books


I just finished the Kathāsaritsāgara (The Ocean of Story), by Somadeva, written in Kashmīr in the 11C. Or, well, an abridgment of it, in Arshia Sattar’s very readable modern translation.

vidyadhara

A vidyādhara. Nice booties!

The original Kathāsaritsāgara is about six times longer, and claims to be itself an abridgment of a book called the Brihatkathā, written by a celestial being named Guṇāḍhya in his own blood, in Paiśācī, the language of the piśācas, the lowest class of demons. Rather too much scholarly time has been spent on the trail of this mythical book in a mythical language— even some modern scholars are convinced that Paiśācī was a real language, though there exists not a scrap of it nor the Brihatkathā.

I’ve talked about the nested stories in the Hitopadeśabut Somadeva has them beat. Navigating one particular part of the ocean:

  • Śiva is asked by his wife Parvātī to tell a story no one has heard before.  He tells the story of the vidyādharas, celestial beings with magical powers such as flight and shape-changing. He tells it in a locked room. One of their attendants is curious about this and uses his own powers to enter invisibly; he listens to the story and tells it to his wife, who tells it to Parvātī.  Parvātī is angry at Śiva, since it appears everyone knows this story! Śiva divines what happened and explains, whereupon Parvātī punishes the attendant to live as a mortal.
  • This attendant, now living as a mortal, is Guṇāḍhya. He has a whole book’s worth of adventures; one consequence is that he takes a vow not to use Sanskrit, which is why when he writes the Brihatkathā he uses an ignoble language. His curse will end when he spreads this story to the world. To accomplish this, he sends it to a king, who rejects it because it is written in Paiśācī. Sadly, Guṇāḍhya begins to read and burn the manuscript. Finally the king happens to come to the place where Guṇāḍhya is reading, and is enchanted with the stories. Guṇāḍhya has burned 6 of the 7 books, but he gives the last book to the king, ending his curse.
  • Now we come to the story told in that book, which is the framing device for the rest of the stories: the story of the human prince Naravāhanadatta, how he accumulated an impressive harem of human and celestial wives, and finally became a vidyādhara himself and emperor of the vidyādharas. Most of the other stories are told to him to amuse or distract him, or because they relate to some of his problems.
  • One of the these stories, related by his minister Gomukha, concerns the king Sumanas.  One day a tribal woman arrives, a stunning beauty, who has a parrot. The parrot can talk, and is asked for his story.
  • The parrot tells about growing up in a tree, until hunters come by and kill the parrots there, including his father.  A brahmin rescues the young parrot and takes him to his guru, who laughs.  He laughs because he knows the story of the parrot’s previous birth.
  • The guru tells the story of the prince Somaprabha, who does what valorous princes do— conquers the surrounding lands. Far from home, he comes to a lake where a beautiful vidyādhara woman is singing.
  • She tells him her story. She is Manorathaprabhā, the daughter of a vidyādhara king. She used her powers of flight to wander the world, and fell in love with an ascetic. They are briefly separated, and unable to bear this, the ascetic kills himself. The voice of a god prevents Manorathaprabhā from doing the same. Her friend Makarandikā now arrives and falls in love with Somaprabha…

Eventually Somadeva clears the stack and finishes each of these stories appropriately. (If you’re curious, the parrot is Makarandikā’s father under a curse.)

As you can imagine, this structure allows Somadeva to include pretty much any story he’s heard. There are animal stories overlapping with the Hitopadeśa, and jātaka stories (which are stories of the Buddha’s previous births), and vampire stories, and a tiny little retelling of the Rāmāyaṇa. There’s a whole book devoted to stories of the wickedness of women, and to balance them, stories of virtuous women triumphing over wicked men. There’s even an amusing libel about Pāṇini, author of the great, definitive Sanskrit grammar: that he was a dull scholar who only received his grammar from the gods as a reward for austerities.

I have my doubts about the spiritual value of the doctrine of saṃsāra— the endless cycle of rebirth— it’s too easy a solution to the problem of pain. It seems like a copout to blame present suffering on misdeeds in a past life. But the Indian storytellers show the real value of saṃsāra: as a narrative device. Neil Gaiman has noted that stories, if prolonged too far, always end in death. But with saṃsāra, death is only a temporary milestone, a chance for a story to change gears. In these stories, celestial beings are constantly being cursed to be mortals or animals, wives and lovers recur as in a cosmic dance, and stories dash madly from the heavens to the bottom of the ocean to all across historical India.

