Virtual Verduria

The Secret History of Verduria

Several people have asked how I came to create Verduria, Verdurian, and the rest of Almea. I started writing this on the (currently broken) Virtual Verduria Bulletin Board, and now you can read the whole story in all its geeky splendor.

The title, by the way, refers to The Secret History of the Mongolians, a title I've always loved.
--Mark Rosenfelder


Jeerio sets out I've been inventing fantasy (and s.f.) lands and languages almost as long as I can remember. Flora and the flaids go back to a story I wrote in sixth grade, Jeerio tries to find a job. (It won a prize-- whee!) Here's a sample:
In the land of Flaids, there lived a promising young man, Jeerio by name, who was interested in Alchemy and Logarithms, and Kerguelen Island and Piggy Banks, and about every other thing a Flaid was interested in, and a couple other things, and some more. He lived at his Mom's house, in lower Flaid Land, and when his mother told him she was fed up with his sleeping all day, and napping all night, and said he was getting too big for his Desk, and Really ought to go and seek a Living; why then Jeerio was terribly sorry, for you see, he liked sleeping.
The picture-- Plate 1-- is labelled, "On the evening of the anniversary of the birth of Shakespeare, Jeerio and Twain set out." (It's not that I couldn't draw heads and feet... well, it's not just that; flaids are supposed to look like that.)

I've always had a soft spot for the flaids and their country, Flora, which has ended up in several fantasy worlds before settling down on Almea, due north of Verduria.

College Hijinx

Verduria itself dates to my first year in college, when I lived next door to a D&Der, Chris Vargas.

He'd been working on a dungeon; I started supplying the wilderness. I created a map, and started making up names for geographical terms... e.g. mazhtana 'city', säte 'hall'. (I thought I had a copy of that map, but it's either gone or hiding.)

The dungeon was Erruk, which you can locate on the Verduria-province map. We played throughout college; the group explored the province a bit, went out west to Pérecaln (which you can see, barely, in the upper left corner of the map on the kingdom map), and took a year-long voyage north, past the Zone of Fire, to K'aitan, where one of the players had inherited a duchy. (I have detailed maps from that, but so far you can only see the place on the map of Ereláe; it's on the island to the right of the word Bekkai.)

During all this time I was elaborating Verdurian and making preliminary wordlists for Cadhinor, Cuêzi, Barakhinei, and Ismaîn. That didn't affect the players much, except that they all had to have Verdurian names.

If all this sounds unutterably geeky, I should note that I got my first girlfriend by inviting her to play in the group. :)

Some Verdurian words are invented from scratch (e.g. mazhtana or elir 'life'); others I stole mostly from French and Russian. This was even more evident in the earliest versions of the language. It was also rather harder to pronounce, since I tended to import the Russian consonant clusters and palatals unmodified.

I didn't consciously base the grammar on anything, but it's heavily influenced by French (articles, preverbal object pronouns, similar verbal inflections), with the major addition of cases (largely based on Esperanto, German, Latin, and Russian).

The Map

For some reason I decided to paint a huge map of the Plain on my dorm room wall. There was some idea of using it during the D&D sessions, but it took two years to finish... and then I lost the room in the room lottery. Note to self: Next time, think portability.

This map-- or rather a blown-up photo of it-- is the basis for the fancy maps of the Plain and of Verduria. I have a series of pictures of the map in progress. It started out as blank white; then I painted the mountains in dark grey. The terrain colors were then painted over them, in a transparent wash.

If you're wondering: I checked by a year or so later, and the map was still there, but covered with posters for rock stars. It's probably been painted over by now.

More painting: it's an NU tradition for various groups to repaint a hunt of rock mnemonically called The Rock. Our D&D group painted it one year. (Why deep green? You should know that...)

In the picture you can't quite read the legend D&D Verdúria on the Rock, and to the left one of the player names-- Tay Örn. (I leave you to figure out the meaning of that name.) The other players wrote their names on the back. In the foreground you can see the symbol of the Cadhinorian pagan religion.

