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.

I Got Nothin’

… so I’ll just post another quote from Dorothy Sayers.

Our perfect writer is in the act of composing a work –let us call it the perfect poem. At a particular point in this creative act he selects the “right” word for a particular place in the poem. There is only one word that is “dead right” in that place for the perfect expression of the Idea. The very act of choosing that one “right” word, automatically and necessarily makes every other word in the dictionary a “wrong” word. The “wrongness” is not inherent in the words themselves –each of them may be a “right” word in another place. (Footnote: Always excepting, of course, words like “sportsdrome” and “normalcy,” which are so steeped in sin that no place is “right” for them, except Hell, or a Dictionary of Barbarisms.)

The Mind of the Maker, p. 103

Does anyone have any other candidates for this category of words?

The Adverbs are Where the Opinion Comes In

They give us a sense of how the speaker experiences time:

“… finally.”

“… still.”

“… already.”

They give us a sense of their expectations of others:

“I’ll bet you didn’t even …”

And of the way things usually go:

“… for some reason.” [adverbial prep phrase]

And of their opinions of themselves and others:

“I graciously accepted a phone call …”

“You barely even noticed.”

And of their attitude towards their own discourse:

“Well, basically, what happened was …”

Scots Gettin’ Sentimental

Should auld acquaintance be forgot, And never brought to mind?

Should auld acquaintance be forgot, And days o’auld lang syne?

We twa hae paidelt in the burn Frae mornin’-sun till dine;

But seas between us braid hae roar’d Sin’ auld lang syne.

We twa hae run about the braes, And pu’d the gowans fine;

We’ve wander’d mony a weary foot, Sin’ auld lang syne.

And here’s a hand, my trusty fere, And gi’es a hand o’ thine;

We’ll tak’ a richt gude willie waught For auld lang syne.

And surely ye’ll be your pint-stoup, And surely I’ll be mine,

We’ll tak’ a cup o’ kindness yet For the sake o’ auld lang syne.

For auld lang syne my dear, For auld lang syne,

We’ll tak’ a cup o’ kindness yet, For auld lang syne.

Seventy Scottish Songs, ed. Helen Hopekirk, 1992. pp. 128 – 131

And the translation (done with the help of the source’s glossary):

Should our old friends be forgot, and never remembered?

Should our old friends be forgot, and the good old days?

The two of us used to paddle in the brook from dawn until dinner-time,

But the wide seas have come between us since those good old times.

The two of us used to run all over the hills and pick all the daisies,

[But] we have wandered much farther than that, since those good old times.

Now take my hand, my trusty comrade, and give me your hand too;

We’ll take a draught to show our good will for [each other and] those good old times.

And surely you’ll [drink out of] your pint-flagon, and I’ll [drink out of] mine,

We’ll take a cup of kindness yet for the sake of those good old times.

NW Reads a How-To Book

This book, the first in the Crossroads trilogy, takes place 850,000 years ago. I read it because it’s in my genre (sort of), and we indie authors writing about super-ancient times gotta stick together.

In my persona as a cave woman, I was hoping to pick up some tips on raw survival. One main strategy employed by Xhosa’s tribe seems to be Running Away. Me approve, as I am a master at this and so are the characters in my own books.

In Survival of the Fittest, Xhosa and her tribe travel from somewhere in the interior of Africa, north, crossing the Great Rift Valley and then (I think?) the Red Sea, or whatever that used to be 848,000 years ago. Once in the Levant (the Arabian Peninsula? Or did such exist back then?), they meet up with another tribe that is already successfully living there, plus a pair of young misfits, accompanied by their pet wolf, who have come all the way from what is now China.

The book moves fast, covering a lot of territory, both literally and metaphorically. It never really took off for me. There were lots of different episodes, each of which could easily have been its own book. The narrative moved back and forth between different groups quite a bit. With Big Idea novels like this one (and like my own books), the reader has to be at least intrigued by the theory of history that the author is exploring, so perhaps my problem was that this element was missing for me.

Another thing that harmed the verisimilitude for me was what appeared to be inconsistencies in the language. On the one hand, the characters don’t have enough abstract thought to count other than saying, “One, another, another …” On the other hand, they can describe to one another things that the hearer has never seen, such as the sea. They call the Cro-Magnon people Big Heads (which seems fair enough), but occasionally they will talk about things using modern terms, like Lucy (yes, the Lucy) or “tsunami,” which seems like an anachronism to this linguist. To be fair, any time we are writing about people in an ancient time, we are writing in translation, so the modern writer has to decide when to use a “free translation” (using words that modern readers will recognize) and when to use more literal glosses on the characters’ vocabulary, which gives a more atmospheric feel but is also harder for the reader to understand.

However, the author does lay some land mines that I presume will be stepped on in the next book, notably the obvious danger posed by Xhosa’s ambitious head warrior, Nightshade. If you believe that people evolved about a million years ago, started out not wearing clothes or counting past one, and you’re fascinated by what life might have been like during that time, then this series is for you.

There are lot of notes about terminology and the different humanoid groups at the beginning, which were helpful, but one thing I really, really wanted was a map. I tried to picture the characters’ routes, and I was checking modern maps of Africa, but realizing that the land has probably changed a lot since the time this book is set. I wanted to know exactly where they crossed the Great Rift Valley (which is pretty large, after all); what body of water they were crossing; and exactly where in the Levant they ended up. If there had been a map at the beginning of the book, I would have been flipping back and forth to that puppy every few pages, and perhaps would have been more engrossed in the story.

I Did Not Expect This (Archaeology Nerd Version)

I have to admit, I expected that the Etruscans would turn out to have been a Hamitic people. But according to this article, it looks like they came from the Pontic-Caspian steppe, just like the early Romans did … and more or less just like historical tradition said they did …

Of course, the sample size is small (only 82 individuals). It may yet be revealed that the Etruscans intermarried with an earlier, possibly Hamitic people, from whom (maybe?) they also got their language and their metalworking skills? But that’s pure speculation on my part. Who knows? Genetics and history both allow for a lot of speculation.

Misleading Archeology Headline of the Week

Pottery Shard May Be ‘Missing Link’ in the Alphabet’s Development

So, according to the article itself, here’s what is really going on:

“… the script represents a “missing link” connecting alphabetic inscriptions found in Egypt and Sinai with later writing from Canaan. The writing uses an early version of the alphabet in which letters bear a resemblance to the Egyptian hieroglyphs they evolved from. The finding appears to overturn a previous hypothesis that the alphabet only came to Canaan when Egypt ruled the area.”

OK, so instead of this particular alphabet being brought directly from Egypt through imperialism, it seeped over much earlier, through cultural influence. That’s a “missing link”? O.K.

Also, note that this shard has been dated to about 1450 B.C., which is much younger than some other systems of writing, including the Vinca signs.

But my favorite line from the article is this: “… the researchers have not definitively determined what the inscription says. Also unclear is whether the writing was meant to be read from left to right or right to left.” So, we don’t know whether to read it right to left, but we have come up with a tentative translation.