Archive for the ‘conlang’ Category

DRL — A Druid Ritual Language, Part 2   3 comments

[Part 1 | Part 3]

I’ll be covering a fair bit of ground in this post, and supplying a larger than usual number of links (distractions?), since so many of you, my readers, come from such diverse perspectives and experiences. Thus it is that while some of what I say here will be sure to irritate, confuse or bore some of you, there’s a very fair chance the same sections won’t be the same irritants for everybody.  And with a liberal helping of what goes under the names of luck, awen, grace, and chance, some of it might actually be useful to you.

So what do you make of this video?!

Ritual and Ritual Language are Pan-human

One of my points in including the “Biker Blessing” — whatever you think of Pope Francis, the pontiff sure has his own style — is simply to illustrate two important points we keep forgetting:  all humans participate in and perform rituals, and they’re both utterly common and rather strange, when you actually begin to examine them more closely.

To give just one common example, if you intend to get hitched in a church, you’re not yet married until right after the presiding clergy says some equivalent of the words “I now pronounce you man and wife.” So what do those words do?! (For the nerds among us, this has been called the performative aspect of language, according to the theory of speech acts in a book with the fine title of How to Do Things with Words by Brit J. L. Austin.)

It’s because the West in particular often lacks (read “threw the baby out with the bathwater over the last century”) meaningful ritual that ritual has come to preoccupy many Druids and Pagans generally. But it bears repeating that ritual isn’t merely a Druid or even a Pagan concern: ritual and ritual languages cover the planet.

Here’s a remarkably respectful video from a 3-minute 2010 BBC broadcast.  (Title includes “OBOD” but no mention is made of it in the video itself, so don’t worry — I’m not proselytizing — really!):

“Ceremonies of Innocence”

Another common example. Depending on how you were raised, your parents taught you to say “thank you” and “excuse me.” In the process they likely also taught you that the forms themselves matter, as much as or often more than your heartfelt gratitude or apology. The discipline of saying the words themselves – often — was enough. (If you’re feeling cynical, you could argue that this is one of our first formal lessons in hypocrisy.) We may rail justifiably against “empty language,” but that’s not the fault of ritual. The emptiness of much empty talk issues from a lack of conviction or perspective behind it. As Yeats said in his poem “The Second Coming,” “The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere/The ceremony of innocence is drowned;/The best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity.” So we get loudness and passion as the daily menu on far too many of our media of choice, while stillness and reflection flee for the hills. But (to mix metaphors) that’s where these two inexhaustible caves of treasures lie waiting. We can, if we desire to, recover the “ceremonies of innocence.”

A Side-note on Definitions

You may have noticed that I carefully sidestepped the issue of what “ritual” is and what a “language” is. If you want more information on these fascinating and often controversial topics than the quick-and-dirty Wikipedia links can give, and you don’t have a good town library handy, just search “magical use of ritual language” on Google Scholar. Earlier today (3/24/14) it returned 168,000 results. So even if upwards of 90% of these prove to be some combination of junk or dead links, you’ll find remarkable studies, academic and amateur and much in between. Enough in fact to launch you into a lifetime of fruitful reading and study on just this one topic, should you wish.  (See the end of this post for a detailed excerpt of  the Wikipedia entry for “magical language.”

All or Nothing

allnothingOf course, using ritual language doesn’t have to be an “all or nothing” proposition. A few words and phrases can often be sufficient to signal important parts of a ritual, or to heighten the charge of ritual atmosphere. Any decent magical training curriculum will show you this. Like all conscious acts, those performed with intention carry power. (Anyone reading this knows, for instance, the difference between a casually tossed-off “I love you” and the same words said with full attention and feeling. If you don’t, don’t come back here until you do. That part of your life obviously deserves more atttention than this blog.)

As an example of this “ritual sprinkle” approach, here’s an excerpt of the ritual use of Welsh from the “Grand Sword” page of the Gorsedd of the Bards (Museum of Wales online):

One of the Gorsedd’s oldest rites is the ceremony of partly unsheathing the Grand Sword. The Archdruid asks the following questions and the audience replies ‘Heddwch’ (Peace) three times:

Y Gwir yn erbyn y Byd, A oes Heddwch? (The Truth against the World, Is there Peace?)
Calon wrth Galon, A oes Heddwch? (Heart to Heart, Is there Peace?)
Gwaedd uwch Adwaedd, A oes Heddwch? (Shout above responding Shout, Is there Peace?)’

Carrying a sword was one of the rites in Iolo Morganwg’s first Gorsedd in 1792. As a pacifist Iolo wanted to emphasise that the Bards met in peace and when a naked sword was placed on the Logan Stone they proceeded to sheath it as a symbol of peace in Gorsedd.

Bardic chair inscription: "the truth against the world"

Bardic chair inscription: “the truth against the world”

With no more than this much Welsh in a ritual, or even just Y gwir yn erbyn y Byd [approximately “uh GWEER uhn EHR-been uh BEED”] “the Truth against the World,” you can clearly set apart the language of your rite from ordinary language, and help evoke the heightened state of consciousness characteristic of much (not all) successful ritual.

