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May 13

Barsoomian, Revisited

Posted on Sunday, May 13, 2012 in Conlanging, Online Resources

I realize it’s been awhile since I posted the first foray into Barsoomian on the blog here and have been remiss in not following up. By now, everyone knows that the John Carter movie was not the blockbuster success which was hoped for. (Sigh) The visuals were well done, but the story seemed overly (and unnecessarily) complicated. However, we still have the books which started it all. That’s the important part.

The reason for this post (in addition to simply getting back on a regular posting schedule) is to acknowledge and begin to thank Fredrik Ekman’s wonderful in-depth replies to my previous posts. Fredrik has great insights into the language of the Red Planet, has written extensively elsewhere on them, and interviewed Paul Frommer about his version of Barsoomian. The fact that he took the time to respond to my musings is very humbling.

His comments were posted on Conlang-L which is why you don’t see them here for now. I posted a message on that listserv that I had written up some ideas and provided the links to my Barsoomian “theories”. Fredrik then responded, and I have not had the opportunity to respond yet. Yes, I know it’s been months. Yes, I’m a little embarrassed by that time lag. So, now I begin to attempt to make amends.

What I plan to do is post links to the comments here as a start. I may not be delving deeper into Barsoomian right away, but for those who are interested, Fredrik’s comments provide an excellent alternative viewpoint:

I believe that’s all of them. Of course, these aren’t the only postings at Conlang-L that have to do with Barsoomian and ERB. Feel free to check out their Archives, too. Hope you enjoy the links to the discussion above. I know I did!

Dec 19

Adventures in Barsoomian Continued…

Posted on Monday, December 19, 2011 in Books, Conlanging

I went back and re-read that recent NY Times article on conlanging and realized it mentions that Paul Frommer (of Na'vi fame) has been hired “to develop a Martian language called Barsoomian for ‘John Carter,’ a science-fiction movie to arrive in March.” That gave me some hope! If that is the case, it’s even more unfortunate that they included the Martian “Decoder” and Martian Translator on the movie’s official site. Why not start promoting Barsoomian now? Build some buzz? I also had the thought that, even though Dr. Frommer is a “professional” language creator, any Barsoomian he comes up with will be no more canonical than something I or anyone else devises. The only Barsoomian canon (from my perspective) would be that devised (or sanctioned by) Edgar Rice Burroughs (or, I suppose, his estate). So, with that in mind, let’s continue on our own little adventure into the speech of the Red Planet.

Last time out, we gained some new vocabulary and could say things like Hek dar ron “The father guards his son” with articles, tense, and pronouns supplied telepathically (or by context). This time, we’ll turn to measurements and see what we can puzzle out…

According to ERB, we have on Barsoom the sofad, ad, haad, and karad measurements with the following relationships:

  • 10 sofad = 1 ad
  • 200 ad = 1 haad
  • 100 haad = 1 karad = 1 degree of Barsoomian longitude
  • 360 karad = circumference of Barsoom at the equator

So, the ad is the basic unit of measurement. This means the prefixes sof, ha, and kar must impart some meaning to the basic term ad. Judging by my previous post, it doesn’t appear that these three are numerical. It would seem strange (even for Barsoom) for sof to mean something like “1/10”. Unfortunately, sof does not appear in any other Barsoomian name. On the other hand, both ha and kar do appear: Haja (princess of Gathol), Tor Hatan (Odwar of the
91st Umak), Okar (a city), Kar Komak (odwar of Lothar), Torkar Bar (Kaolian noble). How do reconcile these different uses? My suggestion: sof means something like “small, minor, lesser” and ha “bigger, major, greater”. Kar, on the other hand, since it refers to measurement “around” the planet could mean something like “long, lengthy, extended” and by extension in the vertical plane “tall, high”. I could even go so far as to say that kar is the final comparative degree: “biggest, greatest”. You may remember we also had -dak (< jeddak) and -dara (< jeddara) as superlative markers. A better term for these two might be an augmentative (i.e., the opposite of the “-y” or “-ie” in names like “Tommy” and “Susie”). This would give us degrees of comparison (smaller, original, bigger). That means then that we have:

  • sof “small”
  • ha “bigger”
  • kar “biggest”

We could even use these in the opposite direction and get:

