Sir Peter Blake, Puck, Peaseblossom, Cobweb, Moth & Mustardseed, 1984
I’ve discussed fairy language and fairy names several times before, but in this posting I want to return again to the theme, considering specifically whether or not it may be possible to learn something more about fairy speech by a study of fairy names.
Of course, most traditional fairies are anonymous- they guard their names from a humans as a source of power. The spinning stories in which a fairy’s name has to be guessed (Rumpelstiltskin, Perrifool etc) are examples which demonstrate magical conservation of a name combined with a fascinating sample of fairy names.
NB: I take the title of this post from a line in Thomas Randolph’s play, Amyntas, of around 1632. In Act III character Dorylas instructs his “Bevy of Fairies” to “sing here a Fairy catch/ In that strange tongue I taught you.” The ditty that follows is “Nos beata fauni proles” (We, happy children of fauns); evidently Latin is a fairy language (for more on which, see later).
The manner in which fairies will be named will, of course, reflect the language they habitually use (unless, of course, fairy speech is preserved for use between themselves, and for their names, whilst they stick to our tongue with us). Some new examples from the Isle of Man give us a bit more insight into this area.
It appears that, a lot of the time at least, the Manx fairies spoke Manx, what the native islanders called Gaelg. A few accounts recorded in the collection Yn Lioar Manninagh confirm that the fairies were heard conversing in “yallick.” This seems to have been taken rather for granted, but all the same there are other reports in which they are said to speak “a foreign tongue.” They may sometimes be overheard talking together at night, but they cannot be understood.
Manx folklore expert Charles Roeder, in his book Skeealyn Cheeil Chiolee (Manx Folk Tales), 1913, reported this theory about their speech:
“I have not heard anything about the fairies this long time. There is no-one hearing them but the woman in the little shop. She heard them at midnight one winter night in an elder tree, speaking a language she couldn’t understand. As she drew near, they whispered in her ear- but she couldn’t understand. Perhaps they were foreign fairies, visiting the Isle of Man, for in old tales the fairies speak Manx. The Manx fairies have gone, or they have changed their language- like the people. Perhaps the fairies couldn’t understand English so they changed their language out of spite: they can be spiteful when offended.” (para.2)
Another witness suggested to him: “perhaps this [unknown] language is the language of fairyland, but whether that’s above or below earth no-one can tell.” (para.3)
Fairies may be bilingual in human languages too, it seems. In 1910 two boys on the isle of Muck in the Hebrides met two tiny green boys on the beach. These fairies spoke to them in both Gaelic and English. We could speculate at length whether either was their native language or whether they had mastered both simply for the convenience of talking to the local humans. The fairies informed the boys that they would be leaving the island for good soon, but that other fairies would be arriving. We might therefore even go as far as to suggest that the fays next ‘posting’ was in an English speaking area, hence their skill.
In the catalogue of recorded fairy names, what’s fictional and fanciful is entangled and entwined with what’s derived from tradition and personal encounters. It’s very hard to separate out the jokey, made-up names, the ones that are modelled on classical Greek or Roman or Biblical sources, the everyday human names and those few that are left that don’t sound like anything familiar at all- and so, perhaps, are the most authentic.
The classical type of name was especially popular in Renaissance times. Reginald Scot mentions three fairy sisters, Milia, Archilia and Sibylia, who might assist magicians in their conjuring. His near contemporary William Lilly one time tried to conjure the queen of fairies, whom he called Micol and which sounds very like Hebrew.
From Stornoway on Shetland we hear a number of Gaelic names, many of which seem to be nicknames or perhaps names used to avoid saying the fay’s true name: there are Deocan nam Beann (milkwort), Popar, Peulagan and Conachay (little conch). The trows of the northern isles have a variety of names, some of which retain hints of Viking Norse whilst others just sound like nicknames: Gimp, Kork, Tring, Tivla, Fivla, Hornjultie, Peester-a-leeti, Skoodern Humpi, Bannock Feet and Hempie the Ferry-louper. On the Isle of Man we hear of a fairy king called (prosaically) Philip and his queen, Bahee, which is at least exotic enough to sound more authentic.
