The Impotent Scribe Prose in Salan | World Anvil
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The Impotent Scribe

This is my entry for the Words of Worldbuilding challenge January 2020   What you are about to read, is a Zeribian story. It takes place on the Eastern Islands. The most of the characters (that is, the Court of West Island) are Farens, and their native language is Nem. The scribe and the king of Washleng are Zeribians and their language is
Ngad i zerib (Zeribian language).  

The Impotent Scribe

  One day in the court of West Island Elderoak the king of Farens wanted to send a letter to the king of Wašleng. He had no Zeribian in his court to write in his language, so he sent his guards to find a scribe. "But be fast, I don't have all day!" He commanded, because he was an impatient man.   The guards went looking. On their way to the shipyards, they ran into a Zeribian man.
"Can you write the Eastern language?" the guards asked. The man was no scribe, so he hesitated. But he was afraid of the guards too, and he saw that they were on the court's business, so he answered:
"Yes I can, my lords"   They brought the ill-fated man back to the court. He saw the king seated on the throne. The vizier, the consul, and the high priest were also present. The man kneeled before them and did not dare to look at them.
“You brought a good and obeying man, it seems” the king remarked smiling, happy that the guards had returned so swiftly. “But stand up now, and come closer. I have this letter in my mind!”

The poor man got up all shaking. He was handed a scroll, a pen and an inkbottle. Luckily he was used to keeping good notes of his business, but he couldn't believe he was made to write on behalf of the King! He could feel the impatient gaze of the king on him, as he started dictating:  
Say to Burwiš-Usahdeg Kageš the King of Washleng, my brother: For me all goes well. For you may all go well! For your wives, your sons, your house, your ships, your land may all go well! As a greeting, I have sent you 15 barrels of bronze, and sea silk!   Me and my brother have made a mutual declaration of friendship. Just as our fathers were friends, we are friends now. Recently, my merchant ships, who were on their way to the Moons, were blundered on their way near the Serpent's Spine Islands, my men killed and robbed. Serpent's Spine is your country, and it’s kings are your vassals. Could you make your men stop? Sentence to death the men that put to death my men! When you do, I will send you more wonderous silk!   Greetings, Elderoak

Once the letter was written, they let the poor Zeribian go, with rich presents of course, and send the letter on a journey with a royal delegation. After a week's travel the ships of Elderoak finally reached Wašleng. The King of Wašleng received the letter. His royal scribe cracked the seal open, and looked at the scroll. First he wasn't even sure what he was reading, but the longer he read, the more he blushed from shame. He tried to refuse reading it to his king, but he couldn’t defy his commands. When the king heard the message, he was enraged, and ordered the messengers to be cut into pieces and thrown to the bottom of the sea. This is how the letter read:  
Say to Burwiš-Usahdeg Kageš the King of Wašleŋ, fishcutter, I am well. For your whores, your sons, your shed, your canoes, your mud, may all go well. As a teaching, I have sent you broken ships, deserved drinks of bloody stones and the clothes of a seamaggot!   You and I have made a mutual declaration of friendship. I fill fuck you like my father did! Now my merchant ships, who were on their way to the Moons were blundered on their way at Snake's Back Islands, my men killed and robbed.Snake's Back is your land, and it's kings your slaves! Do you not know how to tell your men to stop? Kill the men that killed my men! When you do, I will send you more weird seamaggot clothes!   Bye, Elderoak

The letter in Ngad i Zerib


This is the letter in the traditional Zeribian Script. The script is an abjad, a consonant script. The main letters are consonants, while the vowels are marked with diacritics (lines and dots) on the consonants. The script is read in vertical columns from left to right.
  This is a detailed gloss of the letter in the dialect of Zeribian that the scribe wrote in, and what it should have been in Standard Zeribian. The tooltext under "Dialect" is an indepth grammatical gloss. The tooltext under "Standard" is more focused on noting the differences between the two variants. To understand the mistakes the scribe made, reading the "Standard" gloss and comparing some points to "Dialect" should be enough.

Ŋadur-ur ken Burwiš Usahdeg Kageš Iz i Wašleŋ, le-ze.
Ym zet uhah waš. Luhah waš ym den!
Luhah waš ym wanam-ige, ym čiš-ige, ym dem-ige,
ym gid-ige ym beth-ige.
Sumit rib bar griššumpeš ken den zezan, fylban basder,
neh ke i makqal i feren.
  Set nex den, žep bet suryd 'exyr semex'.
Bar uwan žed-es, seŋewan.
Rim xar šummargid-es, i uŋkan ken Xim,
usaggeš ym saq ym Irin i Heš.
udrug zir-zir-es nex utelmar glar dewuš.
  Irin i Heš beth-ige nex iz-iz i rim ŋar-ige.
Eneŋ i ewzanmit zir-ige?
Drug-ug dew i drugug zir-es.
Aŋ xar ewneŋ, sešummar nez gal ke i maqkal i feren.

