Archive for the ‘linguistics’ Category

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

[Part Two]

brigidscross

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

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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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DRL — A Druid Ritual Language, Part 3   2 comments

[Part 1 | Part 2]

A Whole Ritual Language

So you still want not just a few phrases but a complete language dedicated to your rituals?! And you’re crazy enough not just to think about this but to actually plan to pull it off!  In spite of all the alternatives I mentioned in the previous post, like simply using a small number of individual words or phrases as ritual triggers, you’re still determined to acquire the complete ritual language package.  You want to be able to compose new rites in this language, not just insert a few fixed phrases here and there in your rituals.  And wrth gwrs (oorth goors) of course, your circle, grove, grotto, temple, fane, gathering or group is with entirely with you — 100%.  Or they will be, once you browbeat or bribe or trick them to try it out, once they’re enchanted and seduced by the undeniable power and majesty and beauty of your fully-equipped ritual tafod (TAH-vohd) tongue.  You know in your heart of hearts that soon enough they’ll be saying diolch (DEE-olkh) “thanks” to you for bringing them into the light (or the luminous darkness).

The First Candidate

Here’s the first ritual language candidate for your consideration, Welsh, along with some of the stronger arguments in its favor:

*It’s one of the six living Celtic languages, so you’ve got the authenticity thing covered.  No one can accuse you of wimping out on that point.

*Hey, you already can say a couple of things in it, like wrth gwrs (oorth goors) “of course” and tafod (TAH-vohd) “tongue” and diolch (DEE-olkh) “thanks.”

*It’s from the “easier” side of the Celtic family: Welsh, along with Cornish and Breton (the P-Celtic branch), are considered easier to learn and speak (for English speakers) than Irish, Scots Gaelic, or Manx (the Q-Celtic branch) for a number of reasons: pronunciation, grammar, and spelling.

*The writing system uses a version of the Roman alphabet.  True, because of the spelling of Welsh words like wrth gwrs and tafod and diolch, some have unkindly called written Welsh “alphabet vomit,” but Welsh offers a much better match between sound and symbol than does, say, English.  Different doesn’t have to mean worse, and it can sometimes even mean better. Think about such oft-cited English examples like the pronunciation of -ough in  through, rough, though, cough, and bough.  You’ll be glad to know there’s extremely little of that in Welsh.

*It has a solid and well-documented literary history — the Mabinogion, that medieval collection of marvelous tales, is one of its chief glories — one which several modern Druid orders have used as a set of Druid teaching texts.  Here for your delectation is the first line (in medieval Welsh) of Branwen, Daughter of Llyr:

Bendigeiduran uab Llyr, a oed urenhin coronawc ar yr ynys hon, ac ardyrchawc o goron Lundein.
“Bendigeidfran son of Llyr was the crowned king of this island, and exalted with the crown of London.”

[Bendigeidfran is pronounced roughly “ben-dee-GUIDE-vrahn”]

*There are numerous helpful learning aids available, including online materials like the Big Welsh Challenge.  That means there’s plenty of assistance for students of the language, in large part because enough Welsh people themselves want to learn Welsh.

*Welsh is arguably doing as good a job at surviving the onslaught of English as any of the other Celtic languages.  In other words, it’s not going away any time soon.

*Welsh makes a distinctive auditory impact on listeners — check out the short video below to hear several Welsh speakers:

Other Options — Proto-Indo-European

Or maybe Welsh still seems too much to tackle.  (Did you catch the last word of the video — diolch [DEE-olkh] “thanks”?) You still want your own language, but something different.  It doesn’t need to be a living language.  In fact, a more private one might even serve better.  You understand that ritual secrecy isn’t meant to exclude anyone but rather to focus and contain energies, like the Cauldron of the Goddess brewing those three drops of inspirational awen.  Yes, there are still other options.

For instance, you could investigate Proto-Indo-European (PIE) — the Big Kahuna itself, the “Grandmother Tongue” of the speakers of all the hundred or so Indo-European languages alive today, spoken by more than 2 billion people.  I’ve mentioned Ceisiwr Serith in a previous blog, whose fine book Deep Ancestors: Practicing the Religion of the Proto-Indo-Europeans offers much material for reflection, adaption and use.  Serith writes and practices from an ADF perspective, emphasizing historical scholarship.  You can also check out his website for more information and challenge.

Dictionaries and grammars of PIE are available online and through sellers like Amazon.  With some hours of initial study and effort, you can begin to create short sentences like this one:  yagnobi ognibi tum wikyo (YAHG-noh-bee OHG-nee-bee toom week-YOH) “I hallow you with sacred fire.”  Using such resources I’ve fashioned  these and other words and phrases for ritual.  While scholars and amateur Indo-Europeanists can and will quibble quite endlessly* about “correct” or well-founded pronunciation and grammar, you’ll be exploring a ritual essence you can incorporate into your rites to enrich and empower them.  Isn’t that the point?

