Fairy names

 

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Previously I have discussed fairy language in the context of conversation with humans and in fairy song; I want here to consider fairy names.  I have recently been reading Marjorie Johnson’s Seeing fairies (2014) and my examples are mostly drawn from that book.

To recap previous discussions, there are several aspects to the human experience of fairy speech.  Sometimes there is a complete barrier and no communication at all is possible: for example, in Canada in the early 1920s a little man “made an effort to talk to [a girl aged eleven] but she could not understand what he said” (p.34) or a three year old in Liverpool talked at length with some pixies “in a language her mother could not follow” (p.279).  More often the fays seem quite at home in the local tongue, whether that is English, Welsh or whatever.  Still, their speech will be distinctive for its tone: repeatedly fairy voices are reported to be “high pitched,” “bell-like or chirpy,” clipped and very quick” and like “a melodious twittering” (pp.44, 51, 59, 255).  This chirping, tinkling nature might in itself cause some problems of comprehension.

There are some lists of names in the early seventeenth century literature which are not to be taken seriously.  In The life of Robin Goodfellow we read of Pinch, Patch, Gull, Grim, Sib, Tib, Licke and Lull.  From Drayton’s Nimphidia come Hop, Mop, Dryp, Pip, Trip, Skip, Fib, Tib, Pinch, Pin, Tick, Quick, Jil, Jin, Tit, Nit, Wap and Win.  These are just alliterative play, plainly, although Katherine Briggs suggests that there may be a “hint of scurrility” here too, with wap and win at least being sexual slang.

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How are fairies named then?  We have both contemporary and historical evidence on this:

  • Elias Ashmole recorded various spells for conjuring fairies in the seventeenth century.  Knowing a name was an important part of gaining control over the fay, and he identified two- Elabigathan and Margaret Barrance. The former is suitably exotic, the latter sounds like any goodwife Ashmole might have met in contemporary Oxford;
  • There are traditional/classical names, such as ‘Sybilia‘- one of the fairy queens, and rulers of the elemental beings known as Paralda (air), Niksa (water), Ghob (earth) and Djinn (fire).  The names of these kings can be found widely in contemporary writing (see, for example, Ted Andrews, Enchantment of the faerie realm) but they derive from Eliphas Levi, The conjuration of the four elements, and (perhaps) beyond that from Kabbalist sources;
  • Doreen Virtue records an encounter with a small pink, long-haired fairy called Lilitte (Fairies 101, pp.12-13);
  • Robery Ogilvie Crombie (Roc) of Findhorn met a faun in Edinburgh’s Royal Botanical Gardens whose name was Kurmos; and,
  • from amongst Marjorie Johnson’s informants we learn of Trindy and Frieta, two fairies who lived in a cairn in a garden in Cornwall (p.65), Puck and Parry, two Cornish pixies met in Liverpool (p.279), a male fay in Shropshire named Hartha and, lastly, a tiny Welsh fairy called Veronica (p.272).  We have a spectrum here from the everyday, through the mildly exotic, to the traditional.

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 is a puzzling mixture, contrasting with the fairly high degree of consensus over fairy dress and appearance.  Perhaps what we can identify are the close parallels with the nature of the language spoken: sometimes it is familiar, sometimes archaic, occasionally it is unknown.

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Further reading

I’ve also looked at the topic of names in other posts on fairy naming, fairy songs and fairy speech.

 

‘A hidden tongue’- Fairy song and speech

 

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Ella Young

“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.

Fairy talk

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

Further reading

I have also posted a general discussion of fairy speech as well as some thoughts on fairy names.  The languages used is fairy naming is another fascinating subject for me.

An expanded version of this text will appear in my next book, Faeries, which will be published by Llewellyn Worldwide next year.

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Fairy language

elvsh.

What language do fairies speak?  If we were to ask  J. R. R. Tolkien and his many admirers, we would of course be advised ‘Elvish’- the languages of Quenya and Sildarin that Tolkien forged out of Finnish and Welsh.  These languages are fascinating intellectual feats, but they are modern, academic inventions; they do not reflect our predecessors’ views on the matter.  What does folklore have to tell us about elvish speech?

Local dialect

The normal rule is that fairies will speak the same language as their human neighbours. Reverend Kirk states this explicitly in The Secret Commonwealth (section 5).

“Their Apparell and Speech is like that of the People and Countrey under which they live: … They speak but litle, and that by way of whistling, clear, not rough. The verie Divels conjured in any Countrey, do answer in the Language of the Place; yet sometimes the Subterraneans speak more distinctly than at other times.”

John Rhys relayed a story of a mermaid from North Wales in which the reporter observed sceptically “we do not know what language is used by sea maidens … but this one, this time at any rate, it is said, spoke very good Welsh” (Brython, vol.1, p.82).

