Saturday, March 03, 2007

Live from The Lump

To soak your mental adult undergarments in the stream of consciousness which led to this post, please see the previous post.

In my last post I made fun of George Lucas, but I really owe the man a lot for coming up with the character of Indiana Jones. Those of you with a freakishly misused memory for details will remember that in the third movie the map with no names in Henry Jones Sr.’s grail diary leads them to the Turkish city of Alexandretta, now called Iskenderun. How is this relevant to anything? Read on to find the mysteriously unsatisfying answer!

By the end of the Dune series so many thousands of years have passed that some of the names of major planets have changed. Caladan has become Dan. Giedi Prime has become Gammu. And so on. When I first read the books in high school or whenever, I thought that the mutated name of Caladan was confusing, odd and implausible – why would anyone abbreviate “Caladan” as “Dan” and not “Cal” or “Calan” or “Can” or something else? It just sounded wrong.

Now that I’ve been to several different countries and have seen something of the different ways that languages work, I’m not as annoyed by “Dan” for “Caladan”. Maybe in the Dune universe there was a huge tonal emphasis on the last syllable of proper names. Maybe “Cala” was the local term for “The planet called” and the “Dan” part was always the more important element. Maybe the planet was taken over by a race of people whose language didn’t have the sounds for “c” or “l”. There could be several plausible reasons for the change. And even in English, while last-syllable abbreviations aren’t that common they do exist, for example ’nads for gonads and (I think) ’sucker for... well, you know.

One place in the real world where I’ve seen especially unique place-name evolution is Turkey, where old Greek cities were renamed by Turks whose language was completely different (European languages are of the Indo-European family, while Turkish is what I think’s called a Finno-Ugric language. Or maybe it’s just Turkic? Look it up yourself.). On a trip to Istanbul a couple of years back, I was fascinated to see the ancient city and region of Anatolia called “Antalya”, and the ancient city of Smyrna called Izmir. Note that the only similarity between “Smyrna” and “Izmir” is the “’smir” sound, which has moved from the first syllable to the second in the new name. Much odder than “Caladan” becoming “Dan”.

Here are some of my favorite real-world distortions of city-names over time, moving roughly in order of increasing strangeness (some of these spellings were copied from this wikipedia article to save time, so take with a grain of salt):

Akragas -> Agrigento
Mediolanum -> Milano (I read somewhere that it’s possible the old, old name of this city was “medioplanum”, or in the middle of the plain, but it lost the “p”)
Neapolis -> Naples

Aquae Sextiae -> Aix
Lugdunum -> Lyon
Vesontio -> Besançon

Caesaraugusta -> Zaragoza
Carthago Nova -> Cartagena
Wadi al Kabir -> Guadalquivir

Augusta Vindelicorum -> Augsburg
Colonia Agrippina -> Köln
Castra Regina -> Regensburg

Alexandretta -> Iskenderun (Turkish version of “Alexander” is “Iskendar”. What I think happened to the name is the “ks” sound in “aleks” got switched around (a.k.a. metathesis) to “sk”, and maybe the “al” got dropped entirely because it sounded like Arabic for “the”. Just speculation though, I’m not a historical linguist)
Antioch -> Antakya
Anatolia -> Antalya
Trebizond -> Trabzon
Smyrna -> Izmir
Ephesus -> Efes

With all this in mind, I would like to present a linguistic theory or supposition of mine:

I believe that the word “Istanbul” is not, as the main Wikipedia entry and many other people claim, from a Greek phrase meaning “to the city” (eis tin polin), but is rather just a slightly garbled version of “Constantinople”. My reasoning is pretty simple: conSTANtinoPLE has the sound “stan” in it, while “eis tin polin” does not. Q.E.D. However, I’m open to convincing otherwise – if you buy the eis tin polin theory let me know why.

To bring this all back around, I also believe that Constantinople was a major inspiration for Tolkien’s city of Minas Tirith. Just look at the way the rectangular mountains surrounding Mordor resemble the coastline of Anatolia, which leaves Gondor approximately on Greece and Italy, and the Shire is pretty much where England would be. Constantinople was, like Minas Tirith, a large city left over from a once-great empire, surrounded by huge rings of walls and long seen as a bulwark of the West against the East.

I’m not saying that Minas Tirith is a direct fantasy version of Constantinople, just that it was inspired by several aspects of it. Also on the subject, from what I understand Tolkien’s two major versions of Elvish were designed to be a fancy old version of the language, like Latin, and an evolved later version, like Italian, and that he spent a lot of his time thinking about how the language (and names) would have changed over time, so for example from Quenya to Sindarin the name Carnistir became Caranthir. The miracle is that someone so detail-oriented and obsessively nerdy was able to write a story that had any interest to outsiders at all.

P.S. As to the post title: The Lump is what I hope to get people calling Kuala Lumpur in the future. It’s much quicker to say and quite poetic, don’t you think?

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