Water Languages

水語, the name of the conlang in Chinese characters

One of the most interesting things about Avatar (the American animated TV series) is its deeply developed world with complex cultures. I have had the idea of constructing a language inspired somehow by the show for months but I hadn’t begun to work on it until a few days ago. It is called Mizuyu (in its most spoken variety).

Of course, I am not associated with Avatar; The Last Airbender‘s creators (which, if I’m not wrong, are a branch of Nickelodeon Animation Studios), nor I claim any rights about anything of the series (such as names, etc). This project was just inspired by it (though the conlang may not be very faithful to some aspects of the series). There may be minor spoilers in this post, but nothing important will be said.

The only language spoken in the series is English (or whatever language it was dubbed into), which is quite a logical choice by the creators (otherwise the audience wouldn’t be able to understand much of the plot :P), but every single piece of text is written in Chinese, consistent with the Eastern-ish setting of the series.

Even though there are four nations (one for each element: Earth, Fire, Air and Water), it is implied that they share a language (people from one part of the world seem to have little if any problems to understand people from other continents, for example). The existence of different languages is not even mentioned. However. names do seem to vary from a nation to another. Sokka, for example, was easily recognized as a Water Tribes’ name by Fire Nation people.

I considered an alternative rendition of that word where different languages do exist (along a common language which would be Chinese, as in the written texts in the show). My conlang, as it can be inferred from the tittle, would be the language of my favorite nation on the series: the Water Tribes.

The Water Tribes are the nation which can control (bend) water. They were mainly inspired by the Inuit, but for some reason I also relate them to the Japanese (I like corresponding the Water tribes with Japan, Earth Kingdom with China, Fire Nation with Gengis Khan’s Mongolia and Air Nomads with Tibetan monks).

There are three different Water Tribes. The largest one inhabits the North Pole and is a rather complex society, with deep social distinctions of class, status and gender. They live in walled city which seems to be mainly made of ice. A much smaller tribe with a more egalitarian society lives near the South Pole. This one is more reminiscent of Inuit people (for example, they live in igloos). A yet smaller tribe which was unknown to the other two lives in a swamp geographically located in the Earth Kingdom. Their culture is very different from that of the other Water tribes since they live in a totally different environment (a warm marsh instead of polar regions). This tribe’s culture is reminiscent of Amazonian tribes, though they are also influenced by the Vietnamese (most noticeably, tribesmen names com from Vietnamese).

Given those cultural differences and the fact that these tribes live far away from each other, I decided to make different dialects for the three of them, with Swamp Tribe dialect (which I call Swams (shortened from Swamp) but is natively known as Damlé Mýný) being the most distinct one (because of Swamp Tribe’s isolation), to the point that it could be considered a language on its own.

In addition to those three dialects, I also made a fourth one which would be the “common Classical Water Tribe’s language“, thus being the “proto-language” of the other three dialects.

The language is written with Chinese characters and a syllabary similar to Japanese kana, but can also be written with Chinese characters and actual Japanese kana (though the pronunciation of some Hiragana and Katakana characters would differ from their Japanese pronunciation). “Swams” (Damlé Mýný) is the exception to that, being written with Chinese characters and a modified version of Korean Hangul. Chinese characters behave more or less the same as in Japanese, having both a native pronunciation and a borrowed Chinese based pronunciation. Native syllabary characters, kana and Hangul may be used instead of a character (or along it) to clarify the desired pronunciation, though that is often unnecessary. Of course, this languages can also be written with Latin characters (though this should be considered a romanization).

While the Chinese character of a word typically are the same in all dialects, their pronunciation may vary, as may their spelling with Kana/Hangul. What follows, are the names of the language in all the dialects:

Classical: 水語 (みすキゅ) Misuŋyu /mi.sú.ŋju/
Northern: 水語 (みずよ) Mizuyu /mi’zu.ju/
Southern: 水語 (み しゅい) Mishui /mi.ʃú’i/
Swams: 水語 (믁늑) Mýný /mý.ŋý/

It must be noted that Kana characters aren’t pronounced in the same way as they are in Japanese nor is Hangul pronounced as it is pronounced in Korean. The character 水 (meaning “water”) can be pronounced either as Syu/Shu/Shu/Shu (the Chinese-based pronunciation in all 4 dialects) or Misu/Mizu/Miso/Mý (the native pronunciation), though it’s pronunciation is irregular in 水語 in Southern Mizuyu (being Mishui instead of *Misuyu). In this particular case, the native pronunciation comes from Japanese mizu.

語, which means “language” has only one pronunciation (for each dialect): Ŋyu/Yu/Yu/Ný, all of which descend from *ngiǔ, the reconstructed Middle Chinese pronunciation for the Tang dinasty period, thus being a cognate with the Yu in Mandarin yǔyán, the Go in Japanese gengo, the final Eo in Korean eon-eo and the Ngôn in Vietnamese ngôn ngữ, all of which mean language (and share its Chinese origin).

The English name I gave the language is Mizuyu after the Northern Mizuyu pronunciation (as the Northern Water tribe is the most populous, theirs would be the most widely spoken variety, justifying the use of the Northern name).

