I was posting recently to a forum on Celtic paganism on Facebook and the topic of Celtic Reconstructionism not only came up but became a kind of crux. I have always been very sympathetic to CR (as it is often called in such situations), but the issue of language has alternately perplexed and bothered me. Just the name itself is an Anglicisation of a Latinate term, and while many of its adherents are very sympathetic to the language almost none make fluency a priority. Not really. One individual summed up what I think is the most common viewpoint on the matter:
You can learn modern conversational Welsh or Old Irish, or whatever- but you are going to be a hell of a long time learning it, trust me. And when you are done (which you never will be) you may feel very erudite, and you may be in a position to impress others, and read some old transcriptions. If you do undertake this, I hope it does you some good. I personally question whether it will, unless you also come to understand Celtic culture. And guess what? It’s still alive — even among many who have lost their original language for whatever reason.
Now it doesn’t take someone on Facebook to tell me that learning a Celtic language takes a long time. I’ve devoted my life to it, but that’s not really the point. Even more disturbing to me, is the suggestion that one should learn a language so as to impress people, but neither do I really think that this needs (or even deserves) comment. Neither do I think that I need to get into the issue of cultural decay.
Ok, maybe a little.
What occurred to me thinking about this was that when we stand in between languages there is a slipping that occurs lexically. What I mean by this is that when one person equates two words, then the meanings of both begin to slide toward one another. Add the changes that happen to words over time and this gets really weird. Take the word ‘fussy.’ This word comes from the adjectival form of the Anglo-Saxon word fus, glossed in most dictionaries as ‘eager for death or battle.’ The line in Beowulf that uses it runs:
… stod hringedstefna isig ond utfus…
Now, the first part, stod hringstefna would seem fairly straightforward. Stod is simply ‘stood’ and hringedstefna is literally ‘ringed-stem’ but means something like ‘curved-prow.’ Likewise, isig is simply the word icy, but utfus, a compound of ut meaning ‘outward’ and fus, is a bit trickier. The sense is clearly that the curved prow stands covered in ice and eager to be out and away. I have always imagined the ship straining against its mooring line with the motion of the waves, but how do we translate utfus? The word fuss now means something agitated and troubled — hardly ‘eager for death or battle,’ but it is easy to see the connection.
If such a change has come over a word in English, then imagine what is possible over time when languages collide! Let’s take a seemingly straightforward example: the word king in English and rí in Irish.
First king: when most people read or see this word they either think of a powerful man in ermine with a sceptre or maybe they think of an autocratic dictator, but the function of the king has greatly evolved over time. The Anglo-Saxons who first assembled the kingdoms of Bernicia, Deira, East Anglia, Essex, Kent, Mercia, Sussex and Wessex, the same people who began using the word cyning, had a different conception. The king was a man who wielded the charisma, intelligence and wisdom (at least 16 or higher for you D&D fanatics out there) to assemble the economic and military success necessary to act as the proverbial ‘pillar of the community.’ A young, bold warrior who commanded ferocious loyalty in his close followers and could lead them into a series of successful military campaigns could easily call himself this. It was only in the 13th and 14th centuries that a complex system of law and tradition began to invent the kind of monarchy that we now associate with, say, Elizabeth II of the House of Windsor (current reigning queen of England … if you didn’t know). In fact, the word lord was originally hlaford from an even earlier hlaf-weard— the ‘loaf-ward’ or ‘guarder of the bread.’ Fair enough.
The Irish rí was not wholly dissimilar in the early years, which is why the two might be good translations of one another if you’re reading an early medieval text. What the two words came to mean later, though, are very different … or at least they should be! Rí is cognate with the French roi, Italian re, the Latin rex and even — if you believe it — the Hindi raja. Are we really to believe that all these words are transparently the same? Is the office of Louis XIV the same as Harold Godwinson (ousted by William the Conqueror) or Elizabeth II? Certainly they all denote individuals of singular executive authority, but how is it that the term does not have an Anglo-Saxon equivalent? Why is singular executive authority not denoted in English by a word beginning with an ‘r’?
Well, actually it is! The Anglo-Saxon word rica means a wealthy and influential man, giving us the adjective rice — and, no, that is not the word ‘rice’ (nice with a fine curry) but the original version of our modern word, ‘rich.’ (It’s even pronounced kinda the same way.) In the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle the phrase feng to rice would often be used in the sense of ‘took the kingship.’ What we seem to be dealing with here is an equation of money with power. Certainly this is understandable to us these days, but it is not that simple since in the old days power in any form was also divine in some way or another. The verb ricsian, which is just the sense of rice taken as an action instead of an adjective, meant (according to J.R. Clark Hall) ‘to bear rule, reign, govern, tyrannize, dominate or prevail’ and had forms like ricsere and ricsiend to indicate one who performs that action.
