Thak Spleeneater: History and Etymology

Posted: July 15, 2010 in Braak
Tags: , ,

Inspired by this io9 article about creating made-up languages.  This is a super-fun exercise for my brain.

Presented to the Royal Academy of History
by Eigon Tershwiller, Second Fellow

Historical research can often yield conclusions that are the reverse of prevailing opinions.  Consider, in this case, the infamous 8th century half-orc warlord called Thak Spleeneater.  He was known, for many decades, as a terrible combatant and a ruthless general, though there is little historical evidence suggesting he was present at any of the battles he was purported to have participated in.  The only confirmed history, the account of the Battle of Avenhrad by Lord Katarostos (in modern Canthi usually referred to as “Lord Cross”), is loaded with personal bias.

Thak Spleeneater, it is claimed, fought with his bare hands to better enjoy the pleasure of crushing bones or disemboweling his foes.  While it’s certainly accepted that Thak typically fought without weapons, how, precisely, Lord Cross could have known Thak’s reasons for it is unknown.

I would like to address particularly the etymology of the name  “Thak,” and the epithet “Spleeneater” in this section, specifically.  I will maintain:  the epithet, and much of Thak’s reputation as a result of this epithet, is the result of a poor or glib translation, fueled by both misunderstandings about the orcish culture, and by a general paranoid response to any part of said culture.

No historical evidence exists to suggest that Thak ever ate anyone’s spleen — even Lord Cross’s account doesn’t have him go that far.  What, then, is the source of the title?  A careful study of the orcish language suggests a possibility.  One way to render the name “Spleeneater” itno orcish is “Th’o’akh.”  Unfortunately, due to limitations in current fonts, it’s impossible to express the full array of orcish diacritical marks; they have six, and two different ones are present in the name Th’o’akh:  the first is a brief, voiceless pause, or “hitch”, the second is a pronounced “clean” aspiration (as opposed to the slightly more “gurgling” aspiration usually indicated by the letter “h”).  It’s not at all unreasonable, then, to suppose that, once the name was humanicized and the somewhat cumbersome aspirants and hitches were dropped, 7th century humans might have rendered this name as “Thak.”

In this case, we see that “Spleeneater” is not an epithet at all, but actually a translation of the name “Thak” itself — undoubtedly a product of the somewhat confused attempts to communicate with the far-north orcish cultures — and the term “Thak Spleeneater” is, in fact, a tautology.

If this is the case, even more light can be shed on the meaning of “Spleeneater.”  “o’akh,” is the third person singular of the root ” ‘akheti” — “to eat,” and seems straightforward enough.  However, the phoneme “Th ‘ ” is somewhat more complex.  It is probably a conjunctive form of “Tho,” which is actually a quite archaic term for “spleen.”  By the time of the 7th century, orcish had absorbed many loan words, especially involving medical terminology, and the most common term for “spleen” would have been the gnomish “ghletti.”

“Tho,” deriving from the root ” ‘O ” (this is yet a third orcish diacritical mark, indicating a melodic, low-high sound to the vowel) meaning “war cry” (actually onamotapoeic, for obvious reasons) can be understood as “raging” or “furious.”  Early orcish medicine understood all emotion as being the product of different organs of the body, and the spleen as being the source of “rage” — though, again, it should be pointed out that orcish has a number of very precise words describing anger, and none of them function quite like nouns; “tho” very specifically refers to a kind of blinding-rage, or frenzy, difficult to precisely render, but always understood as an act, as opposed to a physical condition.

“Tho,” then, is both “raging” and, when used as a noun, “source of rage” or “spleen.”  “Th’o’akh” should precisely be understood as “Rage-Eater,” or “He Devours the Source of Rage,” but even this is somewhat misleading — perhaps, after all, his parents simply favored a slightly old-fashioned sounding name.  There is more, however; the unusual construction of object-subject-verb has a very distinctly different meaning from “He devours his rage,” which would be normally rendered as “o’akh tho.”  In this particular case, the reversal indicates that the action is reflexive:  meaning, “he devours his own spleen,” or, more accurately, “he devours the source of his rage.”

The name “Th’o’akh” is actually not a traditional ga’jom (“Red Name” in orcish; the orcs use different sobriquets under different circumstances — the Red Name is used only in battle), in that it is not a reference to the orc’s ferocity, or given in an attempt to intimidate or horrify.  It is, instead, an expression of calm reflection, of consideration, of, in fact, peacefulness or passivity.

This actually fits in quite well with early renderings of the name (certain accounts refer to him as Thak the Placid), and with the modern orcish understanding of Thak as the culture hero that founded the first orcish monastery, and helped to raise the orcish tribes out of violent barbarism.

The confusion most likely stems from three sources; the first is early humans’ unfamiliarity with orcish naming conventions.  Thak would have had at least two that came up during negotiations — his High Tent Name (a public or “diplomacy” name) and his Red Name, which would have been used whenever the subject of war came up (and would have represented a subtle but forceful threat on the part of the orc negotiators that would have been, unfortunately, lost on their human counterparts).

The second is a certain confusion among the orcs about just how thoroughly names ought to be translated.  Abenar humans typically use names borrowed from Canthi, Old Abenar, or Agonic, and were typically left untranslated during communications, but orcs invariably used directly meaningful names.  Different translators may have picked up on human naming conventions, and rendered Thak’s name in its native orcish, or they might have been unfamiliar with the tradition and used the human translation.  This theory is given more credence by the fact that a slightly different from of speech is used for discussing peace as for discussing battle (not quite formal/informal — the orcs call this Tent Speech and Red Speech).

The third is that Thak’s High Tent name would have been oT’a’akr, meaning “He Leaps High.”  Notice the diacriticals; the first is actually yet another new mark, this one indicating a somewhat fainter aspiration, so that “T’ ” is rendered somewhere between “T” and “Th.”  The second is our familiar unvoiced hitch, which was often used to connect two vowel sounds.  The inflections of orcish speech always favor verbs (“T’a”, “leaps”) over pronouns (“o”, “he” — rightly rendered among humans, “he leaps” would be written “he LEAPS”).  The last syllable “akr” meaning “high” is an orcish variation on the loan-word “akros” from Old Agonic.  In this case, the “r” would have had little emphasis so that it was almost swallowed.  These things taken together suggest that, to human ears, “oT’a’akr” would have been largely indistinguishable from Th’o’akh.

It’s easy to see, then, how the Abenar translators presumed that “Thak” was a regular use name, and that the translation “Spleeneater” was a particular war-epithet.

See?  Conlanging isn’t that hard.

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Comments
  1. Erin says:

    I never knew Thak personally, but I’m glad he’s making a comeback.

  2. braak says:

    Thak is a very important figure in orcish history.

  3. Lindsay says:

    This is awesome, not least because it reminded me of one of my favorite things to mull about names: the disconnect between cultures that use names that literally mean something, and cultures that use names that maybe technically meant something once, but mostly sound nice.

    See: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/10/01/world/africa/01names.html

  4. […] (I have, incidentally, always been fascinated by the orcs as a much-maligned and generally misunderstood civilization; in the only D&D game I ever played for any length of time, my character was a half-orc monk named Thak Spleeneater – a devout Buddhist whose terrifying name was really the by-product of a glib translation.) […]

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