On Bardugo’s Tsarpunk, Worldbuilding, and Historical Linguistics

Reflecting on Leigh Bardugo’s use of Russian in Shadow and Bone, I have made some comments to friends who asked to hear more. For context: this is the book (link goes to Goodreads); this is a positive review of the book that raised the questions that prompted this entry; this is a trustworthy negative review. Context about myself for those who do not know me: born in Ukraine, native speaker of Russian, a Jew, immigrant living in the US, linguist.

Specific languages arise and are developed through unique historical, and historical linguistic processes. This sounds trivial, but let me elaborate for a second – because it is CRUCIAL to understand some of this if you want to make a good job of incorporating existing world languages into your secondary-world fiction. Sarah Monette gives a good background to the issue in The Moss-Troll problem – how do we construct secondary worlds that are internally consistent?

“the problem … [is] one that a writer of secondary-world fiction encounters frequently. … You can’t, for instance, say something is as basic as the missionary position in a world without missionaries. What about saying something is as swift and sharp as a guillotine’s blade? Well, did Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin exist in this world?”

Drawing on real-world languages in a secondary world raises the same issues. If you want thoughtful worldbuilding rather than just grabbing stuff for garnish and exoticization, you should ask yourself, “This is a secondary world. How did languages I am describing here arise, and how do I account for them sounding just like planet Earth’s language X?” It is a crucial question to ask because specific languages arise and are developed through unique historical, and historical linguistic processes. 

Let me start with a fairly simple and straightforward example. The word tsar (царь) comes from Caesar, and was adopted into Russian through Gothic; Goths in turn borrowed it from Latin. [1] Grisha is a diminutive of Grigorii, a Christian name of Greek origin (Γρηγόριος ‘wakeful’) ; Christian names in Russian originate from Byzantium. Unless you are writing an alternative history incorporating old Julius, Rome, Germanic tribes interacting with Rome, Byzantium and early Christianity [2], the word tsar and the name Grisha should NOT appear in your secondary world fantasy. [3] Those who are going to tell me “but it’s just fantasy!!” are wrong. It’s that simple. Within your secondary world, unless you are writing satire, things should make internal sense. If there is no Caesar, there is no tsar. That word could not arize independently of its context.

Onwards. When it comes to sound changes, some languages and language families are more conservative, while others are more innovative (those words are not value judgments – they are terms pertaining to phonetics and phonology). For example, the Semitic language family and the Indo-European language family are similar in age, but the Semitic root tends to be significantly more stable (due to the placement of the vowels in the root and some other factors) than the Indo-European root. Different branches of Indo-European are differently innovative when it comes to the sound system. Some of it has to do with geographical spread, e.g isoglosses such as the kentum/satem isogloss, some with the different reflexes of laryngeals, etc, etc.

Within the Indo-European language family, the Slavic language family underwent changes that are in themselves quite striking. Some of those changes are common to the whole Slavic family before it split, others are specific to the North vs South divide, yet others to East, West, South divide, and yet others to individual languages within these groups.

Common Slavic, a language we postulate was spoken by the Slavs around 4-6 centuries CE, underwent a number of important innovations that differentiate it from its closest relative, Baltic. [4] (DO NOT look this up in Wikipedia, it presents incorrect or incomplete information on Slavic historical phonetics and phonology.)

One of the first innovations introduced was the so-called law of rising sonority, which basically meant that syllables were reformed to always end on a sound of higher sonority. Thus, syllables that were consonant-vowel-consonant very roughly wanted to become consonant-vowel.  They did it for example by dropping the last consonant in each syllable (so things like Common Slav. sūnus ‘son’ became synǔ), and by other, more convoluted processes. This was a phonetic catastrophe of major proportions that dragged other changes – monophtongization of diphtongs, palatalizations, etc, etc, etc. To show you exactly how many chronologically ordered phenomena could be involved in a generation of simple words, let’s look at poor tsar again.

Step 1. Julis Caesar exists and is a significant historical personage – also in your secondary world (somehow). It’s his name, after all.

Step 2. The Latin is borrowed into Gothic. You have to have Goths or at least some kind of Germanic-speaking peoples there for the sake of your sound system’s consistency. Gothic form is kaisar.

Step 3.  Goths come in contact with the Slavs and the word kaisar is borrowed.