Benefits of Ritual Language

If you want the John F. Kennedy version – “what ritual language can do for you” – here’s a start.

An FAQ of the Latin Liturgy Association site lists several “important benefits of using Latin” as a “sacral” language, including its close association with worship, as with the Arabic of the Qur’an, the Sanskrit of Hinduism and the Hebrew of Judaism. It also “helps us overcome limitations of time and place” and “participate in the universal reality of the Catholic Church, linking us with the generations” who preceded us. As the language of a sacred musical tradition, it also gives access to the plainsong and chant of the Church.

So Why Use a Distinct Ritual Language?

Huston Smith

Huston Smith

OK, you get that ritual and ritual language are powerful and widespread. But why not keep it to your own native tongue and skip the difficulty of learning another language besides? Who has the time for studying and mastering a dedicated language? Isn’t a dedicated practice more important? Aren’t ritual and worship and devotion in [insert your language here] better than none at all? This cry of the heart has a strong appeal. Its human roots are ancient. Huston Smith in his The World’s Religions (p. 34) cites a Hindu prayer, noting, “Even village priests will frequently open their temple ceremonies with the following beloved invocation:

O Lord, forgive three sins that are due to my human limitations:
Thou art everywhere, but I worship you here;
Thou art without form, but I worship you in these forms;
Thou needest no praise, yet I offer you these prayers and salutations,
Lord, forgive three sins that are due to my human limitations.

Surely this is justification, if indeed we need any? You may have seen this prayer incorporated into rituals as part of the reach toward the divine – I have. Of all human failings, surely what language we use in our quest must rank low on the scale of such things?

M. Isadora Forrest notes in her book Isis Magic, “Isis of the Ten Thousand Names provided Her ancient worshippers with a broad range of Divine aspects, functions and affinities” (pg. 8). So if we can approach spirit or divine realm using our own names for it, what’s the need for a separate ritual language? Can’t we reach and communicate with the Goddess [substitute your own preferred name here] using what is, after all, our “mother tongue,” the speech that is most intimate to us? Isn’t this language therefore among the most valid of tools we can use, if we wish to contact and plunge into the Otherworld, the divine realm? It reaches and extends from the heart.

Well, just like you generally appreciate home-baked over store-bought, deities show preferences. Among them are offerings, names and languages. That doesn’t mean that English or whatever your native language is won’t “work” as you lay the roses, pour the mead, light the cedar incense, offer the myrrh or dragonsblood or cinnamon, but it does mean that a more immediate connection is one benefit and advantage of using a ritual language. In part it’s a matter of dedication and devotion. Our efforts please the divine; as someone said – I’m quoting badly here – “the gods enjoy the taste of human sweat in their offerings.”

A tradition can have profound impact on our spiritual paths. Forrest observes (again, insert your preferred designation for “Goddess” and “Isis” as needed):

By examining the evidence this tradition has left us, modern devotees of the Goddess can be connected with and find inspiration in the ancient worship … We can discover the traditional ways Isis was worshipped and learn how her worshippers thought, talked and taught about her. In the stories they told, the religious purposes they agreed upon … we can follow the path of a very ancient religious tradition that can connnect us to our spiritual ancestors. By using the symbols they used and found meaningful– and by finding our own meaning in them – we are empowered by tradition. It can guide us, inpsire us, explain things to us. It provides potent archetypal symbols, sanctified by centuries of use, energized by the meaning invested in them. The devotion of thousands upon thousands of Isis worshippers before us can provide a path we can walk and a context for our own relationship

with the divine. Thus, “tradition can be an extremely valuable tool of connection with the Divine; yet it need not constrain us. Human religious history is a history of change” (9).

Ritual Language and Two Kinds of “Users”

The use of a special ritual language concerns two groups of ritualists in different ways. For writers or composers of rituals and liturgies, the language must be “composable in.” That is, it shouldn’t be so difficult to use that the creation of new rituals and liturgies is so challenging only a few can pull it off. This means that those who know the language can use it creatively. Need a new handfasting ritual, or a rite to plant potatoes? No problem! This also means that the first group can make the ritual accessible to the second and much larger group, the users or participants in rituals and liturgies. This latter groups includes not only the “usual suspects,” the regular participants in rituals, but also any visitors (assuming your rituals with a ritual language are open to them), and readers of any media like your group’s website that explains or presents rituals to a wider audience.

Which Ritual Language?

There are currently some 6000 human languages on the planet, though the number is decreasing dramatically. However, Celtic-inspired Druids need not sort through them; under a dozen ready and suitable options present themselves. (If you want to focus on Asatru and other similar northwestern European Heathen traditions, replace Celtic with Germanic tongues. Likewise, substitute some Slavic options, if you’re into Baltic Heathenism like Romuva, or Hellenismos if you’re a Greek Pagan.etc.).