More college stuff

I accumulated a miscellaneous heap of Almean stuff during college:

Verduria was full of jokes back then... influenced as much by Bored of the Rings as by Lord of the same. I've left in some of the jokes in the material I've put online... sometimes hidden by translation into Verdurian, as for instance Rhuk 17e Cheltei Shrayomei on the Verduria province map-- 'Castle of the 17th Evil Wizard'.

There's also jokes and tributes in the language itself:

Verdurian As She Was

A single text won't show off the differences too much, but here's a sample of Verdurian before the Great Revising. It's from a play in alliterative verse on the subject of the defeat of Zhésifo and its unpleasant little king Ertala, son of Bura, by Caleon of Verduria.

Here's the original (left) and revised (right) versions:

ERTALA.                   Valur brak kë
Imrhisne so reih?

MÉLICOM.                   Pirei tuë.

ERTALA. E orest. Er lelei    filio lë im sen.
Rho tene Cadhinas    so tor zië Bodhneaii?
E lacheo reihdalui    soa vulula verdúrë
snucan er amoran?    Ci-malsfaom, ci-bizhno--
Zhdatane! Nkashane!    Ni cishitrî ni cobî
ci-Caleon rho tróume    falanho Ertalei,
druk esë dubec.    Dobre e krof
Cadhinasei, Burei--    amrë esane
soa chena Caleonei!    Soem chegrem mazhtansätei
prosmai, er tékretu    im méuin Mishicame.
Esë esmai Arcaln.

     ERTALA.                   Mizeceo, brak kë
Imrhisne soa scura?

MÉLICOM.                   So rhavy Bura fue.

ERTALA. E orest. Er lelei    medh lië in sen.
Rho tene Cadhinas    so tor zië Bodhneaii?
E lacheo elordalui    vulea verdúrya
snucan er suvan?    Ci-malsfaom, ci-bizhno,
Vizhiene, inkashire!    Ni cishitî ni körhî
ci-Caleon rho tróume    falata Ertalei,
druk esë dubec.    Dobre e so krof
Cadhinasei, Burei,    sumerulî soî cardhî.
Ab adhin proetao,    mazhtana prozmai
vencec, er terhetu    u rhaim Mishicame!
Esë esme Arcaln.

Here is the passage loosely translated into blank verse:
ERTALA.                   Whose then was the arm
That made the Empire new?

MÉLICOM.                   Great Bura's 'twas.

ERTALA. 'Tis so. And here in me thou seest his son.
Cadhinas hath its share in Bodhneay's glory.
Or must Verdurian whim the Emperor love
And serve? This upstart, this barbarian, this
Caleon: Let him wait and let him fear!
The army of Ertala, doubting friend,
'Tis not so weak nor craven as thou thinkest.
The blood of Bura and Cadhinas runneth true,
Nor are its swords untrained. By all the gods,
I'll walk the streets of that far northern city
A conqueror. By Mishicama I will stand,
And own the halls of Arcaln.

The main differences are lexical; you may note that a few words became a little more unrecognizable-- e.g. elordalu for reihdalu 'emperor'; medh for filio 'son', falata for falanho 'army'-- think 'phalanx'. Some words are simply easier to pronounce: vizhien for zhdatan 'wait'; cishitî for cishitrî 'weak', vulea for vulula 'will'.

There's also a few places where I tried to improve the poetry. I do think sumerulî soî cardhî. Ab adhin proetao... (" its swords. By the gods...") sounds better than amrë esane soa chena Caleonei! ("Bitter be the meal of Caleon"). The alliteration is better, too (buREI / amRË are too close; cf. buREI / sumiRUlî). And Mélicom's old line Pirei tuë ("Your father's") is ugly... pi-REY tu-YEH... I prefer So rhavy Bura fue ("Courageous Bura it was", so RHA-vi BU-ra fweh).

