An Alternative Linguistic History of the Flanaess
Date: Sat, April 28, 2012
Topic: Peoples & Culture

Navigate treacherous linguistic waters!  Ponder alternate origins of Greyhawk's languages!  Consider new histories and whether they might lead to new adventures!


Beware:  vaguely heretical musings to follow!  My only true canon is the World of Greyhawk boxed set and the first edition DMG, and I’m about to defy part of that.  If we follow Tolkien’s conceit of “translating” a received work, while Gygax may have correctly “translated” the Catalogue of the Flanaess, the Savant-Sage may have made his own mistakes (such as, for me, the Sun orbiting the Oerth).  YMMV.  My approach to later published material has been to work in what looks good and fits what I’ve done already, and let the rest go.  I did a lot of world-building before I ever saw any other Greyhawk product or fan website, so a fair amount of what I later read was no longer compatible by the time I saw it.  I’m also aware that this material will contradict some accepted fanon, especially regarding ancient history and lands beyond the Flanaess, and I’m okay with that.  More versions = more choice for us.

Rationale and Revision

My overall goal in this essay is to render the linguistic system of Greyhawk more coherent.   As much as I admire Gygax’s work in the WoG set, I have some problems with the linguistic history of Common as he (or the Sage) sets it out:  that is, a combination of Oeridian and Baklunish.  My first qualm here is geography.  While the Oeridians were neighbors of the Baklunish in the past, it’s been more than a thousand years, and well before the Aerdian conquests, during which Common would have developed into the lingua franca of the Great Kingdom.  Since the migrations, the Baklunish west has been remote, its only influential point of contact the narrow bottleneck of Ket.  In the years following the cataclysms, the Oeridians have had much more contact with other ethnic groups - demihumans, the Flan, and especially the Suloise, whose migration patterns paralleled the Oeridians’, and who even blended cultures with the Oeridians in several areas.

The second factor might take a bit longer to explain.  Again, in The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien affects the role of translator of the Red Book of Westmarch, rendering the actual names and language of the original into real-world equivalents.  I like to think that we do the same with the names and languages of Oerth.  With apologies to the D&D international community, English seems to be the best choice to represent Common.  Not only is it the original language of Gygax’s books, it strongly resembles Common in a key way.  Each language, as a result of conquest, blends two disparate languages:  French and Anglo-Saxon for English, Oeridian and [disputed] for Common. 

Looking at the given names of cities, countries, and people in the Flanaess, it quickly becomes apparent that Baklunish is not represented.  I know that the Baklunish are not a straight analogue of Arabic culture, but the place names of the Baklunish West are decidedly Arabic in flavor, and they are just not present east of Ket.  Suloise nations, however, do exist in the Flanaess proper, and their nomenclature is very strongly Germanic:  the Rhizian states are close analogues of Scandinavia, and Urnst, ruled by Duke Karll, strongly resembles Germany.  We see Germanic names in many other places as well, such as Littleberg in Oeridian Furyondy, and much of Perrenland (Schwartzenbruin).  We also know that the two cultures blend in many places:  Keoland, the County of Urnst, and trade cities like Greyhawk, Dyvers, and Irongate.  On the other side, the major Oeridian countries have names resembling French:  Rax, Rauxes, Furyondy, Aerdy, etc.  It’s not exact, no, but it certainly resembles French (Aix, Bruges, Normandy, Picardy).  To me, then, it seems much more likely that just as French and Anglo-Saxon blended to form English, Oeridian and Suloise have blended to form Common.  And it then becomes much more apt to use English as our language for “translating” Common.

As Gygax notes, the Common tongue does not extend into all corners of the map; I very much like his use of regional languages and dialects.  Certainly Flan languages would survive in many areas, as did Celtic tongues in Europe (my variation here is to fracture Flan into multiple languages; see below).  And there would be places where the languages did not blend as well, or blended but retained flavors of local dialects.  Keoish, for example, would be a heavily Suloise-influenced dialect, maybe something like modern Dutch (a close match for what Anglo-Saxon might have developed into if left free of French influence).  Velondi and Nyrondal would be more strongly Oeridian, arising in places with less Suloise intermingling and surviving in rural areas (I would guess that any town worth the name speaks full common, at least if it’s interested in trade).  This has real-world equivalents in the various regional dialects of French or Spanish; the regional dialects of English, as well, hearken back to the days before the Wessex dialect became the most prominent version of Anglo-Saxon.  In other places, the original, or a descendant of it, might be spoken more exclusively, especially by the rural or xenophobic:  the Duchy of Urnst, the Duxchan islands, and obviously Rhizia, would speak Suloise-descended languages most often; Ahlissa, and possibly Medegia, might speak old Oeridian or something close (actually in my campaign, Medegia and the nearby coasts and islands are more Italian in flavor, representing this diversion).  Urnsters might even be sufficiently snobbish and xenophobic that even their nobles would learn Suloise as a first language.  For all areas, there might be borrowings from Elven or Dwarven, especially in trade-related words (mithril) or in areas near heavy demi-human settlement (the Uleks, for example).  Bissel, Keoland, and maybe Perrenland, would likely have absorbed some Baklunish words, possibly passing them on into neighboring states - whether through simple proximity (Bissel) or brought back from war and occupation (Keoland).

