Ach crivens! The language of Discworld
If you’re not familiar with the Discworld, the fantasy world created by author Sir Terry Pratchett which has featured in 39 bestselling novels, then you’ve certainly been missing out. For the uninitiated, Discworld is a flat world balanced on the backs of four giant elephants standing on the shell of the star turtle Great A’Tuin (because even the Creator of the universe enjoys a joke).
What first started life in 1983 as a parody of the fantasy and science fiction genres has now blossomed into a minutely detailed world. One of the most enjoyable aspects of Pratchett’s writing is that, despite the fantastical setting, the people and places seem very real and relatable. One of the ways that Pratchett has achieved this is through richness of language.
‘Pardon my Klatchian’
The Disc is both ‘a world and mirror of worlds’, filled with different countries and cultures which have more than a passing resemblance to our own, and it’s clear that Pratchett has had a lot of fun creating the linguistic identities of Discworld’s various inhabitants. While Tolkien’s Middle Earth is constructed with a meticulous level of linguistic detail, which has been much copied by later fantasy writers, Pratchett has created more idiosyncratic names for his continents and cities. Therefore, while we have Ankh-Morpork and Lancre we also have Llamedos (try spelling it backwards), Djelibeybi (think confectionery), and the fair city of Bonk, pronounced ‘Beyonk’.
With so many different languages spoken on the Disc – Morporkian, Klatchian, Ephebian, and Omnian to name a few – there’s no wonder that language barriers, as anywhere, can cause confusion. For example, Anhk-Morpork might be the Disc’s greatest metropolis but to a native of Uberwald (a ‘very wild’ place indeed!) Morpork is a word for an item of ladies’ underwear. The Borogravian national anthem is another familiar example of the problems of translation. While probably a rousing call to arms in its native tongue, the Morporkian (or English) translation is somewhat mystifying:
Awake, ye sons of the Motherland!
Taste no more the wine of the sour apples
Woodsmen, grasp your choppers!
Farmers, slaughter with the tool formerly used for lifting beets the foe!
Frustrate the endless wiles of our enemies
We into the darkness march singing
Against the whole world in arms coming
But see the golden light upon the mountain tops!
The new day is a great big fish!
- [Monstrous Regiment]
‘Today is a good day for someone else to die’- Translation of dwarfish battle cry
If human language differences weren’t problematic enough there are also Trollish and Dwarfish to contend with. A clear parody of Tolkien’s own inventions, Discworld dwarves speak a guttural language which, to the untuned ear, sounds like someone in need of a throat sweet or two. Dwarves famously have no single word for rock and can also communicate through a complex pictorial language known as Minesign. Trolls, on the other hand, are much more physical beings, communicating mainly by hitting each other with rocks. They do, however, have both a written and a spoken language and are perhaps responsible for the oldest writing on the Disc:
Him who mountain crush him no
Him who sun him stop him no
Him who hammer him break him no
Him who fire him fear him no
Him who raise him head above him heart
‘Luck is my middle name…mind you, my first name is Bad’
Another enjoyable aspect of the Discworld novels is the constant succession of weird and wonderful Dickensian names. These range from the descriptive, Esmeralda ‘Granny’ Weatherwax (the most powerful witch on the Disc), to the unfortunate Magrat Garlick (her mother did not know how to spell Margaret), down to the plain misguided Bestiality Carter (son to parents who named their daughters after virtues and sons after vices). A few of my personal favourites include, conman Moist Von Lipwig, bookish wizard Ponder Stibbons, theatre owner Mr Seldom Bucket, and, of course, Agnes Nitt, who would much rather be known as Perdita X Dream.
There’s also a set of jokes about people pronouncing their names in unorthodox ways. For example, the evil criminal Mr Teatime (pronounced ‘Te-ah-tim-eh’) and the snooty Mrs Letice Earwig – that’s ‘Ah-wij’ thank you very much – and as for Baron’s son Roland de Chumsfanleigh (pronounced ‘de Chuffley’) well, it’s not his fault.
‘Words In The Heart Cannot be Taken’
Aside from the amusing names and satirizing of cultural confusion, language forms an important part of the underlying philosophy of the novels as Pratchett recognises how language creates the reality it describes. He also demonstrates the power of language in shaping the way we relate to our own identities and the past.
For example, in Lords and Ladies the inhabitants of the tiny Kingdom of Lancre fondly remember elves as the ‘shining ones’ and ‘fair folk’; however, in reality (and in an amusing departure from Tolkien) when the elves return they are in fact sadistic killers. In one of my favourite quotes from the series, Pratchett demonstrates his detailed understanding of how language can be manipulated to construct reality:
Elves are wonderful. They provoke wonder.
Elves are marvellous. They cause marvels.
Elves are fantastic. They create fantasies.
Elves are glamorous. They project glamour.
Elves are enchanting. They weave enchantment.
Elves are terrific. They beget terror.
- Lords and Ladies