  • sof “small”
  • hasof “smaller”
  • karsof “smallest”

I could see Kar Komak‘s first name meaning something like “The High” (as in “your highness”). Sure, why not? We’re also saying that modifiers come after the word they modify. So…

  • Calot ha dar phai karsof jeddak “[The] larger calot guards [the] jeddak’s youngest (i.e., smallest) daughter”
  • Darseen sof banth “[A] darseen [is] smaller [than a] banth”

And finally…

  • John Carter sof Tars Tarkas than-dak “John Carter [is] smaller [than] Tars Tarkas, [but he is a] great fighter” (Once again, taking advantage of the telepathic component of Barsoomian)

That’s all for now. Stay tuned for more…

Dec 17

Dejah Thoris Phai-Dara! More Barsoomian Vocabulary

Posted on Saturday, December 17, 2011 in Books, Conlanging

And so we come to the next installment of our expedition into the language of Barsoom. This time I’m going to examine some of the titles from the stories to see if some new vocabulary can be puzzled out. It will be instructive to simply list out the offices we will be looking at:

  • than “soldier”
  • panthan “mercenary”
  • gorthan “assassin”
  • kadar “guard”
  • padwar “lieutenant” (reports to a dwar
  • dwar “captain” (reports to an odwar)
  • odwar “general” (reports to a jedwar)
  • jedwar “warlord” (general of generals)
  • jed “lord” (subordinate to a jeddak)
  • jeddak “king, emperor”
  • jeddara “empress, queen of kings”

Okay, let’s start at the beginning: than means “soldier”. That’s straight from ERB. So, obviously pan- and gor add some sort of meaning to than to make them mean “mercenary” and “assassin”. There don’t seem to be any negative connotations to a panthan. My suggestion is that pan means something like “free, unattached, unaligned, etc.” as in someone who is not allied or paying service to a specific lord. Whoever is paying for his services, that’s who he fights for. “Assassins” don’t seem to have as positive a connotation as “mercenaries”; therefore, gor might have a more negative meaning. Maybe something like “freelance” in the sense of “out for one’s own gain” as opposed to a panthan that is, although paid, in the service of a particular city. The gorthan, on the other hand, is only loyal to himself. In light of that, we could extend the meaning of gor to “selfish, greedy, self-centered.”

Kadar was mentioned last time along with kador “those inhabiting heaven; those having something to do with heaven.” Ka- then appears to mean “those having something to do with (the word to which it is amended)”. I’m going to say that, like the attested monosyllabic verb sak “jump”, dar means “guard, watch, keep an eye on, etc.”. The synonyms would be specified telepathically.

Then we come to the military officers and royal titles:

  • padwar “lieutenant” (reports to a dwar
  • dwar “captain” (reports to an odwar)
  • odwar “general” (reports to a jedwar)
  • jedwar “warlord” (general of generals)
  • jed “lord” (subordinate to a jeddak)
  • jeddak “king, emperor”
  • jeddara “empress, queen of kings”

First of all, note that we have both jedwar and jed. It appears that the d can disappear because jedwar is obviously jed + dwar. If that is the case, we can break these terms down into their constituent morphemes:

  • pad+dwar
  • dwar
  • od+dwar
  • jed+dwar
  • jed
  • jed+dak
  • jed+dara

This being the case:

  • pad “inferior, subordinate (to a)” “captain”
  • dwar “captain”
  • od “superior (to a)” “captain”
  • jed+dwar “lord-captain”
  • jed “lord”
  • jed+dak “lord+emperor (dak can also be a masculine superlative marker)”
  • jed+dara “lord+empress (dara can also be a feminine superlative marker)”

Taking these, we can (well, I’m going to say we can) construct phrases like these:

  • Banth odarseen (i.e., od+darseen) “A banth is superior to a darseen.”
  • Mors Kajak sha gor “Mors Kajak is not selfish.”
  • Dor sha-pan “Heaven is not aligned” (i.e., “Heaven is not on any one person’s side.”)
  • Dejah Thoris phai-dara “Dejah Thoris is the greatest daughter.”

