Spilling the beans on Dvarsh

There is, indeed, a Dvarsh dictionary.

This may not make sense to anyone else. I wish people would stop congratulating me for creating Dvarsh. It’s not that friendly thoughts are not appreciated; it’s that these particular thoughts miss the real treasure. The book, Dvarsh, An Introduction, is bigger than the language it describes. The language is its central device, but the book is the point.

This is not to imply a deficiency in either the language as a construction or the book as a reference. Dvarsh, as I’ll explain shortly, is the best language I could make, and Dvarsh, An Introduction is its authoritative presentation. That Dvarsh is linguistically functional and the book is designed for practical use are critical parts of the premise, but these do not sum the work’s ambition or scope.

For the longest time, years in fact, I did not think much of Dvarsh, by which I mean quite actually that I did not give it much thought. Making a language was simply something I did to create a necessary tool for visual and literary representation of the world I build. Dvarsh filled notebooks as it grew because I am a notebook kind of guy, and the entries were a mix of careful organization and random jotting because that characterizes much of my prep work.

As reported elsewhere, I devised the writing system before ever starting work on the language proper. My first attempts at non-human writing date to the mid 1980s. The characters that now belong to Dvarsh came together toward the end of that decade. I knew quickly that the character set was a good one. Unfortunately, with no actual meaning behind them, the shapes were unconvincing as writing. No spark lit their sequences.

Although there was never a moment when I was “inspired” to create Dvarsh, in late ’91 or early ’92 I read an article on C. K. Ogden’s “Basic English” that shone a light on the notion of crafting a language from scratch. Ogden’s idea was to make English a second language for the whole world by teaching a simplified grammar and a core vocabulary of 850 words. In nerd labor terms, a vocabulary of 850 words averages 16.35 words per week for one year. Not only is this human scale, but Mr. Ogden even supplied a list of candidate words.

Development of Dvarsh was by fits and starts. What got worked out always centered on what the language needed to say in a given instance. New coinages were integrated into an overall system, but the parameters of the system grew organically, without forethought or diligence. Among the demands of my fictional world, Dvarsh did not rate much head time. I did recognize that endowment with meaning brought the characters to life. That was all I had set out to achieve, and that was enough to keep the language going on the side.

Unheralded, Dvarsh began to appear as an element of the illustration and design I created to package my fiction. It first appeared publicly as detail on a book cover and a banner. The reaction it provoked was astonishing. People recognized it as language immediately. Many were impressed. Some were fascinated. A few started clamoring for a dictionary.

I was perplexed because it didn’t seem like a big deal, and disappointed because it didn’t sell books. An effort to make more art featuring Dvarsh texts provoked more calls for a dictionary, but no significant sales. Finally, I decided to knock out a small volume sketching the basics of the language. Small was the operative term. There were so many other plates already spinning atop poles in the Stikmanz universe.

Dvarsh, at this point, inhabited several dedicated notebooks and a three-ring binder. The binder made possible slow-motion organization, both of lexicon and of notes scribbled on loose sheets, in other journals, on napkins and junk mail. The state of the language at the time reflected the original goals set for it, namely, to encode real meaning with organized consistency while avoiding the model of any single natural language, and to generate visually attractive texts. It did not have to be wieldy or utilitarian or easy to pronounce—and it was not—but it did have to be genuine. I had tried faking it already, and there was no more time to waste with that.

Meanwhile, requests for a dictionary continued to arrive. These still did not make sense to me, as something so ordinary as Dvarsh hardly seemed capable of holding more interest than the things made from it. And I was making things from it, book titles and proverbs and gimmicky word art. Vague ideas with greater reach lurked in the back of my mind but, on the one hand, there wasn’t enough “there there” to compel commitment, and on another, fiction and illustration projects already in queue were initiatives the language was supposed to serve. On a third hand, however, there were more people asking for a dictionary than there were asking for my novels. These were the days of first launching my own imprint, and I was anxious for some product of my imagination to find a market. Coming out of these requests and that anxiety was The Way it Grows, a blurry snapshot of Dvarsh as it then stood.

The Way it Grows, or TWiG, as I like to style it, was a cute, if uninspired stopgap that satisfied no one. Marked by loose ends, loose organization and an inconsequential word list, it supplied evidence of a language without providing some necessary keys. It served as a talking point more than a reference. The word list was its fatal deficiency. No stretch of imagination could make it into the requested dictionary.

A limitation on the word list was reliance on vector graphics of the individual characters assembled piece by piece to build each specimen. Although faster than the chisel-point calligraphy on which the characters were based, the method was laborious and exacting, and did not delegate well. It was clear that a larger project had to begin with at least one Dvarsh font. A dictionary was beyond reach until it could be typed.

