Saturday, 5 June 2021

What would Imperial Gothic sound like?

 How would Imperial Gothic actually sound if we could listen to it?


Of course this will only be even slightly possible if we assume a massive slowdown in the rate of language drift.

Proto Indo-European is about 6,000 years ago. Fragments of core word sound remain, so if you are listening to those descended languages they do all sound different to something like Chinese or Khoekhoe.

But Imperial Gothic is, as they say on the front of the box, 40,000 years in the future, if language change continues at the same rate then any spoken tongue would be so different that even the wildest projections based upon what we do know now would be totally inaccurate.

English has perhaps slowed down in its shifting, the last 500 years at least would at least be generally comprehensible to each other. Some of this must be due to printing, and the expansion and integration of different populations - is it fair to argue that the rate of language change in human culture slows down a LOT over the next 40,000 years?


I will also imagine that English, or more likely something that has some strong influence from English, remains important in human language.

One reason this might be the case is the way English is closely locked in to a lot of the scientific and technical language of the world. People speaking very non Indo-European languages seem to have an easier time learning English than the other way round and lots of scientists speak it or a version of it to communicate in.

Still I don't imagine the actual English language remaining.

I would argue that what might remain is a combination of phonemes; word sounds and voice-shapes, syntax, since the pattern of a language is much more resistant to change than its individual parts, and some scientific and technical terms, since those seem 'sticky', like legacy programmes locked into the structure of technology which, even when replaced, might generate symbols of themselves in the systems that consume them, like the 'recycle bin' in a drive an 'IP Address' or 'Boyles Law'.


I imagine a growth and massive mutation of English, absorbing words and concepts from all cultures, blurring together with them, over millennia, changing in its contents, and over tens of millennia, the 'technical terms' which provide the unchanging spine of the language of engineers and computer programmers, and whatever super-scientists exist in the future, forms and kind of backwards proliferation in which the meanings and potentialities of those terms are worked back into the everyday language of ordinary people. Like an engineering term describing a glitch or feedback becomes a common term for a mistake or returning and recycling error, until that term itself comes to mean 'mistake'.

So that’s a common lingua franca I imagine prevalent at the start of the dark age of technology.


During the dark age of technology we can imagine a massive expansion of humanity, does this mean greater diversity of language or greater integration into unified tongues?

Well, it doesn't matter because 90% of the population die during the age of strife and 99% of the technical data and non-hardcopy digital records are either destroyed or turned into murder-memetics - or in the case of warp possession, literal bad dreams that eat you.

What remains, and specifically what remains on Earth, is probably a mass, very simplified, argot, based on Tech (but with maybe 5000 years of diversion plus fragments of holdover archived knowledge).
This would make things harder to predict but we have a handy assistant - the Emperor of Mankind and his big project, the Empire of Man.



The Emperor wants things CENTRALISED - he wants the entirety of humanity to be able to speak together (specifically to pay him taxes and so his crusades can be organised) so wherever he conquers (everywhere) he is going to enforce a single language of state. HANDY.


The Emperor fucking loves old empires and human history. He is one of few people who remembers them. So where possible he will probably, like with his buildings and his military, try to reintroduce a 'greatest hits' of Human historical language usage. Also handy for us.


Though he probably started from and adapted from the basic argot of age of strife Terra he (being a massive autocrat) will certainly have taken steps to engineer Imperial Gothic in ways which reinforce the structure, uniformity and stability of the culture that uses it.


BUT - also like an autocrat, we know there is a 'High Gothic' (sometimes represented in books by Latin) and a 'Low Gothic - a demotic version of the language.

Nothing that surprising about that. In Rome the elite all spoke Greek, during the Renaissance most of the European elite spoke Latin, I think the Chinese had a version of this too. The idea of the Nobility speaking literally or effectively, a different language which the proles don't or rarely have access to, makes sense and for all we know, may make a society more stable.

It’s here that we re-integrate the descended Sino-Tibetan languages. They, or the word forms and sounds descended from them, never really went away. Can we suppose that people brought up in an Indo-European tongue find it harder to learn a Sino-Tibetan tongue than the other way round?

