[] Jörg Rhiemeier's Conlang Pages


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Atla is the setting in which most of my conlangs exist. This is another of several conworlds whose name begins and ends with A - others are Arda, Almea and Akana. And as with all of these, the name simply means "the world" in one of its own languages, in this case Old Albic. It is different from all of these, though, in not being a world patently different from our world, with entirely its own landscapes, nations, languages and all that. Rather, it is a version of the real world with just a few languages and speaker communities of these languages added - much like how a mainstream fiction novel adds fictional characters and events to the real world.

Center piece of Atla are the Elves (Old Albic Elbi), an ethnic group native to the Britih Isles. These Elves are not the immortal, magically empowered race of fantasy fiction (in fact, there is no magic in Atla, of course), much less the tiny winged fairies of folklore, but an entirely normal human ethnic group. The idea is that at the turn of the Bronze and Iron Ages, there was a sophisticated civilization on the British Isles, which underlies the Germanic and Celtic traditions of Elves on which J. R. R. Tolkien built his Elves. This civilization may also have been the Hyperborea of the Greek tradition and maybe even Plato's Atlantis. These Elves speak a group of closely related languages called Albic, which form a branch of a larger language family, Hesperic. The Hesperic languages are meant to descend from the language of the early Bronze Age Bell Beaker culture of westen Europe, and constitute an early divergent branch of the Indo-European language family. The ancient Elvish civilization spoke Old Albic, from whose dialects the various languages of the modern Elves developed.

Besides the languages of the Elves, there are further conlangs in Atla, representing other lost linguistic lineages. There are further Hesperic languages. Two other language families of Atla represent Neolithic linguistic lineages: Razaric that of Britain (the Dwarves to Albic's Elves), and Krelian that of the Linear Pottery culture of Central Europe. Most of this currently lies unexplored, though.

Project history

Home Eleven and the birth of Nur-ellen

The history of what is now Atla began when I found an unusual Tolkien fan fiction story on the Web: Home Eleven by Martin Baker, a story about Elves left behind in the modern world (written under Tolkien's own assumption that Middle-earth was the distant past of our world). As I also had developed an interest in Tolkien's languages (as I have always been fascinated by languages and symbols of all kinds), I asked myself, "What languages do those Elves speak?". My answer was, "Most likely a descendant of Sindarin", and went forth to build just that language - Nur-ellen (the name meant 'Low Elvish' in the language itself). I was not yet familiar with the ways languages changed, but as I perused Ardalambion, I acquired a feeling of how this works. I also began to check out historical linguistics textbooks from the local university library, and so I learned about the comparative method.

A new kind of Elves, and a brief stint in Ill Bethisad

During the work on Nur-ellen, my ideas about the nature of its speakers changed. I decided that the Elves are not descendants of Tolkien's Elves, which after all of course were unreal. The Elves changed into essentially what they are now: a nation of ordinary human beings with a culture somewhat reminiscent of Tolkien's Elves, though increasingly acquiring a more personal tone, reflecting my ideas about the human condition and the meaning of life (resulting in a culture that in many ways differed from Tolkien's.

All this I presented to the CONLANG mailing list, where a collaborative conworld combining conlangs from different contributors was discussed. This was Ill Bethisad, an alternative history built around Andrew Smith's Brithenig, a Romance language of Britain built by applying sound changes of Welsh to Vulgar Latin. I suggested that my Elves could also exist in that realm, and they were welcome. So a small province was marked off in the east of Kemr (the nation where Brithenig was spoken), and I placed my Elves and their Nur-ellen language just there. I also proposed to build a Romance language of Germany for Ill Bethisad, and started making Germanech by applying German sound changes to Vulgar Latin. Germanech was thus to German what Brithenig is to Welsh. Such languages are popular among the Ill Bethisad crowd. Further examples are Breathanach by Geoff Eddy (using Gaelic sound changes) and Wenedyk by Jan van Steenbergen (using Polish sound changes).

