Posts Tagged 'linguistics'



At last, we have a canon ruling on the official/common language of the Tevinter Imperium. Lead DA writer Patrick Weekes responded to my Tweet this afternoon in which I asked which serves as the common language of day-to-day communication: Tevene or Trade Tongue.

According to Weekes’ response, the common language of Tevinter is Trade Tongue while Tevene serves as “flavor” with “phrases peppering speech as a sign of education.”

Dorian’s explanation that they “still use the colorful phrases” goes right along with what I suspected and what Weekes confirmed – that Tevene serves as “flavor” sprinkled here and there, but the main language spoken in the Imperium is the Trade Tongue.

Weekes says the prevalence of Tevene in conversation serves as a sign that you’re well-educated, much like (as he himself points out) the use of French as an “elite” or “bourgeois” language among the educated court nobility of England and other Western European countries at various periods throughout history. French was similarly considered an “educated” language in Colonial America and continues to have that association today in parts of North Africa and Asia.

Unfortunately, I don’t know enough about the history of the French language to confirm whether Weekes was correct with his analogy to French usage in Victorian London. I’d love to get more information about that from someone who knows more about the the historical usage of French in England.

There’s some canonical evidence that would seem to contradict Weekes, however.

The most significant piece of such evidence is found in the Dragon Age RPG Set 3 Player’s Guide, which states on pages 34-35 that any character of Tevinter origin (whether Altus, Laetan, or Soporati) can “speak and read Tevinter and the Trade Tongue.” There are a couple of glaring issues with that:

1) The name of the language is “Tevene,” not “Tevinter.”

The Tevene language has been called by various names in Dragon Age canon and fandom – Tevene, Tevinter, Arcanum. “Arcanum” was never canon; fan use of the term supposedly stemmed from some experimental language stuff that BioWare ended up throwing out. As for “Tevene” vs. “Tevinter,” BioWare writer Mary Kirby provided some clarification in this tweet from July 2012:

Kirby suggests that while “Tevene” is the official name of the language, ignorant people outside Tevinter tend to (wrongly) call it “Tevinter.” This smacks a little bit of a convenient retcon to address the fact that it’s been called “Tevinter” in canon materials, but I’m willing to accept that explanation. The Tevinter Imperium is after all the black sheep of the Thedosian family. From what we can infer from canon, nobody outside Tevinter actually speaks Tevene aside from a few obscure scholars. (And Brother Genitivi, of course, because that dude’s all over the place.)

That still doesn’t explain, though, why the language is referred to as “Tevinter” in the RPG Player’s Guide. Since it’s mentioned in the backstory guide section for Tevinter characters, you’d think it would refer to the language as it would actually be called in Tevinter.

I have to imagine this was either an oversight when Set 3 of the RPG was being prepared for publication, or else they deliberately chose to use “Tevinter” to avoid potential confusion for RPG players who aren’t familiar with DA lore and terminology and might not know what “Tevene” means.

Either way, what name we use to describe the language doesn’t really matter to me quite so much as consistency with regard to its social and academic usage. Which brings us to the second issue raised by the RPG guide’s remarks on Tevene:

2) Weekes said fluency in Tevene is associated with the educated upper class, but if that’s true then Soporati shouldn’t be able to speak and read the language on an equal level with Altus and Laetan.

The RPG Player’s Guide draws no distinction between the relative Tevene fluency of Altus/Laetan/Soporati characters. It simply states that any Tevinter character can “speak and read Tevinter and the Trade Tongue.”

Now there’s been debate before about whether the RPG guide books should actually count as “canon,” but I personally believe that anything put out as official Dragon Age merchandise should be considered canon. Of course, even if a fact is “canon,” that doesn’t exactly guarantee it’s consistent with BioWare’s own previously established canon about the world. The lore of Thedas is massive, and inconsistencies and retcons are bound to happen.

Since I don’t like to contradict any canon when I can help it, I’m going to choose to interpret the RPG guide book’s remarks here to mean that despite their relative lack of education, even Soporati have at least a rudimentary or crude grasp of Tevene.

However, I suspect the dialect of Tevene spoken by Altus/Laetan may not be the same dialect of Tevene spoken by the Soporati and slaves.

Speculation: Classical Tevene vs. Vulgar Tevene

It may be that there’s a “High/Classical/Literary Tevene” and a “Low/Vulgar/Vernacular Tevene” in the same way that there’s Classical Latin and Vulgar Latin. The wealthy and highly educated Altus and Laetan would get a formal education in Classical Tevene at school, while Soporati and (to a lesser extent) slaves would pick up the more vernacular Vulgar Tevene that they’d hear on the streets.

If that’s true, it would also help explain why Fenris knows spoken Tevene even though he’s a slave. Fenris has several lines of Tevene dialogue in DA2, most of which aren’t translated. In fact, he seems to drop into Tevene even more often and at greater length than Dorian. This would appear to contradict what Weekes said about Tevene phrases being a mark of education – unless Vulgar Tevene exists as a colloquial and vernacular dialect spoken by the lower class and slaves.

We do know for certain that Fenris is canonically illiterate and can’t read or write either Tevene or the Trade Tongue, as makes sense for a slave. Literacy and illiteracy aren’t really addressed consistently

in the DA universe as a pseudo-medieval world, but that’s a discussion for another day.

