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Sigil Identities I: Quéssā and Half-Elven pride


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CrimsonLotus's picture

Quéssā [ kwEH-hsaah; etym: probably corruption of Quessir (people) in Faerunian High Elven or h'quhs (bawdy or irreverent speech) in Oeridian Wood Elven (disputed)]


Sigismund Pandulf v. Dassau (Ed.) Subcultures and Counter-Cultures in Contemporary Sigil 6th Ed., Baying Arcanoloth Press

“[W]hether Quéssā constitutes a Common/Elven patois or a distinct Elven language with strong Common influences or, alternatively, a genetically Common tongue with extensive morphological, phonological and lexical borrowings from various Elven dialects is a matter of sustained and, regrettably, politicised scholarly debate...It has, however, emerged as an important articulation of Half-Elven identity in Sigil in spite, or perhaps because, of the considerable social stigma traditionally associated with its use [cf. usage of cant and other basilects considered as substandard].”


Tuonetar Siijnen, Introducing Quéssā, Artemis' Quiver Books & Transcription

“It's a truism to say that Sigil is cosmopolitan, the crossroads of the Planes, the City of Doors, but, besides the distinctive Sigil cant, few travellers are aware of the true extent of the city's linguistic diversity. Quéssā, unlike cant, has a specific racial dimension to it. In ages past, waves of Elven and Eladrin emigrants settled in Sigil. Most clung to their traditions, reproduced the societies of their native planes and established cultural, educational and religious organisations to preserve them. Yet not even the legendary pride the Fey races took in their culture and language could preserve it intact through the generations. So Quéssā emerged.

Discrete Half-Elven communities began to form. Originally, most were bilingual in the Human lingua franca – known in Sigil as Common – and their native Elven dialects. The sheer diversity of Elven and Eladrin languages, however, created significant complications, especially when the speaker sought to communicate uniquely Elven concepts. Quéssā thus emerged as a link language to bind the disparate Half-Elven communities together and, in a way, eliminating its cultural dependence on both Human and Fey societies.

Recent studies (Dassau et al.; Xideous) have noted that Quéssā is, in effect, the first language of between 70 – 75% of the city's Half-Elven population and is rapidly gaining currency in Elven and Eladrin youth culture as well, where it can displace or meld with cant as a sociolinguistic statement of Sigil identity. The high degree of prominence attained by many Half-Elves in the performing arts and contemporary writing may have contributed to Quéssā's diffusion outside its original community context.”


Elyszara, Stargazer – a Travelogue, Brighteyes Publishing

“What is Quéssā? That's a question a Shiere knight asked me today at breakfast and, since I've never been a morning person, I decided to scribble a response down for her. Then I realised that Quéssā itself is not something that is easily defined. To be sure, it can be discussed in academic terms, but that defeats the purpose of having a living language. And that's exactly what Quéssā is. Living. It's Human in its flexibility, its capability to adapt, to incorporate influences from cant, Athasian neologisms, Oeridian fashion styles and so forth. It's Elven in its musicality, in its rich shades of meaning, in its emphasis on nuance and personal truth rather than objective certainty.

Not much of a description? I guess not. So let's personalise it. The formal version of Eladrin I was taught in the Feywild is a literary, courtly language. Most non-Fey find Elven grammar reassuringly straightforward – and it is. It's the rest that's a problem. I remember being taught forms of address and poetic allusions that are not in current use even here in the Court Under the Stars. That may have been history, but it wasn't language. Language lives and pulses with vibrancy. It constantly stretches out to define the contours of our contemporary experience.

So whenever I'm in Sigil, I find myself jumping from Common, to cant to Quéssā with indiscriminate abandon. It doesn't matter whether I'm talking to Humans, Half-Elves, Eladrins or Halflings. Anyone with a Fey identity in Sigil need only utter a few words of Quéssā and there she is – part of a community that isn't just made of words, but amounts to a state of being. If even Humans can build Common tongue to bind their disparate communities together in Sigil, then I say the bell has tolled for the stuffy conservatism of Elven linguistic purity...

What is Quéssā? We are Quéssā.”


An excerpt from Cirily's interview with the Half-Elven singer Shesayne for the column 'Voices of Sigil', featured in The Modern Planar

C: So how does Quéssā influence you – personally and artistically?

S: To start off, there's no neo-Elven music without it. Quéssā's a naturally musical language, so lots of Humans come up to me when they hear me speak it and say something like, 'you don't have an accent when you speak Common'. That always makes me laugh. Truth is, I don't, but the flow of your voice just picks up and skips with it. Lots of folk are simply a bit thrown both when I sing or talk in Quéssā – they can sort of understand what I'm talking about, but not quite. It leaves that edge of mystery.

C: Would you consider it your mother tongue?

S: It's the language I grew up with. Most Half-Elves I know speak both Common and Quéssā. I myself also know the High Elven my mother spoke and a little Infernal from hanging around Tieflings, but at least us halfbreeds have a talent for languages, right? Anyway, I suppose that it's the language that makes me feel Half-Elven and Fey, which is what I identify as, and doesn't force me to be either Human or Elven. Experience has taught me that I wouldn't be very good as either of those two.

