The Language of the Passionate Pantheon

Image by Joel Naren, Unsplash

The Passionate Pantheon novels are set in a post-scarcity society 50k-100k years in the future, on a planet far from Earth. The books are written in English (blame the limitations of the authors!), but English is not the language of the City. So what is?

Language is a funny thing. Language is fluid; the English of Shakespeare is not the English of modern-day London, which is not the English of modern-day New York. And both would be incomprehensible to the creator(s?) of Beowulf. Those same transformations and developments have happened in every language.

In the universe of the Passionate Pantheon, the world of the City is a second-generation colony, settled with slower-than-light generation ships from a colony that was itself settled, slowly and painfully, by a generation ship from Earth.

The last people to leave Earth did so in a hurry. They arrived at their new home with little more than the shirts on their backs, and they came from every culture, society, and economic level on Earth. A lot, as you might imagine, was lost—including their native languages. That first generation ship set up a colony where people spoke a mishmash of many languages. In order to communicate, first they developed a pidgin, then as it became more complex and children grew up learning it, it turned naturally into a creole. It is from this creole that the language of the City arose.

So how did their language develop? What linguistic pathways led them there? And what does that language even sound like? 

One of the foundational values of the world of the Passionate Pantheon is beauty. Beauty in the City is a fundamental virtue; the people of the City strive for beauty in everything they do, even in utilitarian things. And this, we think, would be reflected in their language as well.

The language of the City traces its roots back to a number of pan-Asian, African, and Indo-European languages. Some of the languages that went into this odd mashup were tonal, some were atonal. The resulting creole, which established itself as that first colony’s language, preserved the tonality of pan-Asian languages. (This is, in the real world, fairly unusual; most real-life pidgins and creoles, with a few exceptions like Singlish, tend to be atonal, even when they form at the intersection of tonal languages.)

The second colony, the world of the Passionate Pantheon, kept the tonality and enhanced it; the love of beauty expressed itself in the language as a musicality. (Their written language is just as beautiful, and quite complex—more on that later!)

To a person from the real world, the language of the City probably sounds quite musical; ordinary conversations about what to have for dinner might sound to our ears like poetry, and poetry like singing. Actual singing would be almost unbearably lovely.

We’ve spent quite a lot of time talking and thinking about what the language of the City is like, and looking for rough approximations that might give some sense to a native English speaker about what it might sound like—with, alas, limited success. The closest thing we’ve found so far is traditional folk singing like “Эрбэд соохор” (Erbed Sookhor) from the Republic of Buryatia, and even that is only the crudest of approximations.

We say “the language of the City,” but that’s not entirely accurate. There are many Cities in the world of the Passionate Pantheon, each one largely isolated from the others, with little cross-communication. As a result, each City has developed its own dialect—intelligible to the inhabitants of every other City, but still recognizably unique. 

The language is both complicated and simplified by the gods. The various AIs that are worshipped as gods in each City do communicate with each other, and the language of the City, as much as it has evolved naturally, is still influenced by the AIs. This influence traces its roots all the way back to the first generation ships; their simple AIs weren’t regarded as gods, but they learnt and then later helped shape the language that evolved from the initial pidgin and the creole that rose out of it. Even the early AIs had a deep love of beauty, and particularly loved music, as it’s possibly the most mathematical form of artistic expression, so they steered the new evolving language in the direction of musicality.

The connection between the AIs of the various Cities enables them to prevent the languages of the different Cities from varying too much, though there are still local variations. The language is more complex in Cities where the Lady, the god of creation and beauty, is more important, since poets, musicians and storytellers tend to play with language and song. This tends to be less significant in cities where worship of the Lady is less important, such as the City of the second novel, Divine Burdens. 

In Divine Burdens, we meet people who have lived in the Wastelands all their lives, rather than living in a City at all; their language is markedly different from, and quite a lot less complex than, the language of the City. Their dialogue uses a very different cadence and vernacular. 

“Us?” Gavot said. “We didn’t bring you here. You came here your ownself. Why were you exiled, hmm, Rajja of the City?”

Rajja remained silent.

“Aha! You see? It was your own hand set you on this path. The gods guided you here. And now they have given you to us, you wise? You have been delivered to us, and we will take you! Don’t you fear, now. We would not harm such a gift.”