Welsh, Irish Gaelic, Scots Gaelic, Breton, Cornish, Manx. Throw in Proto-Celtic if you wish. All but the latter have communities of speakers, grammars and dictionaries and various learning resources. (Proto-Celtic lets you try out an ancestral speech in a form that’s still being reconstructed as we speak. Enough exists to compose in it – barely.  See the next section for more possibilities.) Admittedly you’re most likely to encounter the modern forms of these, but dive into the modern form, and you can begin to make use of preserved older forms in manuscripts, chronicles, epics and legends, rich with symbolism and myth for rituals, prayers, chants, song lyrics, etc. as yet unborn, unwritten, unchanted, unsung.

Conlangs, Arise!

DanaeLang4

Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones

Another option lies in the adaptation of a Celtic language to your purposes. Ritual language is already heightened, altered, shifted.  Well, a conlang or constructed language may fit your needs.  (For a detailed look at some possibilities, visit Mark Rosenfelder’s online Language Construction Kit.)  Conlangers have been modifying adapting, regularizing, extending and creating out of whole cloth an astonishing range of languages. A significant number of them exist in forms complete enough to use for ritual. And you can actually commission a language from the Language Creation Society. You too can do just as the producers of Game of Thrones have done with Dothraki, whose creator David Peterson has created other languages. Visit his website for a sampling.

Perplexed by the contradiction between authentic or historical and concocted or created ex nihilo? You’ve arrived at the classic a priori versus a posteriori nexus – a lively point of debate in the conlang community.

J M Greer

J M Greer

Ends and Beginnings

Had enough? Need a break? Or want to sample the sounds of some 30 European languages? Below is a Youtube clip featuring Celtic, Romance, Germanic and Slavic languages, along with Greek, Albanian and Hungarian to round out the linguistic variety of Europe (see the note below for a complete list of languages and approximate times). You may have visceral reactions to accents, pitches, sounds. I urge you to make note of them. See if you can get down in words what it is that appeals or doesn’t appeal to you in the sounds and overall sprachgefühl, a wonderful German word that literally means “speech-feeling” — the character of a language. This can be helpful as you consider the sound of any ritual language you might want to use. It may also prove useful if you’re wondering what languages you might want to study in the future (if you’re following the language learning advice of John Michael Greer in his talk “A Magical Education”). And there’s a chance it may spark a dream of a past life when you may have spoken a form of one of these languages yourself.

Here’s the 32-language video:

A Next Step

In DRL —  A Druid Ritual Language — Part 3, I’ll look specifically at Welsh and then at a couple of conlangs as candidates for ritual languages.

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Images: Huston SmithGame of Thrones; all/nothingDanaelect4;  J M Greer; bardic chair.

From the Wikipedia entry for “Magical Language“, accessed 3/23/14, which I cite below for its interest:

The performance of magic almost always involves the use of language. Whether spoken out loud or unspoken, words are frequently used to access or guide magical power. In “The Magical Power of Words” (1968) S. J. Tambiah argues that the connection between language and magic is due to a belief in the inherent ability of words to influence the universe. Bronisław Malinowski … suggests that this belief is an extension of man’s basic use of language to describe his surroundings, in which “the knowledge of the right words, appropriate phrases and the more highly developed forms of speech, gives man a power over and above his own limited field of personal action.”Magical speech is therefore a ritual act and is of equal or even greater importance to the performance of magic than non-verbal acts.

Not all speech is considered magical. Only certain words and phrases or words spoken in a specific context are considered to have magical power. Magical language … is distinct from scientific language because it is emotive and it converts words into symbols for emotions; whereas in scientific language words are tied to specific meanings and refer to an objective external reality. Magical language is therefore particularly adept at constructing metaphors that establish symbols and link magical rituals to the world.

Malinowski argues that “the language of magic is sacred, set and used for an entirely different purpose to that of ordinary life.” The two forms of language are differentiated through word choice, grammar, style, or by the use of specific phrases or forms: spellssongsblessings, or chants, for example. Sacred modes of language often employ archaic words and forms in an attempt to invoke the purity or “truth” of a religious or a cultural “golden age”. The use of Hebrew in Judaism is an example.

Another potential source of the power of words is their secrecy and exclusivity. Much sacred language is differentiated enough from common language that it is incomprehensible to the majority of the population and it can only be used and interpreted by specialized practitioners (magicianspriests, shamans, even mullahs). In this respect, Tambiah argues that magical languages violate the primary function of language: communication. Yet adherents of magic are still able to use and to value the magical function of words by believing in the inherent power of the words themselves and in the meaning that they must provide for those who do understand them. This leads Tambiah to conclude that “the remarkable disjunction between sacred and profane language which exists as a general fact is not necessarily linked to the need to embody sacred words in an exclusive language.”

