Archive for the ‘Druid ritual language’ Category

Creativity’s Messy–1: The Druid’s Prayer   2 comments

In previous posts [A Celtic Conlang |Invoke for a Tongue 12 | Druid Ritual Language 123 ] I’ve written about the inspiration and the rudiments of creating a ritual Celtic language. And one of the first obvious places to try it out is with the Druid’s Prayer.

(As a small offering, this is in partial repayment of a sacred vow to Brighid and Ogma, mentioned in “Invoke for a Tongue” above.)


June trail on Mount Ascutney to the north

The prayer’s widely known, though it hasn’t yet fulfilled the preamble it’s often given in OBOD ritual — “Let us join in the prayer that unites all Druids”. Yet the energy released just by saying those words (preamble, or prayer, or both), even if they’re not “true”, deserves a separate meditation all its own: “the truth against the world”. (In Welsh, that’s y gwir yn erbyn y byd. And it sounds good in both languages. But what is it?)

You can find a few other forms of the prayer at this link, but here’s the OBOD version I hear most often in the States, so I’ll work with it, because it’s familiar.

Grant, O Spirit, Thy protection;
And in protection, strength;
And in strength, understanding;
And in understanding, knowledge;
And in knowledge, the knowledge of justice;
And in the knowledge of justice, the love of it;
And in that love, the love of all existences;
And in the love of all existences,
the love of spirit and all goodness.

In OBOD group ritual, “Spirit” works for most of us as an acceptable choice in the first line, among other versions of the prayer that offer “God, Goddess”, etc. — one of which we may prefer for private rites. (I tend to sing the awen much more often than I offer any sort of prayer, but that’s my animism talking. As verbal as I often am, a non-verbal approach short-circuits a lot of my mental crap and attunes me more quickly than most “talky” methods can.)

With some basic knowledge of Celtic languages*, I can set myself the challenge of respecting the sensibility and intent of this prayer as I “other” it into a fledgling ritual Celtic language. For a start, I’ve got an approximate dozen words to work on, most of them nouns: all, existence, goodness, grant, justice, knowledge, love, protection, spirit, strength, the, understanding, and your (thy). And that’s not even counting the title of the prayer, which in Welsh is Gweddi’r Derwydd “Druid’s Prayer” or Gweddi’r Orsedd “Gorseth Prayer”.

One of the great gifts of this kind of David-Peterson Game-of-Thrones constructed-languages special-interest “nerdiness-on-steroids” activity is that it compels one to look very closely at the words we say year in and year out. Great gobs of assumptions, some inherited — no surprise — from Christianity, pervade the Druid’s Prayer: does Spirit grant anything in response to this prayer, and if so, under what conditions? What does “protection” mean, concretely? What kind of “strength” are we asking for? How are “knowledge” and “understanding” different? (They’re tricky to translate!) “Justice” means different things to different people — is it the same thing we mean by “equality”? Or something else? How many of us actually do “love justice” in any useful sense, if we look at the world right now as any sort of evidence? And “existences”? Is that the same thing as “anything that exists”? Then why not just say “all things”? And so on.

Now that I’ve irritated at least some of my readers in the process of unraveling this prayer, and emptied it of almost any meaning until I can answer even some of these questions for myself, let’s move on to unmaking it in another mode — everyone’s favorite torture from secondary school: grammar!


Because we’ve got a few Celtic grammatical processes to work out, too, for our language: (1) the imperative of grant, which is simply a more formal word for give; (2) the vocative or “direct address” form for spirit, rendered above as “O Spirit”, which can mutate the following noun (one of my students was named Megan; she hated that in Irish her name became, more or less, a Wegan “O Megan”); (3) any grammatical changes that happen to nouns following a possessive pronoun, here thy, or your; and (4) any changes that happen to nouns in phrases like “in protection”, or after other nouns, like “knowledge of justice”. (For those of you in the know, these are the famed Celtic mutations that bedevil the learner.)

But for the purposes of the draft below, I’m ignoring all four of these. Time for tweaking later.

Pesad an Derwidhe

Ri, a’h Isprid, do iscod;
ha’n iscod, nerth;
ha’n nerth, doithus,
ha’n doithus, gothved,
ha’n gothved, gothved cowireth,
ha’n gothved cowireth, i cared,
ha o’i cared, cared pob an bode,
ha’n cared pob an bode, cared Isprid
ha pob an mat.

