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Frédéric Werst: Ward: Ier-IIe siècle [Ward: 1st-2nd century]

This book was primarily written in Wardwesân and translated into French. There is only one other book written in Wardwesân and that is the follow-up to this book. There is, as far as I am aware, only one person who knows Wardwesân and that is Frédéric Werst, the author of this book. Wardwesân is the entirely invented language of an entirely invented people, the Wards. Werst’s achievement in this book is to invent an entire people, with their language, culture and history. Of course, he is not the first to do this. Tolkien did it with Lord of the Rings and the Elvish languages while Mark Okrand did it for Klingon as used in Star Trek. (Werst claims to have never read Lord of the Rings). However, in these and other cases (Wikipedia has a list), the aim was develop a story, usually a quest and/or a battle between good and evil, with the language and culture developed to add to the story. Werst is not telling a conventional story. His book is, he claims, an anthology of the literature of the Wards, supplemented by copious notes on the history and culture of the Wards, no more and no less. The texts are what you might expect to find in the early history of a civilisation – religion, poetry, history, myth, philosophy, geography, medicine and language. Some of the texts are incomplete or even lost, though known of, so a brief description is given. All were originally written in Wardwesân and translated into French by Werst, an incredible achievement. This is not a science fiction work but a serious work published by a very serious publisher (Fiction & Cie, which has published many serious works of fiction).

Werst starts off by telling us something about the genesis of his work. He tells us that a language dies every two weeks and is surprised that people are concerned about glaciers melting and animal species dying out but show little concern about the death of languages. Indeed, he feels that language generally is being debased and used as a disposable technology instead of being, as he puts it, the texture of our speech. However, he concludes that the book owes its existence to the pleasure of fiction. It is not intended as parody though, as he points out (and I shall point out), there are some resemblances to texts written in other, real languages.

The history of Ward, both the ‘real’ and the mythical one are outlined here. The general perception is that the people came from an island – Ward Island – though there is no knowledge of where this island is (Atlantis legend?) They then went to the continent of Boran where they settled. Their city was Wagamarkan but, as with the island, it is not known where it was. However, they were beaten in a major battle in 500 before Zaragabal. As in the Christian, Muslim and, probably, other calendars, the Wards have a before and after. In the case of the Wards it is more political than religious. The after period starts with the reign of King Zaragabal. In fact, he had already been king seven years by year 1 and it was he who decreed that year 1 should be the year that the cult of the god Parathôn started. Zaragabal would go on to reign for another 59 years. Werst uses minus dates for the period before Zaragabal, i.e. -500 is equivalent to our 500 B.C. and just the year, i.e. 200, for the after dates, i.e. equivalent to our 200 A.D. I shall do the same. After the Wagamarkan War in -500, the Wards started what is known as the Great Exodus (cf the biblical Exodus). Initially, they formed city states in Boran. However, they continued to be harassed by Zanabzân, the neighbouring empire that defeated them in the War of Wagamarkan in -500. As a result, many of them crossed the dangerous sea dividing Boran and Nentan. There they found a few tribes and mixed with them or conquered them (cf Israelis moving to the Promised Land). They never returned to Boran. However, it was only under Zaragabal that the territory was consolidated and a ruling dynasty established. It still was not easy because things eventually broke down when the direct descendants of Zaragabal died out and there was civil war and rival groups. Werst goes into much more detail than I have given.

However, the point of the book is as an anthology of literature, all written in Wardwesân and translated by Werst. He comes up with traditional documents, such as legendary accounts of the War of Wagamarkan, which, of course the Wards lost. It is quite unusual in our culture to write an epic poem about a defeat or, at least, to admit that it was a defeat. Zaragabal introduced the the cult of the god Parathôn and there are texts relating to this cult. We also get mythological texts which tell interesting stories, such as The Rose of Weris, featuring magic, gods coming to talk to humans, a poor man doing well and a story about how language originated. Philosophy, poetry and drama are also given in fragments. However, we also get a Herodotus-like treatise on geography, a Galen-like treatise on medicine, various historical chronicles which may have been inspired by Froissart and a Hammurabi-style code of laws. While comparing these to our ancients, I do not wish to detract from Werst’s stunning originality as regards the style and content of these texts. We also get some special genres. There is the royal biography genre as well as what he calls in French paysagisme [= landscapeism], his translation of the Wagamarkan athamanton, which means image of the place and is a descriptive text evoking a landscape, particularly an inscription on a monument or a town in a natural site. There are even a couple of ancient grammars.

Werst is at pains to point to that Wagamarkan is not based on any existing language and, indeed, it does not immediately seem like any language I know. However, inevitably, it cannot avoid some features of actual languages. Doubtless, Ph. D. students of the future will be poring over Wagamarkan and trying to compare it to real languages. Werst gives us both a grammar and extensive glossary of words as well as a pronunciation guide. The letter w, for example, is not generally found in French, except in word of foreign origin and can be pronounced either as the English v or the English w, depending on the word, the word origin and the region. However, Werst makes it quite clear that, in Wagamarkan, it is pronounced as the English w. As for grammar, we have internal and dual plurals, like Arabic, future participles, as in Latin, a gnomic aspect, as in Swahili, no genders for inanimate nouns, as in English, no verb to be as in Russian and so on. However, it seems that Werst must have spent a long time working out the grammar of Wagamarkan and there are doubtless many original features to it as well as those gleaned from a whole variety of languages.

Is it a novel? It is a fiction which tells the story not of an individual or group of individuals but of an entire people. This is the first book, covering the the first two centuries after Zaragabal. He has already published one covering the third century. Is it original? As I have shown there are many other examples, particularly in the science fiction and fantasy fields, of imagined worlds with their imagined languages and cultures. Werst, I suspect, has devoted far more time to the culture and language side than even Tolkien and Okrand, because he is not trying to tell a fantasy or science fiction story of good versus evil, but purely create an imagined people, with their imagined language and imagined culture. It may not be to everyone’s taste but it is a stunning achievement and a work of great originality.

Publishing history

First published in French 2011 by Editions du Seuil
No English translation