Video roster of languages and times; “FSI + a number” refers to the U.S. Foreign Service Institute ranking of difficulty for an English speaker, 1 being easier, and higher numbers being comparatively more difficult/requiring more hours of study:

0:00 Serbian—FSI 3
0:21 British English
1:03 Albanian—FSI 4/FSI 2
1:18 Finnish—FSI 4
1:46 Slovakian—FSI 4
2:25 German– FSI 2
2:56 Macedonian—FSI 4
3:26 Portuguese—FSI 1
3:54 Ukrainian—FSI 4
4:19 Croatian—FSI 4
4:50 Moldovan—not listed
5:48 Swedish—FSI1
6:14 Russian—FSI 4
6:52 Italian—FSI 1
7:22 Slovenian—FSI 4
7:49 Danish—FSI 1
8:22 Polish—FSI 4
8:44 Romanian—FSI 1
9:13 French—FSI 1
10:00 Byelarussian—not listed
10:24 Bulgarian—FSI 4
10:54 Greek—FSI 4
11:22 Czech—FSI 4
11:52 Dutch—FSI 1
12:35 Bosnian—FSI 4
13:00 Spanish (Castilian) – FSI 1
13:30 Estonian—FSI 4
14:02 Norwegian—FSI 1
14:53 Lithuanian—FSI 4
15:20 Irish Gaelic—not listed
15:52 Latvian—FSI 4
16:26 Icelandic—FSI 4
16:52 Hungarian—FSI 4
17:30 Slovenian—FSI 4

Edited/updated 10 July 2014

DRL — a Druid Ritual Language, Part 1   Leave a comment

[Part 2 | Part 3]

Ritual Language and the Case of Latin

Many spiritual and religious traditions feature a special language used for ritual purposes.  The most visible example in the West is Latin.  The Latin Mass remains popular, and though the mid-1960s reforms of Vatican II allowed the use of local vernacular languages for worship, they never prohibited Latin.  For some Catholics, the use of vernacular reduced the mystery, the beauty and ultimately, in some sense, the sacredness of the rites.  If you visit an Orthodox Christian or Jewish service, you may encounter other languages.  Within an hour’s drive of my house in southern Vermont, you can encounter Greek, Hebrew, Russian, Arabic and Tibetan used in prayer and ritual.

tridmass

Language as Sacrament

The heightened language characteristic of ritual, such as prayer and chant, can be a powerful shaper of consciousness.  The 5-minute Vedic Sanskrit video below can begin to approximate for one watching it a worship experience of sound and image and sensory engagement that transcends mere linguistic meaning.  The rhythmic chanting, the ritual fire, the sacrificial gathering, the flowers and other sacred offerings, the memory of past rituals, the complex network of many kinds of meaning all join to form a potentially powerful ritual experience.  What the ritual “means” is only partly mediated by the significance of the words.  Language used in ritual in such ways transcends verbal meaning and becomes Word — sacrament as language, language as sacrament — a way of manifesting, expressing, reaching, participating in the holy.

chantcoverAnd depending on your age and attention at the time, you may recall the renewed popularity of Gregorian chant starting two decades ago in 1994, starting with the simply-titled Chant, a collection by a group of Benedictines.

Issues with Ritual Language

One great challenge is to keep ritual and worship accessible.  Does the experience of mystery and holiness need, or benefit from, the aid of a special ritual language?  Do mystery and holiness deserve such language as one sign of respect we can offer?  Should we expect to learn a new language, or special form of our own language, as part of our dedication and worship?  Is hearing and being sacramentally influenced by the language enough, even if we don’t “understand” it? These aren’t always easy questions to answer.

“The King’s English”

kjvcoverFor English-speaking Christians and for educated speakers of English in general, the King James Bible* continues to exert remarkable influence more than 400 years after its publication in 1611.  What is now the early modern English grammar and vocabulary of Elizabethan England, in the minds of many, contribute to the “majesty of the language,” setting it apart from daily speech in powerful and useful ways.  Think of the Lord’s Prayer, with its “thy” and “thine” and “lead us not”: the rhythms of liturgical — in this case, older — English are part of modern Christian worship for many, though more recent translations have also made their way into common use.  A surprising number of people make decisions on which religious community to join on the basis of what language(s) are, or aren’t, used in worship.

Druid and Pagan Practice

When it comes to Druid practice (and Pagan practice more generally), attitudes toward special language, like attitudes towards much else, vary considerably.  Some find anything that excludes full participation in ritual to be an unnecessary obstacle to be avoided.  Of course, the same argument can be made for almost any aspect of Druid practice, or spiritual practice in general.  Does the form of any rite inevitably exclude, if it doesn’t speak to all potential participants?  If I consider my individual practice, it thrives in part because of improvisation, personal preference and spontaneity.  It’s tailor-made for me, open to inspiration at the moment, though still shaped by group experience and the forms of OBOD ritual I have both studied and participated in. Is that exclusionary?

druidrite

Ritual Primers

Unless they’re Catholic or particularly “high”-church Anglican/Episcopalian, many Westerners, including aspiring Druids, are often unacquainted with ritual. What is it? Why do it? How should or can you do it? What options are there? ADF offers some helpful guidance about ritual more generally in their Druid Ritual Primer page.  The observations there are well worth reflecting on, if only to clarify your own sensibility and ideas.  To sum up the first part all too quickly: Anyone can worship without clergy.  That said, clergy often are the ones who show up! In a world of time and space, ritual has basic limits, like size and start time.  Ignore them and the ritual fails, at least for you.  Change, even or especially in ritual, is good and healthy. However, “With all this change everyone must still be on the same sheet of music.”  As with so much else, what you get from ritual depends on what you give.  And finally, people can and will make mistakes.  In other words, there’s no “perfect” ritual — or perfect ritualists, either.

