My Secret Vice15 Aug 2014 | language
Note: This was first published in the Signum University newsletter
Hello, my name is Dave and I am a language dilettante. Phew, that felt good to confess. Over the past five years I’ve dabbled in Classical Greek, Latin, Esperanto, Italian, Irish, Spanish and Welsh—spending an average of an hour a day on language study over that time. (Yes, I keep a spreadsheet…)
I travel internationally a lot for work—and pleasure—and I can’t help collecting a few linguistic souvenirs, and not-a-few books, on the way. For me, learning a bit of the local language is as necessary as hitting all the tourist spots. And there is no better place for the budding language tourist than at Signum University. What follows is a brief travelogue of this summer’s jaunt through Europe with my family as viewed through a Mythgard lens.
Our first stop was Reykjavik, Iceland. The stunningly beautiful scenery re-invigorated my memory of the Norse stories we read in The Great Tales: Tolkien and the Epic and in Philology Through Tolkien. What I learned in the latter class about historical sound changes from Old Norse to Modern English helped me to understand some of the Icelandic around me. (Although the hotel clerks thought my pronunciation was hilarious.) We visited Geysir, the hot spring which gave us the English word geyser, and Þingvellir where the Althing met and the law was recited in medieval times. I could envision the scene just as Prof. Shippey had described it in class. Had Tolkien ever visited Iceland he would have mourned the dearth of trees, most of them cut down long ago.
Luggage space was tight, but I came away with three Icelandic books: Hobbitinn, the Icelandic translation of The Hobbit; Njal’s Saga in modern Icelandic; and Sjálfstætt fólk (Independent People) by 1955 Nobel laureate Halldór Laxness.
After a brief pause in England, we flew to southern Spain. Thanks to the two-semester Latin course with Profs. Walsh and Leibiger, I had a great foundation on which to build my Spanish, not to mention the pleasure of being able to read countless Latin inscriptions and the like found in almost every museum. After a few months of Spanish study I can carry on conversations, order my caña y tapas, and share a joke with the bartender about whether 200 serrano hams suspended from his ceiling qualifies as bastante jamón, all in Spanish.
On our first day in the village I had a pleasant but very confusing conversation with an elderly neighbor. “My Spanish comprehension is terrible,” I thought until another neighbor explained that the poor woman had dementia! My favorite tapas _was fresh rabbit—that’s _conejo in Spanish. So good! I feel like Sam Gamgee pining over some coneys just thinking about it. I can’t wait to continue my studies in Prof. Isaac Juan Tomás’ course.
Lessons learned in “Philology” also helped me appreciate the fascinating linguistic history in Granada. This area of the country was controlled by Islamic Moors for hundreds of years. The resulting mix of language, culture, and myth is not unlike that of England after the Norman Conquest. Ironically, the book of Moorish legends sold in every shop in Granada is written by an American author: Washington Irving’s Tales of the Alhambra. Sometimes you travel the world to discover your own country.
Spanish novels are easy to find in US bookstores, but non-fiction, especially popular science, is not. I bought some Asimov, several history books, and a collection of poetry by Federico García Lorca.
The final leg of our vacation took us through Wales. In my ignorance, I expected Wales to be largely indistinguishable from England. Not so! When you cross Offa’s Dyke into North Wales, Welsh comes alive all around you from the bilingual road signs to overheard conversations. I experienced the same attraction to it that Tolkien describes in his essay “English and Welsh”—with its bewildering spelling and breathy lateral l’s, which sound similar to one of the consonants in Icelandic. How pleased I was with myself for realizing the building labeled pysgod was a fish & chips shop because pysgod was cognate with the Latin word piscis!
It seems every village has ruins of a castle somewhere. You feel that you are standing within the physical remains of the Arthurian myth the Inklings found so compelling. Nothing tops off a long day of castle investigation like some delicious Cwrw Blasus (tasty beer, the name of an actual local brewery). Alas, I just missed an exhibition of the Hengwrt Chaucer, the earliest surviving manuscript of The Canterbury Tales, on display at the National Library in Aberystwyth.
However, I did find an amazing second-hand bookshop where I bought two volumes in Middle Welsh including Owein, a Welsh version of the tale better known from Chrétien de Troyes’ Ywain. The scholarly introduction makes a convincing argument about the independence of the Welsh version from the Old French that I never would have followed before my philological classes at Mythgard.
As a Mythgard student I’ve learned that Tolkien believed language is inextricably entwined with its mythology. As a language tourist I’ve come to realize that both are also shaped by the places and communities in which they developed. Visiting these places has deepened my appreciation for their language and myth and the literature and language classes I’ve taken at Signum have equipped me to make the most of every travel opportunities.