This works out, more-or-less literally, to the following: Prayer of the Druids. Give, o Spirit, your shielding, and in shielding, strength; and in strength, wisdom; and in wisdom, knowledge; and in knowledge, knowledge of fairness; and in knowledge of fairness, its love, and out of its love, love of all worlds/existences, and in love of all of worlds/existences, love of Spirit, and of all goodness.

I know you have a range of reactions to this: (1) Cool! (2) Uh, what? (3) Why go to the trouble of making and teaching yourself a fake Celtic language when six real ones already exist? (4) Does Spirit care what language we use? (5) You’ve changed some of the meanings in the prayer. (6) Get a life! (7) I love this! And so on.

(1) Ah, you too suffer from the same pleasant affliction I do regarding language — this stuff is awesome, our most amazing creation ever!

(2) The tryptophan still hasn’t worn off yet. This is just a dream. You’ll wake up in a few more hours and everything will be fine. Stay away from any more turkey, though.

(3) Only six? There are several other Celtic conlangs out there. The more the better, I say. And if you want to make one, you need to know something about “real” Celtic languages. Besides, if I can speak it, and you could if you wanted, and we could pray in it, and find meaning and comfort using it, what exactly makes it fake?

(4) Yes and no. Unverified Personal Gnosis says it can swing both ways. Spirit doesn’t care, and spirits may care deeply.

(5) Meanings change every time we mean them. Take a look at the different versions of the prayer. I’m still reflecting on “God, impart Thy strength; And in strength, power to suffer; And to suffer for the truth …”

(6) I’ve had several so far, and will probably have several more.

(7) You sound like you’re a happy person in general.

I’m copying this prayer into my day-book, so that I’ll have it on hand at my bedside, and I can think and dream with it, trying it out. Already it feels more usable to me than either the English or Welsh version. And if I use it and gain benefit from it — if it sparks further development of this language for prayer and ritual — that’s a definite good, to my thinking.

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*some basic knowledge of Celtic languages: If you have a gift for languages, you can pick up a linguistic knowledge of one in a handful of hours — a sense of what the basic word order is, where the complexities lie, points of potential common ground with any other language you may know, and so on. It’s like visiting a city in a foreign country with a good map and helpful suggestions from natives: an afternoon can give you a general sense of how the main streets lie, what some of the prime tourist spots are, where to eat, how to “sample” the city without pretending to the intimate knowledge only a native or long-time resident can acquire fully.

Third Time’s the Charm   Leave a comment

What follows below is just my end of an interesting exchange in a Facebook Druidry group in response to a post of this article of a little over a year ago from the Irish Times: “A Magical Vision is Hidden in the Irish Language — We Need to Rediscover It”.

While I have only a nodding acquaintance with Irish (my chief interest is in the Welsh and the Cornish of some of my ancestors), the Romantic in me says Yes! Anything to re-enchant the cosmos! Some languages ARE inherently more evocative than others, whether from their histories, their associations, or other causes.

If, in an alternate world, Irish were the language of the oppressors, that might not be so; we then might turn to English and marvel at its treasure-trove of words like glitter, gleam, twilight, sparkle, gloaming, sussuration, foresight, insight, hindsight, learn by heart, lore, soothe, cleanse, bask, glean. Or its poetic names for things: bone-house for skeleton, day’s eye for the daisy; heart’s ease, love-lies-bleeding, baby’s breath; coltsfoot, lady’s mantle … Or its names for a host of non-physical creatures: basilisk, ghoul, ghost, unicorn, wyvern, griffin, manticore, fae, undine, sylph, brownie, werewolf


Bridge near a community stone circle in Northern Vermont

Meanwhile, however, the linguist in me (two Master’s degrees — don’t ask!) notes that languages struggling to keep a foothold in people’s lives tend to receive this ‘hidden wisdom, magical vision, etc.’ treatment in the press. The same is true for the traditions and languages of Native peoples here in the States: in a reversal of centuries of discrimination, the vision of the Other is now superior to what the dominant culture/language/people know or understand. (Older languages in general seem to preserve evidence of more subtle ways of looking at the cosmos that we have tended to discount and cast off in our mad rush into modernity. Old English itself offers marvelous linguistic resources for a Pagan way of viewing the world, to give just one example.)