Once again, the telepathic aspect of Barsoomian would come into play. Where there is ambiguity in the spoken words, telepathy would fill in the details and take care of synonymous meanings. Dor sha-pan is only three syllables but could mean “Heaven is not on any one person’s side.” (Ten syllables) With this being the case, the writing systems of Barsoom would have to explicitly express these telepathic components which is maybe why each city or region came up with different scripts on the planet. You can express similar concepts with the mind, but how they get expressed on a writing surface can be very different. I’m not ready to tackle the writing systems of Barsoom quite yet, but we’re not done looking for more vocabulary. Stay tuned…

Dec 10

Hek, Shahek, Ron, Phai: All in the Barsoomian Family

Posted on Saturday, December 10, 2011 in Books, Conlanging

Okay, since this is installment three of my Barsoomian escapade, I think it would be prudent to state very clearly that I am under absolutely no illusions that what I come up with (now that we’re going to be veering into uncharted and unattested waters more and more) is in any way remotely like what Edgar Rice Burroughs (ERB) had in mind when he created the words used to describe native Barsoomian customs, titles, names, etc., etc. I’m sure that ERB had a solid idea of what he wanted names to sound like, obviously keeping morphemes like mad “human, man, person”, kadar “guard”, dwar “captain”, in mind; but ERB was a storyteller not a conlanger. With names from Aaanthor to Zodanga and everything in between, ERB’s primary desire was to make his characters and locations sound “exotic” (at least as it was defined in the early 20th century). And that’s cool! I’m obviously a fan, and my point is that he’s provided just enough vocabulary that a conlanger has a nearly blank slate to play around on. Which is what I’m doing. Other conlangers would be able to use the same source material and come up with completely different rationalizations, but these are the ones that I’ve developed in trying to stay as true to the original as possible…and to have some conlinguistical fun in the process.

Last time, I promised some explanation of hekkador, the title of “Father of Therns” Matai Shang. Okay, here’s where we really start to go off the beaten path, so stick with me. It might be a bumpy ride…

  • The Valley of Dor is consistently referred to as the Valley of “Heaven” (“This is the valley of love and peace and rest… This, John Carter, is Heaven” – Tars Tarkas, The Gods of Mars). My contention is that dor itself means “heaven, love, peace, rest”.
  • Keep in mind that there is a strong telepathic component to Barsoomian language. The spoken word may be Dor, but the concept communicated to John Carter can be “heaven” or “love” or “peace” as the specific case requires. To alleviate the cognitive dissonance between spoken and telepathic Barsoomian, John Carter records phrases like these alternatively with their Barsoomian and English equivalents: The Valley of Dor = The Valley of Heaven.
  • Now we turn our attention to hekkador which has the morpheme dor. It appears that hekkador has some equivalence to “Father of Therns”. Well, obviously the Barsoomian word thern is not present so what about dor. We know the therns are often referred to as the “holy” therns. My contention (granted on flimsy evidence and wishful thinking, I realize) is that dor along with ka- as a prefix comes up with a word meaning “holy ones (i.e., ones associated with heaven)”. I’m not sure how exactly I see ka- functioning, but we’ll revisit that later.
  • So, if we have hek then left over, what could it mean? hek-“holy ones”. The title means something like “Father of Therns”. My choice is that it means “father”: hekkador “Holy Father” (like the Pope) or “Father of the Holy Ones”.
  • Do we have any other terms or phrases where the modifier follows the head of the word? Actually, we do: “I could see Tars Tarkas explaining something to the principal chieftain, whose name, by the way, was, as nearly as I can translate it into English, Lorquas Ptomel, Jed; jed being his title.” – A Princess of Mars. The comma between Ptomel and Jed is merely a convenience of the English translation. The Thark’s name is evidently Lorquas Ptomel Jed with jed functioning kind of like a modifier. At least that’s my argument and I’m sticking to it.

I can also rationalize the dor “heaven, peace, etc.” in Shador, too. Shador is the prison island on the Omean Sea. In this case, prison has an absence of peace and rest, it’s not heaven. In fact, it’s the opposite of heaven. So… sha in this case signifies the opposite or negation of something else: Shador “Anti-heaven; Not-heaven”. What about the hekkador‘s daughter Phaidor? Read on…

So, along with *ron “son” we now have *hek “father”. Can we come up with “daughter”. My loosely-connected neurons say “Yes”.

