I Invoke You for a Tongue, Part 2   Leave a comment

[Part One]

This post on creating a usable Celtic ritual language continues a number of previous posts on the subject.

Why do such a thing — create a new Celtic ritual language, rather than master an existing Celtic tongue, when all of them struggle to survive and need all the support they can get? Better yet, why not instead devote the same energy and time to creating rituals, songs, poems, prayers in the language of everyone who will take part? In a word, why be obscure?

Because language is — or can be — magical. Because sometimes we need the power of audible speech that means something only to us. Because a ritual language, a holy tongue, carries its own potency, apart from matters of practicality. Because a dedicated language, like anything else, accrues value and energy and strength precisely because it’s been set apart, treated with care and esteem, as a thing worthy of respect. Because if you go to the trouble of creating a ritual language, I assert that you honor the gods just as much as you do by learning an existing one. Because there’s a world of difference between theft and inspired imitation.* Because a vow, a dream, a burst of awen guided you to do so.

Here’s the prayer that opened the post linked to above:

For the gift of speech already, I thank you.
For the gift of a Celtic tongue I will make,
let my request be also my gift to you in return:

the sound of awen in another tongue, kindred
to those you once heard from ancestors
of spirit. Wisdom in words, wrought for ready use.

May your inspiration guide heart and hand,
mind and mouth, spirit and speech.

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So in the face of loud and rude reasons not to, you follow the urging to create a ritual language anyway. The Celtic world tugs at you, your practice draws on Celtic imagery, myth and folklore, and you opt for a Celtic language over a (re)constructed tongue native to the land where you live. (The possibilities of a Native American conlang deserve a separate post.)

Resources abound for such a project. After all, we have six surviving Celtic languages — Breton, Cornish, Irish, Manx, Scottish Gaelic and Welsh. We have reconstructed Proto-Celtic, we’ve got inscriptions in other extinct Celtic languages, and we have a couple of centuries of linguistic analysis that helps to clarify grammar, word derivations, pronunciation, etc. Beyond that are several Celtic conlangs of varying degrees of realism and fidelity to the historical Celtic languages (like Arvorec, Brithenig, Caledonag, Galathach, Proto-Brittonic, etc.).

In addition to language proper, we’ve got scripts, too, like Ogham and the Coelbren alphabet. An embarrassment of riches, truly.

coelbren

Coelbren alphabet

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So where to begin?

I’m partial to P-Celtic, or Brythonic (Breton-Cornish-Welsh), so that’s my starting point, rather than Q-Celtic or Goidelic (Irish-Manx-Scots Gaelic). But take your pick. It’s your flavor of awen, after all.

We can assemble a basic word-list of a few hundred items pretty quickly. In an hour, you’ll have enough for simple phrases even as you continue to tinker. For help, Omniglot has gathered some useful comparative lists to launch you, and so has this Wikipedia comparative table. (Mostly it’s the vowels that may need tweaking, but that can wait until later.) So we’ll start here with a small sample:

den: man [dehn]
dor: door [dohr]
gwreg: woman [roughly goo-REG]
plant: child [plahnt]
ti: house [tee]
ci: dog [kee]
mab: son [mahb]
tir: land [teer]
mam: mother [mahm]

mor: large [mohr]
neweth: new [NEH-weth]
bihan: small [BEE-hahn]
drug: bad [droog]

gweled: see [GWEH-led]
bod: be [bohd]

Every word above has clear cognates (“relatives”) in Welsh, Breton and Cornish, so we’re on very solid ground so far. Aim for a consistent pronunciation, write it down so you remember, devise a simple key as in the brackets above, and you’re on the way.

We know Brythonic, like Goidelic, had a definite article, for which we’ll choose an. So we can say “the man, the woman”, etc.: an den, an gwreg.

(We can address how we might want to handle those infamous Celtic sound changes later. To give just one a quick example, feminine nouns historically change their initial sound after the definite article, so we might include a rule that gives us gwreg, an wreg; mam, an vam, etc.)

We know that Celtic adjectives typically follow the noun they modify, as in the Romance languages:

an tir mor: the large land
ti neweth: new house
mab bihan: small son
ci drug: bad dog

We know that Brythonic, like the Celtic languages generally, makes phrases equivalent to English “the door of the house, the child of the land” by juxtaposing the words: dor an ti, mab an tir. (Again, we can work out any sound changes later.)

In addition, we know that Celtic often favors a verb-first sentence order (a simplification, but a useful starting point), as if in English we said “Sees the man the dog” instead of “The man sees the dog.”

So we can construct simple sentences:

Bod an gwreg an tir. The woman is the land.
Gweled an mab an ti mor. The son sees the large house.

Now this should serve to show the beginnings of what’s possible without earning a graduate degree in Celtic Studies. If you’re creating solely for yourself, you can follow the promptings of your guides, ancestors and awen. A dream, a book, a contemplation or a museum visit may inspire a particular project: a prayer, a chant or song, a rhyme or invocation, a simple story.

If you’re creating for or with a group, other factors may arise. How complex do you need the grammar? What kinds of things do you want or need to say? How regular and intuitive should the pronunciation be? Are others working directly with you in expanding the vocabulary, or are they asking you as their tribal bard for original and translated rituals and prayers in the language?

For instance, Celtic has an invariable relative pronoun, given here as “a”, which lets us make sentences like this:

Bod hi an gwreg a gweled an tir neweth. She is the woman who sees the new land.

Your choices as you create, after awen, the gods and common sense each have their say, operate in a cauldron that balances flexibility, regularity, variety and ease of use. Like any recipe, season to taste.

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Image: Coelbren alphabet;

*A note on cultural appropriation — as John Beckett suggests in his The Path of Paganism, “always credit your sources, never pretend to be something you’re not, and steal from the best”. To put it another way, all cultures borrow from each other, or die.

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