Step 4a. Slavs experience the law of rising sonority. The vowel a is higher in sonority than i, so a syllable kai is no longer permitted to exist.
Step 4b. Oh no! Because of 4a, the Slavs experience Monophtongization of Diphtongs!!! ai > ĕ, thus kaisar > kĕsar’.

Step 5. Second (regressive) palatalization occurs for velars followed by the new vowel ĕ, which is to say k mutates to ts and  thus kĕsar’ > tsesar’

Step 6. tsesar’ gets shortened to ts’sar’ and from there to tsar’.

So… if all this did not happen in your world and your language(s), what is tsar (and tsaritsa) doing there?

After Common Slavic split into groups and then individual  languages, each Slavic language continued to innovate in the sound system. Many Slavic languages are mutually intelligible, and even introduced similar innovations after the split (continuing the changes started by the law of rising sonority, for example) – but despite their striking closeness, each Slavic language developed differently.
Without lecturing you on – for example – the fall of the jers, and other things that go into the serious study of Slavic and Russian historical phonetics and phonology, let me assure you that odinakovost‘ could not have arisen as a word in any language but Russian. It is inconceivable. (But I can explain exactly how, over hundreds of years of historical linguistic developments, a word with that shape could develop in Russian).

There is no way a non-Russian Slavic language would develop independently and  be identical to Russian in phonetics/phonology and word formation.

 Hence, “This is not Russia, this is Ravka” is completely fallacious. If a word like odinakovost’ exists there, it is Russia, with linguistic processes lifted intact. There is no way this derivation could have happened independently in a secondary world.  If you are doing this, you have not done good worldbuilding; you appropriated for garnish without stopping to think. What you constructed makes no sense within the context of your own secondary world.

So, say, you have in your secondary world a Slavic-inspired country with the following parameters: the culture has never come in contact with Goths, Vikings, and Balts; the culture never underwent Christianization, and has not come in contact with the Holy Roman Empire, either Western or Eastern. There are no  Jews whatsoever, either of Byzantine origin (no Byzantium), or of Ashkenazi origin, because if Christianity did not exist and persecute Jews, Ashkenazi  Jews would have no reason to flee Western Europe and seek refuge in the Slavic lands. So what is, according to me (bag of salt! bag of salt!) an acceptable thing to do in this situation, language-wise?

Well, I think most importantly you should realize that this kind of complexity is involved, in the first place.

In other words, you should do your research, especially if you are not a native speaker and are taking things from a culture and language not your own, for your own fun and profit. [5]

Next, probably look at Common Slavic, which had no or limited contact with Christianity – and use Common Slavic forms. Consult an etymological dictionary to exclude words of Germanic, Baltic, Greek, Latin, and other undesirable origins. Perhaps if you have the training to do so, derive a sibling Slavic language from the reconstructed Common Slavic. Or perhaps even use Old Russian forms, but for the sake of old Julius and the Emperor Constantine, DON’T incorporate Latin and Greek words that have nothing to do with the world you built, because there is no way they could have landed there, because specific languages arise and are developed through unique historical, and historical linguistic processes.

[1] – According to Vasmer. Another theory is that it was borrowed from Greek kaisar, but the Latin > Gothic > Slavic route is the most likely.

[2] Bardugo does not seem to have Christianity in her book, but she has saints complete with a Latin-looking designation for them (Sankt) which makes little sense to me.

[3] Similarly, names like Alexei (Christian, Greek) and Mikhael (Biblical, Hebrew through Greek) could not exist in Slavic without Byzantium and Christianity (the name Mikhael also could not have existed without Hebrew and Jews).

[4] – I am not going to go into the Proto-Balto-Slavic continuum debate due to lack of time and space; and I am not going to discuss Indo-European either, because we’ll be here forever, but I can speak about this in person sometime if there is interest).

[5] – I am not going to get into the question of “who owns the language”, and whether native speakers and heritage speakers get more leeway when using their OWN languages to write in English. It is definitely a different situation than what we have with Bardugo’s, and opinions vary here. For myself and myself only, a multilingual immigrant writing in Slavic- and Semitic- inspired secondary world settings, I do not feel that I get more leeway as a native speaker; but this is a more complex issue than I can get into, within the scope of this entry.

