Posted by: nicanthiel | March 28, 2009

Language

For those who don’t know, I am a linguist. As such, words are, and always have been, important to me. Language is intrinsic to culture, to religion, and to personal and communal identity – just look at all the jokes and discussions about miscommunication, especially in intimate relationships. Words are power, as many magical traditions state – while magic can certainly be effective, and even powerful, without a verbal or written component, words add a level of nuance and focus that few other things can attain.

Even in non-mainstream cultures and subcultures, words are what define our worldviews. As Tolkien says in ‘On Fairy Stories”, one cannot imagine or speak of a “green sun” without first knowing the linguistic concepts of “green” and “sun.”¹ Likewise, social, religious and ethnographic groups have core vocabularies that define their group identity – sumble has as little meaning outside Heathen circles as Senut does outside Kemetic ones, and the intricacies of all the various D&D 3rd Ed. systems would seem like a different language to someone whose only interests lie in business.

This idea of linguistic conceptualisation (that language is both necessary and desirable to form a specific identity or purpose) also applies to ritual, in that most of us are not native to the languages of the spirits and deities we work with. And while, certainly, the Gods can converse with us in our own language, why should we be so hubristic as to demand that They do so without making an effort to return the consideration? Many reconstructionist groups advocate obtaining at least minimal literacy in a relevant tongue (in some ways, the Hellenes and Romans have it easiest, as the one is still a common language, and the other forms the basis of much of Western history and can still be found in higher learning; in the same vein, the Icelanders have the best advantage among Heathens, as their native language is not far removed from that of the Eddas and Sagas).

 There is a problem, however, for those who worship the Vanir, especially in an Anglo-Saxon context, in that Old English is as far removed from Modern English as Modern English is from any other Western European language; for all intents and purposes, undertaking a mastery of Old English is no different than taking Italian or German in college. Yet, if we learn languages to further our education and opportunities in life, why not do the same for the Gods we profess to love and honor? Would you force your beloved Italian/Polish/whatever grandmother to learn English just so you could talk to her more easily? I think rather that you would attempt to “meet in the middle,” and learn or relearn her tongue while teaching her yours. Likewise, we should honor our Gods practically by learning Their language; after all, They’ve already done the work of learning ours.

Wæs ȝe hál.

———-
¹ Tolkien, J.R.R. “On Fairy Stories.” In The Tolkien Reader. New York: Del Rey, 1986.

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Responses

  1. Are you a cunning linguist? (Sorry, I can’t help it… but then you saw that coming… er… being Vanic and all…)

    I’ve been working on the Old English language for the past 2 years and while I have achieved a level of basic fluency, I still struggle with the pronunciation (there are 4 different sounds just for the letter g, as one example) and there’s a difference between being able to speak a language fluently enough to have a conversation, and being able to write poetry and songs that don’t suck in said language. Of course, I’ve found from past experience that you can say anything in Anglo-Saxon and it sounds official, to the point where I have sung an Old English version of “My Humps” and if people don’t know what it is, they’re like “Oooo….”

    But what you said about things getting lost in translation. This is generally why I am against eclecticism (with occasional exceptions) and think the default position should be learning about the culture of the Gods you worship, as opposed to being 100% reliant on UPG. Just the fact that most Heathens are confused about what the terms “Blot” and “Alfar” mean is a sign we have really gotten far, far, far away from an understanding of languages and their impact on the culture.

    As an analog, when you were more involved with CR, you learned Gaelic. Your average “Celtic Wiccan” generally doesn’t do that, and doesn’t see why it would be offensive to speak “Sassenach” to the Celtic Gods.

    In ASH, the ability to conduct at least part of the ritual in Anglo-Saxon is mandated. It’s not that we want to pretend history didn’t happen and civilization didn’t advance, but not only is the language aesthetically pleasing, it’s a show of respect to the ones who went before, the culture which the Gods took part of.

    Ic þankie þe fore þin geornfulnes tó leornian Englisc. Þu sóþlice náht sýcan. 😉

  2. (there are 4 different sounds just for the letter g, as one example)

    Oh, gods, I know. I still can’t successfully do non-initial g ([ɣ]); it always turns into a trill.

  3. Hello, I found my way here from Svartesol’s blog and I’m quite enjoying your ramblings thus far.

    Just as a side note, while the Roman reconstructionists do have it pretty easy since Latin is so pervasive, the Hellenes really don’t–at least from my perspective. Ancient Greek is as far away from modern as OE is from ME–they share the same alphabet, but that’s about it. MG is greatly simplified from koiné (New Testament Greek) which itself was further simplified from Attic Greek, which is a whole ‘nother critter from Homeric Greek.

    After have studied both AG and OE, I’d say that OE is simpler by far! (Of course, it could just be my prejudice against being tortured by 8am “baby” Greek for 2 semesters in college, too…)

    • Oh, no. I know that Greek is in the same quandary as English. There’s just generally more resources from a linguistic standpoint for Koine and Attic Greek than there are for Middle and Old English, so in that way, they have somewhat of an advantage.

      But I’m sure anything would be easier than AG at “OMGWhyamIawake?!” a.m. 😉

    • Also, welcome. 🙂 I’m glad you like it.

    • MUAHAHAHAHA welcome to the dark side ^^

      Nic is a good personal friend of mine (we have met in meatspace) and I can vouch for his Vanic-ness. Vanicosity? Er.

      And I love the smell of linguistics in the morning… I have very few dreams anymore that aren’t partially in Anglo-Saxon >.<

      -Siggy


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