Zeze, Elderoak  
Fin engadur ken Burwiš Usahdeg Kageš Iz i Wašleŋ, lahi-ise.
Ym set uhah waš. Luhah waš ym den!
Luhah waš ym nana i den, ym čiš i den, ym ged i den,
ym zan i den ym derg i den.
Sumit rib bar zekanpeš ken den 15 (zežan) fylbanda arga,
nex terkweš ke.
  Set nex den, bežep bet suryd 'exyr semex'.
Bar ukel žedes, seŋekel.
Rim xar šummarzan-es, i uŋkan ken Xim,
usaggeš ym saq ym Irin i Heš.
Udrug zir-ir-es nex telmar glar dewuš.
  Irin i Heš beth i den nex iz-idu pal i den.
ekuž i ewzanmit zir i den
Fin edrughiz dew i udrug zir-es.
Aŋ xar ewneŋ, sešummar nez xleker terkweš ke.

Fin uxyr iz eze, Elderoak

Literary Sources

The story was originally written on Der Fem. The story was first told orally so it can't be conclusively dated, but it was probably first written around 850's during the rule of King Šamper Nezenŋad of Der Fem. The story is set a few decades back to Der Fem lead by the Faren Republic of Free West Island before the Zeribian Revolution of Der Fem.   Later the story became popular around the Eastern Islands, and copies of it can be found in every major library. The story has also become a part of the curriculum of the Zeribian noble education.  


The story is a piece of nationalistic literature. Its first purpose is to advocate for Zeribian unity and use of the Standard Zeribian language. Zeribian is a language with huge spoken variety on different islands, to the degree that the dialects are not mutually intellegible. The leaders argue for only using the Standard Zeribian in writing, to avoid any confusion or difficulties. This text includes a number of dialectal words from the Der Fem dialect that have different, often obscene meaning in Standard language. Sometimes the words are also phonologically so different, that they are confused with other words if written phonetically. However, learning the Standard language requiers a lot of education, which means that most of the commoners are functionally illiterate.   The second goal is to mock the Republic of Free West Island and its leaders. The Farens are portrayed as impatient, stupid, impolite and, above all, uncapable of understanding the Zeribian social structure. In the story, they think any lay Zeribian is good enough to write a letter to a king. The Zeribian culture is hugely hierarchical, and this would have been totally unacceptable.  


The text is one of the linguistically most important Zeribian texts, because it is among the only handful of texts that record the spoken varieties of Zeribian, and uniquely also includes the full translation. It is quite ironic, how the purpose of the text is to mock the spoken varieties, but it turnes out to be one of the greatest examples of them in use.

Cover image: by Photo by Belle Llido from Pexels


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Feb 3, 2020 14:00 by Eidal (former Etalia) Louwatt

I thoroughly enjoyed this story! I love how it really reads as an old folks tale, it is very consise and you can really feel how it would have been told orally through the generations. I'm also really fond of how a lot of the standard language words are used as obscene words in the dialects! Also, really nice work with all the information about the story and the language around it.

Feb 3, 2020 20:28

Thank you! <3 In addition to having read a lot of ancient literature in general, I also sped some time figuring out how actual ancient letters (Amarna letters to be specific) were structured. I'm glad you liked the extra information too, I was a bit worried since the others seem to only have posted pure prose, but this is a world building site after all so... :D

Check out my Summer Camp 2023 wrap-up here!
Feb 3, 2020 21:19 by Diane Morrison

I like how you've thought so much about cultural differences in formal and informal text. It must be nearly impossible for the peasantry and the merchant class to speak to the Zerbian noble class at all, since they clearly have no idea that they're swearing at and insulting the nobility in every part of casual speech! I like that cultural element, but I wonder at it. Doesn't the merchant class need to court the nobility to make a living? They're the ones with the money to buy things that come from other lands, after all. Wouldn't the merchant class have *some* idea of how to address their nobles?   And if they didn't, wouldn't the merchant know that and try to warn the King of the Fareans? I imagine that at home, he would hire a court scribe to address his letters to the nobility when he had to deal with them, and hire a court translator when he had to speak with them. If he warned the King, and the King said, "Don't disobey me, just do it!" then it's on the King's own head, which makes it more of a moral tale.   Other than that minor question, I think this is quite well done. The "fable" feel is excellent (although clearly the Zerbians took the wrong lessons from it, instead of "give people the benefit of the doubt" as well as "choose your words carefully." But that's fun; people often take the wrong lessons from moral tales IRL, and that gives your cultures and your word some depth and an excellent grounding in a sense of realism. Good work!