This situation is to be expected, in that communication would otherwise be very difficult- if not impossible- and interaction very much reduced.  Most of our fairy tales are founded upon intercourse between humans and fairies, so that mutual intelligibility is vital.  The ability to converse means that humans may overhear or engage in conversations (Wentz Fairy faith pp.96, 101, 10, 110, 140 & 155) and also may hear or even participate in songs (Wentz pp.92, 98 & 112). It follows then that the fairies speak the local language or, even dialect.  They speak Gaelic in the Highlands, Welsh in Wales and English in England- and going further an Exmoor fairy sounds just like a Somerset peasant (Ruth Tongue, County Folklore, vol.VIII, p.117).

Tone of voice

Given a widespread belief that some fairies at least were of smaller stature than the human population, they have voices to match.   Kirk has already implied this, but other sources are clearer on the point.  At Gors Goch, Cardiganshire, little beings came to a farm house at night asking for shelter in “thin, silvery voices ” (Wentz p.155).  The pixies encountered on Selena Moor, near St Buryan, were said to have squeaked with little voices (Briggs, Dictionary, p.142).

Jabbering talk

Much of British fairy-lore depends upon the ability of humans and supernaturals to have contact and to form relationships.  Nevertheless, the fairies’ speech is sometimes said to be incomprehensible or, even, not to resemble human speech at all.  Wirt Sikes in British goblins recorded that Thomas William of Hafodafel, Blaenau Gwent, met a fairy procession and “heard them talking together in a noisy, jabbering way; but no-one could distinguish the words.”  Other witnesses from Wales state the same: “they did not understand a word that was said; not a syllable did they comprehend…” whilst in another couple of encounters we are assured “it was not Welsh and she did not think it was English” (John Rhys, Celtic folklore, pp.272, 277 & 279).

John Aubrey told a tale of his former schoolmaster, Mr Hart, who in 1633 came across a “faiery dance” (a green circle on the grass of the Wiltshire downs) and saw there sprites who were “making all manner of odd noyses.”  They objected to his intrusion and swarmed at him, “making a quick humming noyse all the time.”  Lastly, a nineteenth century account from Ilkley of fairies surprised bathing tells that they were “making a chatter and jabber thoroughly unintelligible.”  The noise, it was said, was “not unlike a disturbed nest of young partridges” (Briggs, Tradition, pp.133-4).  These latter descriptions bring to mind small, insect-like beings, perhaps.

Elidyr’s story

Finally, we must note the very curious tale told of Elidyr by Gerald of Wales.  Elidyr, as a boy, was one day escorted into an underground realm and subsequently spent much time there with the fairies. Years later, as a priest, he told his tale and, in particular, that:

“He had made himself acquainted with the language of that nation, the words of which, in his younger days, he used to recite, which, as the bishop often had informed me, were very conformable to the Greek idiom. When they asked for water, they said Ydor ydorum, which meant bring water, for ydor in their language, as well as in the Greek, signifies water, from whence vessels for water are called ydrie; and dwr also, in the British language, signifies water. When they wanted salt they said, Halgein ydorum, ‘bring salt’: salt is called als in Greek, and halen in British, for that language, from the length of time which the Britons (then called Trojans, and afterwards Britons, from Brito, their leader) remained in Greece after the destruction of Troy, became, in many instances, similar to the Greek.

It is remarkable that so many languages should correspond in one word, als in Greek, halen in British, and halgein in the Irish tongue, the g being inserted; sal in Latin, because, as Priscian says, ‘the s is placed in some words instead of an aspirate,’ as als in Greek is called sal in Latin, emi – semi, epta – septem – sel in French – the A being changed into E – salt in English, by the addition of T to the Latin; sout, in the Teutonic language: there are therefore seven or eight languages agreeing in this one word. If a scrupulous inquirer should ask my opinion of the relation here inserted, I answer with Augustine, ‘that the divine miracles are to be admired, not discussed.’ Nor do I, by denial, place bounds to the divine power, nor, by assent, insolently extend what cannot be extended. But I always call to mind the saying of St. Jerome; ‘You will find,’ says he, ‘many things incredible and improbable, which nevertheless are true; for nature cannot in any respect prevail against the lord of nature.’ These things, therefore, and similar contingencies, I should place, according to the opinion of Augustine, among those particulars which are neither to be affirmed, nor too positively denied.”

From all that we can tell, the clerk in question appears to be concocting his elvish tongue out of elements of Welsh and Irish, with perhaps some awareness of Latin and Greek in the background.  It is not, therefore, to be relied upon very much as an account of traditional beliefs.  A better summary may be to say that, in general, fairies were regarded in many respects as being identical or similar to humans (not just in speech, but also in form, diet, dress and conduct).  Sometimes, however, their otherworldly aspect dominated, and their speech was as alien as their magical abilities.

Further reading

An expanded version of this posting is found in my book British fairies (2017).  I have a general interest in languages and linguistics, more details about which can be found on my website.

See too my later posts on fairy names and on more modern evidence from song as well as speech for for the fairy language.