20

In his Cthulhu Mythos, H. P. Lovecraft includes several snippets of the R'lyehian language, including the "Cthulhu chant":

Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn!

We have a vocabulary list available, that gives us a decent taste of the words - for instance, 'ai means speak or call.

Does this bear any resemblance to any natural languages? Do we know the inspiration for the words?

1
  • 3
    [χθ̪ʊːɫʱʏ ɸt’ɒːʛ̃] :P
    – as4s4hetic
    Feb 27, 2018 at 23:24

3 Answers 3

19

Ostensibly, the transcription we have of R'lyehian is supposed to be a crude attempt to represent utterly inhuman sounds with the Latin alphabet. Most of what I can find on R'leyhian claims that it attempts to be an un-Earthly language: it does not distinguish between parts of speech, for example. It seems likely to me that Lovecraft at least attempted to invent a fully a priori conlang here.

I've found a Quora answer claiming the language "has basic elements of Welsh and German glottals," but it's unclear what exactly that means and where they got that information from.

2
  • 1
    The Quora answer is likely talking about vowels/consonants present in the language, like glottal stops and similar sounds, that are present in German/Welsh but not present in english? But are there any sound recordings of how R'lyehian is supposed to be said?
    – user160
    Feb 27, 2018 at 21:04
  • 1
    @Riker To my knowledge, we only have the transcription in the Latin alphabet, so we don't know for sure that the language has glottal stops and similar sounds, much less that it took inspiration from Welsh and German. Especially considering that transcription was supposed to represent something decidedly inhuman, I'd wager it unlikely we can really reconstruct an inventory based on it.
    – Sparksbet
    Feb 28, 2018 at 3:41
5

R'lyeh isn't really based on anything. To my knowledge, based on a documentary, Lovecraft would walk in the woods and just try out sounds. Like he did for Cthulhu.

Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn

is really Lovecraft just trying to transcribe inhuman, alien sounds in the Latin alphabet. So there really isn't a proper R'lyeh language, however that doesn't stop Lovecraft's fans and inspired writers from "reverse engineering" the sentence and creating something tangible.

EDIT: The documentary was Lovecraft: Fear of the Unknown

Credit to Mast for finding the documentary.

4
  • 2
    What documentary was this?
    – Mithical
    Dec 14, 2022 at 6:39
  • 2
    "To my knowledge, based on a documentary" - please could you cite your source more precisely? Stack Exchange works best with verifiable knowledge. Dec 14, 2022 at 6:40
  • @Mithical It has been a while since I've seen it, but it could well be Lovecraft: Fear of the Unknown (2008).
    – Mast
    Dec 14, 2022 at 10:20
  • @Mast Aye, that's the one! I remember specifically that Neil Gaiman was in it. Dec 18, 2022 at 10:48
-3

Anyone who has read Lovecraft knows that he liked to play with words, so inevitably that would have included playing with them in sound. So, we could simply assume that the well-known phrase is nothing more than a jumble of letters; or we could assume, as Lovecraft presented in many stories, that the phrase has a definite meaning in English - but coded to hide the meaning. For example, the use of an apostrophe denotes letters that have, quite literally, been hewn away - so, Ph' could well mean 'Few'. Go to an etymology website and look up 'ng': again, quite literally, it refers to Angles or English. Then there is the jumble of letters, mglw': through German-Hebrew, those letters mean moglisherweise which translates as possibly/potentially.

Over time, language (its usage and pronunciation) changes. Being something of an antiquarian (among other things), Lovecraft would have known this and he clearly drew from a lot of sources for his stories. So, for example, the Necronomicon may well have been inspired, at least in part, by the Shams al-Ma'arif; the Great Race clearly has references to Madison Grant's work; there are the remains of megalithic structures in continental North America; and Nan Madol and the structures of Pohnpei in the South Pacific clearly had an influence in such stories at The Shadow Over Innsmouth, Dagon, and The Call of Cthulhu.

Cthulhu. There was a time when the 'h' was a silent letter making, from a speech perspective, CTulu. So I present the following: https://www.etymonline.com/search?q=ketchup More South Pacific and Chinese references. Chew Tulu. C'Tulu. Brine of fish.

R'lyeh. Rule. Yeh is an interesting bit. It has several different meanings. As yeh-teh it means 'small manlike animal' in old Tibetan (a place that often features in Lovecraft's stories) and is linked to the Yeti (or Mi-Go). However, it is also linked to the various names of the Abrahamic deity: Yehovah and Yaweh being two - and those names are derived from the Egyptian Moon Goddess, Iah (from which we also get Al-Iah: the true Roman script being what it is, a lower case 'l' is indistinguishable from an upper case 'I'). Ia(h), Ia(h), Shub-Niggurath. Think 'black ziggurat'. Another play on words.

And what of Yog Sothoth? Yog comes from the Turkish, in which the -g- is a "soft" sound, in many dialects closer to an English "w" and means roughly "to condense". Which makes Yog Sothoth a condensed or agglutinated being - much as would be the case if, for example, all the Abrahamic faiths came together under the roofs of masonic lodges (of which, some of the oldest are in the Far East and Tibet).

Lastly, Lovecraft's works are focused on cosmic horror. In modern times, cosmic refers to outer space - but it used to mean worldly or of this world. It comes from the word 'kosmos' which means 'world order'.

However, all this aside, these things could simply be my way of entertaining myself and there really is nothing but a good yarn in Lovecraft's tales.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.