Author of the Wyrd West Chronicles and the Toy Soldier Saga. Mother of Bunnies, Eater of Pickles, Friend of Nerds, First of her Name.
Feb 4, 2020 11:48

Huge thank you for an excellent comment! The things you mention are very relevant, and I have to think about them!   How the Zeribian social structure works, is that the local merchants usually answer to a local lord, who understands the local dialect too. The trade is mostly owned and controlled by the nobility, in order to prevent the common people from getting too rich. The noble families own most of the land, mines and other sources of income too. But in some cases it is possible for a commoner family to be accepted into nobility, if they express the right values and are rich enough. There is also a huge difference between a commoner and a rich merchant from a good family. I imagine the scribe being from a poor family. That of course raises the question of literacy, but I expect that some form of literacy is pretty common, because it's so beneficial for the trade, and the script is relatively easy to learn.   Anyway, the local lords understand the local dialect, and wouldn't expect a commoner to know the full polite language. They might speak a mixed variety of polite forms with dialectal words. But the people on the other islands speak very different dialects, and might not fully understand the dialects from the other islands. Usually the Zeribians trade with the nearby islands, forming trade networks that transport the goods all around the islands, but the individual merchants might not travel very long distances.   I imagine there to be a communication ladder too: the common trader could speak to a workleader, who would speak to the third son of a noble lord, who could talk to his father, who could present the thought to an administrator, who can talk to the vizier, who can talk to the king.   I've addressed some of these ideas here but I'll have to elaborate on them:   I'll have to think about how different kinds of people have interpreted the story! I imagine that the commoners and the nobles for example would have quite different takes on that!

Check out my Summer Camp 2023 wrap-up here!
Feb 5, 2020 17:13

Great story! I love all the different ways you expanded on your world; showing how people from different time periods use different names, using the language as a segue to talk about class structure, and especially, contrasting the "Purpose" and "Legacy" sections. It was surprisingly fun to read the definitions of each word; it felt like a puzzle to figure out where the translation went wrong.   I would have liked to hear even more about the history of this story. Having a piece of nationalist propaganda evolve into a linguistic touchstone is a fantastic idea. If this text is the greatest example of the spoken varieties of Zeribian, does that mean some dialects are poorly recorded and in danger of dying out? Has this story been used to recover a variety which would otherwise be lost?

Feb 5, 2020 19:18

Thanks a lot, I'm glad you liked it! ^_^   The Zeribians have no interest what so ever towards ethnic or linguistic diverstity (they think they are the best that there is), so most of Zeribian dialects are totally unrecorded. I imagine Der Fem dialects must be doing well because the surrounding countryside is large and there is a lot of population (Der Fem is the largest island of the archipelago). In the cities there is probably a tendency to shift into the Standard Language because many inhabitants have moved in from different dialect areas. The smaller islands have much smaller population, and the dialects might die completely if a large number of immigrants encourages a language shift. Of course what we have here is already an older version of the Der Fem dialect (although what the current time is, is quite unclear xD I've ended diving very deep into what was supposed to be a back story).   Not to mention the other languages on the Eastern Islands. Some of them a closely related languages ("corrupted Zeribian") and some are isolate languages with no known relatives . Many of the native communities are shifting into settled lifestyle, and at the same time into speaking Zeribian.   I'm a diversity linguist myself, and I'd _love_ to write a story about a linguist / ethnographist in my world at some point. But until that, this article contains a catalogue of all languages and etnicities I currently have planned:

Check out my Summer Camp 2023 wrap-up here!
Feb 8, 2020 08:39 by Tris (necromancertris)

I loved your entry! I think you have a really strong voice, because the story bit really did feel like I was reading it from some old fairytale book. I think the "Document" template would fit story like this better, especially since you have dissected it from all possible angles (which I really enjoyed!) but as the "Prose" one was required for the challenge, I wouldn't see it as a weakness. The script of the letter is also really interesting!   I would like to know, however, how do the Fareans feel about all this? That this letter/story is being taught and discussed and used to riddicul them? Does it cause some hostilities? Did they try to prove it fake or something?   Overall this was a short (but really rich in the worldbuilding sense) and fun read! :) It also reminded me of Reply of the Zaporozhian Cossacks, so if you have some time and are not familiar with the legend I would check out the wikipedia link and read it, because I think you're going to like it :D

Feb 8, 2020 09:37

Thank you for the comment, and especially the link! That legend is great, I love how I've ended up making almost the same sentences in my text xD It's also surprising how little letters changed in the 3000 years between that and the Amarna letters I used as my model!   As for the Fareans, that is a bit complicated. I assume they might claim, that the scribe was actually treacherous and insulted the king on purpose. But the leaders of the West Island (Farean Der Fem) were also in bad terms with the mainland Fareans. They were overthrown in the Zeribian Revolution and had to flee for the continent, and after that, I imagine that many of the Fareans would also agree that the West Island's leaders were infact idiots. Maybe there is also a Farean version of the story... Oh, the amount of ideas you guys are giving me xD

Check out my Summer Camp 2023 wrap-up here!