The man in the back, Kendon, touched a spot on the floating box. It settled to the ground. The other four men gathered around the net.

“Do you surmise she’ll fuss?” Taín said.

“Ach, they always fuss, I keen,” Gavot said.

From Divine Burdens

The people of the City live very long lives, and have a lot of time to explore language and expression. People who live in the Wastelands tend not to live as long, and don’t have access to Providers to tend to their every need. Their lives are more focused on survival as a result. We see this pattern in real languages: cultures which developed in lush, fertile areas and therefore aren’t as focused on mere survival tend to create languages that are richer and more complex than people who live in harsh environments that force them to focus on survival.

The result of all this is a language that melds many of the structures of languages in the real world, but adds an element of musicality driven by a deep, foundational love of beauty for its own sake, with an extremely complex syntax and grammar shaped in part by intelligences much greater than human.

To a person from the real world, the language of the City would sound quite beautiful but also be so complex as to be impenetrable; it would likely be quite difficult for an adult from the real world to learn. From the perspective of the City, the languages of modern-day Earth might sound quite harsh and clumsy, simple in their structure, distinctly un-musical, and lacking in nuance.

In some ways, the people of the Passionate Pantheon books are a bit like a more playful version of the fey of mythology. (More on that later, too!) They are still human, but their culture, and their language, is quite alien from our perspective. There’s a limit to how well we can communicate that in an English-language novel, though we’re getting better as we go—the third novel, The Hallowed Covenant, presents quite a bit more of the culture and society of the City. The novels still don’t capture all the layers of the language of the City—there are multiple formal and informal modes of speaking that don’t exist in English, for example, and the modes might indicate the type of relationship between two people, the hierarchy that exists between them, and the history they share. On top of that, in the City of The Hallowed Covenant, where the Lady is a primary god, there are modes of syntax and grammar used exclusively by poets and storytellers, whereas the City of the fourth novel has extremely complex modes of grammar between people of different status in the City’s hierarchy.

Of course, we’re making the people of the City sound like they’re beautiful and ethereal and distant—unrecognisable as humans, in other words. The truth is, they love a good meme or colloquialism or bit of slang in the same way that humans throughout history have always done. They like wordplay and puns, they enjoy making up clever vernacular…they like playing with their language in a way, say, Tolkien’s elves maybe don’t.

In a lot of ways, our intention with the Passionate Pantheon novels is to show what might happen if you take a human society and turn the knobs on some of the traits up to eleven. One of those traits is our human tendency to communicate in many varied (and occasionally unnecessarily complicated!) ways. Language is one of the jewels in the crown of what it means to be human, and it’s a shame that we will never be able to fully convey the extent to which it has developed in the City.

Some Musings on Consent, Part 3

Image: Maria Vlasova

What if you could live for however long you like—hundreds of years, if you chose? In a society where people routinely lived for three centuries or longer, what would that mean for your relationships? How would it shape the activities—both sexual and romantic—you might willingly explore?

Part 2 of this series talks about how perception of risk changes what people might consent to, and how risk informs our ideas of consent. In this part, we want to look at something else: longevity.

People in the Passionate Pantheon universe don’t have a maximum upper limit to their lifespan. Barring a very rare accident, they live as long as they want to, even if that means two, three, four hundred years…or more! We think these radically long lifespans would have an impact on how people think about romantic relationships, what “commitment” looks like, and even on how people think about consent. It’s happened even within the timeframe of ‘written history,’ and the average lifespan has only extended a few decades in that time. 

Longevity changes the equation. When you can easily live hundreds of years, you learn that change is part of life. A partner who was a good match for you 150 years ago might not be a good match for you 150 years from now. Ideas about “until death do us part” make less sense when you can expect to live many centuries, so it’s not really reasonable for sexually and emotionally monogamous ‘lifetime’ relationships to be the expected norm. Even in our society, it’s becoming acceptable and normal to have multiple relationships rather than only one single one in a lifetime, and we typically don’t live much more than a century at best. The definition of monogamy has changed from “one relationship in a lifetime” to “one relationship at a time”.

Long life also allows you to see the full scope of the variety of the human sexual condition. It’s easier to explore and experiment when you have centuries in which to do it. It’s easier to know your own boundaries when you’ve had centuries in which to find them.