Fonts and History

After college, in 1984, I got one of those newfangled Macintosh things, not least because I could create fonts for the special Verdurian characters. (This was before TrueType, so these were bitmap fonts, not the ones you may have downloaded.)

I typed in the dictionary and rewrote the grammar, making use of some of the transformational grammar and semantics I'd learned in school... this is essentially (with minor updates) the grammar that's now online.

My next project was the Historical Atlas. I had some maps of various points in the history of the Plain and of Ereláe, but they weren't very satisfying. Basically I'd just make up names and borders on a map-by-map basis; there was no coherence to the overall narrative, no reason why such-and-such place had such-and-such people in it at a particular time, no explanation for why the Plain was littered with non-Cadhinorian peoples, and no rhyme nor reason to other regions of the continent.

So, I started over with a single piece of paper and designed the entire history of the continent. The vertical dimension represented time, the horizontal, various regions of Ereláe. Now it was possible to see entire nations rise and fall, or split into pieces. The movements of barbarians could be planned-- one wave of barbarians would trigger more waves later. People could migrate around in a realistic fashion based on their circumstances.

I could also suggest entire stories-- for instance, the milennial rise of two ktuvok empires; the several invasions of Skouras; Gurdago and its three empires in three separate geographical areas.

Once it was done, I could create a map for a given year by reading a horizontal slice of the map, and seeing who was in the Plain, who was in Xurno, who was in Dhekhnam and Skouras, and so on. Of course I'd have to come up with particular borders, but this was not too hard once the overall story was clear.

As each map was done, I wrote a page or two of commentary and explanation. Again, the idea of a fixed map with commentary-- and even the writing style-- is gratefully borrowed from Colin McEvedy's Penguin Historical Atlases. I also learned a lot from McEvedy about the likely course of history on an earthlike planet: the slowly spreading realms of agriculture and writing; why barbarians start to invade and why they eventually fade away; the reasons for feudalism; what went wrong in the Western Roman Empire and why the same causes didn't kill the East; the influence of mountains and terrain types on boundaries.

I did all the maps in pencil first, and then redid them in pen and colored markers. In between, I decided to change the model for the Lenani-Littoral languages-- they used to be rather Greek in appearance (e.g. Paphliopagamos, Spe:re:, Guros, Kamau); now they look rather Indic (Pafliopagimi, Engidori, Gutleli, Komand).

The novels you can't read yet: 1

I've always intended to write stories set on Almea... though I've come to the conclusion that I'm better at world creation than at stories. Plots don't come easily to me. And I can't get very far if I don't know how the story will come out.

Still, I've written two full novels set in Almea. The first is set in modern-day Verduria, and features Abend Monteneon, in the days before he was prime minister-- instead, he ran the Corona Inn (this is a type of boat, not a crown, in Verdurian, though I didn't know it at the time). See if you can find the Corona here; and note the reference to Corona Beer in the Civ2 scenario... and what does the calligraphic example from the grammar, shown below, say?

Anyway, Abend-- whose character is based on that of Figaro, from the Beaumarchais plays-- ends up fighting a Dhekhnami sorceror. For most writers, the first thousand pages you write are garbage, and this is no exception. Here, have a look:

Durm-- he had no longer name-- sailed into Verduria on the Falcon the next morning, form Syxesteer. The Falcon passed for a Kebreni merchant vessel, and with the aid of the rum that made up most of its cargo, the Royal Navy inspectors were persuaded to ignore the swords and other contraband in the remaining cargo.

Durm paid the captain in gold, headed down the dock and then along the Scafi Prospekt. His eyes, deep and sharp, took in all the details of the port: bustling stevedores and sailors, run-down merchants' warehouses surrounding the misplaced elegance of the Customs House, armed Naval Guards, the smell of horses and the creak of cars, the hundreds of ships moored in a maze of docks.

