Human Languages in a Chult/Ixilan Mash-Up

(This was originally posted to my Tumblr)

So here’s my issue. The D&D campaign setting I’m currently working on has a lot in common with Chult from Tomb of Annihilation, but I’m also incorporating some stuff (such as the Elder Dinosaurs) from the Ixalan setting from Magic the Gathering. This is mostly just a marriage of two awesome things, but there are some distinctions that need to be worked through. Most obviously, the Chult setting is is intended to be pseudo-African, whereas Ixalan is intended as more of pseudo-Mesoamerican. Something has to be done to reconcile this. I suppose I could just commit to one or the other, and change the other elements to match, but. Y’know. That would be too easy. So instead, I’m going to posit a pseudo-Mesoamerican culture with a matching language, and a pseudo-African culture with a matching language, and merge them. 

Which pseudo-African culture and language exactly?

The overview of Chult given in Tomb of Annihilation depicts the Chultan “tribal languages” as “a mix of inhaled and exhaled vowels, consonants, and tongue clicks”. At first this made me think of Xhosa, the (real-life) language that Marvel used as the language spoken by the people of Wakanda in the recent Marvel Black Panther film, but on reflection the setting of Chult (and the tropical/rainforest environment it involves) doesn’t seem to match western South Africa, where Xhosa is most commonly spoken.  (c.f. this map of environments on the continent):

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A quick search of languages in Africa with click sounds gives us this map:

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So we can see from

the two maps that languages with clicks don’t really match up with the rainforest environment one sees in Chult. I would hazard a theory, then, that the Chultan languages include the clicks because they are “cool”, or, put another way, for reasons of exoticism. Is this problematic? I’m not sure I’m in a position to make a judgement myself, but it gives me a pause. At very least I would wonder if it doesn’t represent the stereotypical tradition of lumping the entire African continent together and ignoring its breadth and diversity?  

So, what language would be better suited to our campaign? Well, perhaps having the language based on one spoken in the region matching the correct environment would be nice. And, as it happens, there is a language family in that area which is already (very loosely) associated with dinosaurs (which of course is one of the reason we’re using ToA to begin with) – namely the sauropod(?) cryptid Mokele-mbembe. Apparently its name means “one who stops the flow of waters” in the Lingala language. As a language Lingala is a little modern for our purposes, but we can trace it back to its predecessors as a Bantu language. (Xhosa is also a Bantu language, far removed, which has borrowed the click sounds from unrelated Khosian languages.)

For our purposes, I’ve gone all the way back to Proto-Bantu, a reconstructed ancestor language. My plan is to take the phonemes and the morphology and grammar notes from Proto-Bantu (as listed in the wikipedia article there), and feed them into the language generator over at Vulgar (a conlang generation app that I’ve been playing with recently – so far I recommend it), tweaked a little bit for simplicity (we’ll assume that our language is tonal but the tones don’t show up in the transliteration, for instance, and the noun categories have been very much reduced and switched around), and that will come up with our language. This should be, like the replicated tea from the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, not entirely dissimilar to Proto-Bantu. Much like Tolkien’s Elvish language is not entirely dissimilar to Finnish (at a removal of Tolkien knew what he was doing). 

That would be sufficient for my purposes, I think, with the following small defect: because of the phonetic rules of Proto-Bantu, some of the important names from Tomb of Annihilation are not going to be work in our conlang. For lesser place names and NPCs, that’s not a huge issue; but I am (after a fashion) going to port Ubtao, the main Chultan deity, and the way words are constructed in Ubtao isn’t going to work (i.e., syllables can’t end in consonants. They just don’t.) The quickest solution is probably just to insert a sort of spaceholder vowel between the b and t: Ubutao, pron. “oo-boo-TAH-oh”. This seems to be in keeping with what happens in modern Bantu languages with loan words from other languages with different rules for consonant clusters.

So that’s what I have at the moment. Is it less sticky than the original description of Chultan in ToA? I don’t know that I’m the one to say, which is one reason I’m presenting my thought process here. Perhaps it’s an attempt to solve a problem that isn’t there. It seems like a way I can put a little more thought into the words and names of the human NPCs in my game; but there may be some pitfalls here that I’m not seeing. Any thoughts, readers? 

(And yes, after this conlang we’ll gather a pseudo-Mesoamerican conlang and then combine the two cultures and languages together.)