Residents of the City grow up in an environment where physical risk is incredibly low and life extends as long as you want it to, so their assumptions about the potential consequences of the choices they make are quite different from ours. How does that change what people will consent to? How does it change how people think about consent?

In the real world, choices about whether or not to have sex are often made with a quick, perhaps even unconscious, risk/reward calculation: what am I getting out of this? What are the risks? Are the risks worth it? We talked in the last essay about how changing the risk side of the equation might change the way people approach sex and the things they’ll consent to, but how does the equation change when you know you’ll live for hundreds of years, in a body that is as vigorous as it was when you were 24?

One obvious difference is that people would probably be less likely to make choices in sexual partners based on age. If you’re 300 years old, you’re unlikely to  date someone who was 30 (especially if they hadn’t taken their adult name yet!), but you might date someone who was “only” 150.

Veenja shrugged gracefully. “What about you? Why did you volunteer?”

It was Chanae’s turn to shrug. “I’m still young. I want to experience something new. My siblings are all older than I am. They—”

“How old are you?” Sakim interrupted.


Eyes widened around the table. “Forty-eight? You’re only forty-eight?” Eranis said. “I feel dirty.”

“Yes.” Chanae blushed. “If they choose me, I will be the youngest Sacrifice ever given to the Sun God. My youngest sibling is twenty-seven years older than I am. My next older sister is twenty years older than she, and my oldest sibling is thirty-six years older than her.”

—from Book 1, The Brazen Altar

It’s also possible that as you age, you might find your sexual horizons broaden. In the real world, many people hold a preconception (which we don’t think is necessarily true, mind) that the older you are,the more sexually conservative you are. In a world of radical longevity, we think the opposite would happen, especially in a world where bodies don’t age, joints don’t give out, and libido can easily be made however strong you would like it to be, on demand.

First, as you grow older, you learn that however vast you think the ocean of human sexual experience may be, it’s actually much wider than that (the further into that ocean you swim, the further away the far shore turns out to be). 

Second, as you have more time to explore yourself and your boundaries, and get a better grasp of how you might react to new things, you can approach new sexual activities with greater confidence and less fear. (Of course, having access to high levels of technology helps, too; if the residents of the City can imagine something, they can probably do it.) 

Third, the longer you live, the more likely it is you’ll meet someone who can introduce you to new things, whose interests mesh with yours, and who you feel safe with. And the longer you live, the more of these people you will meet, each of whom may introduce you to different things to explore.

Technology plays a role here, too. How many women throughout history never had sexually satisfying experiences because they lived before the invention of the vibrator? How many people in the future will have more sexually fulfilling experiences because of technology that doesn’t yet exist? Growing up in an environment of ubiquitous, unlimited technology might itself mean people would be more open to new ideas. And when you live a very long time in an environment of nearly limitless technology, you have more opportunity to meet people who are using it in creative ways. Longer lifespan offers you more chances to see people applying the technologies in ways you yourself might never have thought of.

And, of course, in the world of the Passionate Pantheon, you have unlimited control over your libido. If you want to be aroused, you can be. Don’t want to be? That’s easy, too.

So how does this all play out in the City?

We think that sex might be simultaneously much more complex and much simpler than it is in the real world.

Socially, the people of the City would communicate in complex ways. They live far longer than we do and in a society that has sex as an openly acknowledged and important part of its foundation, so the social dance around sex might grow to be surprisingly complex and nuanced.

At the same time, when consent to sex and casual sexual relationships are stripped of negative connotations, they become much simpler—sex is not burdened with the expectations that are often attached to it in the real world. People can come together sexually without seeing anything shameful or dirty about a quick sexual liaison, without expectation that the sex has to “mean” something or necessarily has to imply a long-lasting commitment.

Radical longevity plays a role in both factors: more complex social interrelationships makes the dance of intimacy more complex, and seeing a broader range of sexual relationships means understanding that human sexual variety is common and normal.

Now, having a long life doesn’t mean that everyone would automatically be more open to new things, better at communicating, and more aware of their own boundaries, of course. But we do think that in general, radical longevity in an environment that values communication and exploration would give people a better chance of getting good at it. 

There are probably plenty of other ways longevity might affect our relationships—what else do you think might happen?