(*It’s significant — and highly relevant for our purposes — that there’s much stronger consensus on PIE vocabulary than on grammar, details of pronunciation, or wider issues of culture, religious practice, original homeland, and so on.  That’s as it should be: we intuitively understand that it’s in the names of things that we reach closest to the heart of any language, especially ritual language.)

The Celtic Conlang

Or you could go the Celtic conlang route, selecting from the pool of shared vocabulary that Welsh, Cornish and Breton (or Irish, Scots Gaelic and Manx) have in common, and build your language piece by piece.  Books like D. B Gregor’s Celtic: A Comparative Study (Oleander Press, 1980) devote several chapters to — you guessed it — detailed comparisons of the six Celtic languages.  If you have some skill with languages (and you do, or you wouldn’t be considering this route, would you?), you can adapt and regularize to your heart’s content.  To give you some idea, with a couple of dictionaries and the running start of sites like Omniglot’s Celtic Connections page, you can devise your own language with as much Celtic flavor as you wish.

Three Existing and Well-developed Celtic Conlangs

There are other conlang options too, like Deiniol Jones’ detailed Arvorec, Andrew Smith’s Brithenig and Alex Middleton’s Kaledonag.  All three of these are sufficiently elaborated that you could create ritual materials in them.  And you’ve got living conlangers that you can consult — or hire — for help.

Commission Your Own Unique Language

If you or your grove have some cash on hand, there’s yet another option, if you want to commission a conlanger to make you a unique never-before-seen-or-spoken ritual conlang.  As I mentioned in the previous post, you can call on the Language Creation Society for help.  Here’s the relevant LCS page for requesting a conlanger to create a language to your specs.  Note the following minimum costs, as of today, 3/26/14: “We require a minimum of $150 for a language sketch, $300 for a full language, and $300 for an orthography.”  (Each term is explained further on the page.)  The commissoning person or group gets to set a wide range of criteria — worth investigating if this option appeals to you.  Self-disclosure:  Yes, I’m a member of the LCS, because they’re the best such group around.  Like the ADF motto says, “Why not excellence?”

(Almost) Last, Best, and Deepest …

It shouldn’t come (almost) last, but here it is.  If you’d like a deeper ritual challenge, ask your spirits, guides or gods for help. I’ve gotten valuable material this way, including large portions of blog posts (see here and here for examples), and I’m certainly far from unique.  Others have also received names, prayers, rituals and other spiritual material from contemplation, trance, and ritual itself.  If the God/desses want you to use a special or dedicated language in your rites, they’ll help.  Just ask.  What is inspiration, after all?!

Another illustration may help.  Several years ago, over the space of about six or seven weeks, an acquaintance of mine named Chris received an entire ritual conlang  — several thousand words, names, grammatical ideas, and — how else to say it? — cultural practices, like gestures, ritual apparel, symbols, etc. — through a series of visions and inner communications.  We talked about his method, his process. He’d record as much as he could recall from a given experience or vision, then ask for guidance in recovering whatever he’d missed or forgotten, trying out names and phrases, for example, to see if they were acceptable in prayers and rituals, if they sounded right to the gods and to his own growing sense of “fit,” based on what he’d been given so far.  For instance, the name Nezu came through, an inner guide he could call on.  Testing the name, modifying it from the initial version he’d received, until it “worked” and felt right, mattered to him, and the name grew in impact because he took the time (hours and hours!) and made the effort.  In short, he sacrificed for what he desired; he hallowed his own efforts through his dedication and attention and love, and the gods hallowed them for him in turn.  Rarely is it just one or the other, after all.

Now Chris was interested in conlangs and had some experience learning, or learning about, several different languages.  He knows some Elvish, Klingon and Na’vi, and he’s studied several different human languages in varying degrees of depth.  Such a background doesn’t hurt, of course.  The gods work with what we give them.  If you’re a musician, you may get inspiration for songs.  If you’re a visual artist, you may get images, and so on. Nurture and encourage the ritual skills and human talents of the people in your group, and you’ll be surprised at what they can achieve.

So you’ve got it down — your ritual books (unless you and your grove are really devoted, and all of you memorize your rites) are meant to make using the language as easy as possible, both for members and any visitors who drop in for your Evocation, Consecration, Tranformation, Prognostication, etc.  Just hold off on the big-screen Powerpoint version until you become a Mega-grove, along the lines of the Protestant Mall-Churches.

A Note on Compiling Ritual Booklets

You know you can get your grove members to pronounce almost anything unusual reasonably well, just like Catholics have been doing with pronunciation guides like the following example from Pray It in Latin (pg. 3) by Louis Pizzuti.  (My apologies if you have bad Church memories.)  If you haven’t been paying attention, I’ve given short examples of this strategy earlier in this blog with wrth gwrs and tafod and diolch.  Now you’ll remember these three, right?  You’ve seen them three times, that magic number of manifestation and long-term memory.