My third reaction — because the resolution of opposites through a missing third element is always good Druid (magical) practice — says that these two perspectives can be combined to our benefit. Learn the language – in this case, Irish — and then I will be more qualified to determine for myself if such claims (and counter-claims) are true.

Meanwhile, I can enjoy them anyway and let them set me challenges I can choose, if I wish or am shown by the gods, to accept.

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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 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.

O Bríd and Oghma, I Invoke You for a Tongue   Leave a comment

[Part Two]


Brigid’s Cross: Crosóg Bhríde

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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The six living insular Celtic languages — Welsh, Breton, Cornish*, Manx*, Irish and Gaelic — have survived (*or been revived) against often harsh and long odds. I won’t go into the historical challenges that the Celtic tongues share with most minority languages. And I’m not even considering any of the extinct continental Celtic tongues like Gaulish, Galatian or Lepontic.

OgmapxSuffice it to say that not one of the six living Celtic tongues is secure enough that its advocates can relax into anything resembling the ease of speakers of a world language like English. So why not learn one of these endangered languages (or revive Galatian)? After all, with such knowledge comes the ability to experience a living Celtic culture from the inside, as well as gain access in the original languages to texts that nourish Druid practice and thought. One more speaker is one more voice against linguistic and cultural extinction. In the title and first section above I invoke Brighid/Bríd and Ogma/Oghma, to give the ancient and modern Irish forms of their names. With the experiences of many contemporary and ancient polytheists in mind, I can say with some confidence that the gods honor those who go to the trouble to learn the old languages and speak to them using even a little of the ancestral tongues.

Or if not one of the living Celtic tongues, then how about one of the Celtic conlangs that already exist? Arvorec, Kaledonag, Galathach and others wait in the wings, in varying states of development. They could provide a ready foundation to build on — a foundation already laid.

Why not use one of them? In part out of respect for their makers, who may not want their creations associated with Druidry. Arvorec, to focus on just one for a moment, is already part of the conlang community of Ill Bethisad, and has its own con-culture (and even con-religion — An Graveth, a cousin to Druidry). In part — a significant part for me — as a Bardic offering to the gods invoked here: gods esteem the taste of human sweat. Salt flavors the sacrifice. And for the very human reason that when we invest time and energy in something, we often value it more, and can draw on dedication, creative momentum, pride, inspiration, desire and love to see it through. If a Celtic language is not my mother tongue, then let it be a foster-mother. Let this tongue be one I have helped craft from the shapes and sounds and world we receive as a heritage.

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Like the Romance, Slavic, Germanic and Indo-Iranian language families, the members of the Celtic family show considerable similarities among themselves in vocabulary, grammar, and so on.  Centuries of work on the greater Indo-European family have already been done, insights and advances continue, and many resources exist for the Celtic conlanger and Bard-linguist to draw on. Proto-Celtic, the mother tongue of the Celtic languages, is also being reconstructed.

celtic_familyOne early question to answer in birthing a Celtic conlang is Q or P. No, that’s not some password you have to know in order to gain admission to the Secret Circle of All Druidry (SCOAD), or a riddle posed by the Planetary High Holy Archdruid. P- and Q-Celtic are shorthand for a linguistic division that usefully divides the six living Celtic tongues into two groups of three, based on their treatment of the Indo-European *kw- in words like *kwetwores “four,” Proto Celtic *kwetwar-, with Irish ceathair, Gaelic ceithir, Manx kaire for the Q-side, and Breton pevar, Cornish pesvar and Welsh pedwar for the P-side. Of course, being next-door neighbors as well as cousins, the six languages also borrowed from each other through their centuries together, which delightfully muddies the waters of linguistic post-gnostication (“knowing after the fact,” like pro-gnostication, only not). Flip a coin, go with your gut, follow your own esthetic, pray, do a divination, or some idiosyncratic combo all your own.

I’m going with P.

What else do we know about the Celtic Six as an initial orientation for a language maker? Quite a lot, actually. Here’s just a small sample: all six have a definite article (English “the”), but only one has an indefinite article (English “a, an”). Most have Verb-Subject-Object (VSO “Ate I breakfast”) as a common if not the dominant word order (English is SVO). All count with an old vigesimal system by twenties, as in French, where “eighty” is quatre-vingt “four twenties,” “ninety” is quatre-vingt dix “four twenties (and) ten,” and so on.

