Monday, November 28, 2011

Darius and the Dragons

I love the writing system designed for the dragons in Bethesda's new game, Skyrim.

According to a gameinformer interview with the language's designers, the symbols are designed to look like they were gouged into stone by dragons with three talons and a dewclaw (that odd extra toe partway up your cat's leg that seems to serve no purpose)

Dragon writing from Skyrim

Bethesda (the company that makes Skyrim) was not the first bunch to encounter this graphic design problem. Cyrus the Great was an ancient Persian king (around 600 BCE) with the same idea: he wanted to create monumental inscriptions to celebrate his grandiose awesomeness, and he appeared to have a similar aesthetic, and apparently had stoneworking tools not unlike Skyrim dragon talons:

"Newer" cuneiform of Cyrus and Darius,
 about 600 BCE (from Wikipedia)

That's from the Behistun inscription in Iran, which is a really good sample of this writing by a slightly later king, Darius the Great. It is a solemn record of how awesome he is, and what he's conquered: it begins, "I (am) Darius, the great king, the king of kings, the king in Persia, the king of countries."

This is technically cuneiform, "wedge-shaped" writing. Cuneiform is the oldest kind of writing we know of, originally used by the Sumerians. But Sumerian cuneiform was invented for a different medium: they wrote it by pressing a wedge-shaped tool into clay, not by whacking spikes into cliffs.

The Sumerian writing system was already at least two thousand years old and on the decline when Cyrus and Darius came along, but Cyrus's people revived it and adapted it to his language (Old Persian) to make this type of monumental inscription. I don't know why, but I wonder if they had the same feelings about it as the Skyrim artists: it evokes dragon's claws and ancient secret meanings. Maybe Cyrus hoped to co-opt the mystique of ancient Sumerian and Akkadian writing, the same way we invent Latin mottos for modern institutions.

Older cuneiform,
from Code of
(~1700 BCE)
But I think Cyrus improved on the state of the art. Compare the Behistun inscription with real old skool cuneiform back when it was still in regular use a thousand years before: on the right here is a sample from the Code of Hammurabi. Cyrus's relatively simple script is almost a true alphabet (it represents syllables with about 50 symbols), but Hammurabi was writing the Akkadian language with more complicated cuneiform shapes, with more varied shapes and angles, uneven spacing, and the symbols representing, like modern Japanese, a mix of sounds and meanings. To me, Hammurabi's writing has a sloppy, random look, and as you look at even older inscriptions, it gets even sloppier. I think the simpler systems of Cyrus the Great and Skyrim's Dragon Writing look more imposing as inscription than Hammurabi's did.  Each serves their purpose well enough; Hammurabi was trying to codify a stable system of law in a writing system people at the time understood, while Cyrus was trying to make people's hair stand on end.

It's time for a cuneiform revival: let's come up with a system for writing English using this style of writing, and start marking gravestones and monuments this way. The Roman alphabet has been fun for these last couple thousand years, and it's perfectly adequate for business expense reimbursement vouchers and vampire romance novels, but clearly it lacks the gravitas of stonecarved cuneiform.