A Druidico-linguistic Rant   Leave a comment

OK, indulge me in a fit of professional pique.  Grr.  And afterward, having carefully checked my counterpoints below, show me where I went wrong.  Until then, my case stands against careless authors and bad linguistics.

I spent undergrad and grad years studying linguistics, both in class to get degrees, and on my own, to “follow the bent of my genius, which is a very crooked one,” as Thoreau says of himself.

So when any published authority who should know better does a bad job with linguistics, it provokes my ire and righteous indignation.  Stings me to creative invective, expressed in various naturally-occurring and invented languages.  If you’re a fan, think Firefly and Joss Whedon‘s creative use of “gorram” and Chinese for the characters when they need a good brisk curse to capture their feelings that won’t get censored by feckless Anglo censors.  (So I slightly misused feckless.  It’s such a great word, I’m automatically forgiven.  Why isn’t there a feckful?!)

When it involves an attempt to set the record straight about Druids, we particularly need careful scholarship, along the lines of Ronald Hutton, whose consistently excellent and thoroughly researched books shrink Romantic inflation, while leaving the essential mystery.  In fact, that could be a definition of mystery:  what remains intact, even more vital, after the facts have been established.  Mystery isn’t obscurity, but a depth beyond easy ratiocination.  It transcends language, though intuition and imagination are both on to it.  It’s home turf for them.

People believe all kinds of nonsense about language, and often on flimsy evidence — perhaps because in the West, most people know only one language, so the ways of them durn furriners will always be inscrutable — not a true mystery, but the consequence of mere ignorance.

A classic example I’ve cited before:  “Samhain is the Celtic god of death.”  It really isn’t, but people get seduced by the appearance of authority and mistake it for the real thing.  This is reminiscent of Kipling’s Monkey People in The Jungle Book:  “If we all say so, it must be true.”  The linguistic falsehood is still reprehensible, but it’s understandable here in propaganda like the anti-Pagan tract in which this Samhain citation appears.

On to the source of my wrath.

A Brief History of the Druids by Peter Berresford Ellis is a necessary book, providing analyses of evidence for an understanding of Druidry that aren’t available in print elsewhere.  He’s cited as “a foremost authority on the Celts,” is the author of half a dozen  books on the Celts, and for the most part deserves this accolade and others.

But …

How is it, then, on page 96, that he can foolishly, carelessly assert that “the very word Teutonic is derived from the Celtic word for tribe, tuath in Irish”?  This is simply wrong.  “Teutonic” comes from Latin teutonicus, and refers to the Germanic tribes.  The cognate word — the “sister word” in Germanic, because both Celtic and Germanic are daughter languages of Proto-Indo-European (PIE) — is thiudan-, related to King Theoden in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, and Deutsch, the German word for ‘German.’  However much Ellis would like the sound laws of PIE to reflect his desire for Celtic to be the mother tongue, they don’t and it’s not.  Neither is Germanic, of course.  However, Proto-Indo-European IS.  And Ellis knows this, but lets his carelessness sway him into a baldly wrong, and worse, misleading assertion.  The Celts indeed contributed much to Germanic culture, and that includes words as well as objects, but tuath isn’t one of them.

Here’s another example among others from this one book.  On page 111, once again, Ellis wants Celtic to rule the roost.  “When we turn back to Medb we find that her very name means ‘an intoxicating liquor’, [sic] and is the origin of the English mead.”  And once again, the Irish medb and the English mead are cognate, or “born together,” from PIE *medhu.  The English word doesn’t derive from the Irish.  Both however do descend from the same parent — and that is PIE.  [The * indicates a linguistic reconstruction.]

One instance of such false derivation in a scholarly work is possibly a “mistake” or oversight.  Several instances become part of a consistent pattern of misuse of scholarship in the service of an agenda.  It makes me question and doubt his other claims (not a bad thing, says my inner rebel; find out for yourself); and he gives just enough evidence to convince someone who doesn’t know enough about historical development of the Indo-European languages generally, and Celtic and English specifically, to challenge his assertions.  It sounds right.  But it isn’t.  Boo — hiss!

Not the end of the world.  But shoddy.  Very shoddy.  OK, enough ranting.  <end rant>

Thank for indulging.  Back to your regularly scheduled program.

/|\ /|\ /|\

Nano update:  hit the 20,000 mark — in fact, passed it last night, with 20177 words.  Somehow this feels more substantial in many ways than passing the 10K mark, which seemed such a milestone at the time — not merely twice as many words, but a kind of undeniable solidity or substance that can’t be denied or dismissed.  Got some new (potential) characters, too, knocking to be let in.  Will have to see whether this story needs an incubus to muddy the waters, or a preacher bent on saving Nick (Alza’s “chosen”), or a girlfriend (and second succubus?!) for Nick’s best friend Paul.  Anyway, onward …

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