If the common tongue (Low Gothic) has a root in 'Tech' then it’s likely to be good at clearly and simply describing direct material things. Maybe it’s not a 'poetic' language, with a range of possible meanings to various things decided by circumstance and context, but quite a brutal "i will do this" "this thing will happen than that thing" kind of language.

So High Gothic, I imagine as drawing much more from the Sino-Tibetan and general South Asian word and sound pool, and, as a reaction to, and deliberate differentiation from, the practical and physically descriptive nature of Low Gothic, I imagine it being bestrewn with varied meanings and suggestive interpretations.

Mastering the varied possibilities is part of proving yourself as a noble, its not meant to be easy, its meant to be hard, and even within that to have layers so different versions of the aristocracy can do status games with each other.

I imagine High Gothic to have a lot of the Tonalities from Chinese and other Sino-Tibetan tongues which Low Gothic doesn’t have. You can produce very complex variations in meaning and suggestion by adding the layer of tones and they are very hard for someone without a lot of resources and experience to learn and master – it’s a 'master' language.

So my final analysis is;

If you were listening to someone speaking Low Gothic it would sound a bit like someone with a foreign accent rapidly reading out single syllables from the back of a scientific textbook, and very occasionally, maybe once every 1,000 words, you would hear a fragment of a sound or phrase that you almost recognised, like "somethingsomethingsomethingnegativfreqsomethingsomething". But of you could take the time to learn it, if you were an English speaker, you could probably do so reasonably well. All the words and concepts would be different but sentences and word ordering would be much the same.

If you were listening to High Gothic, I think that (if you were an English speaker) it would sound like someone speaking a schizophrenic mangling of the above tongue, but in a Chinese accent, with lots of non indo-european words, lots of tonal shifts you couldn't quite trace, and probably softer, slower and more sonorous. Like a child singing sad garbled pseudo-Chinese, as opposed to the more guttural, faster and aggressive sounding rat-a-tat of Low Gothic.


  1. This analysis is mesmerizing and strangely enticing. The way you engage with the WH40k universe as a whole potentially 'realistic' (ish) place fascinates me

  2. I can't help thinking that however free-wheeling Low Gothic might be, High Gothic has some equivalent of the Académie Française tucked away on Terra.

    I have mooted before that Imperial Guard regiments (or, at least those from worlds with well-funded foundings) are given elocution lessons in order to communicate better offworld. So, even if the accent hasn't vanished, there's an extent to which all guardsmen sound like newsreaders.

    1. I'm sure there is a branch of the Administratum concerned with language stability and I'm sure they are fighting a futile battle.

      Separate language for officers makes sense in a lot of imperial settings

    2. For comedic purposes, it's not just officers - it's every guardsmen. No matter which low-hive sink you came from, the Munitorum will re-shape your accent to be readily intelligible on a thousand worlds!
      (Cue for Shaw's Pygmalion....)

  3. There are so much more interesting things to explore 40000 years in the future than, you know, what we got. I for one am glad you're exploring it!

  4. The existence of a single unified language pre-Strife is unlikely, as Navigators and Astropathic communication are listed as being invented somewhere in the 15.000 - 20.000s, following a period of slow-ship, or early Warp-drive colonization. It is unlikely these early worlds would have retained anything resembling the common tongue after thousands of years of genetic drift. Indeed, all the Space Marine Chapters have their own language in addition to the Imperial Gothic.

    It is strange, it is documented that Nostraman is good for poetry or Nagrakali is a blunt, direct gutteral combat dialect but we see the universe through the perspective of the Imperium and as such we can only infer its nature from its distorted reflection in other languages. Chogorians (White Scars), have a strong accent when pronouncing Imperial Gothic, so the Sino-Tibetan theory requires additional explanation.

    1. I doubt there was ever a 'single unified language' but I think there must have been a 'ligua franca' or language of common high status communication and trade.

  5. Drat! As is so often the case the actual lore explanation is plausible but relatively drab. According to The Dark Heresy Corebook Low Gothic does not exist during the Great Crusade era and represents 10.000 years of drift from the original lingua franca of the pre-Strife Age of Technology Dominant Human Civilization. All the old tech, STCs, and documents of that era are written in that hallowed tongue.

