The Sheep and the Horses

I’m thinking about an epic fantasy story. It’ll have ghosts, but ALSO, I want to make a dialect continuum. 

This is how a dialect continuum works: start out at, say, Lisbon, and travel through Galicia, Leon, Castille, and so on. With each stop, the language gets a little more different from  Portuguese. Go far enough, and people are speaking Tuscan, then Occitan, then Romanian. There are a few discontinuities, but if you trace the right path, villages can usually understand their neighbors. There’s a nice graphic here. 

That’s what I want to do with English.

You start out in your own village, where (by authorial decree) people speak the General American dialect of English. But after a week’s travel (don’t ask me in what direction yet, I haven’t made the maps), people talk in a distinctly funny way. They call sheep “wool-ewes” wear garments called “shirt-wads.” Words don’t always come where they should in a sentence. An old man lying on the side of the road might tell this story:

The Wool-ewe and the Ridin-eeos

A Wool-ewe, that had not wool, saw some ridin-eeos, one pullin a heavy cart, one bearin a muchel burden, one bearin a groom-man snilly. The wool-ewe quoth to the ridin-eeos, “my heart thrashes me to see a groom-man drivin ridin-eeos.” The ridin-eeos quoth, “Listen, wool-ewe. Our hearts thrash us to see this: a groom-man, the lord, winds up hisself’s warm shirt-wad of the wool-ewe’s wool. And the wool-ewe has none wool.” The wool-ewe a’heard that, and fled into the acre.

Odd, but not so hard to understand. Another week’s journey in the same direction, though, you find this:

The Woollio and thes Ridendios

An woollio, the ne wollhair hove, some ridendios saw, an heevy weyncrat pullend, an muchel bearburden bearend, an snilly gumaman bearend. The woollio to thes ridendios quoth, “my bloodheart me thrashes, gumaman ridendios drivin to see.” Thes ridendios quoth, “Lisne, woolio. Our bloodhearts us thrash this to see: gumaman, the loford, the woollio’s woolhair self’s warm shirtwad upawends. And the woollio nane woollhair haves.” The woollio that i’heard, and in the acre flew.

It’s good that you found such an old man to tell you this story, because you’ve passed out of your home country and into the neighboring land of Groomen. The old man you found at the border still speaks a dialect similar to yours, but if you go to the Groomish capital and ask a librarian, this is the story you’ll see:

Se Wallio on ses Rerenrus

Wallio, fe ne wallaer hof, ames rerenrus so, am hifi umcret pallar, am machel ornurf orar, am snillec wamaman orar. Se wallio ta ses rerenrus cof, “Mi bladurt me frastes, wamaman rerenrus rifar to si.” Ses rerenrus cof, “Hlisme, wallio. Ar bladurtes as frastes fis to si: wamaman, se hlofor, se wallios wallaer sulfs werm schirtael apenares. On se wallio nan wallaer hefes.” Se wallio, fe ihar, on im se ecar fle.

Perhaps, after passing through the intervening lands and learning something of their dialects, you might be able to understand Groomish (that’s not what the Groomishmen call it). Their language shares a common ancestor with yours about a thousand years ago, but a different sound changes and grammatical reshufflings have caused your language and theirs to diverge so greatly, they’re no longer mutually intelligible.

What will happen as you travel further?

(for more on the story of The Sheep and the Horses, see Schleicher’s fable)


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