[Warning: if you are feeling compelled to ask “who the heck cares?” and/or tell me I am taking this way too seriously, the answers are: I care, and indeed I am taking this seriously. This is my space. If you feel the urgent need to troll, be advised that you should do so elsewhere, or be subjected to the Firebird Flamethrower.]

It’s three years later, it’s time to close comments on this piece. The entry stays up, but any discussion should happen in your own spaces.Thank you!


  1. braak says:

    This is an interesting and very frustrating problem for a writer, because when you start working on it, there are never any edges to anything, and once you start pulling things up, you start having to have to deal with a bunch of other problems that you never even noticed before.

    For example: let’s say you’re making a secondary-world fantasy that is, roughly, an analogue for late-nineteenth century England, and you want to name some characters. But it’s a very rough analogue, so you first cross out all the Latin and Greek names, all the French names, all the Hebrew names that ended up in England through Christianity. Well, now does that mean that your regular idiom should be devoid of French or Latin-derived words? Modern English has a vocabulary that is the product of waves of different linguistic influences, but if you’ve got no French in your world, does that mean your version of English doesn’t have French influences?

    But then, wait, what? Is the language of the novel ACTUALLY English, or are you positing a different, similar language that has been translated by an imaginary intermediary for the sake of the reader? And, actually, is the language of the narrative different from the language of the characters?

    This is all to say nothing of the surprisingly large numbers of English words that are actually straight-up named after people.

    • Rose says:


      Thank you for your interesting comment! Jamie below gave a very good answer to some of your points.

      “But then, wait, what? Is the language of the novel ACTUALLY English, or are you positing a different, similar language that has been translated by an imaginary intermediary for the sake of the reader? And, actually, is the language of the narrative different from the language of the characters?”

      For me, the answer to this is “absolutely.” There is no way my secondary-world characters (in my novel in progress) are speaking English – they are explicitly speaking other languages, and as my work deals with linguistics pretty extensively, these relationships are spelled out to a great degree. The characters are all multilingual except one, who is in a situation of classical diglossia with two related but distinct dialects. In any case, even if I were writing monolingual characters, the situation would not change – they are not speaking English. They are in the secondary world. The language of the narrative is English, and the languages of the characters are the languages of the secondary world. The act of translation is palpable for me because I have been translating massively and from various languages for … two decades now (wow, getting older) and there is just no way English would have, say, the same politeness expressions as, say, Khanishti (one of my secondary world languages). There is no way, say, possession/ownership expressions would be the same in English and in those languages, shaping the way my people think about possession as different from the way monolingual English-speakers think about possession. I use the heavily updated Sapir-Whorf and multilingualism theories to figure out how my characters’ languages influence their worldview. My translation will never be faithful, as you simply cannot do the same things in Khanishti that you can do in English, and vice versa.

      I actually don’t expect *anyone* to do as much sociolinguistic worldbuilding as I do; I am a professional linguist, other people are not. But – if an author is going to lift whole words and expressions from a contemporary world language not their own, slightly mangle them, and stick them into their novel for a bit of exotic garnish, I ask that they do not pretend that “this is not Russian but Ravkan!!!” because that is scientifically impossible (as I hopefully showed), and it is also an act of avoiding responsibility for careless appropriation.

      When I am translating from Russian, I do not carelessly leave whole words untranslated from Russian to give my Dostoyevsky (or whatever) a bit of flavor. Such ‘peppering’ is more often than not done for exoticisation by authors who have little or no understanding of the culture/language they are so using. The fact that the language and culture are not their own is, I think, significant here.

  2. […] fascinating post by Rose Lemberg, “On Bardugo’s Tsarpunk, Worldbuilding, and Historical Linguistics,” which looks at the linguistic failings of the novel and how much that really effects its […]

  3. Jamie says:

    I want to hug this article because I so often find myself wanting to grumble about this sort of thing but generally feel that people will think I’m being ridiculous (and indeed sometimes I do grumble and people do say I’m being ridiculous).

    My academic background is in Roman history, so the things that I particularly tend to notice are fantasy names, titles, technical terms, &c. that are transparently derived from Latin (and often specifically from Roman names or the names of Roman institutions). To me, those choices are the equivalent of the author waving a large placard that says ‘This setting is actually an alt-history version of our own world, which diverged from our history at some point after the height of the Roman empire’. Which is usually not what the author intends at all, but that’s the only way I can interpret those creative choices, and it’s confusing and distracting.

