Let’s Learn Lapine

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Lapine is rabbit language.

Yes, it’s made up. But it’s no less brilliant for that. Lest we forget, the entire Lord of the Rings cycle started with J.R.R. Tolkien learning to read Old Norse and reading the Elder Edda in it, and then making up several fictional languages based on Norse and Welsh. In the process, he discovered that “a language implies a mythology,” so then he had to make up a mythology to go with his fictional languages … and the rest is literary history.

But back to Lapine. My source here is the amazing, but dense and demanding, novel Watership Down by Richard Adams. The main characters in this book are rabbits. Their problems are rabbit problems. Their solutions are rabbit solutions. The book eases you in to learning rabbit culture, mythology, and yes, language. On the third page of the story, we meet a small rabbit, the runt of the litter, called Fiver, and we get this footnote:

Rabbits can count up to four. Any number above four is “hrair” — “a lot,” or “a thousand.” Thus they say U Hrair – “The Thousand” — to mean, collectively, all the enemies (or elil, as they call them) of rabbits — fox, stoat, weasel, cat, owl, man, etc. There were probably more than five rabbits in the litter when Fiver was born, but his name, Hrairoo, means “Little Thousand” — i.e., the little one of a lot or, as they say of pigs, “the runt.”

Watership Down, p. 13

Presto! We have already learned two rabbit words:

hrair = five, or a thousand

elil = enemies, predators

We’ve learned three words if you count u, which later will be used not only to mean “the,” but also like the vocative O.

In the next few pages, we learn that every warren has a leader, called a Threarah, and that he has a group of enforcers called the Owsla. Later, we will find out that the Threarah is addressed by adding -rah to his name, as in Hazel-rah.

Later still, we will learn some other words:

silflay = eat. Specifically, silflay is the event when rabbits go out at dawn and dusk to graze.

hraka = droppings

tharn = the state a frightened rabbit gets into, when they cannot move or think

Frith = the sun. Also, God in the rabbit cosmology

Ni-Frith = noon

Inle = the moon. In rabbit myths, the Black Rabbit of Inle is the embodiment of Death.

Fu Inle = moonrise

yona = hedgehog

homba = fox

hrududu = motor vehicle (I think this one is onomatopoetic.)

embleer = damned … O.K., I just checked the glossary, and it actually means “stinking, e.g. the smell of a fox.”

zorn = destroyed, desolate. Denotes a catastrophe.

All this vocabulary is taught as it comes up in the story, through footnotes that are just as fascinating as the story, and through words being used in context.

By the time we had almost finished the book, I and my son could immediately understand the untranslated line that Bigwig (Thlayli), a warrior rabbit, speaks in defiance of the leader of an enemy warren:

Silflay hraka, u embleer rah.”

After finishing, in the post-reading-a-really-good-epic glow, I belatedly discovered that the book has a glossary at the back. But by that time, we hardly needed it.

6 thoughts on “Let’s Learn Lapine

  1. Benjamin Ledford

    “He discovered that a language implies a mythology.”

    To take it a step back, just giving names implies a language. We all know this intuitively, but I think this is why so many of the names in fantasy novels sound so stupid. They’re just sounds and don’t actually arise from a language, real or imagined. Place names seem particularly weak in my experience.

    I experienced this for myself when I was stuck in an airport once and worked on fleshing out a particular region of a map I had created. Just to name the different castles and houses you end up needing words for “tower” or “castle”, “river,” and words for the animals that are in family crests and appear in some of the names (in my case, “hound” and “gryffin”). And then, of course, for those that are original names, you have to ask who is this named for? Was the founder of the family a man of the soil or an invading conqueror?

    And then we’re right into the mythology again…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The really good fantasy novels are based on lots of historical research, usually drawing heavily from one or two particular cultural traditions. I’ve come to believe this isn’t cheating. It’s simply the only way you can get good names.


    1. Me too!
      Although, looking at the glossary, it’s only got about 40 words in it. When we learn a living language, our first 1,000 words are just the beginning. So, I think you could get away with sketching the outlines of a language, including some key cultural terms, and kind of fake it.


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