Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Other Timetales

As someone who has a keen interest in both history and storytelling, I'm endlessly fascinated by the idea of the alternate history - theorizing about what the world might look like "if things had happened otherwise", as one famous compilation of such theories is named.

The most well-known and popular alternate histories, perhaps not unsurprisingly, have revolved around war and politics - "What if the Nazis won World War II?" being a particularly wide-spread example (in fact, I have two novel on my shelf right this moment of this very idea - Robert Harris' Fatherland and Leigh Deighton's SS-GB). There is, however, a particular joy to be found in the obscure, and so it is with my recent rediscovery of the idea of alternate philological history - that is to say, alternate histories of languages.

This particular idea I had come across a few years ago, and recently looked back up on a whim. It's an essay by author Poul Anderson entitled "Uncleftish Beholding" - or, "Atomic Theory", in a universe where English never got its huge influx of Romantic loan-words:

"For most of its being, mankind did not know what things are made of, but could only guess. With the growth of worldken, we began to learn, and today we have a beholding of stuff and work that watching bears out, both in the workstead and in daily life."

It's a fascinating piece of writing, particularly as the science involved gets more and more complex. It also begs an interesting question as to what kind of history could produce such a language - presumably the 1066 Norman Invasion of England is eliminated or defeated somehow. Perhaps Harold Hardrada's practically simultaneous invasion is somehow delayed, switching his position with that of William the Conquerer?

Anyway, whether alt-history inspired or not, there's evidently some interest in creating (or re-creating, as the case might be) the "Anglish" language (or, as it has been called when dealing with scientific topics, "Ander-Saxon"), replacing as many Latinate words as possible with Germanic ones. It's harder than it looks - the title of this post, for example, is meant to be the equivalent of "Alternate History", but to do anything more complex than that would probably require a great deal more knowledge of the history of English than I currently possess.* Anderson was certainly skilled at it - he managed to describe an atomic explosion with the vocabulary of a Viking:

" . . . when a neitherbit strikes the kernel of one, as for a showdeal ymirstuff-235, it bursts into lesser kernels and free neitherbits; the latter can then split more ymirstuff-235. When this happens, weight shifts into work. It is not much of the whole, but nevertheless it is awesome."

Indeed it is.

*Tolkien, I'm sure, would have had a field day with the idea, but Anderson's essay unfortunately wasn't written until after Tolkien's death, and I've never heard whether he knew of the project's precursors.


Wynn said...

I suppose you've encountered How We'd Talk if the English had won in 1066? George introduced me to it after being gifted with it. It has a similar premise, but with 'translations' to the Latinate.

Sothelic we live in mighty years!

Also, "roundaround board of the firststuffs" makes me glad.

T. Everett said...

Encountered, but not read - it's now at the bottom of my entirely too-long "to read" list.

Also, if I were better versed in chemistry and Anglo-Saxon, I would immediately begin work on reconstructing said board.