Public Domain Elvish
October 8, 2019 8:33 AM   Subscribe

Dublin-based writer Orla ní Dhúill examines the appropriation of the Irish language and folklore in fantasy literature, from lines of dialogue cribbed from books of Irish proverbs to problematic tropes coloured through an English colonial perception of wild/savage Ireland, to the oddly disconcerting sensation for Irish speakers of seeing mundane words from their language badly translated and imbued with arcane significance by fantasy writers from abroad. (Apparently Tolkien was not to blame—his Elvish draws more on Finnish—though lazier or less linguistically adept successors tended to look to the Emerald Isle whenever they needed to crib something a bit fey, mystical and distinct from the mundane modern world.) Ní Dhúill also appears on an episode of the Motherfocloir podcast to discuss this phenomenon in more detail; mentioning, among other things, Warhammer space-elves, the cringeworthy elf-IRA in Shadowrun and the grimoire in Buffy the Vampire Slayer whose text was an announcement of a new bus lane in Dublin.
posted by acb (39 comments total) 44 users marked this as a favorite
 
Hey, B the VS ain't no burning trash pile!

That's a cool detail though.
posted by Bee'sWing at 8:59 AM on October 8 [6 favorites]


Great post about a widespread phenomenon.

I would note that since the early 90's the authors and designers of Warhammer 40k have attempted to make the space elves slightly less obviously Irish. Instead of literally using Irish as their language, their space colonies get science fiction-ised or maybe even exoticised names like Biel-Tan (Bealtaine) or Yme-Loc (Imbolc) but the article's point stands.

This made me think of a piece by Irish critic Liz Bourke about the weirdness of engaging with so-called Celtic fantasy/extruded fantasy product as an Irish person: “Celtic Fantasy”: What Does It Even Mean?

Maybe it’s because of who I am and where I come from, but I don’t get the attraction of “Celtic” fantasy. It always seems strangely flat, compared to the complicated tangle that is Irish history: pieces of folklore taken out of context and seen through a distorted mirror that robs them of their local natures and their complexities. [...] Celtic fantasy as a genre feature is a creation of expatriates and foreigners: it simplifies and romanticises, the dulled edge of a knife that never cuts the ones who produce it because they’re not close enough to bleed.

That simplification and commodification of language or culture, that making it contextless and easily dropped into whatever franchise needs it at the time, is just so damn lazy. That Iron Druid example the author gives, about butchering Gráinne Mhaol into a name fit for a secondary character? That's about as clever and innovative as subtly calling your clever and curly-haired young general character 'Alex T. Grate'.
posted by ocular shenanigans at 9:05 AM on October 8 [7 favorites]


My friend in Bandon says she heard a possibly-apocryphal story of a movie where Irish Gaelic was used as the stand-in "language of the attacking hordes" for a movie set on the African Continent. (Albeit not a very good movie, I assume.)
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:08 AM on October 8


''Atirizi inyui mwi hau inyouthe ukai haha,'' said Nien Numb to Lando Calrissian, the captain of starship Millenium Falcon in the film. The sentence had them rolling in the aisles at the Kenyan premiere. The reason: Nien Numb speaks fluent Kikuyu, the dialect of Kenya's majority tribe. Loosely translated, the words mean ''What are you doing over there? All of you please come here.''

Also, apparently Greedo spoke Quechua, a Peruvian language.
posted by fings at 9:17 AM on October 8 [12 favorites]


Trevor Noah turned this thing back on itself at the Oscars this year.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:22 AM on October 8 [10 favorites]


A friend of mine teaches the Irish language and happens to be a huge D&D nerd. For example, he runs the Adventurer's League stuff in Dublin. He was recently doing some consulting (informal, so far) on the language for a Barrier Peaks project for Wizards of the Coast. I told him he needs to get more self-promotional and aim for proper credit.

This reminds me, I am looking forward to the coming next season of The Expanse and some more Lang Belta, developed by a professional linguist.
posted by exogenous at 9:22 AM on October 8 [2 favorites]


Somewhat contrarily, there's an interesting film on Netflix called "Pilgrimage" set in 13th C Ireland, where Tom Holland speaks Irish. People (okay, monks) speak Irish, French & English and a bit of Latin, with no translatory subtitles, which I appreciated.
posted by sneebler at 9:24 AM on October 8 [3 favorites]


see also the lazy appropriation of Scottish identity whenever a plot requires something violent, reckless and/or small: court production 1, Pratchett's Wee Free Men who “… are not Scottish. There is no Scotland on Discworld. They may, in subtle ways, suggest some aspects of the Scottish character as filtered through the media, but that's because of quantum

aye, fucken right deadboy.
posted by scruss at 9:25 AM on October 8 [8 favorites]


apparently Greedo spoke Quechua, a Peruvian language

Not a Quechua speaker, but AFAIK Greedo's talk is random words at least inspired by Quechua words but not like a complete sentence or anything

now I wonder if "ooteedee" is taken from a real language
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 9:29 AM on October 8


his Elvish draws more on Finnish

One of his Elvish languages was. Quenya with all of its cases was primarily based on Finnish, but Sindarin (the form of Elvish more widely spoken during the Third Age and what David Salo translated dialogue for the movies into) was strongly inspired by the lenition and i-mutation features of Welsh and Gaelic.
posted by likethemagician at 9:36 AM on October 8 [6 favorites]


the grimoire in Buffy the Vampire Slayer whose text was an announcement of a new bus lane in Dublin.

