When crafting a post-apocalyptic world, one consideration easily overlooked is that of language. What one might call the post-apocalyptic language of the survivors. In a world only two or three generations removed from an apocalyptic event, the language will likely exhibit few changes. But in a world set farther in the future, say a century or more, it’s likely that the language will embody numerous changes, or at least significant ones. The reason for this is twofold.
First, a post-apocalyptic language will be greatly influenced by the amount of knowledge that survives the apocalyptic event. Some knowledge may have survived as the product of purposeful attempts to salvage pieces of the previous world, while other knowledge will have survived simply from the fact that a survivor contains within him the knowledge and language of the previous world. Second, a post-apocalyptic language will be altered by the addition of new words and phrases, as well as the exclusion of others. People of a post-apocalyptic society may likely encounter strange new events, objects, and phenomena that were nonexistent in the pre-apocalyptic world, or at least rarely experienced there. Such a society would need to invent new terms to describe these things. Conversely, events, objects, and phenomena that no longer exist in the world will eventually fade from the language.
In our own world today, we find remarkable examples of preserved knowledge. Examples from ages past that have survived down to us nearly intact through nothing more than the simple vehicle of repeated copying. In Judaism, for example, centuries of tradition have held that even a one-letter discrepancy in the creation of a written copy of the Torah is unacceptable. Comparing ancient copies of this text with modern copies reveals incredible fidelity, despite the fact that the versions were created centuries apart. Similar fidelity is also found to exist in the tales of some oral traditions.
In Ray Bradbury’s award-winning, dystopian novel, Fahrenheit 451, a network of individuals has taken to memorizing great works of literature and philosophy in an attempt to save them from a society that makes it a priority to burn them. It’s not hard to imagine that such a memorization effort could be carried down through the generations. This raises a couple of interesting questions, questions that I explore in my novel, Keepers of the Dawn. 1) How accurate can preserved knowledge be in the absence of context? 2) Is preserved knowledge from a bygone age truly preserved if the meaning behind it has been lost?
In the Hugo Award-winning novel, A Canticle for Leibowitz, by Walter M. Miller, Jr., monks spend centuries scavenging and copying remnants of pre-apocalyptic literature in hopes of preserving what little remains of the previous world. One particular document of interest is a diagram annotated with technical specifications. In a world of lost technology, however, the purpose of such diagrams, along with the meaning of their technical terms, has been forgotten. So although the monks have painstakingly copied the technical document word for word thereby preserving it, its true meaning has been lost.
In Keepers of the Dawn, the wizard Zandow understands this affect. That is, the affect time can have on an attempt to preserve pre-apocalyptic knowledge. He states:
‘But you need to understand that things change. Time itself changes them. The course that a river flows today may be vastly different from the course it flowed in your great-grandparent’s time. There could be a world of difference between the tales of your Heritage and the meaning you ascribe to them, and the meaning your ancestors ascribed to their versions of those same tales.’
In a post-apocalyptic world, therefore, even the precise copying of pre-apocalyptic documents, or the exact retelling of pre-apocalyptic tales, may fail to prevent the loss of pre-apocalyptic knowledge and the language associated with it. This brings us to another point: the imperfect preservation of past knowledge.
It’s axiomatic that the passage of time can have a profound effect on knowledge. And that, in turn, has an effect on language. For example, can you name three gods worshipped by the Neolithic people who built Stonehenge? Don’t feel bad. No one can. Their names—provided they ever existed—have been lost, along with the rest of that population’s language. That is not to say that ancient names, words, and phrases never survive. They do of course. But they do not always survive in their original form.
The History Channel series, America’s Secret Slang, does a good job of investigating the origins of some of our most common words and phrases. A number are actually found to be adulterations of other words and phrases. The program’s findings are often surprising. An example from my own experience is the word, “Alzheimer’s.” At the time that word first began to appear in popular culture, the internet did not yet exist. And unless you’d seen the word in print somewhere, it was a little difficult to understand exactly what someone was saying when he spoke the word. As a result, many people heard “Alzheimer’s” and misinterpreted it as the phrase, “Old Timer’s.” Since Alzheimer’s is a cause of dementia that primarily affects the elderly, and since the word sounds somewhat like the phrase, it was perfectly logical to perceive that “Old Timer’s” was what the malady was called. All these years later, I would not be surprised to find that there are still those who think the term for the malady is “Old Timer’s.” Although perhaps not the best example, it does show how easily an “adulterated” word can be absorbed into one’s vocabulary. America’s Secret Slang has a plethora of much better examples if you should get a chance to catch an episode.