And the consonant mutations: no mutations and — sorry! — it’s just not Celtic! Sorta like a sundae without whipped cream, or a kielbasa slathered in coleslaw and mustard without the bun. In brief, depending on the preceding word, the initial consonant of a Celtic word changes in predictable ways. Here’s an example from Welsh:

Ei means “his.”  It causes lenition of the consonant of a following word.  Cath means “cat,” but when lenited after ei, the form is ei gath “his cat.

Ei also means “her” (and provides an example of how mutations can help distinguish words): ei “her” aspirates the consonant of a following word. Ei chath means “her cat.”

Eu means “their”: it doesn’t cause a mutation: eu cath is “their cat.”

It gets tricky because while the insular Celtic languages do all have mutations, their mutations behave differently from language to language. Here is Welsh again, now contrasted with Irish:

Welsh | Irish | English gloss

cath | cath | “cat”

ei gath | a chath | “his cat”

ei chath |  a cath | “her cat”

eu cath | a gcath | “their cat” (Incidentally, not a typo: Irish gc- — like bp- and dt- — is pronounced g but also shows it is derived from an original c. Cool. Or ridiculous. Depending.)

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May we remember you and your gifts, Bríd and Oghma: apt words, the praise of good things, and wisdom dark and bright.

To Brighid
(author unknown)

Brighid of the mantles, Brighid of the hearth fire,
Brighid of the twining hair, Brighid of the auguries,
Brighid of the fair face, Brighid of the calmness,
Brighid of the strong hands, Brighid of the kine.

Brighid, friend of women, Brighid, fire of magic,
Brighid, foster mother, Brighid, woman of wisdom,
Brighid, daughter of Danu, Brighid, the triple flame.
Each day and each night I call the descent of Brighid.

That the power of healing be within us,
That the power of poetry be within us,
That the power of shaping be within us,
In earth, and sky, and among all kindreds.

Kindle your flame in our heads, hearts and loins,
Make us your cup, your harp, your forge,
That we may heal, inspire and transform,
All in your honor, Brighid, font of blessing.

Brighid above us,
Brighid below us,
Brighid in the very air about us,
Brighid in our truest heart!

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Images: Brigid’s CrossOgma.

Edited/updated 15 April 2015

Learning from the Ancestors, Part 1   Leave a comment

mallorybkI’ve mentioned my obsession with Indo-European (IE) in previous posts, and given samples of a conlang I derived from IE and use in ritual. One of the many fascinations of this reconstructed language that’s the ancestral tongue of 3 billion people — half the people on the planet alive today — is the glimpses into the culture we can reconstruct along with the language. (Here’s a visual of the IE “family” and many of its members.) How, you thoughtfully ask, can we really know anything about a culture dating from some 6000 years ago – the very approximate time period when the speakers of the IE proto-language flourished? A good question — I’m glad you asked! – and one hotly contested by some with agendas to push – usually a nationalist or religious agenda intent on serving a worldview that excludes some group, worldview or idea. Hey kids, let’s define our club du jour by those we don’t let in!

But the most reasonable and also plausible answer to the question of IE language and culture is also simpler and less theatrical. Indo-European is the best and most thoroughly reconstructed proto-language on the planet — and it’s true there’s much still to learn. But after over two hundred years of steady increases in knowledge about human origins and of thoroughly debated and patient linguistic reconstruction, the techniques have been endlessly proven to work. And if a series of words that converge on a cultural point or practice can be reconstructed for IE, then the cultural practice or form itself is also pretty likely. Notice I don’t say merely a single word. Yes, to give a modest example, IE has the reconstructed word *snoighwos “snow” (the * indicates a reconstruction from surviving descendants — see footnote 1 below for a sample) – and that possibly suggests a region for an IE “homeland” that is temperate enough to get snow.  After all, why have a word for a thing that’s not part of your world in any way? But wait — there’s more!

Here’s an uncontested (note 2) series of reconstructions – *pater, *mater, *sunu, *dukter, *bhrater and *swesor – all pointing to an immediate family unit roughly similar to our “nuclear family,” with father, mother, son, daughter, brother and sister all in place. It’s fairly safe on the basis of this cluster of reconstructed words – and others, if you still doubt, can be provided in painfully elaborate detail – that with a high degree of probability, an IE family existed all those millennia ago that would also be recognizable in modern times and terms.