But this was not destined to last. I soon grew unhappy about the arrangement. In my perception, Ill Bethisad was a bunch of conservatives who held romantic views of the ancien régime and downplayed social modernism. Also, some of them were difficult to deal with, giving facetious answers to serious questions where I just could not fathom what they really meant. Hence, I parted ways from Ill Bethisad and declared that Nur-ellen and Germanech would not exist there. (It did not do the areas concerned well, though. Where my Elves were meant to live, now is a backwater populated by reactionary Cos Nustr bushwhackers, and Germany is a messy caricature of a mixture between the Holy Roman Empire and Bismarck's German Empire.) Nur-ellen and Germanech would thus exist in a world of their own.

Separation from Tolkien's linguarium

Meanwhile, the whole edifice of the history of my Elves was beginning to take shape: the Bell Beaker culture, a real Western European archaeological culture at the beginning of the Bronze Age (conveniently, a culture in which archery played a major role, thus fitting a common cliché about the Elves!), would develop into the Elven nation in Britain before they were to be conquered by the Celts in the 6th century BC, but survive in some isolated pockets in western Britain and on Madeira, which had been colonized by the Elves in their heyday. At first, I still used Tolkien's languages: the Bell Beaker people would speak Primitive Quendian, the classical Elves Common Eldarin, the Elves of Medieval Britain Sindarin, the modern Elves Nur-ellen and the Elves of Madeira would speak Quenya (they would even call their island Eressea!). For a tribe of Elves in Ireland, I planned to make a Quendian language with Irish-like sound changes, but that idea never was made real.

That, of course, was a blatant theft of someone else's conlangs! Also, Tolkien's languages are incompletely documented so I had to fill in many things, and on top of that, I had, in the course of trying to wrap my mind around ergativity, developed my own ideas about the Elven languages' morphosytactic alignment, namely that they would be active-stative languages - which Tolkien's languages of course weren't.

I thus decided to part ways from Tolkien's linguarium and start anew with my own Elvish languages. What I didn't change was the structure of the language family tree, and the basic ideas about the phonological and morphological changes of the individual languages - but Primitive Quendian at the root was to be replaced by my own protolanguage. Of course, all the languages received new names, too. Primitive Quendian became Proto-Hesperic, Common Eldarin became Old Albic, etc. (Not all of the contemporary names of the languages were fixed already back then; some changed several times.) This change, however, was not abrupt; rather, I gradually replaced Tolkienian words and morphemes by my own ones.

There also was a new idea rising about the relationship of my family to Indo-European, which arose when I read Indo-European and the Indo-Europeans by T. Gamkrelidze and V. Ivanov: an interesting volume presenting an alternative reconstruction of Early Proto-Indo-European, famous mostly for the glottalic theory. Not everything in that book made sense to me, but I noticed that they proposed that Early PIE may have been an active-stative language, and that did make sense to me. I decided that Hesperic would be a sister group of Indo-European, descending from such an early stage and keeping the old morphosyntactic alignment. This made perfect sense to me!

So the next step was to sketch a new protolanguage. I started with PIE as it is reconstructed in the handbooks and made an attempt at the internal reconstruction of a pre-stage as an active-stative language. From this, I derived Proto-Hesperic as a daughter language which served as the starting point of my family. This language, however, remained a lifeless skeleton for the time being. There was a phonology, morphology and some syntax, but very little lexicon - I would create the words as needed. Also, the skeleton was to be changed several times as I understood the relationship better.

For the story how Hesperic was related to Indo-European, I worked with the Black Sea deluge hypothesis as laid out by William Ryan and Walter Pitman in their book, Noah's Flood. My idea was that the common ancestor of IE and Hesperic was spoken prior to the flood, around 6000 BC, where now is the Bay of Odessa (the officially nameless bay west of Crimea). When the flood hit about 5500 BC, refugees carried the language north along the Dniepr river, where it evolved into PIE, and west along the Danube, founding the Linear Pottery culture, where it evolved into Proto-Hesperic. This idea was not without problems, though; but for these problems and their solution, see below.

The League of Lost Languages

Even after the negative experience with Ill Bethisad, there still was the idea of joining forces with other conlangers to build a shared framework for conlangs. These considerations led, in 2004, to the formation of the League of Lost Languages. I contributed my Hesperic languages and Germanech, as well as ideas for further languages. At first, this worked well, but it soon lost momentum. I was the only member to contribute their main projects to it, and there actually was not much to discuss as the languages would exist in a world otherwise like our own, so everybody could just build their conlangs without having to take things in consideration that weren't already fixed by reality.