With a knowing eye he noted the ships' flags: the Falcon's own spurious colors of Kebri; flags of Erenat, Azgami, Ismahi, Flora; rarer banners from Uytai, Nan, Moreo Ashcai; and everywhere the crown and swords of Verduria. The same green and white flag flew on the tower of the Customs House.

He turned down a side street into the Scafiora, negotiating its narrow and confused streets with familiarity, but yet with such intent observation that merchants sent their apprentices after him with goods to inspect further. He left them behind. Finally he walked down and alley and opened a door invisible from the street.

Gaah! Excruciating. Even worse than the hamhanded clichés is the unnecessity of most of this. It's a port, right? So who needs the Catalog of Portly Things? It also shouldn't be such hot news that the Verdurian flag is flying, not only on the ships (!), but on the customs house (!!). And dig those scary details: Durm has no longer name! He ignores shop boys! I wrote better when I was in sixth grade.

Real linguists follow the regularity principle

Around 1992, I decided to learn all about historical linguistics and re-do all the Eastern languages.

I started by reading Theodora Bynon's Historical Linguistics. I learned a lot, but perhaps the most important thing was to learn what I'd been doing wrong in previous amateur attempts: I didn't know about the regularity of sound change. Sound changes don't apply sporadically; they apply across the board, in every word that has the triggering environment.

(Theoretical note: Well, actually, they start sporadically, affecting certain words. But the sound change keeps on hitting more and more words, and generally it ends up getting them all. So if you look at a sound change in progress, you see wide variation and even confusion; but if you look at a historical sound change, it looks exceptionless. In any case the regularity principle remains an excellent guideline: it makes you keep looking for subtle regularities that underlie apparent exceptions. You learn more that way.)

The regularity hypothesis simplifies creating multiple daughter languages, largely reducing it to a problem of finding a nice set of sound changes and applying them to a lexicon (I use a program to do this).

That's fine for working forward (e.g. Cadhinor to Barakhinei), but trickier for working backward (e.g. Verdurian to Cadhinor). I worked through the vocabulary word by word, thinking about the possible parent forms (with good rules, there's usually a choice). (I don't have a program for this sort of multiple-outcome reverse engineering, but I knew the rules well enough to do it by hand.) Sometimes I just didn't like the possible Cadhinor form, or (worse yet) the Verdurian form was simply impossible to generate given the rules. In such cases I could tweak the rules, or change the Verdurian form, or borrow the word from some other source... I figured that would add verisimilitude anyway.

At the same time I revised a good deal of the vocabulary. I had an embarrassing number of words that were direct steals from English or Russian-- e.g. antelop for 'antelope', now changed to gudun (also a borrowing, but a lot less obvious one). I also had lots of long unanalyzed words-- a rare unfixed one is lelitsala 'art'. There was some idea of deriving this from elir-dhalec 'life-enriching', but unmotivated phonetic distortions like that are no longer allowed! I got rid of many of these forms by using derivations instead; others were divided properly into morphemes. (E.g. shrifta 'knowledge', diverging oddly from shrifec 'know', is now explained as incorporating a Cadhinor collective suffix -ta, which we also met in falata 'army', above.)

I also complicated the morphology. Probably anyone who's tried learning Verdurian curses me for this-- or ignores those parts-- but I'm rather proud of this, since it's a naturalistic feature of real languages. Most of the complications come from the regular sound changes: e.g. the irregular 1s form lagao 'I get' preserves the g that was fricativized in the infinitive lazhec. (If you think that's bad, you'll really hate Barakhinei.)

A particular challenge was to provide some sort of historical justification for the verbal inflections of Verdurian, which exhibit teasing hints of regularity. I had no restrictions on the Cadhinor and Proto-Eastern forms, of course, but I did want the two sets of sound changes to start with something more regular and end up with the Verdurian forms (perhaps tweaked a little by analogy). This proved to be surprisingly difficult. The best I could do was to unify the three conjugations in one (here), and that system could hardly be more arcane... though it's not any worse than many real-world examples.