OK, now see how well you manage learning to pronounce some Ecclesiastical Latin:

HAIL MARY

Hail, Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you.  Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus.  Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death.  Amen.

Ave Maria, gratia plena, Dominus tecum,
AH-vay Maria GRAHT-see-ah PLAY-nah DOH-mee-noos TAY-koom
Hail Mary filled with-grace Lord with-you

benedicta tu in mulieribus,
bay-nay-DEEK-tah too een moo-lee-AY-ree-boos
blessed you among women

et benedictus fructus ventris tui, Jesus.
ayt bay-nay-DEEK-toos FROOK-toos VAYN-trees TOO-ee YAY-soos.
and blessed fruit womb yours Jesus

Sancta Maria Mater Dei
SAHNK-tah Maria MAH-tayr DAY-ee
Holy Mary Mother of-God

ora pro nobis peccatoribus
OHR-ah proh NOH-bees payk-ah-TOH-ree-boos
pray for us sinners

nunc et in hora mortis nostrae. Amen
noonk ayt een HOR-ah MOHR-tees NOHS-tray AH-mayn
now and in hour of-death of-ours. Amen.

 

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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

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).

Talking Old   Leave a comment

Sometimes when I grow weary of one particular voice, my own, the one chattering in my head, I “talk old.”  For me that means to use words from Proto-Indo-European, the reconstructed mother tongue of a hundred languages, ranging from Irish in the West to Hindi in the East.  It means to play, to sing, to delight in the most lasting, the most insubstantial, intangible human artifacts we have.

Words like *deiwos “god (divine),” *ogni “fire (ignite),” *udor “water” are mantras for me, songs I sing to myself when no else is listening.  (The * means the word is reconstructed.  For me, the * means “Pay attention!  Talking old is going on!”) Words no one speaks now, unless it’s some historical linguist, a professional muttering over a journal article she’s writing, or an amateur and word-mystic like me who gets lost in the shape and sound of “talking old.”  Here are words our ancestors used, to talk to each other and to name their world.  *kolnos, mountain … and I’m off, among moss and trees floating into view and disappearing again in the mist.  *wlkwos, almost unpronounceable: the wolf, vilkas, ulf, vrka, lupa, lobo, those shapes of gray fur with fierce teeth that flash into view around a fire at night, only to vanish again, and then those unearthly howls echo from the hills and up and down our spines.  We say unearthly — yet the only place we hear them is on earth.  Home that is not home forever.

Individual words come fairly easily.  There are whole dictionaries of Indo-European you can pore over, lists of cognates from a range of languages, the vowels and consonants shifting, the resemblances still striking, like at a family reunion where maybe a generation will skip, and then a nose or line of eyebrow or chin will reappear on a toddler asleep in the lap of her grandmother, and the kinship shows clear again.  Blood will tell.

Sentences are harder, but still possible.  The best we can do now often feels like speaking with a strong accent.  We can get close enough we’d probably be understood here and there, across the six thousand years that separate the present from early Proto-Indo-European times, simple things the best, reaching the furthest across the miles and millennia.  *Twom ognibyo wikyo, “I hallow you with fire,” and instantly I’m present at the rite, the flames dancing in our eyes, the smoke drifting and clearing.  *Nomen bhero, “I carry a name,” I bear it, like a beloved cup that has passed down several generations, the edges softened, a few chips around the rim, the color or design worn in places.

Or maybe it’s been renewed, lovingly reworked so that its energy and substance will last a few more generations, the way we can still trace the meanings of so many names, handed on like heirlooms through a family.  “That was your great-grandfather’s name, that was your aunt’s, you and your cousin both have the same middle name from your grandmother’s family.”  *mater, *bhrater, *swesor, *pater, *sunu, *dhugater: mother, brother, sister, father, son, daughter — across thousands of years the family persists, its names still holding their old shapes and sounds, recognizable across a score of languages, the human links we share.  *oinos, *dwou, *treyes, *kwetwores — one, two, three, four, and I count minutes, the pleasures of being alive, the four directions, the four seasons.

I “talk old” to the point that I’ve created several simplified forms of Indo-European as a constructed language or conlang, and used it to write simple prayers and poems.  I “talk old” whenever English gets diluted by advertisers and politicians and careless speakers who squander its beauty and significance in talk that’s literally cheap, of little value.  Poetry saves language because it always is trying to mean more, sometimes straining a language to its limits.  Though paradoxically (signpost of how many truths!) the best poetry comes effortlessly, as if the universe speaks English, or Urdu, or Swahili, and everyone everywhere could understand the words, if they wanted to, if they just happened to be listening.  Then “talking old” is simply speech, the human voice shaping experience, in love with possibility, the universe surprising us still, once again, always.

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