  • Matai Shang had a daughter, “Phaidor, daughter of the Holy Hekkador.” Again, we encounter dor “heaven”. My choice this time is that phaidor (note without the ka-) means “daughter (of) heaven” or “heaven’s daughter”. Given the ability to add specific meaning telepathically, I could even add phai means “daughter, maiden, girl”, and, using that line of reasoning *ron would mean “son, youth, boy”.

So, there you have it. Five new morphemes in our (Neo-)Barsoomian vocabulary:

  • *hek “father”
  • *phai “daughter, maiden, girl”
  • *ka- prefix meaning to be determined
  • *sha “opposite, negation, absence of”

We could also extrapolate a word for mother: *shahek “opposite of father”.Going back to our second installment, we could “say” something like Tardos Mors hek Mors Kajak and Dejah Thoris phai Mors Kajak. Granted, we’re not translating the International Declaration of Human Rights, but it’s a start. Next time, we’ll begin to dissect some of the titles of Barsoom and see how we can extrapolate a few words from those.

Dec 9

Barsoomian Familial Relationships

Posted on Friday, December 9, 2011 in Books, Conlanging

Last time we looked at Barsoomian numbers. This time, we’re going to examine how relationships (mostly father to child) are stated in the language of Barsoom.

To begin with, anyone who has read Edgar Rice Burroughs’ stories knows that a good number of characters have names of the form X son of Y. There are some interesting variations, however, and these can be used as clues for some new vocabulary. It will be easiest to simply provide examples first and then explain their significance. To highlight the relationships a little clearer, let’s turn the names around:

  • Kantos Kan, father of Djor Kantos (a son) (of Helium)
  • Vas Kor, father of Hal Vas (a son) (of Dusor)
  • Than Kosis, father of Sab Than (a son) (of Zodanga)
  • Had Urtur, father of Tan Hadron (a son) (of Hastor)
  • Tardos Mors, father of Mors Kajak (a son) (of Helium)
  • John Carter, father of Carthoris (a son) (of Helium and Earth)
  • Tor Hatan, father of Sanoma Tora (a daughter) (of Helium)
  • Thuvan Dihn, father of Thuvia (a daughter) (of Ptarth)
  • Kal Tavan, father of Tavia (a daughter) (of Tjanath)

Notice that the majority of male children take their father’s first name (in some form) as their last name. Daughters, on the other hand, take their father’s first name (for most part) and change it. (Could Kal be a title in Kal Tavan?) Leaving aside Carthoris (although the syllables in his name follow the royal Heliumite pattern set by Tardos Mors and his son Mors Kajak), four of the five father-son pairs show no variation when the sons’ names are formed. However, Tan Hadron shows the pattern Had + ron: ron then would seem to be a suffix like “-son”. So, Tan Hadron is Tan “Had-son”. My contention is we add ron “son” to our Barsoomian vocabulary.

I find it interesting that most of these names follow the pattern X Y, father of Z X except for those of the Heliumite royal family. It’s even more interesting that John Carter follows this pattern with his son.

Daughters names are a little trickier (evidently). Here we see the suffix -a (e.g., Tora from Tor + a) as well as -ia (e.g., Thuvia from Thuv + ia derived from the father’s Thuvan minus the -an suffix. Same goes for Tavia). My contention is that ia does not represent two distinct vowels but rather a glide and a vowel and is pronounced something like “ya” [ja]: Thuvia [“TUv.ja].

It could be rationalized that -ia and -a are simply variations of the same suffix. We have other female names that end in these: Thuria (Phobos the moon, *daughter of Thuran?), Uthia, Llana, Valla Dia (daughter of Kor San). I’m not ready to say ia means “daughter”, but it must have some lexical significance. It’s interesting that John Carter could be seen as following this as well: His last name could be broken down as Car and Ter (Tar?) and his daughter’s name if Tara (Tar + a).

Next time, we’ll look at one more possible familial relationship using the Barsoomian word Hekkador, title of Matai Shang. Stay tuned…

Dec 8

Ay, Ra, Co… Counting in Barsoomian!

Posted on Thursday, December 8, 2011 in Conlanging

As mentioned in my last blog post, I’m really hoping for some Barsoomian language in the upcoming John Carter of Mars movie. In that post, I whined about the lack of any conlinguistical features in the movie promos thus far (and the presence of the Martian “Decoder” and Martian Translator.)