Malice is usually punished, and virtue is often rewarded… but so is a certain roguish opportunism. There are plenty of ascetics here, and people who tire of the pleasure of the world and go off to meditate in the forest— but Somadeva doesn’t seem to really believe in mokṣa. Here, asceticism too may only be a phase, perhaps ended by falling in love with a vidyādhara, or some other contrivance.

The Ten Princes had a certain unity of theme— men rising from nothing to find wives and become kings— and the Hitopadeśa is all animal stories, so this book is much more miscellaneous. But that’s a virtue in its own way: if one set of stories doesn’t quite thrill you, the next might.

I think my favorite stories are the stories of the vetāla, more or less the Indian equivalent of the vampire. They are spirits who reanimate dead bodies. A king, Vikrama, is visited by a beggar every day for ten years, and given a fruit. He gives the fruits to his treasurer, but one day he instead gives it to a passing monkey, and a jewel comes out. He asks the treasurer about the other fruits, and the honest man answers that he has simply thrown them into the treasury through a window. They go to look, and find that the fruits all rotted away, leaving an immense treasure.

This naturally makes the king ask the beggar what’s up. The beggar says that he was hoping to get the king to do him a favor. The king agrees. He is told to come to a cremation ground at night to meet the beggar.

Once there, the beggar asks him to walk to a tree and bring him the corpse that’s hanging from it.  The king goes and cuts it down, but it turns out to be inhabited by a vetāla. As the king is taking him back to the beggar, the vetāla begins telling him stories. But the stories are also riddles, and the king has to answer each one correctly. For instance, a washing man falls in love with a woman named Madanasundarī. She goes with her new husband and his brother to a temple of Parvātī, but they have nothing to offer as a sacrifice. Her husband goes in and is so overcome by the religious atmosphere that he feels he must sacrifice something— and having nothing else, cuts off his own head. His brother comes after him, and seeing his head on the floor, does the same. Madanasundarī finally goes after them, and is shocked to see them both dead. She is about to kill herself when the goddess intervenes. She tells the girl to reattach the heads to the bodies, and they will be restored to life.  This she does, but in her excitement she puts the wrong heads on the bodies.

Now, the vetāla asks, which man was really her husband— the man with her husband’s head, or the one with his body?  Vikrama responds that the man with the head is her real husband: “the head rules the limbs and personal identity depends on the head.”  (This sounds reasonable to us, but then we believe that we live in our brains, which was not an opinion shared by all cultures.)

After a couple dozen stories, the vetāla reveals that the beggar is a sorcerer, and plans to sacrifice the king to him to achieve power over the vidyādharas. The beggar will ask him to lay down on the ground in a certain way.  The vetāla tells him to ask the beggar to show him how; the king should then cut off his head.  The king does just this.  The vetāla disappears and Śiva makes Vikrama king of the vidyādharas.  Which in turn brings us back to Naravāhanadatta, who at this point in the framing story also becomes king of the vidyādharas.

Anyway: bottom line, if you can find Sattar’s translation, go get it.  It’s a quick read and you won’t regret it.

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The book of mine which I use the most is The Conlanger’s Lexipedia. Enough, in fact, that my paperback copy is getting too worn. So I created a hardcover edition!

clex-hard

Lulu charges more than I’d like, but on the other hand I can put it on sale! So for now, you can pick it up for $28.76. That’s less than it costs to go out for dinner! And heck, I’ve put the hardcover Language Construction Kit on sale too.

I also took the opportunity to update the text, correcting a few embarrassing errors. Also, the latest copy of Word, amazingly, can hold the whole book in memory at once without crashing. So I was able to add the first few chapters to the index.

Go buy a few!

I think I’ve written a book. This is a special verb aspect, the “dubious completive.” As any author can tell you, a book isn’t done till it’s available for purchase, and that just means the author has finally shrugged and decided to put any further changes into the next edition.

Anyway, the India Construction Kit is at the point where it needs readers.  Is that you?

India-Topo-teaser

If so, contact me (you probably have my e-mail, but if not it’s here). It’d be nice to have a mix of readers who know and don’t know something about India.  (Though if you have some special expertise, please mention it!)  I will need feedback in the next month or two, so keep that in mind if you’re entering cryostasis or something for that period.

I usually get more readers than I can handle; if you offered before but didn’t get a chance to read last time, tell me and I’ll try to make sure you’re included.

Edit: Got a good crew already. If you’re still interested, watch this space for the second draft.  (If you’re actually South Asian, though, write me!)

If for some reason you’re unclear, this is much like my China book, only not about China. It gives a somewhat brief overview of Indian history (believe me, not even the scholars memorize the dozens of dynasties of medieval times), moves to a fairly extensive discussion of Indian religions. Then there’s chapters on daily life, clothing, and architecture. Finally, there are grammatical overviews of Sanskrit, Hindi, and Tamil.