[Side note: almost every reconstructed IE word listed in this post has a descendant alive in modern English. Want proof? Post a comment and I’ll be happy to provide a list!]

stan carey - Indo-European Jones meme - nothing shocks me - I'm a linguistThings understandably get touchier and more contentious when we move on to words and ideas like *deiwos “god”; *nmrtya “immortality”; *dapnos “potlatch, ritual gift-exchange”; *dyeu + *pater “chief of the gods” (and Latin Jupiter); *sepelyo– “perform the burial rites for a corpse”; and a few whole phrases like *wekwom tekson, literally “weaver of words, poet” and *pa- wiro-peku, part of a prayer meaning something like “protect people and cattle.”

What else can we conclude with considerable confidence about the IE peoples? Many lived in small economic-political units governed by a *reg– “king, chieftain” and lived in *dom– “houses.” Women *guna, *esor left their families at marriage and moved to live with their husbands *potis, *ner, *snubhos. A good name *nomen mattered then just as it does today – even with social media both exalting and trashing names with sometimes dizzying speed – though small-town gossip always filled and fills that role quite well, too. Heroes dominated the tales people told round household and ceremonial fires *pur, *ogni in the village *woikos, *koimos at night *nokwti. The most powerful and famous *klewes– heroes succeeded in slaying the serpent or monster of chaos: *oghwim eghwent “he slew the serpent” and thereby earned *klewos ndhghwitom “undying fame” (note 3). Special rites called for an *asa altar and offerings *spond-, because the universe was a place of an ongoing re-balancing of forces where the cosmic harmony *rti, *rta needed human effort to continue.

With Thanksgiving in the wings, it’s a good time for reflection (is it ever not?). Ways of being human have not changed as much as we might think or fear or be led to believe. Family, relationships, good food and drink, a home, meaningful work, self-respect – these still form the core of the good life that remains our ideal, though its surface forms and fashions will continue to shift, ebb and flow. Hand round the *potlom cup and the *dholis, the portion each person shares with others, so that all may live, and we can still do as our ancestors did: give thanks *gwrat– and praise for the gift *donom of life *gwita.

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1. Linguistic reconstruction involves comparing forms in existing and recorded languages to see whether they’re related.  When you gather words that have a strong family resemblance and also share similar or related meanings, they help with reconstructing the ancestral word that stands behind them, like an old oil portrait of great-great-great grandma in the hallway. Some descendant or other probably still walks around with her characteristic nose or brow or eyes, even if other details have shifted with time, marriage — or cosmetic surgery.

For *snoighwos, a sample of the evidence includes English snow, Russian snegu, Latin nix, niv-, Sanskrit sneha-, and so on.  The more numerous the survivals in daughter languages, the more confident the reconstruction usually is. After a while you see that fairly consistent patterns of vowels and consonants begin to repeat from word to word and language to language, and help predict the form a new reconstruction could take.

A handful of reconstructed words have descendants in all twelve (depending on who does the counting) of the main IE family groups like Italic (Latin, Oscan, Umbrian, all the Romance languages, and others), Celtic (Irish, Welsh, Breton, Manx, etc.), Germanic (German, English, Dutch, Icelandic, Norwegian, Frisian, Swedish, Gothic, etc.), Baltic (Latvian, Lithuanian, Prussian), Slavic (Russian, Serbian, Polish, Czech, Ukrainian, Slovene, Polabian, Old Church Slavonic, etc.), Greek (Doric, Macedonian, Attic, etc.), Tocharian (A and B), and Indo-Iranian (Sanskrit, Pali, Avestan, Bengali, Hindi, Urdu, Sindhi, Kashmiri, Dari, Pashto, Farsi, Baluchi, Gujerati, etc.) and so on, to name roughly half of the families, but nowhere near all the members, which number well over 100, not counting dialects and other variants.

2. “Uncontested” means that words with approximately these forms and meanings are agreed on by the overwhelming majority of scholars. If you dip into Indo-European linguistics journals and textbooks, you’ll often see algebraic-looking reconstructions that include details I exclude here — ones having to do with showing laryngeals, stress, vowel length and quality, etc. indicated by diacritics, superscripts and subscripts.