Well, I’ve decided to go back to the source material (i.e., the stories of Edgar Rice Burroughs (ERB)) and try my own hand at puzzling out some basic vocabulary and grammar. This has already been done (most astutely by Jeffrey Henning and David Bruce Bozarth), but I felt there was such a goldmine of opportunity that I couldn’t resist wading in.

I’ve tried to stay as true to the vocabulary provided by ERB as possible, but, truthfully, there really isn’t a lot to go on since he didn’t define a lot of terms. I did take the word lists at Bozarth’s site and broke all the names, places, vocabulary, planets, etc., etc., down into their constituent syllables to get a feel for the sounds. I came up with 329 distinct syllables (and I’m not completely satisfied with them), with over 200 having either an initial stop or a fricative. I’m planning on several posts outlining my work on this. For the most part, it’s just a fun little conlang exercise. I am neither a linguist nor an ERB expert, but I think I can justify and/or rationalize all my choices. Bear with me and enjoy the ride. This first post is going to “teach” you how to count from one to ten and beyond in Barsoomian:

The Barsoomian page at has a run-down of possible numbers, but Henning stays very cautious in his interpretation. I’m going to throw caution out the window and say, “Here is how to count in Barsoomian…”

(Using * in the traditional “this is an unattested form”)

Many of these will look identical to since we’re using the identical source material. Ay is from Ay-mad “first man”. Ov is from the name of the hormad Teeaytan-ov “synthetic man Eleven-hundred-seven”. On the other hand, I have filled in more holes. Let me explain why. As has been pointed out, the bar in Barsoom (ERB’s name for Mars) means “eight”. We also have names for five planets, all ending in soom. I posit that soom means “a body of the solar system” and (at least) the planets (except Jupiter – more on that later) are simply Rasoom “2nd planetary body (Mercury) (the Sun is *Ay-soom “first body of the solar system”), Cosoom “3rd body of the solar system”, Jasoom “5th body of the solar system” (The moons get counted first!, so our Luna could be *Torsoom since tor is attested from Tor-dur-bar “Four-million-eight”), and, and finally Barsoom “8th solar body” (counting Cluros “Deimos” and Thuria “Phobos” as 6 and 7, respectively).

So, that gets us a good ways to filling up the numbers. The hormad names give us 4, 7, 8, 10, 11, 100, and a million. The names Il-dur-en and Dur-dan give us pause. What to do with il, en, and dan? My rationalization is that the final syllables in both Teeaytan-ov and Tor-dur-bar are single digits. Il could conceivably be a single digit, but we do have teeay “11” in Teeaytan-ov. Therefore, purely by chance and with no other reason, I decided that en and dan should be 6 and 9 and simply took a 50/50 chance and assigned them.

Now, what do with il? ERB gives us terms for 10 (tee), 100 (tan), 1,000 (dar), 10,000 (mak from umak “a fighting force of 10,000” – compare to utan “a fighting force of 100 soldiers”). So, we’re obviously dealing with some sort of base 10 system with names for pivotal numbers. So, what to do with il? I decided (again, on a whim and flimsy rationalization) to assign il a value of 50. I got the idea simply from Roman numeral L… il, “L”? You be the judge. We can then continue our counting…


We could then provide the current year in the language: ra-dar-teeay “two-thousand-eleven”. A Zodangan or Heliumite may not understand it, but at least it’s internally logically consistent (for the most part).

There you have it! The first installment of my interpretation of what Barsoomian may be like! Stay tuned for more…

Dec 1

“Dotar Sojat” does not mean “My Right Hand”

Posted on Thursday, December 1, 2011 in Books, Film, Rant

Okay, the newest John Carter movie trailer is out. As I’ve stated before, I’m a big fan of the John Carter of Mars series by Edgar Rice Burrough (ERB). When I heard there was finally going to be a movie, I was skeptical but cautiously optimistic. After all, I was very pleased with Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings film trilogy, and my Tolkien hurdle is much, much higher than my ERB one. That being said, when I heard that Andrew Stanton was directing, my heart sank. I love Pixar and who can argue with Monsters Inc., Finding Nemo, and all the rest. But John Carter? It just didn’t seem to fit.