Wow, and I thought Supernatural was bad for pronouncing Samhain as "Sam Hane"!
posted by Jeanne at 9:42 AM on October 8 [2 favorites]


Wow, and I thought Supernatural was bad for pronouncing Samhain as "Sam Hane"!

The X-Files pulled that one too.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:45 AM on October 8 [1 favorite]


When mystical lore clashes with reality, the interference patterns can be amusing. People working in the gaeltacht see Samhain and Beltane in the month fields of their mundane, entirely unmystical Microsoft Outlook calendars.

Which reminds me that apparently, these days, Gehenna is apparently the municipal garbage dump outside Jerusalem.
posted by acb at 9:46 AM on October 8 [12 favorites]


Which reminds me that apparently, these days, Gehenna is apparently the municipal garbage dump outside Jerusalem.

I swear that I heard somewhere that that's what it always was, and that's why the more mystical region got "Gehenna" as the name in the first place. Kind of like how if we were writing scripture anew today and were looking for a good name for a forbidden-zone kind of afterworld, we'd use "Chernobyl" or "Love Canal" or something.

Which brings it around back to the topic, about taking random mundane real-world things and applying them to mystic or fantastical things.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:52 AM on October 8 [18 favorites]


Microsoft Outlook isn’t entirely unmystical. It’s clearly a manifestation of an ancient evil that seeks to destroy all that is good.
posted by Anne Neville at 9:53 AM on October 8 [19 favorites]


The X-Files pulled that one too.

So did Slimer! and the Real Ghostbusters.
posted by prize bull octorok at 9:53 AM on October 8 [2 favorites]


Microsoft Outlook isn’t entirely unmystical. It’s clearly a manifestation of an ancient evil that seeks to destroy all that is good.

There are people in Dublin who say that about their bus system as well.
posted by acb at 10:23 AM on October 8 [19 favorites]


I have fond memories of a Celtic Mythology professor who apparently could not pronounce a single word in Irish correctly (and his Welsh wasn't great either).

As far as Celtic fantasy lit goes, I have a feeling it's less Tolkien and more Yeats who's to blame, with his witchy romanticism of Irish culture.

Every fantasy writer who works with invented languages should be required to take a linguistics course. Or, more to the point, develop an awareness / healthy skepticism of nineteenth-century nationalist movements.
posted by toastedcheese at 10:45 AM on October 8 [8 favorites]


Part of it has to be just the treatment of Ireland and Scotland as sort of para-colonies by England - "Celtic" fantasy could probably be paralleled a bit to "romantic Raj" novels, or especially "romantic Raj" ghost stories.

In 19th and early 20th century literature by English and American people, the further into Scotland or Ireland the story goes, the further back in time it goes - maybe not literally, but if your hero journeys into Scotland, he will inevitably come into contact with "primitive" customs, etc. There is no Scottish modernity in this type of book - and that's particularly marked because it contrasts with the actual modernity of, eg, academic culture in 19th century Scotland, industrialization, etc. (Not to mention the very "modern" experience of colonialist exploitation.)

So it's not surprising that Celtic fantasy is a thing; it derives very naturally from Celtic non-fantasy.
posted by Frowner at 10:54 AM on October 8 [14 favorites]


I have come across examples of using Irish as a fantasy language which have worked - in Celine Kiernan’s Moorhawke trilogy, for example. But that is set in an alternate Europe, And the author is Irish herself, both of which make a bit of a difference.

On the other hand, there was at least one book set in Ireland that particularly irritated me. It was a YA Chosen One, where an American girl ends up going to a special school in Ireland because she has powers. What annoyed me most was that the Irish setting seemed to be more an excuse to have people speaking Irish, as the whole magical powers stuff had no real link to Irish mythology. And the Irish was noticeably bad even to someone like me who hasn’t used it at all since school.

(There is a difference between ró and freisin even if both mean "too" in English!)
posted by scorbet at 11:41 AM on October 8 [3 favorites]


Oh, and because someone reminded me of this recently, and I have to share the pain The Mystic Knights of Tir Na Nog, one of the worst examples of "Irishness" I’ve encountered.
posted by scorbet at 12:07 PM on October 8


How about Roar as well for "Irishness"?
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 12:27 PM on October 8


Scots-Irish-Americans are really susceptible to this. I include myself, although thankfully I was a little girl when I went through my mystical Irish phase, and I was over it enough to behave decently when I grew up and visited Ireland.

If you're a white American with a name that's got a Mc, O-apostrophe, or some other trace of old Gaelic, you probably grew up with the vague idea that you had no culture, or else that you had Southern culture. And if you were a bit romantic by nature, you felt vaguely robbed by this. Come to find out you have an entire ethnic heritage waiting for you: all the fun parts without the difficulties, like cultural differences or discrimination. Just get super into Ireland! Or Scotland! Or both!