(Re)Inventing Ritual Wheels

Let me cite another specific example for illustration, to get at some of these issues in a slightly different way.  In the recent Druidcast 82 interview, host Damh the Bard interviews OBOD’s Chosen Chief, Philip Carr-Gomm, who notes that some OBOD-trained Druids seem compelled to write their own liturgies rather than use OBOD rites and language.  While he notes that “hiving off” from an existing group is natural and healthy, he asks why we shouldn’t retain beautiful language where it already exists.  He also observes that Druidry appeals to many because it coincides with a widespread human tendency in this present period to seek out simplicity.  This quest for simplicity has ritual consequences, one of which is that such Druidry can also help to heal the Pagan and Non-Pagan divide by not excluding the Christian Druid or Buddhist Druid, who can join rituals and rub shoulders with their “hard polytheist” and atheist brothers and sisters.  (Yes, more exclusionary forms of Druidry do exist, as they do in any human endeavor, but thankfully they aren’t the mainstream.)

About this attitude towards what in other posts I’ve termed OGRELD, a belief in “One Genuine Real Live Druidry,” Carr-Gomm notes, “The idea that you can’t mix practices from different sources or traditions comes from an erroneous idea of purity.”  Yes, we should be mindful of cultural appropriation.  Of course, as he continues, “Every path is a mixture already … To quote Ronald Hutton, mention purity and ‘you can hear the sound of jackboots and smell the disinfectant.'”  An obsession with that elusive One Genuine Real Live Whatever often misses present possibilities for some mythical, fundamentalist Other-time Neverland and Perfect Practice Pleasing to The Powers-That-Be.  That said, “there are certain combinations that don’t work.”  But these are better found out in practice than prescribed (or proscribed) up front, out of dogma rather than experience.  In Druidry there’s a “recognition that there is an essence that we share,” which includes a common core of practices and values.

As a result, to give another instance, Carr-Gomm says, “If you take Druidry and Wicca, some people love to combine them and find they fit rather well together,” resulting in practices like Druidcraft.  After all, boxes are for things, not people.  Damh the Bard concurs at that point in the interview, asserting that, “To say you can’t [mix or combine elements] is a fake boundary.”

Yet facing this openness and Universalist tendency in much modern Druidry is the challenge of particularity.  When I practice Druidry, it’s my experience last week, yesterday and tomorrow of the smell of sage smoke, the taste of mead, wine or apple juice, the sounds of drums, song, chant, the feel of wind or sun or rain on my face, the presence of others or Others, Spirit, awen, the god(s) in the rite.  The Druid order ADF, after all, is named Ár nDraíocht Féin — the three initials often rendered in English as “A Druid Fellowship” but literally meaning “Our Own Druidry” in Gaelic.

A Human Undersong

Where to go from here?  Carr-Gomm notes what Henry David Thoreau called an “undersong” inside all of us, underlying experience.  “We sense intuitively that there’s this undersong,” says Carr-Gomm.  “It’s your song, inside you. The Order and the course and the trainings [of groups like OBOD] — it’s all about helping you to find that song.  It’s universal.”  As humans we usually strive to increase such access-points to the universal whenever historical, political and cultural conditions are favorable, as they have been for the last several decades in the West.

Paradoxes of Particularity

Yet the point remains that each of us finds such access in the particulars of our experience.  (Christians call it the “scandal of particularity”; in their case, the difficulty of their doctrine that one being, Jesus, is the  sole saviour for all people — the single manifestation of the divine available to us.**)  And the use of heightened ritual language can be one of those “particulars,” a doorway that can also admittedly exclude, an especially powerful access point, because even ordinary language mediates so much human reality.  We quite literally say who and what we are.  The stroke victim who cannot speak or speaks only with difficulty, the aphasic, the abused and isolated child who never acquires language beyond rudimentary words or gestures, the foreigner who never learns the local tongue — all demonstrate the degree to which the presence or absence of language enfolds us in or excludes us from human community and culture.  And that includes spirituality, where — side by side with art and music — we are at our most human in every sense.

In the second post in this series, I’ll shift modes, moving from the context I’ve begun to outline here, and look at some specific candidates for a DRL — a Druidic Ritual Language.

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Images: Tridentine Mass; OBOD Star and Stone Fellowship rite.

*Go here for a higher-resolution image of the title page of the first King James Bible pictured above.

**In a 2012 post, Patheos blogger Tim Suttle quotes Franciscan friar and Father Richard Rohr at length on the force of particularity in a Christian context.  If Christian imagery and language still work for you at all, you may find his words useful and inspiring.  Wonder is at the heart of it.  Here Rohr talks about Christmas, incarnation and access to the divine in Christian terms, but pointing to an encounter with the holy — the transforming experience behind why people seek out the holy in the first place:

A human woman is the mother of God, and God is the son of a human mother!