Well, now that two trailers are out…I’m very cautiously optimistic that the movie won’t stink. How’s that for hedging my bets? The visuals look kind of cool although the tusks on the Green Men seem a little out of place. They’re described as coming from the lower jaw. And I’m a little unsure of Woola’s look. But, I’m willing to give it a shot even with those caveats and the superfluous wardrobe department on the set. If nothing else, maybe it’ll be a rollicking space adventure.

But, as always, this is a conlanging blog, and the bone I have to pick with the film is conlinguistical. First of all, take another look at Tars Tarkas. Take a look at the descriptive paragraph. It’s okay, I’ll wait….Oh, you’re back. Notice that it says, “Tars gives Carter the Thark name Dotar Sojat, which translates to ‘my right hand.'” Uh, no. Dotar and Sojat were the names of the two warriors slain by John Carter upon his arrival on Barsoom. Unless one was named “My Right” and other was named “Hand”, that “translation” doesn’t work. Plus, Dotar Sojat isn’t just a Thark name. All inhabitants of Barsoom speak the same language, so “Tars gives Carter the Barsoomian name” would have at least been more accurate.

But that’s not the worst on the official site. Take a look at these: A Martian “Decoder” and a Martian Translator. Uh, once again, that’s not “translating” that’s what’s called a “code” (or “cipher” if you want to get fancy), Disney. What’s worse, the “Decoder” has every letter of the Roman alphabet! Couldn’t they have even put the letters C and K together or something! This is like something you’d get on the back of a cereal box or inside a Cracker Jack prize. Disney obviously told their art department to come up with some nifty designs, and, oh hey!, there’s 26 of them, let’s call them the “Martian language.” Tah dah!

With the inventiveness of ERB’s Barsoomian naming language, I had hoped there was some effort to pay lip service to the language (no pun intended). I’m still hoping there’s something in the final film, some small scene where Carter has to learn the language of Barsoom and then use English as the stand-in for it (a la The 13th Warrior). If not, it just seems like a lost opportunity. Sigh…

Jun 15

Tarzan and His “Languages”

Posted on Monday, June 15, 2009 in Fiction

This article highlights a new exhibit on Tarzan in the Musée du Quai Branly, the museum near the base of the Eiffel Tower. Our conlang connection comes in with this paragraph:

Tarzan’s first spoken language, in the original novel of 1912, was ape-speak – long before scientists discovered that apes do have a language. The exhibition’s catalogue contains a fascinating linguistic study of the words used by Tarzan’s adoptive ape clan, “the Waziris”. They have 250 words, including several verbs, which are used only in the infinitive, rather like George Orwell’s Newspeak. It is worth noting that Tarzan’s second spoken language in the original novel was French, learned from a French officer rescued from cannibals.

This link gives a nice summary of the languages in Edgar Rice Burrough’s Tarzan series. Here is a nice online glossary of Mangani, the language of the apes.

Yel dan-do, yo!

UPDATE: National Public Radio did a news story on the Tarzan exhibit on Aug. 11, 2009.

Jun 12


Posted on Friday, June 12, 2009 in Fiction


Recently, I’ve been re-reading the Martian Tales of Edgar Rice Burroughs (or ERB), and I had forgotten about how much fun they were. It’s easily been more than 20 years since I last visited with John Carter, Tars Tarkas, and Dejah Thoris. They’re a quick read, full of adventure, bravado, and, yes, political incorrectness. However, it never ceases to surprise me that the first novel, A Princess of Mars, was serialized in 1912! With that in mind, it becomes easier to overlook ERB’s sometimes overwrought prose and political incorrectness. Just think, in 1912, the First World War hadn’t even been fought yet, less than 50 years had passed since the end of the U.S. Civil War, and Robert Goddard had just begun experimenting with rockets.

True, the Barsoomian language (ERB’s name for Mars was Barsoom) is not well documented in the Martian stories. ERB was no JRRT. He did, however, provide tantalizing glimpses with words here and there and employed an exotic naming language for the Red Planet. An interesting article is posted in the Magazine Articles section of the Conlanger’s Library from ERBzine #1508 on the protolanguage of Barsoom and it’s influence on “current” Barsoomian. The novels are featured in the Books section.

And “Kaor!”? That’s Barsoomian for “Hello!” Check out Jeffrey Henning’s great site at on Barsoomian as well as this site.

I have spoken.