Phonemes: The Molecules of Flavor

Posted in Savor The Flavor on December 14, 2011

By Adam Lee

We've all had these days.

Ancient Grudge | Art by Ryan Yee

Perhaps some of us have had these days.

Laboratory Maniac | Art by Jason Felix

And then, we've had these days.

Unburial Rites | Art by Ryan Pancoast

I think that I experienced all these days while working on Innistrad–a Gothic horror joyride ranging from glee to the depths of terror. Although it has only been about two years since we placed the first cornerstone of that set, it feels like eons of lore have been stuffed inside my head. But Innistrad will always have a special place in my heart, for it was the very first set I saw from inception to completion, from soup to nuts, from jam hounds to jelly beans. Good times.

There are many phases that a set goes through–concept, design, development, creative treatment–and each of those components can be broken down into smaller parts. The part I want to briefly explore for this Flashback Week article is in the background of every card set. It is one of those things that subtly influence the whole vibe of the world. That ingredient is sound.

When we began to do the world building for Innistrad, we were in the middle of polishing the Scars of Mirrodin, Mirrodin Besieged, and New Phyrexia sets. The name New Phyrexia was such a closely guarded secret at that time that I still feel dread at the prospect of saying or typing its name (apparently, it still holds some Cthulhu lord-like power over me). Anyhow, we were switching from the plight of Mirrodin to this new Gothic horror world, wondering what we were going to concoct in this new pot of stew.

There's always this strange gear-shifting going on when we have to sever the connection from one world and plug into another, working back and forth, making sure there is no bleed-through from one set to the next. Each world needs to have its own distinct identity and feel, and one way to accomplish that is through how it sounds. Worlds need to feel cohesive and believable in order for players to become immersed. Words that sound clunky or stand out in an odd way are jarring to the smooth, immersive experience we are aiming for, so creative team manager Brady Dommermuth gave us the direction that the sound of Innistrad should be a blend of Prussian with dashes of Old Germanic, Dutch, and French. With that, we all went to work constructing the skeleton of the plane.

At that time, various names were being tossed about. Innistrad could have been any number of the names we were playing with. My favorite came from Magic art director Jeremy Jarvis, who said we should call it "Skeletown." The concept push came and went; cards began to be commissioned. I can't remember exactly when the name "Innistrad" finally got solidified among the team and chiseled into the tablet of Magic set names, but it happened, and as soon as it did, we all felt like the world became solid. It was an odd experience to be working on a set without a name for so long. For me, there was this sense of disconnect to this place we still had to call "Shake." That wasn't conjuring up any kind of Gothic horror vibe for me. So I remember feeling, once we finally had the name, this deep sense of identity that came almost instantly into being—a feeling of "Yes! This is Innistrad. Now I can really get writing about it."

What's in a name? Apparently a massive, mind-made sense of identity.

I guess the sounds we vocalize through our pie-holes are powerful.

That brings up this letter I recently received:

Dear Adam,

There's something I've been wondering about since the Ravnica block. That question has become all the more prominent since the release of Innistrad.

Ravnica didn't attempt to hide its Slavic roots in terms of the names for guilds, some people, and local phenomena. The same is true for Innistrad and its Central European real-world roots, which I guess is intended to enhance the authentic horror feeling.

However, I wonder how the creative team selects the names, since there seems to be no consistent line. For example, the names "Gavony" and "Nephalia" quite clearly refer to Saxony and Westphalia but would make no sense for someone who lives in Germany, since these regions are called Sachsen and Westfalen in German. Then you've got a word like "geist" (ghost, spirit) which is straight-up German. "Kruin" (tree crown) and "graf" (grave) are straight-up Dutch words, and "Ulvenwald" is conceivably a weird Scandinavian-German hybrid (and, of course, it does mean "Wolfwood"). Lastly, there's a few odd ones out, like "Markov."

So my question is: how is it decided whether you opt for a name taken straight from another language (and why you're choosing a particular language or not), use its English transliteration, or make up a word that is a hybridization or complete invention that would plausibly make sense?

Many thanks in advance,
Anton V

Here was my reply:

Dear Anton,

Thanks for your letter! It makes us happy that there are Magic players out there who really appreciate the worlds as much as we do.

To answer your question: we start world building with an overall feel of what the world is going to sound and feel like. In the case of Innistrad, we wanted that Gothic horror feel but without going to the obvious clichés. So we chose to fashion it from mainly Prussian and Germanic roots, incorporating some elements from the Netherlands and Scandinavia, as you pointed out.