If you have seen “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” segment of Disney’s Fantasia, you have an idea of my experience learning to use a font-making application. Experiment quickly showed that the character forms based on handwritten originals were not suitable typographically. That was okay, as they were supposed to be handwritten. It did require design of a new character set before progressing with the application. Eventually, a first font was made and one hurdle removed.

The ability to type Dvarsh instantly made new adventures possible. It also made clear that Dvarsh, while a broad creation, was shallow. Once I focused undivided attention on it, I had to face the fact that as the subject of an ambitious new book, Dvarsh did not excite me. At the same time, I recognized that this off-hand assemblage, this casual product, drew more interest than anything and everything else I had done. Going forward with the requested dictionary meant that my own satisfaction demanded upping the excitement.

Step one was to go back to the source notes, extract everything I had written about Dvarsh, including much I had overlooked or forgotten when drafting TWiG, and organizing that body of description. This action alone voided a chunk of the earlier book. Step two was to remake the language in light of its fictional history and cultural context. The remaking was extensive.

Dvarsh backstory has it syncretized from two primary and several secondary sources. The remade language reflects this. Social history of the dvarsh people has their common identity emerging from a variety of more or less related groups. The remade language not only reflects this, but adds nuance to the “received” account. I went through Dvarsh methodically coding elements of its claimed anthropology, sociology, ideology and semiotics into the structure of the language and the formation of its words. Cumulative changes were such that TWiG no longer held sufficient relevance to justify keeping it in print.

Two standards applied throughout the remaking process. One was rigor. The language still did not need to be easy to pronounce (it isn’t), but it had to work as an authentic language. Its elaboration in every stated particular had to be worthy of academic respect, and its presentation had to be clear, practical and thorough enough to support claims I made for it.

The other standard was fun. Chip off the old trickster that I am, of any undertaking that consumes this much time and effort I require beaucoup joy, joshing and enthusiastic play. These elements did not target only me. The aim was to make Dvarsh a mental toy for anyone choosing to engage beneath its surface. The fun in Dvarsh runs from subtle to slapstick. Opportunity for play lurks within each layer of the onion.

If all this seems like a lot to keep in mind, it would have been were it not for the framework of the book. The basic outline of the volume took shape as I organized all pre-existing notes on the language, and was refined to its final form before programmatic revision of Dvarsh began. Every change was within the context of the book’s plan, and made with an eye, first, to strengthening interrelationship of the book’s parts and, second, adding depth and substance to Dvarsh as a semantic artifact. Put another way, the method by which my invention became more engaging, sophisticated and expressively potent was dictated by making it subsidiary to the literary work devised to present it. I finally fell in love with Dvarsh during this process, reshaping it at last into what I feel is praiseworthy art. The praise, however, was earned by making the language the mechanism that drives a more difficult, conceptually more complex achievement. The greater work is not Dvarsh, the language, but the book, Dvarsh, An Introduction.

Alas, a cornerstone of the book, an aspect that helped set the bar to realization high, has obscured its full nature for much of the potential public. An uncompromising goal in every consideration was to make Dvarsh, An Introduction the best reference I could produce. With very, very few isolated exceptions, the world so far has seen no further than that. The whole time I worked on the book I worried that my art hand was too heavy, that my attempt to emulate the masters of so-called metafiction was clumsy and obvious. I was unprepared for the fact that the wrapping paper I had made is such a convincing facsimile of prosaic authority that almost no one cares to open the package.

Metafiction, as latter day criticism deploys the term, is not really an apt descriptor for this work. Non-narrative, yes, and simultaneously linear and non-linear in plan, Dvarsh, An Introduction remains, at heart, simple fiction. The foundation of the book is story—just not one story. Like a role-playing game, the book is interactive. A specific account takes shape only as a reader—or user, or player, or participant, whatever—explores the contents, becoming familiar with and assimilating particles. No two paths will be the same. It is possible to ignore these dimensions and engage the book as exactly what it appears to be on the surface, but, beloved friends and fellow seekers, that surface masks an inner vastness.

I have not wanted to talk about the book in this way. My unfulfilled hope was that it would attract a constituency that would open the cover and recognize a portal. For one thing, putting this disclosure into words makes it all sound grandiose, and that is peril I have wanted to avoid. Mine is no boast to have scaled the heights of giants; rather, I have managed to top a respectable hill. It is, after all, a slender book. Even so, humor and drama, puzzles and surprises, word play, social comment, and, if I may make such a claim, strange beauty color its pages. It took more of me than anything else I have yet undertaken to pull it together, and I still believe the job was well done.

The joker’s caveat, “It’s not funny if I have to explain it,” rings ever true. I have now ignored that wisdom. A more stoic author would have waited patiently until some Lycra-clad trumpeter found a path into the cave and sounded reveille. It was those hands coming at me, the uninformed congratulations, that squeezed out confession. I lack whatever it takes to keep smiling bravely while silently begging, “Look at the book. Please, look at the book.”

Please, look at the book. I promise, in addition to everything else, there is a dictionary.