3. Even without the details mentioned in note 2 above, some reconstructions can still look formidably unpronounceable: I challenge any linguist to give three consecutive oral renderings of the second element in the reconstructed phrase *klewos ndhghwitom! The point to remember is that these are usually cautious reconstructions. They generally “show what we know.” Vowels tend to be much more slippery and fickle than consonants in most languages, and so they’re also less often completely clear for IE than the consonantal skeleton is. Several people, me among them, have worked on versions of “Indo-European for daily use”!

Images: Mallory; Indiana Jones the linguist.

Corrected 18 Dec. 2014

Steve Hansen and Galathach   2 comments

Steve, thanks for visiting and for your comment.  I’d actually visited the site of your worthy Celtic conlang, Galathach, prior to writing my posts on “A Druid Ritual Language.”  I would have included Galathach as well, but then along with other deserving candidates I might have mentioned, the post would have gone MUCH longer.

I know you’ve taken some flack by critics regarding the “authenticity” of your reconstruction and revival.  From my perspective, the proof is in the passion: you’ve actually done the work and you have a well-elaborated language to show for it, while they quibble over details and apply criteria that I suspect never interested you in the first place!   After all, you’re very clear and transparent about your process at the outset.  As you note explicitly in your introduction,

Drawing on the existent available material, and making use of the surviving Brittonic languages, as well as the Gaelic languages, for support and comparative studies of such things as vocabulary, semantics and grammatic structure, a modernised version of the Gaulish language is here presented. Departing from the state in which Gaulish was last attested, that is Late Gaulish, the language of circa the fifth century CE, a series of sound changes, phonetic evolutionary processes and grammatic innovations are postulated. As such, a hypothetical evolution of the language is constructed, the proposed outcome of which is a practically useable modern Celtic language, to be situated in the framework of the modern Celtic languages.

While the process of reconstructing or reassembling a language is challenging, it has been done as conscientiously as possible, starting from the original material and attempting to stay as faithful as possible to it, while applying a set of changes which could have been reasonably expected to have happened to the language had it not ceased to be spoken. These changes are based on evolutionary processes which can be observed in the available authentic material, as well as on related processes which have occurred in the related surviving languages. As much as possible, justification for changes and adaptation is provided by drawing from the original material. Creative imagination, or, to put it differently, making up random stuff , has been kept to a minimum. These various changes, adaptations and processes will be discussed in detail in the various sections dealing with them in the body of this document.

The notable point is that Galathach now exists, when it didn’t before, and as you say, it has a full grammar and a (soon to be) dictionary.  Nicely done!!  Already that puts it in the top 5 or 10% of conlangs, hordes of which rarely get beyond a short wordlist, if that, or a provisional sketch of grammar.  (Incidentally, there’s nothing wrong with that; most conlangers have many sketches and usually — unless you’re David Peterson of Dothraki/Game of Thrones fame — only one or two conlangs elaborated to any degree.) Your reconstruction/modernization of Galathach hAtheviu, “Revived Gaulish,” is documented, reasoned, consistent, and reflective of a devotion to things both Celtic and “conlang-y.”

So I’m happy to commend it and refer others to it (repeating that it IS a conlang rather than one of the six living Celtic tongues, just so everyone is clear).  That said, it certainly is Celtic in blood and bone!  And if a grove or an individual uses it for ritual, it becomes a living language by choice and art, equal to any other.  As conlangers like to say, Fiat Lingua!  Let there be (more) such languages! Humans made languages, so it’s a quibble of a peculiar kind to call one language “natural” and another “artificial.” (Conlanging has always seemed to me a particularly Druidic activity, but then I’m clearly doubly biased myself as both conlanger and Druid.)  May Galathach thrive!

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Kuklunomes — Let’s Form the Circle: Part 1   Leave a comment


[Part 2 here]

Kuklunomes.  Karla, our ritual leader, half-sings, half-speaks the word in Priyosta Grove’s dedicated language.  Let’s form the circle.

Swonago!  says Russ, as he strikes a singing bowl forcefully.  The sound ripples through the clearing.  We’ve been experimenting with opening gestures and words.  These seem to work for us now.  I can feel without looking that the others are listening, as I am, as the sound fades.

