Dia duit!* In today’s post I’d like to explore the issue of language in a recon faith. Should we learn the language of the culture that our Gods and Goddesses stem from? What about older stages of this language? Or can we safely conclude that, since the Gods have contacted us miles away from Their original places of worship, we don’t have to bother with another language at all?
For me, the question didn’t really apply – I already spoke some Irish when I met my patron Manannán. It took me about a year of university courses to accomplish the basics, but I find it was time well invested. On the one hand, I love the Irish culture, so it was natural for me to study the country’s original language. On the other hand, as a recon I feel you should learn as much as possible about your deities’ culture, and language for me is a very important part of that (for those who haven’t guessed yet, yes, I’m a linguist^^).
Learning any new language is a worthwhile enterprise, in my opinion. When you’re speaking a different language, you’re more immersed in a different culture and also in a different way of thinking about things. For example, Turkish requires you to use different grammatical forms depending on whether you’ve witnessed an action yourself or whether you’ve just heard about it (Zimbardo/Gerrig 2008: 293). So essentially the language requires you to think about things you wouldn’t normally consider when speaking English – the same applies for languages like Irish, where you don’t “have” a name but a name is “on you” (Harzgeist an t-ainm atá orm = Harzgeist the name [which] is on me).
For me, using Irish in ritual has a totally different feeling (see my post about my Imbolc ritual, where I used Irish in a ritual for the first time). I feel much closer to my Gods when addressing them in Irish terms – e.g. I’d call Manannán “m’athair,” which is the Irish for “my father.” In a way, this feels like the most natural thing to do. And finally, sharing a language with your Gods creates a special kind of community and intimacy.
Obviously, when you’re addressing your Gods, you don’t have to sound like a native-speaker of your chosen language. I see it more in the vein of making an effort to learn a few phrases if you’re going on holiday to a different country.
However, being a linguist and all, I beg you to try and get it as right as possible for you. I agree that some languages are difficult to pronounce when you’ve had no prior contact to them or to a similar language. So for example, for an English speaker trying to learn German, some sounds are quite difficult to produce – and I guess most English speakers have heard Germans struggle over the “th”-sound. So I guess if you’re teaching yourself how to speak another language, some mistakes are inevitable. But instead of sitting back and saying “well, I can’t get it right anyway, so why bother?” think of it this way:
If you had a friend from a foreign country, you’d also try to pronounce their name correctly – not because someone has told you to, or a book said so, but because you respect that person and because their name is an important part of their identity. So since our Gods are also our friends, mentors, or family, in my opinion we should take the time to at least learn to pronounce and spell Their names correctly out of respect for Them.
Still, when you’re a professional writer or organization, you should aim at the maximum level of correctness that you can manage – after all, people do rely on books and websites to e.g. find out how to pronounce their Gods’ names correctly. For example, the Norse Solitary Ritual Template on the ADF website used to read “Naturgeisten, ich danke Sie!” as an address to the land wights. However, the correct German (which they’ve now included, thankfully) is “Naturgeister, ich danke Euch.” We don’t have to go into German grammar here for you to see that there’s a difference. Just imagine the horror in my language-loving mind, picturing rituals using butchered grammar ;-) And I still cringe at the ritual’s pronunciation guide (there’s an IPA for a reason, you know?).
However, even I find that there’s only so much you can do as an individual. In his book The Apple Branch, Kondratiev (2003: 91-96) includes invocations for the four directions in four different languages, without any pronunciation guide whatsoever. There is an appendix for the English translations (Kondratiev 2003: 291f.), but even with my knowledge of a Celtic language I couldn’t manage to read out the Scottish invocation without horribly butchering it, much less the Welsh or Breton ones. Being skilled in six Celtic languages (Irish, Scottish, Manx, Breton, Welsh and Cornish) is just not possible for somebody who can’t learn languages easily (and has a day job), since it’s very time-consuming, takes an awful lot of dedication and sometimes is only do-able if you attend university courses - language centres in your city won’t offer courses in Manx, while a university department might.
So, summarizing my rant: I think learning the languages of your Gods’ culture is a very worthwhile experience that might bring you closer to your chosen culture and also foster a new and closer relationship with your Gods (imagine how you’d feel if your friend/loved one made the effort to study your language – you’d be pleased, wouldn’t you?). However, in contrast to Kondratiev I suggest that far from acquiring native speaker-like skills, learning the most important phrases and pronunciations correctly will be enough for most of our ritual practice.
While my post centred on Irish, the question obviously extends to other recon faiths – is speaking Greek important when you’re devoted to Zeus? Should you learn German, Swedish, Norwegian or Icelandic when you follow the Northern and Germanic gods? I’m debating learning at least one of these in honour of Odin (Who I address in German, by the way). But first on my ever-growing list of languages to learn is Polish, since my grandma was born in Poland. And I’m looking forward to calling her and saying “Hello grandma, how are you?” in her language.
After all my ranting, I’m interested in your opinion. Do you speak the language of the Gods you follow? Do you think it is necessary at all?
* “Dia duit” is an Irish greeting, roughly translated as “God to you.”
Kondratiev, Alexei. 2003. The Apple Branch. A Path to Celtic Ritual. New York: Kensington.
Zimbardo, Phillip and Richard Gerrig. 2008. Psychologie. München: Pearson Studium. [German edition]