Magic: The Gathering has a secret language that few can translate

As complicated as Magic: Gathering is – with all its keywords, strategies, products, varied and ever-changing storylines, even the entire game format – do you believe it has a secret language of its own too? ?

Phyrexian was first introduced in 2010. It is the language used in the novels of a monstrous species of monster that controls the plane of Phyrexia. Publisher Wizards of the Coast has never fully explained how it works. So, for more than a decade now, a dedicated team of amateurs has been working on translating it, one card at a time with just a few lines of new text occasionally delivered with new sets of cards. What they discovered was a tongue that was both alien and part of our world.

Fernando Franco Félix, science advisor to PBS’s Space Time, is perhaps the leading phyrexian expert outside of Wizards. A multilingual – meaning fluent in multiple languages, in this case English, Spanish and Esperanto – he has been fascinated by the Phyrexian language for many years and maintains a following. small but dedicated on YouTube.

“I have always loved languages,” Félix told Polygon from his home in Aguascalientes, Mexico. “What I always say is that a language is like an art gallery, and every aspect of the language is like a work of art. I consider language to be the greatest collaborative work of art in human history. You have millions of people and without even realizing, they’re creating this system, it’s amazing.”

Two copies of the same card, one written in English and the other in Phyrexian.

The phyrexian is written natively in columns, and the columns are read from top to bottom and left to right. Because Magic , Wizards of the Coast prints those columns on their faces and puts them in reverse order – a format that looks like English, but seems odd to a native Phrexian speaker. Even if a card is mined (its face up), Félix still has to read it backwards – from right to left.
Image: Wizards of the Coast

Of course, the Phrexian was not created over thousands of years across many cultures. It’s a construction language, also known as conlang. That makes it similar to languages ​​found in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings books, or modern geometric languages ​​like Star Trek’s Klingon and Game of Thrones‘Dothraki and Valyrian. Of course, you can easily find materials online that will teach you how to speak like an elf or a Klingon. But not with Phyrexian.

“They explained that it was a real language [and] that they hired linguists to create the language,” said Félix, “but they never explained how it worked. And so I see it as a challenge.”

As it turned out, Félix was up to the challenge. He and his community of contributors have created a Phyrexian dictionary. In January, he used it to be the first person to translate a Magic The card was written in Phrexian before the English version of the card was released to the public.

But how? Félix says it’s largely a guessing game.

“Try to guess right,” said Félix. “You try to see if your speculations are okay. If they can’t keep it, try to think of another way. If they accept, you may have done the right thing and you can move on. “

Félix explains that while the Phrexian is a unique piece of architecture, it derives many of its quirks from existing languages. For example, it uses a consonant root system, like Hebrew and Arabic, to create a recognizable assortment of roots. But Félix argues that its conjugation system is clearly of German origin. Its alphabet shares similar characteristics with Hangul, the alphabet used in Korea. The script used to write Phyrexian shares similar characteristics with Hindi and Sanskrit. Phyrexian also uses a rigid set of punctuation marks, including symbols for tenses, quotation marks, and the beginning and end of sentences. There’s even a way of marking where the reader should stop to catch his breath, a type of caesura nested in Phrexian’s own grammar.

But for the past 12 years, fans have only been able to observe the Phyrexian in a very narrow context, namely the rules written on the collectible trading cards. Sometimes there’s a bit of flavorful text at the end of those tags, a quote or a brief paragraph presented with limited context. Félix and his community aspire to more. These texts are fragments of Phyrexian literature.

“My dream is that one day [Wizards publishes] a very short story, less than 1,000 words, but all written in Phyrexian,” said Félix. “Then they just let us go to town with it. I’m pretty sure we can decipher it. “

What about actually speaking Phyrexian? That may take longer to fully introduce. Phrexians are, after all, a piece of machinery, and their language includes elements that native speakers are supposed to bang their specialized metal mouthparts together for emphasis.

“We have very few examples of spoken Phyrexian,” said Félix, “and the examples we have are very distorted because they are supposed to be spoken by these monsters and they are difficult to understand.” Magic: The Gathering has a secret language that few can translate

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