Common would likely not be widely spoken in the Baklunish West, except among merchants and well-educated nobles.  It would be much more prevalent in cities than in rural areas or even towns.  I would expect most Ketites to have some understanding of Common, even if they do not speak it readily, or amongst each other.  The city of Zeif, a major mercantile hub, should have a larger number of speakers of Common than might be expected; the language might even reach through Zeif into the merchant network around the Gulf of Ghayar.  At any rate, the Baklunish would not call this language “common;” I would guess they call it Yorod, or even Yorod-Sul.  I can also see the Baklunish, given their memories of old strife, purposely avoiding using of words of Suloise origin if an Oeridian-derived synonym is available.

Demi-human languages (brief)

By now, you know I’m a Tolkien buff, so this shouldn’t surprise you:  I base these on Tolkien’s languages.  Elven is basically JRRT’s Sindarin, with some Quenya elements thrown in.  At this point, I still haven’t worked out exactly the origins of Elves in Oerth, and how the different groups work out (High Elves, Gray Elves, Wood Elves are obviously borrowed from Tolkien, but make no sense out of context).  So right now they’re somewhat monolithic.  Dwarven looks like Khuzdul.  Tolkien doesn’t give us much of that language, so I mostly just make up stuff that looks like what he does give us.  I like his idea that Dwarves take “use-names” based on nearby human languages, and hide their names in Dwarven.  Gnomes I don’t think have a truly unique language; it’s possibly derived from Dwarven, or maybe from Giantish if we assume they were enslaved at some point.  I’m tempted to use Finnish for Gnomish, but I’d rather find a cooler use for it.  Halflings, I think, just speak the local human tongue. 

Extrapolation:  Origins of Human Languages (closer to heresy)

Now I know this next section isn’t strictly necessary; after all, human language has developed in the real world without supernatural intervention.  But, well, this is a fantasy world, and the following might help “explain” why giants speak Norse languages, and why genies speak Arabic.  The basic notion here is that major human language groups grew out of those of nonhuman groups, such groups having once dominated the human culture in question.  So:  Baklunish is derived from the language of genies, who once ruled the far country whence they came.  The oldest form of the Suloise tongue was learned from giants, who rule the mountainous lands west of the Sea of Dust, the point of origin of the Suel.  Oeridian was derived from Draconic (remember how Aerdian names look like French?  Ever noticed that lots of dragons’ names look like Latin?); Oeridian culture grew up under the wing of mostly benevolent draconic rulers.  The various Flan tongues are based on Faerie languages.  And there you go.  I’ll admit this doesn’t account for the Olman, but I subscribe to the theory that they arrived on Oerth from another world, and brought their language with them.  Also it doesn’t yet account for ethnic groups beyond the map - the Touv, the inhabitants of Lynn, and all the other nations the members of this site are reconstituting. 

Brief Ancient History by Groups (even closer to heresy?) 

This part I’m still developing, and it may still have some rough edges.  The major human ethnic groups of the Flanaess, excepting the Olman, were “placed” by the gods in various locations.  I don’t envision them having more than superficial differences, based on perhaps the aesthetic sense of whichever deities sponsored a particular group.  They would be small in number:  enough to maintain genetic diversity, but few enough to take a long time to grow into a large people.  The histories that follow are cursory at best, leaving lots of room for modification and specification at a later time.