The primary audience is expected to be conlangers and conworlders, who will find plenty of interest to help stop making Standard European Fantasy Kingdoms. But it’s really for anyone who doesn’t feel up to speed on one of the planet’s biggest and most vibrant civilizations.

I’ve just read two books in what might be a new subgenre: People Gawking at Modern 51-9UeT8hwL._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_India. They are India Becoming by Akash Kapur, and India Calling by Anand. Besides having similar titles and themes, they both have quotes by William Dalrymple on the back cover.

Both writers are Indian by descent, spent their formative years in the US, and went to live in India to report on its remarkable boom times. Kapur is Tamil and focuses on Tamil Nadu; Giridharadas has roots in Mumbai and reports from there and other northern cities. They also share methods: the books are a mixture of personal reflections and the stories of people they met and talked to.

Per capita GDP in India has increased sixfold since 1960— most of this since the economic liberalization of 1991. The result is a scramble, generally successful, to make money. This means former Dalits getting rich; poor people upgrading from grass huts to concrete houses; one billion people getting cell phones; cities expanding into their hinterlands; the upper quintile hastening to get cars and air conditioners.

The left these days distrusts money, and it has good reason to do so.  But money is one of the best and fastest ways of dissolving old systems of oppression.  Brahmins can’t keep oppressing Dalits when the latter can quit their ancient professions, make money in a new one, and move into the rich part of town. Women can’t be held under their family’s thumb when they have their own jobs or houses, or even their own businesses. Caste restrictions on professions mean nothing when people can simply study for a new job, or just move to a new city and take one.

Of course, the boom has its downsides. Both authors are originally enthralled by the new opportunities and new attitudes, but some people are left behind, and there are new things to worry about. Indira Gandhi once dismissed pollution as something only First World nations needed to worry about; now it’s a growing threat within India. Kapur meets people living on a growing, unregulated trash dump. Appalled, he promises that he’ll do everything he can to shut it down. The people are aghast and beg him not to: it’s their livelihood— skimming the landfill for things to use— and they don’t have any other. Kapur also mentions the problem of thugs: it’s cheap and easy to hire them, and they’re used for instance to pressure farmers to sell their land.

The opportunities within a boom can verge on the comic. Giridharadas meets a man, once a penniless Dalit, who has become a big man in a small town. His first big venture was English lessons— there’s a mania for learning English even in the middle of nowhere. (These schools are rough-and-ready, concentrating on teaching idiom and practical speaking rather than literature.) He also organized a local beauty pageant, for both men and women. But he only made it big with… roller skating. He established a roller skating team and ended up coaching the national team. Giridharadas also finds a man who write puff pieces for technological journals in English, and Maoist polemics in Telugu.

Giridharadas is the wittier author; for instance, he describes Indians’ passion for knowing his “native place”, which turns out to mean “where my ancestors had most recently milked cows, even if ‘recent’ meant the year 1500.” He recounts a typical conversation where people ask where is he from.  Washington DC, he replies.  No, no, he is Indian, where is he from?  He was born in Ohio. No, no, your native place.  His parents grew up in Mumbai.  Ah, so you are Maharashtrian.  Well, no, his parents were Tamil and Punjabi— they met in Mumbai. So, basically, you are Punjabi— your father is from Punjab?  No, that’s his mother, his father is Tamil.  Ah, so basically you are South Indian.

Both authors marvel at the changes in gender relations. Arranged marriage is still common. On the other hand, dating and premarital sex are becoming common too. Some women still take the role of always-submissive helper/cook; others indignantly reject it. As love marriages rise, so do divorces.

(Both books were written before Modi’s BJP took power in 2014, so they don’t address the rise of right-wing nationalism, and indeed have little to say about politics at all.)

The books are long on stories, short on analysis. And they rely a lot on chance contacts— but then, knowing the local language, they are far better informed than the Western style of talking only to one’s cab driver and a few high officials.

It’s interesting to compare these books to those of earlier observers, such as Octavio Paz’s In Light of India (1995) and V.S. Naipaul’s India: A Million Mutinies Now (1990). Paz is full of solidarity as a fellow Third Worlder, but finds it most easy to relate to India’s great history in literature and religion. Naipaul is terribly worried at the centrifugal tendencies of Indian society.