    1. So "Low Gothic (also called Imperial Gothic or simply Gothic), is the "official" language of the Imperium, the tongue of its Adepts and of Terra."

      "For highly formal matters the Adeptus Terra use High Gothic, a precursur language of Imperial Gothic. many Ecclesiarchy rituals, Administratum edicts and Imperial Charters use this ancient and venerable language."

      That sounds fucking boring to me. It sounds like they are trying to say that High Gothic is just Latin, whereas I always hoped that the Latin in GW books was just a translation of a language form.

      I do not like this lore and so I will ignore it.

  6. I speak basic Indonesian, which is a fascinating language in part because it has a similar idea and function to High Gothic. It was assembled (from Malay) by the central government as an administrative language to unite the thousands of islands, but penetration of the standard government version outside of administration centers is far from complete.

    I will list some insights and then extrapolate directly into 40K:
    -I was regularly warned that I was more or less learning “government and media Indonesian” and that I would be able to communicate with Indonesian officials and get by pretty well in Jakarta, but that there was no guarantee I’d be intelligible as I got out into the provinces.

    In 40K, you might need to be taken to some kind of Imperial outpost where the staff have received a standard education in High Gothic (Administratum counting house, Arbites precinct, Sororitas shrine, Imperial Guard command post) to be able to interface with the locals. There might be a language barrier between officers and men raised on the same world if the officers were raised as part of the administrator/patrician interstellar milieu and the men were not.

    -Some Indonesian islands have language elements that reflect their historical points of contact; depending on who their most important trade partners/colonizers were, different regions have smatterings of Arabic, Portuguese and Dutch included in their dialect.

    Let’s assume for conceptualization that the White Scars have some form of Mongolian included in, say, Low Gothic spoken by their Chapter Serfs. It’s possible that if a White Scars force spends the human equivalent of several generations on a world, that Mongolian might seep into some stratas of language on the world in question *even if the official High Gothic of the world includes none of it* due to the importance of the White Scars force.

    -The dominant, governmentally-regulated tongue might be seen as a means of extending the control of the state. “Indonesia is not a country” is a sentiment that exists among some Indonesians; the idea is that the Javanese have been able to put a yoke on the other islands because of Java’s historical large population and fertile river ecology, and that central government initiatives are intended to benefit the Javanese but not the regions they’re aimed at.

    In 40K, High Gothic could be regarded as a manifestation of “Imperial tyranny” or “Terran hegemony” depending on whether you’re resisting overarching governance as such, or undue influence by a single polity (Terra). Those who speak High Gothic might be regarded as natural oppressors by separatist populations, and whatever the local flavor of Low Gothic is can serve as the language of obfuscated communication and be a kind of rallying force.

    1. That all seems legit. I'm reminded of the growth of Surnames for commoners being closely related to the power of the state and the fluidity of populations making it necessary to have more comprehensive and *state readable* identity structures in order to tax them. Plus how lots of communities adjacent or antagonistic to the state tend to develop both "state names" and "street names" and to use them at different times in different ways.

  7. Looks like Lexicanium has answers to our questions;

    "High Gothic (or "Tech") is the hieratic tongue of the Imperium, used in the titles of ancient institutions and organisations (such as the Adeptus Terra). It represents an older language and is regarded as holy. In the Age of the Imperium, it is the Warhammer equivalent of Latin or French during the real-life medieval age.

    High Gothic is also known as "Tech" as it is a version of the language in which technical rituals and ancient works are recorded. This developed during the Dark Age of Technology. It derives from the common tongue of the time, in the Merican/Pan-Pacific region. This was the universal medium of written record until the Age of Strife, and was spoken as a first language by many and as a second language by almost everyone. Its idioms and vocabulary now appear archaic and mystic, and many of its words have acquired religious significance over the years. It is the language of the Tech-priests and of forbidden books.

    High Gothic is unintelligible to most Imperial citizens. It is only the language of important adepts and members of the Inquisition, and even among those who can speak it, it is only a second language. It is used only formally (as in pious benedictions), rather than as a casual language."

    So High Gothic essentially *is* 'Tech', the old lingua franca of the high point of human civilisations

  8. And looks like Low Gothic is just a diversified muiplied version of High Gothic

  9. I’ve always assumed it’s a Latin like language.