Suel:  This people originated in the mountains and valleys just west of what is now the Sea of Dust.  They quickly came under the domination of the giant realms in this area, adopting their language and serving mostly as a slave race.  Eventually they staged a revolt and escaped into the wide grasslands to the east, the great realm that the Elves of the Crystalmists called Calenardhon.  The Suloise were adopted to some extent by the Elves, who often wandered in this great basin before returning to their cities in the mountains.  [I have borrowed this element, and the Drow Wars, from one of the old Oerth Journal timelines]  Unlike the giants, they only sought to guide the Suloise, and never attempted to rule them.  This partnership worked well until the Drow Wars began, and the Elves withdrew from Calenardhon.  Most of the Elvish cities were destroyed at this time, and they never again influenced the Suel.  One can see remnants of Elvish influence on the Suloise language, particularly in words having to do with magic.  Eventually the Suloise ruled a great empire, ruling the lands north of the Sulhauts in addition to their own wide realm.  They did not go westward, for the giants remained (though they often beat back incursions).  They did not go eastward in force (until the desperate times before the Twin Cataclysms), for their traditions held that the lands over those mountains belonged to the Elves.  They crossed the mountains southward, but did not remain there, as the climate did not agree with them (not to mention the inhabitants!).  They were content to extract tribute from the human and nonhuman peoples of the southward lands - though legends persist of a lost Suloise colony somewhere on the coast...(Korvosa from Pathfinder?).  Possibly there was a disease barrier here as well, such as prevented major European settlement of the tropics.

Baklunish:  The Baklunish were part of a larger people that overthrew their genie lords, having discovered the art of binding them through magic.  Long ago Zaid al-Baklun led several tribes out of this land [which I will probably model on Zakhara, though I’m undecided on the geography at this point - that’s material for another article], eventually crossing the northern Tyurzi Mountains.  The later nomad hordes are descended from members of this group who tarried along the way, resulting in some linguistic and cultural divergence.  Their travels stopped only when they reached (or built?) Tovag Baragu, their leader (either al-Baklun or his descendant/successor) recognizing it as the prophesied destination.  Though they were conquered by the Suloise, they later threw off those bonds as well, and built their own empire, spreading the Baklunish language throughout the entire basin of the Gulf. 

After the Invoked Devastation the language splintered a bit, as the survivors were scattered to the edges of the old empire.  The language in the eastern states (Zeif, Ekbir, Tusmit, and Ket) held together, but along the western side of the gulf variations sprang up, especially under the influence of the peoples who began to come over the mountains at this time.  The major linguistic event was the appearance of the nomad hordes, who brought with them Ordai, a language mixing Baklunish with alien elements (perhaps Oeridian?) acquired during their long sojourn beyond the Tyurzi range.  The nomads who became the Wegwiur eventually absorbed a fair amount of North Central Flan as well, due to their contact with the Rovers of the Barrens.  The Uli are an odd case, blending a debased Baklunish with Oeridian and Orcish. 

Oerid:  This people came from a land to the northwest of the Suel, in a coastal land ruled by dragons.  [I have altered the geography here - as have others, I basically cut the supercontinent in two].  The Oeridians served the dragons for a long age, learning much from them.  Then came the Dragon Wars, as the good dragons were assailed by clans of red and green wyrms.  The Oeridians fled, aided in their escape by their former lords.   They also crossed the Tyurzi Mountains, but like the Baklunish before them fell under the sway of the Suloise, who forcibly resettled them into the land now known as Ull.  As we know, the Oeridians rebelled against their Suloise masters and began the great migrations eastward through the Bramblewood Gap.

Flan:  Believe it or not, this is somewhat abbreviated, since I see the history of the Flan as closely bound up with the history of the Elves, which I don’t have room for here; then there’s my alternate history of Vecna.  So leaving that material out, here’s a basic history and linguistic equivalents of the Flan subgroups.

The Flan are a bit tricky.  I don’t see them as a monolithic group; they’ve been here too long, and have been too spread out, to have a single, unified culture and language.  Just as the Celts dispersed across Europe, the Flan have dispersed over Eastern Oerik.  I think I’ve found an elegant solution combining this divergence with the heterogenic nature of the nonhuman culture influencing them:  the Fey, or Faery. 

The word Flanaess, I would argue, is partially Suloise in origin (see OE -ness), meaning simply the land of the Flan.  So the Suloise knew about them - either through the Elves or individual explorers or tradesmen who ventured over the mountains.  The Suloise would have been most familiar with the southwestern Flan, and may not have realized that there were multiple subgroups until the time of the Migrations.  The Flan, however, are a very old people, and have been in the Flanaess for a very long time.  I interpret the term “Ur-Flan” simply to mean the ancient Flan, applicable to any tribe or location, instead of a particular group of Flan.  I realize that mine is not the currently accepted definition.