Meaning maybe hidden in names which are not English. There is a group of Welsh fays, especially connected with weaving and spinning, whose names are alliterative but may imply more than that. These include Sili Ffrit, Sili Go Dwt, Trwtyn Tratyn, Gwarwyn a Throt and Jili Ffrwtan. The last is a well known amorous fairy: her first name seems to be just another representation of the sili (shili) of the first two names; ffrwtan, as you may guess, appears to be related to the word ‘fruit’ though ffrwtian means ‘spluttering.’ Sili may be derived from the word sil meaning spawn or small fry and so denotes something tiny- possibly very apt for a fay. Professor John Rhys suggested that the “throt” name relates to similar spinning fairies elsewhere in Britain like Tom Tit Tot and Habetrot. Equally likely, they may all just be nonsense names, chosen for their pleasing sounds. What we can say with greater certainty is that they’re going to be names applied by humans to the tylwyth teg rather than chosen by the fays themselves.
The prettification of fays that has set in since the Mustardseed and Peaseblossom of Shakespeare has also given us the Moonbeam and Dewdrop mentioned in Bowker’s Goblin Tales; similar whimsy and a sense of harmony are produced by Modilla and Podilla, the names of pixies encountered at Brent on Dartmoor (Crossing, Tales of Dartmoor Pixies, 1890).
Spiritualist Daphne Charters met a vast number of nature spirits, amongst whom were Normus, Gorgus, Myrris, Movus, Mirilla, Namsos, Sirilla, Nuvic, Nixus, Lyssis, Tanchon and Persion. She also encountered two Chinese fairies who rejoiced in the fairly un-Oriental names of Perima and Sulac. Her great friend and supporter, Air Chief Marshall Dowding, was puzzled by the Latin sounding names of many of these fays, but are much thought concluded that the simple explanation was this: that the Romans had adopted fairy names, not the other way around! Given what we saw in the play Amyntas earlier, we might conclude that the Air Chief Marshall knew what he was talking about…
Our newest evidence comes from the recently completed Fairy Census. The names recorded by witnesses are, like those in Marjorie Johnson’s book, Seeing fairies (see my earlier post on Fairy Names), a mix of the conventional and bizarre. Faeries variously identified themselves as Effeny, Sylvizz, La Belle Courtland, Goldenrod, Zee and Specia (Census numbers 117, 244, 307, 326, 383 and 438). Two beings, which were either gnomes or brownies, were called Snodgrass and Grosswart (no.164).
We have a spectrum here from the everyday, through the traditional, to the mildly exotic. What emerges seems to be a mixture of classical inherited names, conventional contemporary names and some which might be dismissed as made up or might alternatively be thought of as examples of genuine fairy appellations. It’s a puzzling mixture, contrasting with the fairly high degree of consensus we find amongst witnesses over fairy dress and appearance.
Perhaps what we can identify in this catalogue are the close parallels with the nature of the language spoken by faes: sometimes it’s familiar, sometimes archaic, occasionally it is unknown and hard to understand. There may well be problems for us humans reproducing the sounds and combinations we hear in fairy names, causing us to substitute something more familiar and pronounceable.
“Be careful how ye speake here o’ the Wee Folk,
Or they will play such pranks on thee and thine,
Nae doubt, they dae a lot of good whiles,
But if provoked, they can be maist unkind.”
As a final thought, if you do come to know the name of a fairy, it should always be treated with the utmost respect and care, like a closely guarded secret. Fairy names are a taboo subject: they are a source of power and they must be handled circumspectly.
Fairy names for humankind
Whilst we’re discussing terminology and labels, we may as well just glance at what fairies call us. Manx fairies are recorded as referring to us as “middle world men” which is a very neutral, purely descriptive name. In the ballad of Thomas of Erceldoune the fairy queen refers to Thomas as a “man of mould” and in later Welsh folklore we read similar terms: “dead man” or “man of earth.” For the fays, plainly, what distinguishes us from them is our mortality- or rather, our shorter life spans because, as I have discussed before in the context of killing fairies, they are not actually immortal but endure much longer than we do.
As I’ve mentioned, I’ve addressed the question of fairy language and speech several times on this blog; see too my posting on silence in Faery: the cases when the faes take speech away from their favourites and abductees.
For more on faery naming practices, see my 2022 book with Green Magic Publishing, Who’s Who in Faeryland.