Do we have any idea what this sentence means, or what it might imply? Is it really true?  If it is, then we are living in an entirely different universe than we imagine, or even can imagine. If the major division between Creator and creature can be overcome, then all others can be overcome too. To paraphrase Oswald Chambers “this is a truth that dumbly struggles in us for utterance!” It is too much to be true and too good to be true. So we can only resort to metaphors, images, poets, music, and artists of every stripe.

I have long felt that Christmas is a feast which is largely celebrating humanity’s unconscious desire and goal. Its meaning is too much for the rational mind to process, so God graciously puts this Big Truth on a small stage so that we can wrap our mind and heart around it over time. No philosopher would dare to imagine “the materialization of God,” so we are just presented with a very human image of a poor woman and her husband with a newly born child. (I am told that the Madonna is by far the most painted image in Western civilization. It heals all mothers and all children of mothers, if we can only look deeply and softly.)

Pope Benedict, who addressed 250 artists in the Sistine Chapel before Michelangelo’s half-naked and often grotesque images, said quite brilliantly, “An essential function of genuine beauty is that it gives humanity a healthy shock!” And then he went on to quote Simone Weil who said that “Beauty is the experimental proof that incarnation is in fact possible.” Today is our beautiful feast of a possible and even probable Incarnation!

If there is one moment of beauty, then beauty can indeed exist on this earth. If there is one true moment of full Incarnation, then why not Incarnation everywhere? The beauty of this day is enough healthy shock for a lifetime, which leaves us all dumbly struggling for utterance.

Updated (minor editing) 1 April 2014

To a recent visitor re Celtic conlangs   Leave a comment

Brian (?) — You sent me an email to the adruidway AT yahoo DOT com address and Yahoo  Mail promptly ate it before I could read all of it or begin to reply.  Your message was dated around Jan. 25th.  (I only check the account about once a week or so.) You asked about Celtic conlangs as I recall, and I’d be happy to talk with you further and make some suggestions and maybe even collaborate on a Celticonlang! Sorry I didn’t even get your name before the entire email disappeared.  If you read this, please do write again!

Adruidway

Ieth Gelteg — a Celtic Language?   Leave a comment

wflagI’m sitting here in nerd rapture with an interlibrary loan copy of Ranko Matasovic’s Etymological Dictionary of Proto-Celtic.  There — I may just possibly have driven away 99% of my readership with a single sentence.

On the off-chance you’re still with me, let me explain.  In “Talking Old”  I tried to convey my delight in the sounds and shapes of our ancestral language — I say “our” because over half the planet speaks an Indo-European language, itself a pretty remarkable fact.  Proto-Celtic is a daughter of Indo-European and mother of the six modern Celtic tongues:  Manx, Breton, Cornish, Welsh, Irish, and Scottish Gaelic.  So Indo-European is our “grandmother tongue,” or maybe great-grandmother. Beyond the nerd appeal that only Celticists, conlangers and a few other assorted dweebish types can comprehend, Proto-Celtic is a window into Celtic history and culture, a fragment of our human past — and a potential source for a ritual-liturgical-magical language in the Celtic tradition.

nedmandrellThe Celtic languages today are struggling.  Manx has been brought back from the last edges of extinction — with the last native speaker of Manx, Ned Maddrell (image to the right) passing in 1974.   Take a look-listen at this short video of Manx children and a couple of teachers talking in and about the language.  Cornish died out about 200 years ago, but has been revived and has, depending on your source, a few thousand speakers, and along with the other Celtic languages, a cultural fire banked under it to keep it alive.  Scottish Gaelic is threatened but has speakers in the tens of thousands, and Welsh and Irish are also at risk, but have active communities of speakers.  Breton struggles against an official French-only policy, and retreats annually, as older speakers die, and younger people turn to French to get ahead.  If you’re interested, check out these links to some short clips of speech in these languages.*

prceltbrillThe Etymological Dictionary I’m currently drooling over, confirming everyone’s worst impressions and stereotypes of nerds, provides linguistic reconstructions of Proto-Celtic words — something like a museum restoring missing portions of an old painting or piece of furniture.  As the restoration proceeds, the face of one of your ancestors takes shape before your eyes, and you hear a whisper on the wind of a voice speaking a language gone for over a thousand years.  That’s the closest I can come to the sensation of reading and pronouncing slowly to myself the restored words.

But while you shake your head at one more poor fool taken in by cultural seances and linguistic necromancy, I’m wandering mist-covered hills and listening to ghosts reincarnate in dream, as long as I hold the book open.  I make my very own Samhain-on-the-spot, the veil between the worlds thins, and I converse with the dead, with the Otherworld, with the generations stored in my DNA and blood and bone.  Perhaps you could call it racism in the best sense of the word — a celebration of all who have gone before me and who, by living, have delivered me to this moment of my own life, as I write these words.  It doesn’t last, but it also endures forever.