After a few years, the LLL was dormant: everybody worked silently on their contributions - if they worked on anything in the League at all. I tried to breathe some group spirit by suggesting that we could build a language family together, but this attempt - originally named Noric, later amended to Eteonoric, were not very successful. A few unfinished sketches of Eteonoric languages were made, but soon after, the League of Lost Languages went silent again, and even a second attempt building on the meagre results of the first, the Second Caucasus Project (the "Second Caucasus" would have been the Alps, which were to be filled with conlangs), failed. When the Yahoogroups mailing list where we conducted our business closed in December 2019, the League of Lost Languages went from dormant to defunct.

Changes in the prehistory of Albic and Hesperic

Meanwhile, the story behind the relationship between IE and Hesperic crumbled. It became more and more apparent that not only is it entirely uncertain whether the Black Sea flood actually had happened (it now seems as if Ryan and Pitman had misinterpreted their data), it also turned out that the Linear Pottery culture was archaeologically and genetically unrelated to the Yamnaya culture who probably were the speakers of PIE. On top of this, the Bell Beaker culture was not a descendant of Linear Pottery. Hence, there was no reason to assume a linguistic connection between Linear Pottery and IE, nor between Linear Pottery and Bell Beaker, and I had to find a new model.

The new model built on the "three Kurgan invasion waves" proposed by Marija Gimbutas: the first around 4400 BC into the Balkan Peninsula and Central Europe, the second around 3500 BC into the Balkan Peninsula and Anatolia, and the third around 3000 BC all over the place. I decided that Hesperic was from the first wave, Anatolian from the second wave, and non-Anatolian IE from the third wave. The Linear Pottery culture was out of the game. Thus, Hesperic moved closer to IE, which I had no trouble with, as I simply didn't have enough sound changes for the old time depth.

This was all fine and merry - until the results of ancient DNA studies came in after 2015. It turned out that the first Kurgan wave was non-existent: there was no major influx of steppe DNA into the Balkan Peninsula or Central Europe before 3500 BC - the cultural changes ascribed by Gimbutas to that wave are now considered endogenic. And probably there also was no spread of a language from the Pontic Steppe to the Balkan Peninsula, either. While languages often spread without major population movements, such language shifts require that the expanding language is more prestigious than the language it replaces, but in 4400 BC, the Balkan Peninsula was much more prosperous and sophisticated than the Pontic Steppe, which from the nearly urbanized Balkan people's viewpoint was a barbarian backwater. (And besides, nobody built kurgans back then.)

So I had to change my model again. I read a lot of papers about ancient DNA studies in Europe, and a new picture emerged. Basically, the "first" and the "second" wave were folded into one. There were two waves of IE expansion, one around 3500 BC starting in the southern part of the PIE homeland and following the Danube into the Balkan Peninsula and Central Europe, and one around 3000 BC starting in the northern part of the PIE homeland and going just about everywhere. The first wave resulted in the spread of Anatolian and Hesperic, the second in that of the non-Anatolian IE languages. Hesperic is thus a sister group of Anatolian. So if Hittite is an IE language, Old Albic is one, too!

The birth of Atla

When the League of Lost Languages went defunct, I decided to place my contributions in a world framework of my own. I also used this transition to finally get rid of Germanech and an obsolete vignette of a Hesperic language called Attidian, as well as several ill-fated ideas that never saw the light of the world. This threw up the question how to name it. I considered just calling it "my linguarium", but then I realized that there could be hardly a more fitting name than the Old Albic word for 'world': Atla.

Also, I decided not to walk the collaborative conworld road again. Atla would be entirely my creation, without any contributions from others. Not because I am antisocial or anything like that, but because I have not made good experience with such shared worlds, and chiefly for legal reasons. I am planning to write novels featuring my languages and get them published, and if you use a world with foreign contributions for that, the royalties issues can become hairy.

Languages of Atla

Currently, all these languages are work in progress and incomplete.

© 2020 Jörg Rhiemeier
Last update: 2020-06-11