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The Three Towers
Posted by: delacuesta (
Date: July 29, 2007 04:53PM

No, this is not a Tolkien thread. No. This is serious matter.

The lines I want to discuss are on page 55 of the hard-cover UK edition (chapter 6), about the other language towers than can be seen from the large window on the 26th floor of the Great Library:
"The nearest one is German, [Thursday said] and behind those are French and Spanish. Arabic is just beyond them - and that one over there is Welsh".
A similar section is in chapter 24 of The Well of Lost Plots (page 260 of the hard-cover UK edition):
"The nearest one to us is German, [said Miss Havisham] beyond that are French and Spanish. Arabic is just beyond them - and that one over there is Welsh".

Far from insinuating that mr. Fforde knows how to use the copy-and-paste function in his word-processor, let us rather conclude that Thursday has learnt her lessons from Miss Havisham extremely well.

Let me first ask a linguistical question (as my English is just too poor to decide for myself): Is "those" always plural? And if so: Shouldn't the FAS version have been "The nearest ones are German(-like)"?

The point I'd like to make is, of course, that if the Great Library would have been "real", the German tower would not-repeat-not have been the nearest one. There would have been at least three towers in between, the nearest one being Frisian, and the other two (about equidistant) Afrikaans and Dutch. And according to the Luxembourgish constitution, lėtzebuergesch is recently erected as the fourth one - a claim countered by many German linguists. And that's why I'm not going into the long standing ambiguities and misunderstandings regarding the terms Dutch and Deutsch; just let me say that when we Dutch used (we hardly do any more) the confusing term "Lower Dutch" (in our own language: Nederduits), we meant "netherlandish" (e.g. language, politics, religion), rather than Lower German. Even if the two formed, long ago, a "continuum".

Let me assume that Jasper knows all this. In that case, he must have had a good reason to call German nearest. This means that something relevant in Nextian universe must be quite different from the world as we know it.

My first theory was that global warming on the Nextian earth started much earlier, I guess during Leif Erikson's colonisation of Greenland, and persisted to our age. No skating people on Dutch 17th century paintings; in fact, no Dutch paintings at all! Sea levels being several meters higher, the Low Countries shrunk to a strip of land on an enlarged North Sea, too small to form an own culture, too marginal to gain economical importance, therefore too poor to buy independency; and eventually they took the official languages of the neighbouring states (France and Germany) that they remained a dependency of.

An important drawback of this model is that London would be under the North Sea as well. A solution to this dilemma would be to place Nextian London further upstream, e.g. where Reading is - which would also have to move. This is a bit dazzling, even to me, but someway I feel that the weird motorway scenes in earlier TN novels would be easier to understand in such a deformed topography.

A more moderate theory would leave the geography intact, but rather assume that all Western European rulers during the Nextian ages would decline any demand for priveleges from the Low Countries, and insist on homogenisation with the rest of their respective empires. This has roughly the same effects as above, but someway I find this less appealing.

I devised a third model, especially for the Brits. Let us assume that duke John of Normandy, King of England, instead of entirely losing his Normandian homeland (except the Anglo-Norman islands), would have been in the stronger Nextian position to trade off some compensation. And suppose the French king, with the help of the Holy Roman (i.e. German) Emperor, would have granted him the Low Countries. And suppose the English would have imposed, as they did elsewere, the English language. Exeunt the three/four towers.

Such a change of history would have to be carried out carefully, or else the English would remain deprived of their Magna Charta or, slightly more important, Robin Hood. The only sacrifice would be the name change of John "Lackland" to "Laagland" (i.e. Lowland). Not to mention the Dutch experience in water management that would have helped the English to keep their feet dry these days - oops that's off-topic.



Re: The Three Towers
Posted by: PrinzHilde (
Date: July 29, 2007 07:16PM

Well, first we might have to figure out on what scale the distance is measured - geographical, linguistic relation, or what? At first I was pondering what Europe might look like after the Nextian WWII. Hitler was evicted from Britain - that we know. But did he give up his continental conquests? Was that explained anywhere?

But now I think the distance between libraries might be an indication of the tangible relations and overlaps established by translations. It might well be that the German library carries the most books translated from English. (If the same is true the other way round, I have no idea.)

Oh, and where is the Danish library?

Re: The Three Towers
Posted by: delacuesta (
Date: July 29, 2007 07:38PM

A fair argument. I took the relation to be linguistic (geographical wouldn't place German nearest); but I never though of the translation coefficient mechanism. An interesting alternative. Especially if we look at the translations of Mr. Fforde's books. Maybe sales numbers per region play a role as well. Yes, you could definitely have a point here.

Another possible scale would be sheer size, i.e. Jasper may have named only the "largest" languages, maybe because the smaller ones (including Danish) were invisible from the 26th floor. But then, how does Welsh fit in?


Re: The Three Towers
Posted by: robcraine (
Date: July 29, 2007 10:44PM

Here's a nice language tree. And if you rearrange the branches, I think you could get to the description above. Does it say anywhere how far apart the towers are? (I have a feeling it does.)