As a linguist and conlanger it wouldn’t be hard for me to reconstruct a couple of different usable versions of  a Celtic language.  One version could be a somewhat simplified Proto-Celtic, another a sister tongue to Welsh, Breton and Cornish, ieth gelteg, a Celtic language.  Would it be “authentic”?  About as authentic as I am, descendant of so many bloodlines that like everyone else on the planet, I’m a mongrel.  Who would want to speak such a mongrel tongue?  That’s not my concern — I’d restore it for some of the same reasons a museum sets about a restoration: for what it can tell us about our past, and about ourselves as preservers of our past, and for its “thingliness,” its solidity and existence in our world.  These are potent magical reasons on their own.

Why not learn a living and threatened Celtic language instead?  Do something more practical!  I can hear the critics and naysayers.  Can’t you best connect with your supposed past through those alive today, speaking a descendant tongue just as you are a descendant person?  Well, I have.  I know a fair bit about the Celtic languages, as I do about some other endangered and dying languages. And I look at them as I look at the branch of my own ancestral line, destined to die out because my wife and I have no children.  Half of all our current languages are destined to die before the end of this century, along with a comparable number of plant and animal species.  Some have seen a reflection of one in the other.  Given how closely tied human rights, tribal survival and environmental degradation are, it’s not a stretch to see human languages and ecosystems as mirrors for each other.  “What we do to the web, we do to ourselves.”

The analogies of blood and speech start to break down, the Samhain door of linguistic reconstruction begins to shudder shut, and I’m back in my diminutive study, holding the hardbound book, more than an inch thick, and shivering a little.  I stand up and step into the living room to stoke the fire in our soapstone woodstove which has subsided to embers during my extended reverie.  And I wonder and remember and plan and dream again.  Celtic twilight is not the same as Celtic dawn, though at any point the light level might look the same.

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Images: Welsh flag; Ned Mandrelldictionary.

*Here are short Youtube clips of Irish (a 2-minute weather report), Welsh (a Welsh teenager talking in both languages), Cornish (a story in English and two varieties of Cornish, with a strong English accent), Irish again (4 minutes, this time showing how Manx and Irish speakers can understand each other), Scottish Gaelic (2:14; also a weather report) and Breton (2:10 — short interviews, subtitled in French, that you might mistake at first for French, so strong is the French influence on Breton pronunciation).

PIE for Breakfast   Leave a comment

This post is self-indulgent, so if you’re not feeling mellow enough to tolerate such things, best move on and come back another time.  OK, you’ve been warned.

Beside me as I write this lies a thick paperback copy of J. P. Mallory’s cumbersomely titled The Oxford Introduction to Proto-Indo-European and the Proto-Indo-European World.  Since it’s a week-end day like today, and nothing presses me to get up and pretend to accomplish anything, I pull it from the nightstand and lie abed thumbing through it.  Yes, I’ll say it first:   “Nerds ‘R’ Us.”

I confess to abject weakness for books like this one about Proto-Indo-European, the reconstructed mother tongue of everyone who speaks one of the approximately 100 languages descended from it — roughly half the planet, three billion people, give or take a few million. I open the book and pause at a list of less well-known extinct language names — Illyrian, Dacian, Thracian, Macedonian, Phrygian — that evoke salad dressings, or obscure vintages, or mysterious bloodlines of characters in an occult novel.  To anyone wired just a little differently, the whole thing must just scream B O R I N G.  Though if you’re such a person, you’ve probably stopped reading this already.

My addiction occasions sighs from my wife, because my corridor of facing bookcases dominates a little-used hallway which has now transformed into a single-file passage to the front door of our house.  Language books fill one whole bookcase.  No, not for the most part languages I speak or know in any worldly useful way, but languages I drink from, for their beauty and architecture and sound (and ideas for my own conlangs*).  I know things about them not even their native speakers know, but I couldn’t speak most of them to save my life.  So this is language as first morning coffee, as comfort food, as fix.  Even the abbreviation PIE, for Proto-Indo-European, is comforting.  Pie.  Whipped cream.  Dessert.  Maybe for breakfast.  Flaky crust and steaming freshly baked fruit.  Ah.

The underlying draw of such things (beyond the sensuous indulgence I confess to above) seems quest-like.  After a long climb I crest a hilltop, the mist clears, and there before me are the ruins, thousands of years old.  Only instead of fallen pillars, abandoned steps, doorways opening on empty air, the ruins are words.  Ancient words, weathered, yet often still bearing a family likeness.  Wiros, gwena, brater, swesor.  Man, woman, brother, sister.  Mus, gwous, deiwos.  Mouse, cow, god.  Sedo, bhero.  I sit, I bear.  Oinos, dwou, treyes, kwetwor, penkwe.  One, two, three, four, five.  The likenesses grow if you know even a little Latin or a Romance language, or one of their cousins in India.