C: The enduring Prime influence on our city --

S: That's the dark of it. Whether you're in the Hive like me or in the Lady's Ward like you, I think this time round, we've decided that it's time to cut off the past. Whatever happened on the Prime worlds is not our business any more. We should be living as Sigil folk, not refugees.

C: Well said. They say literature is the foundation upon which a language rests. Do you see your music as contributing to this?

S: Of course. Me and Faenya use an adapted Common alphabet to write down lyrics. Lots of writers and poets at the Celestial Ring do the same. Some try to use the Eladrin script, but it's very hard to write down Common words with it. [ED Note: The Eladrin script is syllabic and incorporates vowels and pitch accents not normally found in any Human language].

C: So you would say there is more nuance in Quéssā?

S: For me, yes. If I like a piece of music, I'd rather say 'Ýlin sahún faernii' or 'Ýlin sahún lïsse' than 'that music sounded it would hold my attention for a long time' or 'that music sounded like it could move my soul'. It's better at showing what I feel and says more about me.

C: What does it mean to be a Half-Elf in Sigil today?

S: Discovering you're neither Human nor Elven, but something different --

C: Better, even?

S: [Laughs] Yeah. Maybe, maybe. Same goes for Tieflings, Aasimar and so on. You could almost say Sigil is a city of halfbreeds. But at the same time, I like to think that Sigil is the first place in the 'Verse in which race is becoming less important. I can identify as a Half-Elf, but I have Human and Elven friends. Drow friends, too, come to think of it and that simply couldn't be done anywhere else. We're leaving all this Prime pettiness behind.

C: But is Quéssā language and culture not rooted in being a Half-Elf?

S: Not always. And definitely not the way things are going. You're a Firre Eladrin yourself and you speak Quéssā. Those cufflinks you're wearing are definitely a Half-Elven style.

C: Very observant --

S: Or take the Air Genasi. Many of them consider themselves Fey because of their Sylph bloodlines, so now there are quite a few Auran words that have made their way into Quéssā.

C: How important is it to encourage the development of Quéssā?

S: For us, it's a matter of identity. I think they should stop telling children it's bad Elven or bad Common and accept that, like cant, it's become a native language of Sigil. Prime languages describe worlds that are long gone, it's time for a change --

C: I could not agree more.


Cirily, What We Want (excerpt), New Axis Identity manifesto

“Break down the tyranny of Prime ignorance and the subconscious inculcation of Prime cultural dominance! How can a Planar, a citizen of Sigil, a citizen of the Multiverse bring with him or herself the provincial baggage of binary identification, of racial squabbles, of long-forgotten histories and ceaseless struggles against mythical forces lost in the mists of time? How dare you call yourselves Planars you Drow who still dream of crushing Eladrin, or you Eladrin who would still deny that Drow-ness (1) is as significant a statement of Elven and Fey identity as your own...?

Embrace Sigil! The Prime past must be ground into dust, consigned to the bonfire of mundane and quaint vanities. Speak cant! Speak Quéssā! Speak Infernal (2)! Throw down the steely chains that bind your mind to the dust specks that call themselves Crystal Sphere – throw them down and look ever forward!


(1) The Drow term n'iliithin is used in the original in favour of standard Eladrin terms, now considered offensive in some circles. Drow loanwords form a small, but increasingly significant part of Quéssā vocabulary.

(2) This does not refer to standard Infernal or Abyssal, but to the rich Tiefling vernacular tongue. Once thought lost and superseded by Common and cant, it is now being revived by a number of Sigil-born Warlocks.”

ripvanwormer's picture
Joined: 2004-10-05
I really liked this. You've

I really liked this. You've done a great job in making Sigil seem more cosmopolitan and distinct from the Material Plane, and Cirily is certainly an effective means of conveying that. New subcultures, an emphasis on the distance of Sigil from the eternal hatreds of the Prime - all very good. Of course, I'm not so fond of the 4th edition lack of chaotic good planeborne, but if eladrins and elves have to be related, I'd rather it was done as you have here.

CrimsonLotus's picture
Joined: 2007-05-17
Thanks for the positive

Thanks for the positive feedback, ripvanwormer. I think you pretty much hit the nail on the crumpet, so to speak. I don't know how 4th Edition is going to treat Sigil (DMG II should have a large section on it), but I think that a global, all pervasive Hive/cant subculture was somewhat limiting. Cirily works well, too, since 'Faces of Sigil' is never terribly explicit as to what her fundamental motivations in terms of anti-Prime xenophobia are. I thought it would make an interesting twist if she were motivated by questions of identity (racial, linguistic, gender, sexual etc.).

Considering that the average Prime from, say, Oerth or Krynn, would be bewildered and possibly enraged by the cosmopolitan nature of Sigil, most of these travellers are unlikely to endear themselves to the locals, especially those with a distinct political or cultural agenda.   

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