The language of magic, part 4 of lots

17 Oct

Inamali is the language of magic – the language of the Inamali people and their writings, including their spell books. It is the language Karia must master if she is to understand how to destroy magic.

And I thought you may enjoy the books a lot more if you understand a few things about the Inamali language.

Spoiler alert: If you have not read The House in the Old Wood, you will not want to read the rest of this post.

Real languages have variations and irregularities.

You don’t have to look past English to see that. Look at how many different ways we spell words. The one I love? Phonetic – spelled with a ph. Really?

So to make Inamali more realistic, I inserted a few things don’t seem to make much sense, two of which the astute reader will have noticed in The House in the Old Wood.

One has to do with the way the syllable na is pronounced. Karia notes that sometimes it can be pronounced as “nar.” Why? There’s not a solid reason, but I based the variation on something my daughter Meghan encountered in China. She learned some Mandarin in Beijing, and as soon as she tried to use in Inner Mongolia (which is also part of China and where Mandarin is also the most common language), people would say, “Oh, you’re from Beijing.” They knew that because some words pronounced with “ah” sounds elsewhere were pronounced as “ar” in Beijing.

So in Inamali, in some words at least, na is prounounced nar.

Wait a minute, however, you say. You remember that I said Inamali syllables are all open – that is, they all end in vowels. So how can nar be a legitimate syllable in Inamali if there are no closed syllables in the language – no syllables that end in consonants?

That’s easy. R isn’t a consonant.

Huh?

Phonetically speaking, a vowel is a sound formed when the breath is modified to make a sound, and a consonant is the sound formed when the breath is partially or completely blocked to make a sound.

But where do you draw the line between modifying the breath and partially obstructing it?

It’s somewhere around W, Y and R. This is why these are sometimes referred to as semi-vowels. (That would be the American English R, by the way. Not the flapped or trilled R of other languages, nor the softer R of British English.)

So nar is not a closed syllable; it does not end with a consonant, but with a semi-vowel.

Now that all that is clear as mud, let’s look at the other thing Karia notices in The House in the Old Wood: the word tsilinki. Karia notes that this is the only place she’s come across where li is pronounced “lin.” Actually, she’s wrong. There are no closed syllables in Inamali – no syllables that end in consonants. Li is pronounced “li” in that word; the variation comes in ki. In this word, it’s pronounced “ngki.”

Oh, that clears everything up, right?

Try saying it with me. Most people, when they see, “linki,” would not pronounce it “lin-ki,” but “ling-ki.” But in a language with only open syllables, it would be written – and thought of – as “li-ngki.”

But why?

Who knows? That’s what remainders in linguistics are all about: stuff that doesn’t seem to make sense.

By the way, “ng” is one of those fascinating consonants – and phonetically, it is one consonant – that we use all the time in English but struggle with when we see it in other languages. We just never use it at the beginning of a word, like other languages sometimes do. (Others are flapped Rs and glottal stops, both of which are actually quite common in English.)

Next time, we’ll look at something supremely confusing …

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