As it can be seen in the picture above, Mizuyu-Chinese characters are often written in a sligthy more cursive style. The traditional top-to-bottom right-to-left vertical direction would still be predominant, but writing horizontally would be an option too. When possible, horizontal Mizuyu texts should be written and read right-to-left (just as if they were vertical texts with one character long columns). However, computer software seldom supports that option for East Asian scripts, so I’ll keep on writing them horizontally left to right.

These are the native names of the Mizuyu dialects:

Classical Mizuyu*: 古典水語 (ごでん·みすキゅ) Gäden-Misuŋyu /gɒ.dɛn mi.sú.ŋju/
*This name has been applied to this dialect when it was no longer spoken. Before then, it was just known as Misuŋyu (Mizuyu).

Northern Mizuyu: 北水語 (だビみずよ) Davimizuyu /ˌdavimiˈzuju/ or 北語 (だビよ) Daviyu /’daviju/
Some Northern Mizuyu words come from Sami, such as davi (North), which comes from Northern Sami davvi.

Southern Mizuyu: 南水語 (きがみしゅい) Kigamishui /kí.ɣaˌmi.ʃú’i/
Some Southern Mizuyu words come from Greenlandic (also known as Kalaallisut). Kiga, for example, also means South in Greenlandic.

Swams (Swamp’s Tribe Mizuyu): 담럭水語 (담럭믁늑) Damlé-Mýný /dam.lé mý.ŋý/
Some Swams words come from Vietnamese, such as Damlé (swamp, marsh) which comes from Vietnamese đầm lầy.

And now, a sample text: the series opening. It is written in Southern Mizuyu (or Kigamishui). Firstly, the text written with Chinese characters and kana (written vertically, columns read top-to-bottom, right to left):

あ 習 彼 い き 撃 水
救 要 と  。  る と  。
き そ 截 那 い 全 土
る  。 气 と   ,  あ  。
と 彼 師 百 然 攴 火
。  と 安 年 反 い  。
然 气 昂 か 我 。 气
那 師 叫 流 社 一 。
, 神 だ い と  有 四
我 優 い せ 最 神 國
と  だ  。 新 要 通 と
安 然 彼 神 有 , 龢
昂 反 と  通 サ 四 あ
か 很 气 と  間 元 昔
社 あ 師 我 我 せ だ
あ 習 神 兄 , 師 い
救 要 優 か 高 と  。
き そ  だ 找 と  , 火
る 前 然 到 神 他 國
そ 一 反 い 隠 あ サ
。 人 很 。 だ 止 攻

This is the same text written horizontally left to right (as Westerners are more used to read):

水。土。火。气。
四國と龢あ昔だい。
火國サ攻撃と全あ攴い。
一有神通,四元素師と,他あ止きるい,
然反我社と最要有サ間せ,高と神隠だい。
那と百年か流いせ新神通と我兄か找到い。
彼と截气師安昂叫だい。
彼と气師神優だ然反很あ習要そ前一人あ救きると。
然那,我と安昂か社あ救きるそ。

Now, in Latin script along with a gloss and translation:

Miso. To. Garo. Łon.
Water. Earth. Fire. Air.
Water. Earth. Fire. Air.

Tya’ek to ken a shikki dai.
Four-nations TOP harmony ACC long.ago be-PERF
The four nations used to live in harmony. (Lit: to have harmony)
TOP = Topic marker, similar to Japanese wa
ACC = Accusative marker
PERF = Perfective aspect

Garuek sa gonkīk to tan a bini.
Fire-nation POS attack TOP all ACC change-PERF
Fire nation’s attack changed everything.
POS: Possesive marker.

Ishu Kantoro, tyayunso shiri to, den a ‘aqakirui,
Only Avatar, four-elements master TOP others ACC stop-be.able-PERF
Only the Avatar, master of the four elements, could stop them

niqu nesha to sai yūshu sa tanse, gū to kan’īn dai.
but I-and.others TOP most need POS when, high.one TOP spirited.away be-PERF
but when we needed him the most, he vanished. (lit: he was spirited away).

Po to san tū ka nagai se shin Kantoro to ne-hū ka shodoi.
That TOP one.hundred years SUBJ flow-PERF and new avatar TOP I-elder.brother SUBJ found.
One hundred years have passed and my (elder) brother and I found the new Avatar.
SUBJ = Subject marker

Be to łonse-shiri Aan gū  dai.
Boy TOP airbending-master Aang called be-PERF.
He was a young airbender called Aang.

Be to łonsedīn sho da niqu ken a naurayūso para ina a łetokiroto.
Boy TOP airbending excellent be but a.lot ACC learn-must-FUT before one-person ACC save-able-IRR
His airbending was excellent but he will have to learn a lot before being able to save anybody.
FUT = Future tense
IRR = Irrealis mood

Nipo, ne to Aan ka sha a łetokiroso.
Nonetheless, I TOP Aang SUBJ others ACC save-able-FUT.
But I believe Aang will be able to save us.

See you!

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Posted on 2012/02/10, in Damlé Mýný (en), English, Mizuyu (en). Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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