As we break down the world into parts–in this case, provinces–we get a feel of what "sounds" good. We ultimately have to come up with words that work on cards, so we don't want to get too far out (i.e., something that is unpronounceable to players or too long to fit on cards). "Graf" worked great for graves and "geist" was a nice fit for spirits as both were short, easily understood by our English-speaking players, and blended in to the world. Personally, I try not to just serve our English-speaking audience, and I will put words that have meaning to our non-English-speaking players–they will get the inside meaning, and it is fun to have those players let us know that they got it. Most American players will never get "Ulvenwald"–be sure to elucidate this to them!

Our ultimate goal is to make the world believable through names that feel as if they are from a region that relates as a cohesive whole and to make stuff sound cool. In order to serve card needs we have to create a neologism or some word that exists on the fringe of our regional chart.

Overall, it's fun, and we learn lots about the roots of languages and how names change and evolve from region to region.

Hope this gives you a bit of insight into how we go about solving these problems on a block-to-block basis. It is awesome to hear from players such as yourself who are paying attention to the hours and hours of work that we do to make Magic a multi-layered experience for gamers and linguistic buffs alike.

Enjoy the set and thanks so much for your letter!

Adam Lee

Magic Creative Designer, Ramp;D

For Innistrad, I had been placed in charge of creating what spirits were going to be on this world and figuring out the province of Nephalia, with all its ghouls, geists, skaberen, alchemists, and monsters.

Sturmgeist | Art by Terrese Nielsen

This province was mainly blue aligned, so it was a series of port towns. My parents were both from Liverpool, England, so I could really draw upon my "scouser" roots and dive in. I knew that I needed to make it a bustling center of trade, a mysterious realm of arcane science, a Dr. Frankenstein's playground, and a den of scum and villainy. First of all, I needed some creepy-sounding names.

I remember looking at a map of a large section of Europe, just checking out names in Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Germany, and Denmark, trying to come up with some ideas. I found myself becoming more intrigued by how the sounds of the names changed from region to region. I had never really thought about what makes something "sound" German, Belgian, or Danish, but after taking a bird's eye view of Europe, I realized that I really didn't need to see graphically where the borders were—I could just see how the names blended from one region to the next, creating these hybrid names along the borders. Sometimes, I could see where ancient borders were by names from another region creeping deep into a neighboring state.

While I was noodling away with this, in the back of my head I was aware that we were making a Gothic horror setting, so the names had to have an unsettling feel to them. Certain groups of sounds feel more sinister than others. Why is that? Some of it is programming from our culture, but maybe it goes deeper than that. This opens up the interesting world of phonemes and how they are subliminally wired into the brain to register certain emotions or concepts.

Which creature sounds like a big lug: "Blorbo" or "Krittzik?"

Which creature sounds better in a bar fight: "Elethia" or "Gulrath?"

Here's an interesting NPR article Brady found that goes a bit deeper into the subject of phonemes.

In the quest to create mood and setting, it was interesting to hunt down words that sounded mysterious or spooky and at the same time were similar enough to give players a sense of place.
A great one I feel nailed it was "Ulvenwald."

If it was a dark and stormy night, there would be no way in hell that I would go on a walk through the Ulvenwald Forest. Keep inside. PJs. Blankie. Cocoa. Shotgun.

The reason Ulvenwald hits the "mysterious, creep-out" button for me is locked in my limbic system somewhere, deep in my brain where reason and rationality hold little sway.

Another name I really liked that Doug came up with captured a feeling of "Germanic werewolves looking for trouble." Thus was born "The Krallenhorde."

"Krallen" alone sounds like the German god of crushing stuff. And now that god has a horde. Sounds like a double-scoop of ass-whuppin' is on the way to the tune of 7/7.

Innistrad has plenty of these names crawling about, urging our primordial instincts to create emotional sub-tremors while the rational left-brain reads blissfully away. As you walk through the realm of Gavony, which has the highest human population, you'll find these hard and hearty names like Estwald, Thraben, and Videns, but get further from the human enclaves and you get more sinister names like Kruin, Havengul, and Drunau. The emotions say "Time to turn back, please," when they start seeing those road signs.

Each set is a challenge involving design, development, mathematics, art, writing, and now sound. Being a human being is dwelling inside a strange and hyper-sensitive bio-machine that can be tickled and poked by all kinds of experiences. For some reason, sound affects us greatly—especially the sounds made by language. Each word is loaded with meaning and it's different for everyone. It is amazing that we communicate as well as we do.

I hope you enjoyed this little sojourn and that you enjoy Innistrad as much as we did making it!

Skeletal Grimace | Art by Eric Deschamps

Stay tuned for more sounds of terror in Dark Ascension!

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