    To respond to braak’s comment, I confess I’m not a novelist so I can complain about this sort of thing without having to come up with a better alternative or try to make it work in practice. But it seems to me the best solution is probably what braak suggests in the third paragraph: write as if you’re translating into English (or whatever language you’re writing in) from the original language(s) of the setting. I don’t say that would eliminate all difficult judgments, but I suspect it would make a lot of decisions easier: you don’t have to invent a whole constructed language (although it’s cool if you can do that convincingly), you just have to choose the real word that feels like it would best (and least distractingly) translate the concept without bringing to mind misleading real-world associations.

    Applying that approach, you wouldn’t write things like ‘missionary position’ or ‘wave the white flag’, just like someone translating an ancient Greek text wouldn’t, because they’re culturally / historically specific idioms that don’t belong in the setting you’re trying to evoke, and you can easily render the same idea into English a different way. But at the same time you wouldn’t fret about using words like ‘artificial’ or ‘nonchalant’ just because they come from Latin or French — they’re perfectly ordinary English words and you are, after all, translating the text into ordinary English.

    That kind of approach would also, I think (and hope), get rid of the pointless tendency to just very slightly change the spellings of English words in order to convey that the word is some kind of technical term in the world of the story (e.g. ‘this can only have been done by majik: we have to tell the Councyl’). No translator would do that. Either translate the term into English (‘magic’, ‘Council’) or use the untranslated word (which you then have to make up in a way that takes care not to sound distractingly like any real human language that it has no good reason to sound like).

    Anyway, that’s maybe a bit of a tangent. Thanks for this post, Rose (and thanks to requireshate for retweeting).

    • Rose says:

      “I want to hug this article”
      I want to hug your comment! :)

      I responded to Braak with some information on my approach (translation, yes, translation!). I am only a beginning novelist, although I do have professional short fiction credits. I cannot boast snovel ales or a contract with a major press, but I am doing my very best to do my very best. Even the most careful person can fail, but there is a big difference between that and not even trying.

  4. Dash says:

    This is excellent — thank you!!

    My academic background is in linguistics, and I found myself going YES THIS so many times while reading this.

  5. eliza says:

    Rose, thank you for this. Shows how hard it really is to build a world and use a language that makes sense in a novel’s context.

    This post is making me want to study linguistics.

  6. […] first novel set in a Russian-influenced universe: here is Next Friday’s review and Rose Lemberg’s post about worldbuilding in the novel. So I didn’t expect much, as this novelette is set in the […]

  7. Enna says:

    You can take the moss troll problem too far. For example, will you avoid the words tyrant/tyranny, sadist/sadism, and gaudy because your world had no Tyrannus, de Sade, or Gaudy? I always figure that the secondary world people (whose language, as you point out, is being translated) have their own words for the same concepts. This does say something about the culture (some places would not have those words – I lived in Miami for years and I don’t think I heard anyone use the word gaudy – or the word ostentatious, or any negative term for conspicuous wealth – the whole time). It only bothers me when people “translating” into English start using appropriating terms they clearly don’t understand or haven’t thought through.

    • Rose says:

      I understand where you are coming from, and do not necessarily disagree with you. That said, I have avoided the words “sadistic” and “masochistic” in my WIP despite the presence of a power exchange relationship that develops along these lines. I avoided words like linguist and anthropologist, because those are our-world concepts, even though it would have been easier to use these words. I avoided linguistic and anthropological terminology because these concepts developed differently in my secondary world; many do not yet have labels. Not using these words made me work harder on my world-building and resulted in a complex world I am happy with. Of course, the book is still in progress, so only a few people can judge it right now.

      I have similarly avoided the use of tyrant. Not sure about gaudy, this is interesting; I should check this. I don’t necessarily mind if other people use such words in their work, though.

      Like you, I care about people appropriating without understanding. I tend to give people who do not carelessly appropriate a lot of leeway, even though I may sound like a purist myself.

      In this instance, appropriation of a single word would not have bothered me, but in Bardugo’s book, the appropriations are cumulative. I used tzar as an example of a word tied to a specific culture, and which arose in this culture through very specific linguistic processes. If it were the only word she borrowed, I would not have been especially perturbed.