As has been said, the size of the towers would depend on the amount of books published in that language. And the height of the towers would depend on the number of letters... I wonder how the oriental languages are arranged...

Welsh might simply have been mentioned as a tower in the distance, but one that is relevent to Thursday.


That statement is either so deep it would take a lifetime to fully comprehend every particle of its meaning, or it is a load of absolute tosh. Which is it, I wonder?
Terry Pratchett, Hogfather

Re: The Three Towers
Posted by: MuseSusan (
Date: July 30, 2007 12:50AM

I was thinking about the heights of the towers, although if each one organizes its books alphabetically, one letter per floor, then the height variation would correspond to the number of letters in the alphabet (the number of books published would instead affect only the maximum area of each floor).

An alternative is that not all languages have the same-shaped Great Library. For instance, maybe Dutch has its library as a one- or two-story building that stretches out along the ground below the level of the trees, and therefore might be closer to English but not visible from above.

Edit: Whoops! Robcraine, I wasn't paying attention and didn't realize you had already said that the height of the towers would vary by number of letters.

Edited 1 time(s). Last edit at 07/30/2007 12:52AM by MuseSusan.

Re: The Three Towers
Posted by: delacuesta (
Date: July 30, 2007 06:36PM

The language tree Rob provided is really good. Its indication of similarity of languages within the branches is rather accurate. Sorry, but "rearranging the branches" really won't do.

The number of letters in the alphabet wouldn't explain anything: Dutch has 27 (the "ij" comes extra). Several other (minor) languages have extra letters as well. It is a counter-productive hypothesis.

The argument that other languages may have their libraries "shaped" differently is too ad-hoc to take seriously. Do come with something better.

Trying to reach the Theory of Least Impact, I'll gladly accept that English, German, French, Spanish and Arabic are outstanding due to their size (however defined), and that the libraries of minor languages remain kind of invisible - even if nearer by. Let's face it: Those five are by far the most important languages of the Northern Atlantic (and of Europe, if one would add Russian). No problem. But then the question should be: Why is Welsh so special?

I can't accept the argument that Welsh is especially relevant to Thursday, because it really isn't. As PrinzHilde pointed out rightfully, Danish would be a better candidate. And what relevance does Welsh have to Miss Havisham? None.

No, something else must be going on. But... when I typed "Russian" just now, a bell started to ring. Nextian Wales is a Socialist Republic, right? Which would have the kind of state library they had in actual pre-1989 Moscow, with endless shelves of unreadable works by the heroes of ideology and revolution, not to mention all those glorious five-year plans. Would that be Jasper's pun?

Maybe I ought to have seeen this earlier. But one is so easily carried away by one's preoccupations...


PS - I still wonder whether "The nearest one is German, and behind those are French and Spanish" is correct English.

Re: The Three Towers
Posted by: robcraine (
Date: July 30, 2007 10:46PM

Its doable... if you eg switched 'old english' with 'middle low german' (I don't know the difference between high and low german) and swapped the whole 'italic' and 'celtic' branches then you would have english near to german with the romance languages a bit further beyond.

As for the grammar, maybe what actually happened was:
"The nearest one is German," *Thursday pointed to some other buildings* "and behind those are French and Spanish"

Meh. I'm pusking the boundaries of the plausible here, aren't I.


That statement is either so deep it would take a lifetime to fully comprehend every particle of its meaning, or it is a load of absolute tosh. Which is it, I wonder?
Terry Pratchett, Hogfather

Re: The Three Towers
Posted by: PrinzHilde (
Date: July 31, 2007 12:49PM

Low German languages = niederdeutsche Sprachen = northern german dialects
High German languages = hochdeutsche Sprachen = central and southern german dialects

The standard written language is also called Hochdeutsch, although this standard language is a modern compromise between a number of High German dialects and some Low German pronounciations. It does not correspond to any spoken regional language.

Unfortunately it would make absolutely no sense to not order Low German, Frisian and Dutch in-between. Their linguistic relation is undeniable.

Re: The Three Towers
Posted by: Antgeth (
Date: August 01, 2007 07:00AM

yes i completely agree with the idea of the other towers being too small to see... even the possiblitiy of still having as many floors as letters; i seem to recall from some book the description of The Great Library as having extremely high celings, so the libraries of other languages might have much shorter floors making a 26 story high building unseeable from others.

and prinzhilde... maybe the Danish building was burned down... ;)

however, all this speculation brings up another question in my mind: what about Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and all the other asian languages like that...

i mean, even in the book world, i don't think they would have a thousands-story-high towers...

Re: The Three Towers
Posted by: delacuesta (
Date: August 01, 2007 10:20PM

PrinzHilde: Thanks for your support on the language tree issue.

Rob: Your "*Thursday pointed to some other buildings*" construction is interesting, but I see little textual support for it. However, I guess that Jasper may have written something similar, then scrapped it as an afterthought, forgetting "those".

Antgeth: You're right, the distance between two floors is described as 30 feet (Lost in a Good Book, end of chapter 15). A quarter of this size would still be physically imaginable (for humans to walk in). If physical rules apply to fiction buildings...


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