The Secret Commonwealth

By Jane Stevenson

History and folklore collide when a 17th century alchemist discovers there are supernatural forces at work as England slides towards Civil War

Wednesday, 26 October 2016

Umbrellas and cellar doors

One tricky aspect of writing a story which involves non-human entities is that they have to have names and, up to a point, a language. The problems of inventing a language are many and various. First of all, it has to sound right. I wanted something beautiful and a bit strange, but not completely strange. So it had to be basically Indo-European – the language family which includes English, Latin, Greek, and Sanskrit. And if it was going to sound lilting and flowing, which I wanted, it needed plenty of vowels. In many Indo-European languages, vowels get elided over time: for instance, the Irish name Comgall is Commogellus in the oldest records. If just about every consonant gets a vowel attached, as in Italian, that solves the problem of lilting and flowing, so if you feel the need of a word for ‘Dream’ you can take Latin ‘somnum’, and ad a vowel between m and n, and drop the ending, to turn it into ‘sominu’, which sounds a lot more musical.

When I wanted a word, I raided the vocabularies of Latin, Greek, Sanskrit and Irish for possibilities, and started making choices. For aesthetic reasons. I wanted my language breathy, so borrowed words beginning with ‘p’ and words beginning with ‘s’  start with an aspirate, a ‘h’ sound. I needed a word for ‘spark’; the Latin is ‘scintilla’. ‘S’ goes to ‘h’, so, ‘hintil’. Breaking one of my rules, incidentally; for consistency it should have been ‘hinatil’, but that doesn’t sound sparky to me.  

Tolkien wrote in 1955 in ‘English and Welsh’ that from a purely aesthetic point of view, ‘cellar door’ is one of the most beautiful combinations of sounds in the English language. The thought doesn’t actually originate with him; it may in fact go back to Edgar Allan Poe, though this is disputed. But Ursula le Guin seems to have thought so too, which is why on Earthsea, the Dragon’s Reach is called Selidor. It’s amazing what people don’t notice if you change the spelling. The Latin for wine is ‘winum’, the Greek (related) is ‘oinos’; wine under the hill is ‘énas’.  However, the word Selidor also illustrates another problem; it’s been colonised. I couldn’t call an elf-Queen ‘Selidor’ because it’s so likely that anyone reading The Secret Commonwealth will already have read A Wizard of Earthsea.  For the same reason, I couldn’t call my beings ‘elves’ without risking that people would import Tolkien’s ideas about elfhood, which  are at a bit of an angle to the beings I had in mind myself.

Another factor with inventing words is the human brain’s staggering capacity for double-entendre. We sometimes call an umbrella a ‘brolly’. Never a ‘brelly’, which would be more logical, because it sounds faintly rude.  It follows that a language-smith has to be very careful with words that potentially carry comic, obscene, or otherwise inappropriate, overtones. There were quite a few false starts.

The names of people under the hill are mostly taken from European legends of various kinds. Irusan is the name of the King of the Cats in Scottish folklore, and Neavhain is an old Irish name for a war goddess, but Scottish folklore turns her into the Queen of the Fairies. I avoided difficult Celtic spellings for the most part, but this one had to stay because it’s pronounced ‘Niven’: I didn’t want the connection with Christian’s surname to leap off the page. Balkin was ‘Lord of the Northern Mountains’ according to Reginald Scot’s 1665 Discoverie of Witchcraft. 

Back to project page
Share on social

Top rewards

£20  + shipping
47 pledges


First edition of the hardback plus the ebook and your name in the back of the book
Choose this reward
£30  + shipping
28 pledges


A signed first edition of the hardback plus the ebook, plus your name in the back of the book.
Choose this reward