“Sweet voices call us through the air;
New languages we understand.
Is this our own world, grown so fair?
Sir Knight, we are in Fairy-Land!”
(In fairyland, by Lucy Larcom)
I have written previously about fairy language and discussing the question in chapter 3 of my British fairies. I wish to return to this subject to discuss some intriguing evidence.
The typical treatment of the matter of fairy speech in the literature is either to use it as a source of humour or to regard it as a area so obscure and insoluble that little meaningful can be said. The two extremes are illustrated by the following authorities. Ben Jonson in The alchemist opted for the frivolous and mocking approach. His elves enter crying “Titi, titi, titi…” which allegedly means “Pinch him or he will never confess.” Dapper, the dupe of this scene, declares that he has told the truth, to which the elves respond “Ti, ti, ti, ti, to, ta”- ‘he does equivocate.’ Similar nonsense is spouted by the fairies in Thomas Randolph’s Amyntas of 1632. You wonder whether this is all just a play on the name Titania.
The other view may be represented by the Reverend Edmund Jones, in his discussion of contemporary fairy beliefs in Gwent in the 1770s (A geographical, historical and religious account of the parish of Aberystruth). His description is typical of many of the Welsh texts and accounts of about that time: he states that the fairies are often heard talking together “but the words are seldom heard” (p.69). This is either because they were indistinct, or because they were spoken in neither Welsh nor English. We learn that Scottish brownies are “a’ rough but the mouth”- that is, they may be hairy but they speak softly. Conversely once, on Shetland, a girl saw a ‘grey woman’ wandering and “making a noise like scolding” in a “hidden tongue.” Here the speech reported was both harsh to hear as well as incomprehensible.
“Around my head for ever,/ I hear small voices speak/ In tongues I cannot follow,/ I know not what they seek.” (Dora Sigerson Shorter, The man who stood on sleeping grass).
All that we can gather, then, is that fairy speech neither sounds like ours nor is it comprehensible. It may be recognisable, nonetheless, as language: in the story of the Fairy revels on the Gump at St. Just (Hunt, Popular romances of the West of England, p.85) an old man hears fairies on the Gump singing hymns “in a language unknown.” Even so, fay speech has also been said to be high-pitched or even bird-like. Walter de la Mare in one poem describes bands of fairies “chattering like grasshoppers” (The ruin); in another, The unfinished dream, he overhears them “talking their unearthly scattered talk together… Ageless in mien and speech.” This perhaps captures the experience, but none of it helps us much in discovering the exact nature of fairy language- nor in actual communication with our good neighbours.
The evidence of Ella Young
We have, though, the testimony of Irish seer and poet Ella Young (see At the gates of dawn, 2011). She heard fairy music and song and tried to record the words she heard. If her account provides a half accurate transcription of actual speech, we would have the most tantalising evidence we possess for the language of the Irish sidhe folk (at least). Young kept an account in her diary for the summer of 1917 in which she described what she had heard in the far northwest of Ireland. On August 28th she heard ‘a great litany of chants and responses with words in an unknown language’- “Abaktha… nyetho… wyehoo.” On September 1st a chorus sang the word “Beeya” repeatedly; this was followed on October 9th by chanting “Balaclóo… Beeya…” and it culminated on October 17th with an extended ‘Gregorian chant’ of which she recorded what she could:
“Hy bermillu, hy dramel, heroó, wyehóobilik, kyeyóubilik, wyehóo, balalóo…”
This may of course all be the product of a deluded mind: on September 8th Young wrote quite frankly that “my head has been for several days quite normal” as a consequence of which she had heard neither music nor song from the sidhe people. All we can say is that, if it is genuine, it is untainted testimony of fairy speech. Young’s experiences predate Tolkien and his confection of elvish languages from Welsh and Finnish; there could be no imitation of his pervasive influence nor, for that matter, does Gaelic appear to have shaped what she heard. If her snatches of verse resemble anything at all, it’s some Algonquin tongue from New England. It’s worth recording that Young was not alone in her claims to have met and conversed with fairies. As respected a figure as poet William Butler Yeats made the same claims at the same time.
The words transcribed by Young may be complete nonsense; in practical terms, without a ‘Rosetta stone’ to give us a key to translation, they might as well be gobbledegook. Nevertheless, it is an intriguing account and readers must draw their own conclusions… The words of poet Philip Dayre are a fitting conclusion to this note. In his verse, An invocation, he calls on the fairies to return to earth, asking:
“Who to human tongues shall teach,
That forgotten fairy speech,
By whose aid the world of old,
Did with Nature commune hold?”
Restoration of this lost unity might be the reward awaiting the person who finds that fairy Rosetta stone.
And with that, Namárië…
An expanded version of this text will appear in my next book, Faeries, which will be published by Llewellyn Worldwide next year.