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(see also Culture Overview)
The language is known as ‘Terbian’ in the outside world, referring to the national name (terbr ‘a native, national’). The speakers themselves refer to it as Stālāg, which is apparently a derivative of stāl ‘lake’.
The Terb inhabit the deep valleys around the Whistling Lake (Nīzdīkstāl), which is fed by several mountain streams and leads to the White River (Bĕkmĕls) and the Plains (Gwåmmu). This is their homeland, but many have settled along the borders of the River, sharing this land with their neighbours, the Ondu in the West and the K’assoi in the East, so far peacefully.
Each of these peoples speaks its own language, but the numeric superiority and cultural dominance of the Terb in the southern settlements is currently displacing the languages of the Ondu and the K’assoi, which are related to Terbian.
North of the Lake the Terb also dwell in a fragile peace with the Hādl, who make up a confederation of tribes. Despite the hostile environment, the Terb trade fish, meat, wood and dairy products for Hādl gold and gems, among other products. The language of the Hādl tribes is apparently unrelated to Terbian, but both languages have been enriched over centuries with a great amount of mutual borrowings.
Most of the Terb are monolingual, but those involved in commerce and trade manage quite well in a pidgin of Terbian and Onduvian or Terbian and Hādlian. A sizeable percentage of the population, especially men (about 8-10%), are bilingual in Terbian and Onduvian. Given the cultural role of women, only a few of them are bilingual.
There is a certain feeling of linguistic superiority in the homeland and in the southern settlements, and children are encouraged not to adopt foreign words from their neighbours. This chauvinistic tendency is slowly disappearing as the Terb population expands and occupies new territories. The higher classes tend to be more tolerant of neologism and borrowing, and accordingly, their children are gradually becoming accustomed to have foreign-language tutors.
Loanwords in Terbian come in the first place from Hādlian, and they appear mostly in two areas: the millitary and the commercial. For example, mårån ‘disordered host’, kjŏnah ‘mail coat’, jekkjet ‘diamond’, znum ‘leather boots’, ssing ‘smuggle’. Then there are a number of loans from Onduvian and, to a lesser extent, from K’assoian, mostly related to the basic material culture (animal and plant names, clothing, tools, fishing and hunting), with a noticeable amount of words related to crime and the lower strata of society: deilw ‘whore’, gwigr ‘cheat, trick’, hypont ‘swim under (a boat, to cut a fishing net)’.
The Terbian language does not show great dialectal differences. Except for the frequency of use of some borrowed terms, the two main population subgroups (around the Lake in the homeland, and south in the settlements) speak a single dialect with only minor differences, which are mainly phonetical and do not erode mutual intelligibility.
In the traditional scale between morphological isolation and polysynthesis, Terbian is placed somewhere around the middle, but nearer the synthetic end of the spectrum. In this respect it is also more agglutinative than fusional. The most complex part of its morphological description is verb inflection, which uses agglutinative subject and object marks, as well as TAM affixes. The argument marks and the TAM complexes are themselves fusional: u-tēkk-o-ro ‘he is about to hit me’, where u- marks first person singular object, -o- is the third person singular subject mark, and -ro corresponds to the present tense, prospective aspect. Noun morphology is much more isolating, nouns only showing a two-way number distinction and two cases, core and oblique, these distinctions being combined as a four-way contrast in a single fusional suffix.
Terbian is dominantly suffixing for abstract grammatical contrasts, and uses prefixation mostly for non-grammatical, derivational purposes. It does not show infixion, reduplication or suprasegmental modifications of any kind. It does not feature Ablaut, Umlaut, vowel harmony or consonant harmony, and it only resorts to suppletion in some verb and noun stems. The only kind of stem modification is regular vowel shortening and epenthesis, with no grammatical function (the reason is phonological: the restriction of having no more than three morae per syllable).
The synthetic structures of Terbian show a dominance of so-called head-marking, as illustrated by the examples on the morphology of verbs above. There is a minimal degree of dependent marking, mostly in the form of the oblique case used as a genitive: stālō gidr ‘coast of the lake’.