Latest book: The Golden Tradition: An Anthology of Urdu Poetry, edited and translated by Ahmed Ali. I think I can reuse the illo of Babur and Humayun here, since Babur was probably reciting some verse.  In Persian, not Urdu, I know.

babur

Ali is a great guide– knowledgeable, enthusiastic, tolerant, a font of details.  What he isn’t (warning: my opinion) is a great translator. He’ll introduce a poem or a poet, rhapsodic over just how wonderful and beautiful they are, and it just kind of washes over me.  At random, here’s (most of) a ghazal by Mir Taki Mir, who is said to be the greatest of the 18C Urdu poets:

For days the thought of parting
Had haunted my afflicted breast
Now it was pain, and now a wound
At times a blow, at times a thrust.

At dawn the happy happy world
Was no less kind than on the night
Of sorrow, for the lamp was turned
To smoke, the moth reduced to dust.

Yet if annihilated was
The heart, it was but just as well,
For sometimes it was with the heat
Of love a burn, sometimes a hurt.

…If ever you chance to pass that way
O breeze, then tell her: Faithless one,
But sad and lonely Mir alone
Was in your garden a prickly thorn.

Part of it is because of the type of poetry I like, which is: very little.  I find classic English poetry excruciatingly dull, and I really kind of hate traditional meter, traditional poetic diction, and what seems like a thick overcoat of sentiment. And for the most part Ali seems to translate from Urdu into just that style of poetry.  Alert readers who like poetry: is this great stuff that I happen to be immune to?

(I like Chinese poetry much more.  It’s quick and visual, and not much given to repetition or sentimentality.  Also, I’m sure the Urdu poems are great in Urdu, which is why I’m blaming poor Mr. Ali.)

Still, it has its moments.  Some I am saving for the book, but I’ll give a few interesting bits that didn’t fit in.  There’s one long poem, by Mirza Mohammad Rafi Sauda, that’s highly entertaining; it’s the complaint of a man whose horse is an utter disaster.  Here’s the final stanza:

Thanks be at last my earnest prayer was heard,
And I could manage to reach the battlefield
Somehow, and with a warlike cry I made
To fight. But as a Maratha came to meet
Me, the lean beast, abject, dry as a bone,
Put me to utter shame and mean disgrace.
I egged it on with kicks and shouts in vain,
And charged on foot like a child without the mount.
Then in my helpless and apathetic state
I bolted from the scene of action, shoes
In hand, the steed in my arms, in shameful haste.

Another long poem by Mir Ghulam Hasan, retelling an epic, is interesting for having a description of the hero rather than just the heroine:

But when at last they came quite near
They saw a youth so comely, fair,
Of age about sixteen, in truth,
Nights of longing, days of youth.
Over his lip soft down showed new
Which shamed the heavens’ clear blue.
Nimble of body, strong of limb,
Fresh of face, both tall and slim,
His whole appearance like a mirror
Showing the garden of goodness, hair
So elegant, proud its every tress,
Glowing with health and youthfulness.
Wise of look and sharp of eye,
Forehead full of bravery.

Finally, on the emo side, here’s part of a poem by Momin Khan Momin on the death of his beloved.

Autumn has tarnishes the beauty of the rose,
Faded are the cheeks that once has glowed,
Who in the house had never thought it right
To go unveiled, is carried through the streets.
The head that was as cypress held erect
Now low is laid, gone all its wantonness.
The eyes of the beauty who was breath of my breath
Who dreamed with me my dreams, are closed in death.

 

 

 

If you’ve been following this blog, you may be thinking that I haven’t read much about India lately. On the contrary! I’ve been reading plenty, but a lot of it is pretty dry.

The exception is Tales of the Ten Princes (Daśa Kumāra Carita), by Daṇḍin, which I just finished. Your first question will undoubtedly be, why isn’t it Daśa Kumārāḥ, in the plural? Or even Daśānām Kumārāṇām, in the plural genitive? I’m pretty sure it’s because the title is a compound, i.e. Daśakumāracarita (दशकुमारचरित), and only the last root in a compound is declined.

Daṇḍin lived in Kāñcī, in the Tamil region, sometime around 700.  He’s also known for a work on literary stylistics, Kāvyādarśa. In that work he describes two ways of writing Sanskrit, the simpler style of the south, and the ornate style of the east. Ten princes is written mostly in the simpler style; perhaps to show his mastery of the ornate style, Daṇḍin also wrote a work (unfortunately lost) which, making use of the amazing number of synonyms in classical Sanskrit, is a simultaneous recounting of both the Rāmāyaṇa and the Mahābhārata.