      • Kegg says:

        Here’s the thing, though.

        You can’t stop yourself from just not using tyrant. English evolved from the strong Roman and Greek influences of medieval culture and a specific melange of Germanic and Frankish influences as a result of the Anglo-Saxon and Norman conquests, plus some washback from the Celtic languages they conquered. The unique and complex evolution of the English langauge is littered all across it.

        Pertinent example: The word ‘Emperor’ comes from Imperator, which originally meant no such thing (that is was not equivalent to King), and the word’s current usage has a specific linguistic evolution that has to do with how Ocatavian used his status as Imperator.

        None of this background however is relevant in how the English language uses the word ‘Emperor’ to refer to the Emperors of Chna and Japan, though. It’s a translation of a term that was considered more or less equivalent.

        I’m not saying the book in question is or isn’t lazy in its use of Russian, but to say we can’t use English words, say, because of the specific origin of these words basically limits us to using non-real words. I think probably the easiest or at least most self-aware way to tackle that problem in writing for a secondary world is in suggesting that the literature it is is essentially a translation using equivalent terms. But hey, that’s just me.

        • Rose says:

          Where exactly did I suggest that people should not use common English words? I wrote my essay to show how complex the evolution of languages is, and how careless appropriation of other languages and cultures cannot be handwaved away. This exercise is not telling authors that they cannot use common English vocabulary. Reducing the conversation to “but authors cannot stop using common English words” is derailing, because it is taking us away from the main point: if you are lifting a foreign language wholesale without stopping to check with a native speaker, hoping to later wave it away by saying that the same language could have spontaneously evolve in a secondary world, that is simply not correct. I want authors to think, and to do their *very* basic homework before readers start to raise these objections. If Bardugo wouldn’t have mangled the Russian so badly, most people would not have issues. I certainly would not have written this essay if she cared enough to do her very basic homework. It is easily done – just ask a native speaker – but no.

          I am at this point completely uninterested in continuing the conversation about the usage of English words. Each person decides for themselves what is appropriate for their work. I have decided for myself, in my work, to do certain things which I briefly discussed. I am extremely unlikely to achieve any level of purity (even by my own standards), but I am doing my homework earnestly. I cannot dictate to other people what they are to do with common English words in their work. But I would like everyone writing about a culture not their own to do their homework, and to think about the implications of careless borrowing. That’s all there is to it.

          • Kegg says:

            I’ve never read Bardugo, so this was less derailing on whatever the crap her novel does to language generally (which sounds terrible) and looking at using words in secondary worlds in particular, which a fair substance of your post concerns.

            Tsar (and/or Czar) is a word in use in the English language, often in senses that have nothing to do with its applications in Russian (American politics throws the word around liberally for administrative positions). It’s therefore different from using, for example, Basileus.

          • Rose says:

            Kegg, we ran out of response tree. I cannot see how you can claim neutral usage of the word Tsar by Bardugo, who uses it to denote a ruler of an allegedly Russia-like and Russia-based country.

            You are derailing.

  8. Lo says:

    Very cool article – I read the post of the negative review and headed over here. I have to be honest I hadn’t thought of it this way – am glad to have read these two articles. Am in the process of world-building. Cheers, good luck!

  9. […] Maybe this is a botched attempt at secondary-world fantasy – there are three moons. But then why give the characters African names? Readers might want to look at Rose Lemberg’s essay on secondary-world fantasy and picking names for characters and things. […]

  10. […] languages in worldbuilding in fiction writing, and how not to do it.  Also, how not to be offensive while doing it.  […]

  11. […] AND BONE by Leigh Bardugo – There are concerns about this text as being appropriative. (I obviously don’t agree with every word of those […]

  12. […] Rose Lemberg posts on the historical linguistics of Indo-European and its relevance to the Ravka discussion.  This takes a slightly different approach to mine, but the linguistics is spot-on, and it’s […]

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Rose Lemberg is a queer immigrant from Eastern Europe and Israel. Her work has appeared in Lightspeed, Strange Horizons, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Unlikely Story, Uncanny, and other venues. Rose co-edits Stone Telling, a magazine of boundary-crossing poetry, with Shweta Narayan. She is currently editing a new fiction anthology, An Alphabet of Embers. For a quick taste of Rose's writing, try the Sampler. You can support her work on Patreon.

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