The point is that an author would be remiss if he failed to account for the effect that the passage of time can have on any pre-apocalyptic knowledge that might have survived the previous world’s downfall. In Keepers of the Dawn, the Holy Mother and Her universal Church oversee the world’s sole religion. In an attempt to keep the Nameless-One’s words inviolate (the “Nameless-One” is the name of the deity the world worships), the Church employs a Dean of Tongues.
The duty of the Dean of Tongues, then, was to make certain the Language—the words and sounds used by the Nameless-One in the time before Ruin—did not stray. If too many adulterations of the one true language were allowed to exist, then the purpose and true meaning behind the Nameless-One’s words, Church doctrine, and even He Himself might be lost to future generations. Even the Viles knew to keep the Language true, although to what purpose and through what means one could only guess.
Despite their best efforts, however, that host of holy women who over the centuries had served in the post of the Dean of Tongues had failed to keep out every “adulteration.” I admit, I had fun “adulterating up” some modern words for use in the future world of Keepers. Here are a few: Claymouth, Kalifai, and the Mountain of Titans, as well as the Kingdoms of Montaho and Nevona (which, hint hint, arose as a result of the Great Consolidation of centuries past). I’ll leave it to you to guess what the unadulterated, modern equivalent of each of these is.
The second way a post-apocalyptic language can be altered is by the addition of new words and phrases. It is a fact that language is always changing. Just ask any linguist. Or the Dean of Tongues for that matter.
Like humankind, the one true language was a living creature. A creature the Nameless-One created for the transmission of His Word. It fell to the Church to always constrain the Language so as to prevent it from wandering from its original divine design, just as the Church strove to constrain humankind from committing sin against its original design. Like humanity, however, the Language was imperfect. It too was given a spirit and freewill that sometimes led it astray.
I would argue that the fact language does indeed possess “a spirit and freewill” should be incorporated into the language of any post-apocalyptic world that exists more than a century or so beyond its apocalyptic event.
In Keepers of the Dawn, for example, numerous words were introduced into the language over the preceding centuries to describe events, objects, and phenomena that did not exist, or were rarely seen, in the pre-apocalyptic world. Some of these new words describe various aspects of the population’s psychic abilities. These include: kineticor, receptor, coercer, inducer, compeller, mentas, dual-dwelling, and the Infiltration. Other new words describe other aspects of the post-apocalyptic world. Some of these are: mishappen, the Ruin, the Nameless-One, forest giant, battle beast, war dog (a new species of dog), and stiquilla. Inclusion of these words in the language makes for a richer, more vibrant world.
For example, take the word, “kineticor” (rhymes with core), which I coined. It is obviously an extension of the word “kinetic” and may call to mind the word “telekinesis.” (Both “kinetic” and “telekinesis” derive from the same Greek word, “kinesis.”) When a reader comes to realize that “kineticor” is actually another term for “wizard,” the whole nature of what a wizard is in this world is called into question and, by extension, the true nature of what “magic” could be in a world populated by psychics. All of this from the inclusion of one new word where the old tried-and-true “wizard” would have served reasonably well.
Along with the addition of new words into a post-apocalyptic language is the other side of the coin: the exclusion of words from the language. In a post-apocalyptic world where advanced technology no longer exists, or at least no longer exists in a recognizable form, the vocabulary used to describe such technology is of no practical use. It’s hard to imagine, for example, that the terms “force field” and “laser” would continue to exist centuries beyond the demise of those technologies.
In Keepers of the Dawn, which takes place in a medieval world, I took special care to exclude all such technological terms from the text. For example, I gave great thought as to whether to include the word “cannonade.” Although I thought to use the word to describe a wizard discharging a rapid succession of “wizard fire,” and so textually the word was quite appropriate, I decided not to use it. I determined that in a world where gunpowder and cannons had not existed for two millennia, the connotation of “cannonade” was too suggestive of those lost technologies. I excluded other words for similar reasons. Many of these, as you might imagine, were difficult to replace. If you chance to read the novel, you may recognize some of the substitutions and divine their absent counterparts.
In short, careful attention to the language of a post-apocalyptic world offers opportunities for infusing richness, vivacity, and even mystery into the text. By carefully crafting a post-apocalyptic language, an author can convey a number of clues about the nature and impact of an apocalyptic event, the length and level of chaos following the event, the quantity of knowledge likely preserved from the previous world, and other related tidbits. All of which adds richness to the text and enjoyment for the reader.