Even though the upper class in Tevinter would speak/read/write Classical Tevene, they’d probably still be familiar with the vernacular Vulgar Tevene as well. My friend @theprof739​, who studied Roman history as a graduate student, told me that even though Julius Caesar undoubtedly knew Classical Latin, he probably would have used Vulgar Latin to talk to his troops when he was out in the field.

So although an Altus like Dorian Pavus would be formally educated in Classical Tevene, he’d also likely know and be able to speak Vulgar Tevene. One assumes that some of the more “colorful” phrases employed by both Dorian and Fenris – such as vishante kaffas, fasta vass, and even festis bei umo canavarum – are probably associated with Vulgar Tevene. (It’s hard to imagine a phrase like “you shit on my tongue” being found in classical literature…but then again, you never know.)

Modern Tevene vs. Ancient Tevene

Under this speculative interpretation of Tevene, both Classical Tevene and Vulgar Tevene would be dialects of Modern Tevene. There would also be an archaic variant, however – Ancient Tevene, which could be considered akin to Old Latin. While practically all Tevinters would have some grasp of Modern Tevene, Ancient Tevene would probably be learned exclusively by Altus and Laetan mages for the purpose of arcane study and research.

Even among mages, however, I don’t think Ancient Tevene would be part of a standard education curriculum, but rather an advanced course of study at one of the prestigious Circles of Magi, akin to a modern PhD.

Ancient Tevene would almost certainly be associated with magic – the language of the ancient Dreamers and the magisters who founded the Imperium. In the modern Tevinter Imperium, however, Ancient Tevene is a dead and purely academic language in the same way Latin is for us today.

There’s certainly canonical evidence to support the idea that Ancient Tevene exists. During the series of quests in the Western Approach for Professor Frederic of Serault, he asks you to retrieve an ancient Tevinter manuscript on dragon luring. When you find the manuscript and bring it back to Frederic, the following exchange occurs if Dorian’s in the party:

Frederic: What remarkable diagrams! Are these…chambers of the draconic heart? If only I could read the script! Do you perhaps know a linguist? Or a Tevinter historian?
Dorian: Don’t look at me. Nobody’s spoken that form of Tevene in seven hundred years.
Inquisitor: I don’t, but the Inquisition might. I’ll speak to our specialists.

The fact that Dorian can’t translate the text confirms my theory that even a highly educated Tevinter mage wouldn’t know Ancient Tevene unless they had devoted themselves specifically to that field of study.

To continue the quest, you’re given a War Table mission to find a scholar who specializes in Ancient Tevene. One of Josephine’s contacts points you to Anaximander Vetri, the Dean of the College of Antiquities at the Minrathous Circle of Magi. When the War Table mission is completed, you receive the following letter from Anaximander:

“Enclosed you will find the completed translation of your fascinating manuscript, which our scholars estimate to pre-date the First Blight. The dialect caused quite a stir in historical linguistics. The College of Antiquities would be most interested in further cooperation with the Inquisition should you uncover more Tevene documents from the pre-Blight era.”

We see, therefore, that my suspicion is correct – not only does Ancient Tevene exist, but there’s a field dedicated to the study of “historical linguistics” at the Minrathous Circle, and an entire college devoted to the “Antiquities.”


  • The common language of the Tevinter Imperium is the Trade Tongue. This is true for all Tevinters, regardless of education or social class.
  • Tevene is a fully living language in the Imperium, however. It’s not a “dead” or purely academic language like modern-day Latin.
  • Using Tevene phrases as “flavor” in conversation is considered a sign the speaker is well-educated and probably belongs to the upper class.
  • The name of the language is Tevene. Any reference to “Tevinter” as the name of the language should be interpreted as either in-character ignorance or out-of-character oversight on the part of BioWare’s editors.
  • Despite Tevene’s association with the upper class, Tevinter natives of all social classes pick up some variant of Tevene. It’s not clear to what extent the less well-educated Soporati and slaves are considered “fluent” in Tevene.
  • Speculation: There are two dialects of Modern Tevene – Classical and Vulgar. The upper class Altus and Laetan learn Classical Tevene, the “high” or “literary” dialect of the language. Soporati and slaves learn Vulgar Tevene, the “low” or “vernacular” dialect.
  • In addition to the modern dialect of Tevene, there’s also Ancient Tevene, which is no longer spoken at all. It’s a purely academic language. Only mages who pursue an advanced education at a Circle of Magi learn Ancient Tevene, either for the study of historical linguistics or for its applications to magical research.

Expect more from me on this subject soon, and if you haven’t already, check out my work on Project Tevene and the Thedas Language Project!

Tagging a few people who I know will be particularly interested in these revelations about Tevene: @bunan-tsokolatte@fenxshiral@bisexualskitter@theprof739


This three-minute talk by Josef Fruehwald (wearing, I believe, a sweater he knit himself) is about the grammar of knitting and is so very nerdy on so many levels. His slides are available here as a pdf


Upsetting grammar: “It is imperative that you use the indicative” is actually subjunctive

Blogger Gatherings!

Click the button for reports from the 2010 Spring Blogger Gathering, hosted by Linett of Nimrodel!

Berethron of Brandywine hosted the 2010 Summer Blogmoot.

The Winter Blogmoot was held on December 4, 9 p.m. EST at the home of Telwen of Silverlode.

Next up: The Spring Blogmoot of 2011 shall return to Nimrodel with Tuiliel (Whart, aka user-1027520) hosting! Linett is looking forward to another local moot!



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