In their origins, the Flan dwelt on the north coast of the Nyr Dyv (which I interpret as a Flan name - see below).  They came under the influence of the Faery-folk, who lived bodily on the Prime in great numbers in those days.  The Flan spread around the Nyr Dyv, but did not yet venture far from it, except along the main river-outlets.  At some point occurred an Event, which resulted in the departure of most of the Faery and the splintering of the Flan people, possibly the rebounding of a great curse or magical attack (I suspect involvement of the Elder Gods).  From this time the Flan, while remaining sensitive to the Faery, no longer served them.  They spread quickly outward from the Nyr Dyv, though they did not form many great settlements.  Many Flan, as will be seen, came under the rule of the great Elf-kingdoms that were established at about this time.  Having once served Faerie lords, they were comfortable serving the Elf-lords, especially since the High Faerie [IMC, anyway] resembled the Elves.  Similarly, the faerie that remained on Oerth also tended to honor the Elf-lords (as in Celene and other forest realms).  While there was some mixing of peoples, as in the Ulek lands, the Flan tended to form their own client states loyal to one Elf-kingdom or another.  There were still several places where the Flan established their own independent realms, whether because they were beyond the writ of the Elves or because they simply resisted outside rule.  As the Elven realms fell into ruin, the Flan governed themselves, but large realms were rare (Vecna’s Empire being the signal exception).

The Southwest Flan spoke a language we will use Welsh to represent.  There has likely been some divergence over the last thousand years, however, as the Flan of the Sheldomar-Javan valley were pushed apart by the incursions of Suloise and Oeridians, confined to the mountain vales to the west (Geoff, Sterich) and east (Ulek).  These Flan generally were subject to the Elf-kingdoms, first Hithmiri in the west (Crystalmists - see Suel), then its successor states (especially Celene).  As a result, SW Flan contains a fair amount of Elven borrowings.  The northern elements of this group (along the Velverdyva, up through Highfolk) have Gaelic-inflected nomenclature.  Originally the SW Flan extended from the Crystalmists all the way to the Wild Coast, as well as present-day Greyhawk, Veluna, and parts of Furyondy.

The North Central Flan covered the lands east of the Vesve, north of the Nyr Dyv, to the Thillonrian Peninsula.  For these, I use a mishmash of Slavic tongues.  I know, Slavs aren’t Celts; they don’t need to be.  But Stonefist’s names already resemble Slavic, the Rovers are reminiscent of a steppe culture, and this is a convenient place to drop in rusalkas, domovoi, and other creatures from Slavic mythology.  The original span of this culture included Perrenland, Blackmoor, Iuz, Horned Lands, parts of Furyondy, Shield Lands, BK, Rovers, Tenh, Stonehold, Nyrond, Urnsts, the Pale, Thillonrian peninsula.  [Note I consider “Thillonrian” to be an Oeridian appellation, and I haven’t figured out what the Flan called it].  This was also, in my campaign, the heart of Vecna’s realm in the deep past, about three thousand years ago. 

The Eastern Flan were a smaller group, living in what is now Ratik, Bone March, North Aerdy, Almor, isles of the Sea Barons, and the central G.K. (north and east of Ahlissa).   The Flan were pretty well overwritten by the Aerdians in this area, though some pockets survived, as did their ancient works (Causeway of Fiends, for example).  For this group, I use the Gaulish language and Germanic fey; an odd mix, but since they are the least evident among surviving Flan, it’s not much of a problem.

The Southeastern Flan covered Sunndi, Onnwal, Idee, Ahlissa, Medegia, and the southerly islands.  Much of this land, like the Southwest, was under the influence of Elvish rulers, in particular the fabled Queen Ehlissa (note I consider this name to be a Flanization of the Elven name Elerisse).   Some elements also migrated to the Bright Desert area and the Pomarj.  For this group I use Greek as the base language, and their “Fey” are creatures of classical mythology.

Appendix:  Nyr Dyv

I’ve seen a few places suggesting Nyr Dyv is an Oeridian name, combining elements from Nyrond and Dyvers.  Here’s another idea.  Now the original name of the tribe that became Nyrond was “Nehron.”  I think it’s plausible that the spelling changed based on assimilation, confusion, and association with the neighboring sea:  the Nehrondi dwelling by the Nyr Dyv gradually became known as the land of Nyrond.  My opinion is that Nyr Dyv is the ancient Flan name for the sea, a geographical feature so striking that the many migrant peoples accepted the native name rather than call it something like Lake Rax.  Similarly, I think Dyvers was named for the sea, or for the sea and the great river Velverdyva, which also contains the element “dyv.”  I suggest that “dyv” signifies “sea” or “water” in old Flan, with “Nyr” meaning “immeasurable” or simply “deep” or some such.  “Velverdyva” could then mean “road to the sea,” or “arm of the sea,” or “rushing waters,” something similar.  Dyvers would then mean something like “Sea-town” (hmm, like Lake-town upon Esgaroth...).  Possibly its original name was longer, something like “Dyvers Ycaer” meaning City by the Sea; eventually the Oeridians chopped off the uncouth-looking second half and kept “Dyvers” as the name.

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