Already the five of us who’ve gathered have been falling out of speech and into a ritual hush.  April wind blows chill through our grove, though the sun in a cloudless sky feels blessedly warm on our faces.  I open my eyes. Dry brown grass whispers around us and underfoot, but the rains have greened things as well.  Almost everyone still wears long sleeves, though a few dare to bare a little more.  Russ strikes the bowl a second time, and cries Swonago! just as Angie and Dan enter the grove.  They’re somewhat flushed, and release hands as they separate to walk to opposite sides of the circle.  Our resident young couple has plainly been making out.  Karla smiles at Angie, who’s tousled and a little breathless.

For the invocation, Karla passes to Michelle the staff she’s handcarved.  For each gathering she decorates it anew.  This time, on one end of the staff, three bird feathers, and a neat braid of colored ribbons cut from scraps from the Beltane rite last year.  Michelle raises it toward Karla in acknowledgement, than lifts it high over our heads.  The words to come are hers. We each bring a piece of this rite, having rehearsed it through a flurry of emails and briefly in a conference call a week ago, fighting static over a bad connection.  All becomes part of Grove tradition, stories to retell, to share with newcomers when the time is right, to remind us who we are.

Gods, spirits, ancestors of blood and the heart’s bond, Michelle chants in a minor-key singsong, we call you to sift our intent, to join our rite, and to bless what we share here and always. 

The words ripple up and down my spine. I glance around the circle again, wanting to take it all in.  Dan and Angie’s eyes are closed.  Both their heads tilt slightly as they listen.  To the casual observer, we’re just as casual: no robes or massive Pagan bling.  Look closer and you might see a few discrete pentagrams, a few modest-sized pendants and earrings.  One bearded fellow we know only as Dragon wears jeans and an embroidered white dress-shirt, a fluid Celtic pattern worked in red.  Michelle has brought water in our lovely aquamarine offering bowl that she found some years ago at a household auction and gifted to Priyosta Grove.  Friendship, it translates, or Amity.  An ongoing goal for us, an intention.  Michelle passed the bowl to Dragon when Karla handed her the staff.  Some of the rite we’re improvising now, relaxed at what’s scripted and what arrives free-form.

Dragon steps forward to bless the circle with water.  He’s at ease, smiling slightly, as he sprinkles each of us in turn.

Western gods and spirits, lakes and rivers, blood in our veins, oceans circling, he chants slowly, turning to each of us, we call you here,  now. 

Dragon’s name, I’m beginning to sense, fits him well after all.  I remember how I rolled my eyes a little when I first heard him introduce himself, then scolded myself as a Pagan snob.

Now, briefly, I flash onto a serpentine form, awash in a frothy sea — a water dragon.  Its arcing wings shoot a cascade of cool, refreshing water over us.  I shudder involuntarily in surprise at the vividness of what I experience.  A confirmation, something to tell him after, if it feels right.

I look around again at the others.  All of us are in fact wearing ritual garb.  The point is comfort and ritual dedication.  We’ve changed into these clothes, but they’re modern, like our ritual.  Priyosta has never come close to discussing anything like a “ritual dress code,” let alone tried to make one a formal policy — nobody has the balls, nor could they get it to stick anyway — but over our eight years of existence, we’ve established our own unwritten sensibility.  One piece of jewelry you’ve dedicated and worn to many rites over time is almost always better than thirty pounds of robes and bling from “Auntie Gaia’s Mystyk Cauldron and Proud Pagan Emporium.”  In big circles and at major festival gatherings, some of us might dress up more.  For this and for our other local rituals, we dress “in” — that one piece of clothing or jewelry that helps remind us as we breathe the smoking sage, feel the water of the blessing, that solvas son yagnei — all things are holy.

We continue inviting the Quarters, and settle in to the Rite.  We tell what feels appropriate, and pass over the rest, belonging to the Grove alone.

It’s not a major festival that’s brought us together this time.  Priyosta doesn’t always manage to meet for every one of the “Eight Greats.”  You follow the Wheel as you can.  But it’s time for our own thanksgiving.  The papers are signed and filed, the last check cleared our now very small grove bank account, the land title arrived on Monday.  This little hilltop with its stand of birches is now officially “ours” to care for.  A former hunter’s camp, much of it had been badly trashed, but we got it for back taxes and not a whole lot more.  A trust, for our grove to hold and heal, and when the time comes, to pass on.  We keep its location private, to preserve it from further heedless indifference.

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Image: birch grove.

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