Some of the same fascination with this proto-language stirred in the first linguists who considered the verbal ruins they were painstakingly excavating and reconstructing.  Word by word, through comparisons of living languages and their structures and patterns, the older ancestral language was and is rebuilt.  See where the stones are notched, worn, and smudged with soot, and reassemble the fireplace they once made.  And there’s part of a wheel, an urn, a head-dress.  August Schleicher, who flourished in the first half of the 1800s, “sifted through the reconstructed Indo-European of his day for enough usable words to compose a short narrative tale … published in 1868” (Mallory, 45).  His colleagues caught something of the same fever, kept tweaking Schleicher’s story over the ensuing decades, and here’s a contemporary “version of their version”  of the first sentence that I’ve made somewhat more pronounceable for English speakers by taking a few small liberties.  Linguists will see the changes at once and cluck their tongues at me, and no one else will care:

Gurei owis, kwesyo ulna ne est, ekwons speket, oinom ge gurum wogom wegontem, oinom-kwe megam borom, oinom-kwe gumenem oku berontem.

“A sheep that had no wool saw [some] horses, one pulling a heavy wagon, one a heavy load, and another swiftly bearing a man” (ibid).

Maybe it comes down to this:  through such reconstructions we can come closer to talking with the ancestors — and maybe join them in their drinking songs, rather than expecting them just to sing along with ours.

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*My most developed conlang or constructed language is called Thosk.  (The name is cognate with Old English theod “people,” Oscan teuta “people,”  Latin teutonicus, and German Deutsch.)  Its word-stock and grammar are very Indo-European, and so it’s a sibling of English, Spanish, Latin, Hindi, Armenian, Greek, Pashto, French, Latvian, Swedish, Russian, Bengali, Serbian, Danish, Romanian, Ukrainian, Sanskrit, Farsi, Albanian, Dutch, Gujerati … you get the idea.  Here’s a simple sentence in Thosk:  Men ta tha moi urht bev ahi sumbend no meve klase.  “I give more work to anyone sleeping in my classes.”

Mallory, J. P. and D. Q. Adams.  The Oxford Introduction to Proto-Indo-European and the Proto-Indo-European World.  New York:  Oxford University Press, 2006.

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.

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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 …

Essential   Leave a comment

“We are many sets of eyes staring out at each other from the same living body” — Freeman House, Totem Salmon

We are many sets of eyes, staring out
at each other from the same living body.
We are ears listening to each other
across valleys of skin.
Heat of the other’s blood
warming the air we breathe,
air that filled the other’s lungs
not long before, and will again,
ruffling our hair, rippling this field
of frost-gray grass.

We touch earth that touches each other,
life-print curling at our fingertips and lips,
world (a piece of it) digesting in our bellies,
swept along in blood and spit,
spice of it in our marrow,
essential you in everything
I eat and love and do,
essential me in you.

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So there’s a poem provoked (I say “provoked” rather than “inspired” because that’s the sensation — I encounter a piece of language not my own that becomes the grain around which oyster tries to form a pearl.  It won’t let go until I respond, and try to shape the sensation into something in words.)

Nano update: I’m catching up at 13,527 words and counting, but still a little more behind than I’d like. We’ll see what 2 and 1/2 cups of coffee this morning helps me accomplish. I don’t usually drink it, since I’m hypersensitive to caffeine and it keeps me up most of the night following the day I drink it, but I was cold this morning, and the smell! … well, anyway, I’m caffeinated and writing.

Found an interesting passage in a medieval author yesterday, Walter de Mapis.  (If you’re gonna procrastinate, I say, why not procrastinate tangentially? I researched historical refs to succubi.) So now I know something about rumors surrounding Pope Silvester.  The pontiff flourished around the year 1000, and his legacy includes the story of a certain succubus, who was said to give him advice, and who was reputed to be his lover.  Supposedly he repented on his deathbed.  Traitor.  I’m expecting my succubus main character Alza will have something to say about that.  Who knows — maybe she was there. Maybe she was the succubus …

Just discovered she has a mantra or prayer or verbal talisman she recites frequently.  Maria, one of her worshippers (from her “cult” phase), overheard her this morning talking quietly to herself, and asked about it.  Here are the words Alza said (part of the charm is to speak about oneself in third person):

Alzakh ne utayal gashem muk dafa.
May Alzakh grow in this surrounding fire,
may Fire know her for its own,
may Fire fill her in all she does,
burning away what blocks her,
burning toward what is native to her,
what is or will become or has been Fire,
time the Fire that moves all things into being.

Always fun to get a piece of the original in Harhanu.  You need to know:  among my other odd hobbies is conlanging.  So I hear bits of languages, like I imagine musicians and songwriters hear snatches of songs and musical phrases.  Here are the italicized words phonetically, as I heard them from Alza’s mouth:  ahl-zahkh NEH oo-tah-YAHL gah-SHEM mook dah-FAH.  [Literally, Alza this surrounding fire-in grow-imperative.]

Alza’s name in Harhanu is actually Alzakh, with the kh the raspy sound in loch and Bach — a voiceless velar fricative, to be all linguistic-y and precise about it.  Alza’s name got truncated over the years, to match what people thought they heard, or thought it should be. Much as men around Alza imagine the woman they want, which she can then use to seduce them.  Most men are, frankly, pretty seducible, she learns.  So that part’s easy.

You want Druidry? Find it here, or go bother somebody else. (Now maybe you have some idea why I don’t overdo the caffeine. It makes me all cranky-creative and snarky and stuff.)

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