Thursday, September 8, 2022

Talking Knots

In the old forests where the tree-goblins once lived, their voices might be rare today, but they still speak through the Talking Knots.  All the peoples of the North use ropes and cords, but only goblins use them to carry messages.  Strands of cord in different colors are tied into knots, each one with its own meaning.

an Andean quipu, the inspiration for Talking Knots

These days there are few people left who can read the knots, fewer still who can tie them.  It's an ancient art, passed down from elder to apprentice over the generations, but like so many things it was nearly lost during the Starving Time.

Traces of talking-knot culture persist.  It's common for pregnant women to wear a bracelet with the "life" knot repeated around it.  Hunters often wear a necklace with the complex knot for a type of prey, though they usually don't know which knot goes with which animal, or even that they're representative at all.

A few villages still have one of the old bundles of knot-cords, taken out for village ceremonies, even if they have forgotten how to read it.

Talking knots aren't a full writing system, but a partial one.  There are particular knots for clan names, common animals, some things in the natural world.  A few knots show directions or other descriptors, but without grammar to join words together, a strand of knots is more like a list than a sentence.  And because the set of words is limited, sometimes you have to resort to kennings or other wordplay to try to describe something.  There's no sign for "skunk", for example, but if you find the knot for "weasel" tied to several of the knot for "stink", you can guess what it means.

Goblins who know the knots emphasize that these are definitely not that dangerous elven writing in any way.  No, the talking knots are just a wholesome, traditional art for sharing stories among the people.

There are many different technical terms, of course, but the basics are as follows (in the Middlesea language):

  • ňúica NOO-ee-kah "knot"
  • tàirai TAH-ee-rah-ee "strand of knots on a cord"
  • tocó toe-KO "bundle of strands tied together at one end"
  • tocotómi toe-ko-TOE-mee "one who can read knots"
(Ok, the ň in ňúica is actually not an /n/ sound, it's a nasalized dental click /ǀ̃/.  The accented vowels are actually pitch accents: á is high stress, à is low stress, so the syllable in a word like ňúica go high-low-low.)

    Roll up a random (bundle) to find in your own adventures:

    Location (d6)
    1 in an abandoned village
    2 in trade from a wandering giant
    3 private religious items of a village
    4 kept by an elven academic society (though they do not understand what it is)
    5 carried by a goblin who can read it
    6 merely an impression left behind in clay/mud

    Purpose (d6)
    1mnemonic for telling an epic tale
    2an accounting of valuable goods
    3warning about dangerous enemies or witchcraft
    4letter to a loved one
    5secret call to arms
    6location of a hidden refuge

    Difficult to Read (d10)
    1-2uses a few unusual knots, need to find someone who knows them
    3-4has gotten all tangled together
    5-6part of it is missing
    7-8colors have faded, some ambiguities
    9-10strands from two bundles are joined together

    Click here for random results.