Let’s take this from a slightly different angle. Caesar Augustus bore the adjective augustus because his authority extended (in the Roman mind) from the investment of divine power. To be augustus is to be filled with the power of the gods, to be augmented by it, and an inauguration calls this power into a leader. The office of the augurer was to read the signs that showed where this divine authority would reveal itself, and his art was called augury. In the early mind of these cultures, divine power revealed itself in those who could marshal the military and economic power necessary to achieve some great purpose like carving out a new kingdom in hostile lands or expanding the influence of your home city.
My point is that in English the same word that we translate as ‘king’ in Irish, French, Italian and the rest actually meant one who was wealthy enough to exert authority over others, but in these other languages, the rí had an almost religious authority. The rex of Rome (before it was a Republic) was also the high priest, and in Ireland the rí ensured the prosperity of his people by having ritual sex with the goddess who personified the land itself. We should hardly be surprised that the idea of the divine right of kings centred around Louis XIV’s court, an idea so succinctly expressed by the (legendary?) statement that l’Éstat c’est moi. After all, le Roi seems to have been responsible for ensuring the correct relationship between the gods and the people, thereby securing their well-being.
So where does cyning — I mean king come from? It might be related to kin as in kinfolk and kindred. This might link it to the Irish cenél and cenedach, but this seems a little tentative.
The Germanic link with rí, though, is quite deep, though it carries this whole thing in an entirely other direction. In Norse, this word shows up as regin. It denoted the gods as in ragnarök where rök means ‘judgment’ in the sense of an explanatory account (the association with rökr, twilight, was apparently a later slippage of meaning) and ragna means ‘of the gods.’ Lest we confuse regin with the word ‘god’ as we very glibly do so nowadays, there is another term, goð (elsewhere guð), which means … well … god. The word goði then meant someone who put people into a right relationship with the gods in the same way that the early Roman rex was the pontifex a (literally) ‘builder of the bridge’ to the gods. At heart, Germanic and Celtic aren’t necessarily as different as they have become.
Ok, so I’ve gone on about this enough. The point is that there are associations and meanings tied up with rí and cyning that go well beyond what we intend by ‘king’ these days. I would argue that the word ‘king’ has now slipped into a weird middle ground between rí and cyning in ways that actually diminish its meaning. After all, what do we really mean by the word ‘king’? Do we mean Charlemagne, Alfred the Great, King Arthur, Louis XIV or Neil of the Nine Hostages? If we consider their places in history and mythology without this unifying term then there is little to liken them one to another, but looking at them within this matrix of divinity, wealth, and military power that seems to govern the word rí, no less its implied generosity and benefit that the ideal rí should have, it appears that rí is actually more appropriate than ‘king.’ Perhaps English should resurrect its old word ricdom instead of using the more derivative ‘kingdom.’
Unpacking all these different meanings would be impossible without learning the original languages and studying how different words are used. You might be impressed by all of my lexical gymnastics, but that isn’t the point (and I don’t really care anyway). Language is our most divine attribute and who we are, how we think, and even how we live is bound up with it. Loss of language is loss of culture. I might be able to evince the other elements of a given culture — dress, food, customs, etc. — but over time and without the words that anchor those cultural elements together into a cohesive praxis that culture will simply dissolve into shadows of what they used to be.
As a last, bitter example of this, think of how many people think songs like The Irish Rover, Finnegan’s Wake and The Night that Paddy Murphy Died are bulwarks of Celtic culture. The first two are examples of songs composed for the Music Halls of England and bank on stereotypes that, being produced by the tragic dissolution of traditional Irish society during the early modern period, have nothing to do with the Gaelic past. The last isn’t even Irish, but from Newfoundland (if memory serves) and again is founded not in genuine Celtic culture but the shadowy remains that have survived since the days of colonization. Even genuine survivals like sean nós singing and pìobaireachd are only echoes of a tradition whose grandeur was deliberately extinguished by forced dismantlement. To say that one can understand Celtic culture through the medium of English would be laughable if it weren’t so maddeningly ignorant.
Thank the gods that Germanic and Celtic culture are so similar. If not, there would be no hope at all.