Much of what I learned during all this ended up distilled into the Language Construction Kit.

I know nobody will follow this advice :) but I will say that it's easier to do it right the first time. Writing Verdurian, I still have to check the dictionary all too often to make sure I'm not remembering the old form rather than the revised one

After Verdurian was in good shape, I wrote grammars of Cadhinor, Cuêzi, Axunáshin, Xurnásh, and Wede:i, as well as data on proto-Eastern, and a preliminary version of Obenzayet.

The novels you can't read yet: 2

The second novel was written not long after this; it's called In the Land of Babblers. It's set in the year 297, and concerns a young courtier named Beretos, who is sent to be the Cuzeian Resident in a miserable little Cadhinorian barony on the edge of the Plain that happens to guard the only pass through the Ctelm Mountains against the ktuvoks. The Cadhinorians are basically barbarians at this time, and Beretos finds it hard to be accepted even as a warrior, much less a help against the demons.

Personally, I still like this book. I liked trying to get inside the mind of someone from a very antique culture; and the spiritual desolation that Beretos feels echoed some parts of my life. (I'm better now, thanks.)

I'm not going to post it online; I still want to be published on dead trees, and explore this wacky idea of writers getting 'paid' that I hear so much about nowadays. However, here's a short extract:

When his friend Oromo was captured by the people of the Cloud Kingdom, the Sojourner travelled south to the ice kingdom of the Turicali, and began to raise falcons.

It was tedious work. First of all, a pair of falcons had to be captured, young enough to be trained. It is necessary to capture them in the wild, because the Turicali do not sell their birds. The training itself requires long hours and much care. And once he had trained them to trust him and to return to his hand, it took many months for them to hunt enough airswallows for his purpose.

To rescue Oromo, he needed to rise to the level of the clouds, and for this of course he needed a vehicle which was lighter than air. Smoke is lighter than air, but it is too unsubstantial to ride on. It was the Sojourner's idea to build a boat of the feathers of birds; but most birds do not rise anywhere near to the level of the Cloud Kingdom, and their feathers were useless to him. Only the airswallows, who actually build their nests in the clouds, have feathers of the necessary lightness. They never touch land, and are thus almost as inaccessible as the Cloud Kingdom; but sometimes they fly low enough that the highest-flying of falcons, those of the land of the Turicali, can catch them.

If he was fortunate, his falcons could find one airswallow each day; and with the feathers of the birds they caught he began to build his boat. He tied the boat to his bed, because otherwise it would slowly rise into the sky. After six months it was large enough to carry his weight. He piloted the boat into the sky, came to the Cloud Kingdom, and rescued his friend.

More world-elaboration

I had some notes on Almean religions, which I revised into Almean Belief Systems. This is an unfinished work; there are extensive section on the Xurnese religions I'm still working on, and precious little on Jippirasti.

If there's any secret to the sort of world-building I do (rich, plausible, and shudderingly non-profit), it's patience and research. I think you'll do better fantasy if you don't read much of other people's fantasy, but rather history, science, and non-Western stories. It came into my head, for instance, to revise the substance names in Verdurian. I decided that to do this right I'd have to learn something about early chemistry, so that I'd learn what substances the Verdurians were likely to know, and enough about them to give them good names.

I also like wide-scale anthopological works, to get an idea how cultures work and develop. My favorite authors here are Marvin Harris and Jared Diamond, whose Guns, Germs, and Steel is fascinating on why some areas of a planet might develop faster than others, without regard to the cleverness of the inhabitants. If you're curious, some of the reasons he advances for the preeminence of Eurasia are:

I've been applying this to Almea; in particular, one of my ongoing projects is to work out the biology of Almean food crops, and how that influenced Almean history.

Virtual Verduria