The Languages of Tékumel
More than 40 years after the release of Empire of the Petal Throne (EPT), why do we still love Tékumel? For me, it’s the deep mystery. In other words: figuring it all out. And nothing is more fun to figure out than the detailed invented languages and linguistic histories.
Languages were what most interested Barker himself about Tékumel from a young age. In a 1984 interview published in The Space Gamer magazine, he said he first became interested in inventing languages when, as a child in St. Marie, Idaho, he played with Basque children who kept secrets in their native language, a rare isolate unrelated to other tongues. Barker had invented the Tsolyáni script by age 12, before learning any other languages. He said he could not consciously remember any real-world influences on Tsolyáni and that the knowledge of his invented languages had “just come.”
The first Tékumel RPG work, EPT, included elaborately drawn inscriptions in Tsolyáni (and one snippet of Classical Tsolyáni), allusions to the modern and classical languages of all the five empires, a pronunciation guide to Tsolyáni, and a guide to the Tsolyáni script. Tsolyáni (and other) language texts and proper names also appeared in later source material, magazine articles, and short language studies. In all, Barker published grammars and word lists for five invented languages: Tsolyáni, Yan Koryáni, Livyáni, Engsvanyáli, and Sunúz. In addition, he published articles on the scripts of six other Tekumel languages: Mu’ugalavyáni, Salarvyáni, Classical Tsolyáni, Bednálljan, Llyáni, and Thu’úsa. A few scattered words of these latter six languages appear in the Tékumel canon (e.g. EPT includes the Salarvyáni book title “Guppíshsha Hrakkúq Mazhzhátl” translated as the “The Book of the Fragrant Garden”), but no extensive word lists. Barker also published an article on the ideographic kázhra ve ngakóme script, which I have not read.
I’ve been doing some research on Tékumel languages and will soon post something on that topic. In the meantime, let me quickly note that I received a message clarifying something that had confused me in a previous post.
I had previously wondered why Professor Barker had written “786” in Urdu above his name in his copy of Dungeons & Dragons. Muhammad Aurangzeb Ahmad, Editor of the Islam and Science Fiction Project, wrote to tell me that “786” in Urdu, as in Arabic, signifies “In the name of God the most Merciful, the most Beneficent.”
A fuller explanation is here.
Barker had converted to Islam as a young man after hearing a recitation of the 99 names of God. It makes sense that he’d make this religious gesture.
Thanks to Muhammad for pointing this out.
(The Tsolyáni reads “Korúnkoi hiGardásisasayal” = “Book of Heroic and Powerful Deeds”)
Following the 1975 release of Empire of the Petal Throne (EPT), Tékumel rode triumphant. The sumptuous EPT introduced a few innovations and a depth of background that made D&D look ugly and simplistic. In 1975, EPT won the award at GenCon 9 for best new game. Despite a high price, EPT went into a second printing in 1976 and then a third in 1977. At roughly the same time, War of Wizards, a board game with Tékumel color, was released in a Ziploc version and then reprinted in a boxed version. In 1977, TSR did a large run of a well-illustrated set of miniature rules for Tékumel to be used with a new line of Tékumel miniatures produced by a leading company (and later acquired and expanded by another leading company). EPT had a large following. EPT articles were a staple of TSR’s house magazine, The Dragon ,and many players listed in the directories printed in The Dragon listed EPT as a game they wanted to play. Meanwhile, Barker was at work on a Tékumel novel, for which he had a deal with a leading science fiction publisher.
Unfortunately, the good times didn’t last.
I am working on a post about the Journals but in the meantime here is a fun photo of my whole collection, which I am inventorying for the first time today. (I have been a little reluctant to contemplate all that I have acquired over the years.)
I think most Tékumel fans developed their interest via role-playing games, However, Barker’s most extensive published explication of the world of Tékumel was in his Tékumel novels. Altogether, he wrote five Tékumel novels, and all can be collected.
The Man of Gold
Barker became acquainted with science fiction publisher Don Wohlheim through miniature sculptor Bill Murray, who produced the first miniatures for Tékumel, as discussed in this post. Wohlheim was a collector of 54mm and 90mm miniatures, which Murray produced.
The acquaintance led to a deal and Wohlheim’s DAW Books published the first of Barker’s novels, The Man of Gold, in 1984. The book has a short biographical blurb on Barker that says he had worked on developing the world of Tékumel since the age of ten. The same blurb directs readers to the Adventure Games booklets on the Tsolyáni language and to the imminent publication of the Swords and Glory sourcebook by Gamescience (both of which will be discussed in future posts).
Many people daydream but few can imagine detailed and extensive worlds that stay internally consistent over long periods of time. M.A.R. Barker had that gift.
I do not want to exaggerate. Barker’s Tékumel did change over time. And much of Barker’s Tékumel clearly drew from experiences later in life studying Klamath, Indian, Mayan, and other cultures, as well as his advanced study of linguistics. However, Barker’s early writings and other evidence show that lasting elements of Tékumel developed very early, as early as high school. Barker wrote that his youthful fascination with science fiction, Hollywood adventures of the 40s and 50s, and pulp magazines partly shaped his fantasy world.