Usually this passes harmlessly, unless an actual Scottish or Irish person has to encounter some clownery from it. There is a toxic variant, in which the person becomes extremely learned about anti-Irish discrimination purely in order to argue that certain other ethnic groups should get over history already.
posted by Countess Elena at 12:48 PM on October 8 [11 favorites]


How about Roar as well for "Irishness"?

Also, anybody being named Erin. To an Irish person, it sounds like somebody being named America or something.
posted by acb at 1:18 PM on October 8


acb, to be fair, there are a few people named America (America Ferrera from Ugly Betty is the only one who comes to mind, but given that someone with that name became a celebrity, there must be more people with that name, even if it's just people naming their kids after her), but it isn't that popular a name. Nothing like the name Erin. (It's usually cities, not countries that people are named after- Austin, Florence, Paris, etc.)

/derail

I'd like to note that Irish has the benefit for the writers in the 80s and 90s of being rather obscure for Americans, sounding very unlike English, and still being white. It also avoids the trappings of civilization that are found with Latin and Greek (while the Irish as uncivilized has died out as an idea in the US, the idea of Ireland as a wild place has not).
posted by Hactar at 3:02 PM on October 8 [2 favorites]


Also, anybody being named Erin.

Apparently my brain has decided to get around this by hearing it as "Aaron", which causes some confustication when the person is a woman.
posted by sneebler at 4:13 PM on October 8


Apparently my brain has decided to get around this by hearing it as "Aaron", which causes some confustication when the person is a woman.

Hold up, are those names not homophones? I’ve never in my life been able to distinguish anyone’s pronunciations of those names.
posted by Caduceus at 5:01 PM on October 8 [1 favorite]


Say arrogant. Now say air. The first vowel was a little different, right? Aaron and Erin.
posted by prize bull octorok at 5:37 PM on October 8


The first vowel was a little different, right?
I think this is a "pen/pin" thing, as those are the exact same vowels for me
posted by CrystalDave at 5:40 PM on October 8 [6 favorites]


Part of it has to be just the treatment of Ireland and Scotland as sort of para-colonies by England

Para?
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 5:43 PM on October 8 [3 favorites]


Yeah, depending on someone's idiolect that may or may not be a meaningful phonetic distinction!

Sincerely,
Josh "put the draygon egg in the bag" Millard
posted by cortex at 5:53 PM on October 8 [4 favorites]


I think this is a "pen/pin" thing, as those are the exact same vowels for me

People who pronounce Aaron and Erin differently don't have part of the Mary-marry-merry merger. It depends on where they're from. Everyone that's posting how they pronounce Aaron and Erin is doxxing themselves.
posted by uninjured landlord at 5:54 PM on October 8 [9 favorites]


Having loved fantasy as a teen, I got tired of the Irish-influence-everywhere pretty quickly and avoided fantasy that incorporated it, with the exception of The Copper Crown trilogy by Patricia Kennealy-Morrison. I liked the whole swords-and-spaceships theme, though, and is what I remember best about that trilogy. More to the point, I have no Irish ancestry whatsoever. I wrote a lot of fantasy as a teen and it never made sense to me to take bits and pieces out of a tradition not my own to re-assemble them into something closely resembling nonsense. I didn't get the whole obsession with Arthurian stuff either, although again, The Copper Crown trilogy has plenty of that as well. Again - spaceships! Swords! Long, flowing red hair! - that got me to forgive it.
posted by Armed Only With Hubris at 6:40 PM on October 8 [1 favorite]


Scots-Irish-Americans are really susceptible to this. [...] Usually this passes harmlessly, unless an actual Scottish or Irish person has to encounter some clownery from it.

I truly understood this when I finally saw how my Scottish and Irish classmates get treated by rando American tourists (when I was in Glasgow usually). And it was such an unexpected moment of deep sympathy and recognition of being objectified as an exotic other.
posted by cendawanita at 10:01 PM on October 8 [1 favorite]


anybody being named Erin.

I find Colleen worse - who names their kid "girl"?
posted by scorbet at 6:15 AM on October 9 [2 favorites]


If you're a white American with a name that's got a Mc, O-apostrophe, or some other trace of old Gaelic, you probably grew up with the vague idea that you had no culture, or else that you had Southern culture.

I was in the pharmacy line behind a white woman telling the pharmacist her name was “Roy-sin” and that her Adderall renewal was in the system, it had to be in the system, and she would call her cousin the lawyer if it wasn’t. She may have had an Irish name (Roisin, pronounced ra-SHEEN), but that sounds far more like Southern culture to me.
posted by infinitewindow at 8:52 AM on October 9 [1 favorite]


I find Colleen worse - who names their kid "girl"?

They're not alone at least
posted by vibratory manner of working at 10:57 PM on October 9 [1 favorite]


All this, and no mention of Ossian yet?
posted by gimonca at 5:25 AM on October 10


I find Colleen worse - who names their kid "girl"?

Lots of people, probably even one or two on this here website!
posted by prize bull octorok at 9:57 AM on October 10 [3 favorites]


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