), which in turn came from Persian پیل‎ (pīl), and did specifically refer to the Asian elephant. Later they learned about the existence of the Asian elephant as well, so the Early Middle Valthungians called this smaller-eared variety aabvus (later āvus), from… well, we don’t really know how they came upon this word, but it’s most likely borrowed from Egyptian abu. Which is obviously an African elephant. Because the universe loves balance, especially when it’s funny. 

 The semantic space of luvandus later expanded and came to cover most camelid species, though the bactrian camel continues to be known as kamilus

 And this is how the Valthungian people came to think of llamas as a type of elephant, because the ancient world was truly terrifying and confusing. 
  • āvus Asian elephant. 
  • fīls African elephant. 
  • kamilus Bactrian (“two-humped”) camel. 
  • luvandus Camel, camelid, dromedary. 
  • uvlandus Rhinocerus.