Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Land Words

Dear Reader,

I enjoy that Tolkien wrote The Lord of the Rings (LOTR) as an afterthought, that he developed the cosmology and history of Middle Earth mainly to make his artificial languages more realistic. That must be one of the stranger reasons for writing a great work of fiction.

His play with language extends beyond such fantastic creations as Sindarin, Quenya, and Khuzdul to English itself. In preparation for the release of Peter Jackson's movie adaptations, I read LOTR out loud to Beverly and made a surprising (to me) discovery: this work was meant to be read out loud. Even aside from the songs and poetry, Tolkien's prose frequently slides in and out of Old English patterns of writing, with punchy rhythms, alliteration, assonance, consonance, and even occasional kennings--telltale signs of an oral tradition, qualities that make the language roll off the tongue pleasurably in ways that are not as enjoyable read silently. I never noticed this before because I only began learning Old English in the last six years, for my Dungeons and Dragons games, and I had not reread LOTR recently. I thought I knew this work that I had read so many times, that I loved and had studied so often in my youth, yet I had overlooked an essential and obvious quality.

Once The Fellowship of the Ring woke me up to his diction, I noticed he also delved into Old English for vocabulary, resurrecting or revitalizing geographical terms like coomb, dingle, dell, dale, vale, etc. I was struck by the effort he made to bring Middle Earth to life visually, with precise terms used to describe the folds and textures of the landscape.

I realized that my own grasp of these terms was slack. Influenced primarily by the thesaurus, dictionary, and fiction rather than living experience, I could not clearly define these terms, nor distinguish them from each other. I thought valley, vale, dell, and dale meant more or less the same thing. When I asked around for help, no one I knew could distinguish them clearly either. We had all thought we knew what these words meant, but it turned out all we knew was how to use them plausibly in common English sentences to "prove" our knowledge.

I was primed to notice this because I have been corresponding with a Texan philosopher, Kenneth Smith, who had alerted me to the erosion of meaning in language over time, especially during the modern era. I was ready to give up the powerful American myth of progress to consider the more equivocal changes wrought by evolution, in which we adapt to our environment, for better or for worse. Dr. Smith had explored how meaning erodes from philosophical, ethical, and religious terminology over time to make it more palatable, less confrontational for us, but I understood as well how it could apply to changes in lifestyle. We no longer live close to the land, so the language of the land becomes a foreign language to us. Like any foreign language, if not practiced it ebbs. Thus, mountaineers and rangers retain more land-language than the rest of us, but even they lack the depth of terminology a British woman had in the year 1000 C.E., a woman who lived all of her life, not just the recreational or professional part, close to the land, her fate bound to it visibly, her need to know it like a friend clear to her.

This realization wrought a change in me. I had already come to want to re-inhabit my land, to know the trees and birds and shapes of it, but with this most recent reread of Tolkien I came to want to learn the language of it also. Underneath our clumsy "hills" and "mountains" and "valleys" runs a deeper, more agile language of the land. The meaning of words stems not from how we use them now, but also and maybe more importantly from how and why they were coined and how they have been used since. A dell is not a dale is not a valley, not even if the thesaurus says so. A callow is not a hurst is not a hill, no matter what the dictionary says. Tolkien showed the way with his revelation that in our forgotten past lies a wealth of terms for describing the exact relations of water to land to vegetation. These eroding or lost old terms can be for us the roadmap back to being able to think about the shape and character of our world, can give us the framework for thinking more clearly about our relationship to the world.

"Gnothi Seauton," read the inscription on the temple at Delphi--Know Thyself. Because information out of context is noise, we cannot know ourselves unless we know what we are bound to, where we come from. After all, though Carl Sagan is right that we are star-stuff, that is only indirectly true. Directly, we are what we eat, what we drink, and what we breathe, and these things come directly from the soil and wind and water of our world. Ashes to ashes and dust to dust is not the language of metaphor but literal truth, a truth from which modern culture insulates us, alienating us from the sources of our very lives. We come to imagine that human life is above all a human creation, and thereby we lose our understanding of how deeply our fate is tied to the fate of the natural world. We are Earthlings, children of Earth, of the soil. To know ourselves, it is necessary (though not sufficient) that we know the land from which we sprang. To get to know the land, we must relearn to speak its language.

To help me relearn, I read through thesauri and dictionaries, even the Oxford English Dictionary, looking for clues, but I have found that even our etymologists have lost track of the geographical nuances Old English once had. The Shropshire Highlands in England, for example, are full of unusual geographical names--such as Callow Hill, Bromlaw Callow, Pulverbatch, Hampton Beech, Radlith--that upon further study reveal nuances of usage and meaning lost in most recent works of linguistics. No expert is going to hand us our lost language on a platter, ready to use. We have help--and I particularly want to thank Margaret Gelling and H. D. G. Foxall for their fine reconstructive work in The Place-Names of Shropshire--but if we want to recover our lost linguistic agility, we will have to work for it, just as we must do for physical agility.

So, strange as it may sound, to help my quest to grow wiser, to know myself and my world better, I am poring over maps, reading dictionaries of Old English, and reading publications of the English Place-Name Society. I am writing a lexicon for my own use, a document that describes words not through the most concise possible summation of their meaning, as the dictionary does, nor through equation with other words, as the thesaurus does, but through paragraphs and sometimes essays on what each word means, where it came from, and how it is used, examples of its use, comparing and contrasting each with all similar words until I fully understand the nuances of their meanings. For example, while eating breakfast today I studied "fell" and "tump," began investigating "how," and looked for good examples of "hurst."

A few examples I have learned over the last couple months:

"Dales" go with hills ("over hill and dale"); they are the valleys between and among hills. England also sometimes uses "dale" to refer to long river valleys that descend from highlands.

"Dells" are forested dales.

"Hursts" are forested hills ("over hurst and dell" perhaps?).

A "callow" is a bald hill--no forest.

A "glen" is a narrow valley on a mountain.

A "gill" is a forested glen.

Now when I hike in the Cascade, Olympic, and Pacific Coast mountain ranges, I look at the land around me in a new way, running my mind over the contours of the land, the texture of vegetation, the currents of water and air, and ponder the words that best describe what I am experiencing.

Dear Reader, I love my home so much. I love the mountain forests, the river valleys, the glacial lakes, the ocean rocks and lonely islands, the waterfalls and volcanoes, the rain and wind, ferns and wildflowers, salmon and spiders and snails. I love the long gray months of drizzle and the hilly streets of the cities and towns. I am head-over-heels in love with this land.

So now at last I begin to empathize with this Oxford linguist who backed his way into the greatest epic of the English language, his passion for understanding and exploring language, and above all his deep love for his English countryside. His affection and eloquence brought his beloved land to life in new form in his novel, so vividly that millions of people around the world fell in love with it too without ever having traveled to England. His eloquent passion inspires me to study English in turn, to quest deeply for words to help me give voice to my passion for my home land, this rain-drenched coast.

Sincerely yours,

Postscript: I want to thank my fourth grade teacher at Emerson Elementary School in Seattle from fall of 1975 to spring of 1976 for reading to us in class The Hobbit; The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe; and A Wrinkle in Time. She gave me my first taste of Tolkien, and I have been in love with language and literature ever since. Thank you, Mrs. Yorozu.

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