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(Spoilers for She-ra planetary background lore.)

In She-Ra and the Princesses of Power season 1 episode 2, we see a door locked with a password readily available in a First Ones inscription, Moria-style:

Screenshot of the door from S01E02, its inscription annotated for phonemes. ‘Eternia’.

In season 2 episode 2, we see in the floating ruins of the Watchtower a variant, not just of the same word but of the same design – recall that the First Ones Script (FOS) allows a significant degree of æsthetic freedom – except it reads not quite Eternia, but ‘Etelnia’:

Note the lack of the dot in the ‘r’ lozenge glyph, rendering it ‘Etelnia’. The inscription is also upside-down in this photo, which is easily explainable by the fact that it’s shown from the point of view of a horse.

We can hardly imagine that the technologically advanced, highly literate First Ones would have misspelt the name of their home planet (a name of obvious cultural importance since it’s used a password etc.). Moreover, the FOS for /r/ is the same as /l/ plus a single dot; were it a mistake, it would be easily fixable ad posteriori. No, there is absolutely no chance that somebody somewhere has simply forgotten to add a dot to this design. We must assume the variant is real.

We could imagine that the First Ones spoke a language distinct from modern Etherian, with no /r/ /l/ distinction (which is after all cross-linguistically uncommon). This would explain a degree of variance in inscriptions, and perhaps even the diacritic-like construction of the FOS /r/ glyph. Before, however, we jump to the conclusion that every FOS dotted symbol is a non-native phoneme, we must take a step back and consider the evidence for a separate language in the first place. Modern Eternian is clearly the same language as Etherian, or at least closely related. There is no vector by which Etherian speech could have dominated its sister planet. Clearly the direction of the spread must have been the converse: the First Ones brought the language with them. Moreover the elegant FOS is a perfect fit for Etherian phonology.

A much more convincing possibility is that the ancient Watchtower inscription has preserved an ongoing sound change. We know that /r/~/l/ alternation is common (cf. Spanish lírio < lilium, or Caipira Portuguese farso < falso). There remains the question of which is the ancestral form, Eternia or Etelnia. Let us set that aside for a moment.

The evidence for change in progress opens up interesting possibilities. Consider the phonetic closeness of the planet names, Eternia and Etheria. Folk etymology derives them naïvely from ‘eternal’ and ‘ethereal’, respectively, though this simplistic solution can be discarded out of hand (why would the First Ones name their greatest creation after ephemerality?). Instead, it is likely that both words are independent developments of a common ancestor. Which of the differing sounds is the older? We can’t know for sure, given the absence of comparative data – perhaps the ancestral sound was something different altogether – but we can compare cross-linguistically common tendencies to make a guess at the most likely possibilities for an ancestor:

  • We know that ‘th’, /θ/, is a rare phoneme which often resolves to /t/, as in Irish English and several other dialects. A lenition /t/>/θ/ would be more unlikely; if anything /t/ would likely tend to /s/, as in High German.
  • Rhotacism from /n/ to /r/ is common, too, as in Tosk Albanian gjuri < gjuni, and easy to explain if we assume a coronal (tongue-tip) articulation of /r/ (as we must, given the documented /r/ /l/ alternation we’ve seen above).
    • (A tentative but fascinating theory is that the /n/ could be intrusive, having developed out of the /r/ closure combined with nasalisation from the vowel: *Etherĩa > Eternia . Lacking however any other evidence for nasal vowels, we leave this possibility as a mere remark for future scholars.)
  • Finally, recall our observation above about the derived nature of the /r/ glyph. Instead of a diacritic to represent a different language, it could be an innovation to represent a new sound in the same language (similarly to the Romance cedilla, ‘ç’, adding a mark to represent a ‘c’ changed to a new pronunciation /ts/). We can thus reasonably assume that the original form is /l/, split into /r/ /l/ under unknown environments.

Our conclusion is that the planet names Etheria and Eternia derive from a common ancestor, which we reconstruct as *Ethelnia, in proto-Preternian. Whatever its etymological origins, the meaning must have developed into something like ‘this planet’ or ‘our planet’ in everyday speech, and was applied to the new homeland out of cultural tradition. The r-l split was likely already resolved by the time of the settlement of the First Ones, and the ‘Etelnia’ variant must be an orthographic archaism (cp. ‘colonel’ in American English).

(Thanks @bunnyjane@lazer.pizza and A.C. for early comments on this analysis.)

tags: #SheRa #conlang #linguistics