So, on to the Princes. It’s basically a set of short stories linked by a framing device. In the frame, the king Rājahaṃsa loses his kingdom and escapes to a forest. However, his wife is pregnant, and there is a prophecy that the child will restore the kingdom. The boy grows up to be Rājavāhana, hero of the story. He grows up in the forest, and in a quick sequence, is joined by nine companions— sons of ministers as well as kings’ sons conveniently mislaid in the forest.

They grow up into strapping young lads, and finally go out seeking conquests.  Almost immediately Rājavāhana is invited into a quest in the netherworld. His companions separate and wander all over India seeking him. In each of the stories a prince comes to a city, falls in love, and by various manners becomes a king. Finally they all find each other and each narrates his story.  Then, of course, Rājavāhana regains his kingdom with their help, in effect becoming emperor, with his friends as kings under him.

The stories are short, unlikely, and a lot of fun.  They’re picaresque— indeed, many are cheerfully amoral. Though Rājavāhana himself is heroic, not a few of the princes resort to fraud, murder, or theft. It’s a good corrective if, like me, you’ve been reading rather a lot about Indian religions. There’s a whole lot of kāma (love) and plenty of artha (ambition), only a minimum of dharma (righteousness).

For example, the predicament of the prince Mantragupta is that his beloved, the princess Kanakalekhā, has been taken in a raid by the king of a neighboring land, Jayasiṃha. The princess pretends to be possessed by a yakṣa (a type of demon), but this will only put off the king temporarily.

Mantragupta finds a way, however. He goes to the king’s city and pretends to be a powerful ascetic, one who knows all the Vedas, can cure all illnesses, and has supernatural powers. Jayasiṃha is taken in; he comes to see the sage and asks for help with the yakṣaridden maiden. Mantragupta agrees to help: the king must merely bathe in a certain pool, and he will be transformed into a body which the girl will find irresistible. He must have his army secure the pool first, of course. The king agrees.  (However unlikely the strategies proposed in this book, the other characters invariably go along.)

But Mantragupta has previously made a secret recess in the pool which has an underwater exit. When the king comes and waits in the water, Mantragupta comes out, strangles him, and hides the body in the recess. He comes out, pretending to be the king in his new body.  He rescues his princess and enjoys his new kingdom.

In another chapter, there’s an amusing passage where a king’s friend give him advice that is exactly contrary to Kauṭilya or Manu. E.g., one of the traditional sins of kings was gambling. The friend gives this advice:

Gambling too has merits. The renunciation of quantities of wealth, as if it is no more than straw, gives an incomparable liberality of the temperament. The uncertainty of gain or loss makes the heart impervious to joy or sorrow. The capacity increases for wrath, the prime fount of valor. The observation of exceedingly subtle legerdemain with dice and sleights of hand provides an infinite sharpness to the intellect. Concentration on one subject assures an exceptional single-mindedness.  Delight increases in daring, the companion of enterprise. Competition with the strong-minded makes for self-confidence, indomitability and magnanimity.

Of course the king is being led to his doom, but the extended argument makes for a nice parody of moralistic authors.

Similarly playful: one chapter is told without any labial consonants, as the narrating prince has a sore lip, from too much lovemaking.  Take that, Georges Perec!  (The translator doesn’t even attempt this in English, though Wikipedia suggests that another recent translation does.)

Most of the princes fall in love at first sight with a woman, and this is always reciprocated. One, indeed, gets the woman to fall in love by sending her a portrait of himself. This gives Daṇḍin the chance to grow effusive over the women. As one prince says:

All the limbs of this maiden are pure in complexion and without any blemish. They are neither too gross nor too meagre, not too long or too short. The inner sides of her fingers are pink, and the palms of her hands bear many auspicious signs like the barley grain, the fish, the lotus, and the jar. Her ankles are even. Her feet are plump and unmarked by veins. Her well-rounded calves so merge into ample thighs that the knees are hardly noticeable. The bottom is smooth, perfectly divided, beautifully dimpled and round as a wheel. The navel is small, a little low and deep. A triple line adorns the abdomen. A large bosom with upturned nipples covers the breast. The shoulders slope smoothly into supple arms. The fingernails have the fine gloss of gems. The fingers are tapering, soft, and copper-hued. 

Her neck is slender and graceful like a conchshell. Her face is like a lotus flower, with lips red and rounded, nose like a flower bud, handsome chin and shapely temples. Her forehead shines like the crescent moon and her wavy hair like a line of sapphires. Her dark eyebrows are arched and well-separated, and her eye are bright and wide with a glance both merry and languorous. Her ears are ornamented only with loops of pale lotus sets. Her abundant hair is dark and fragrant and simply dressed.

It’s interesting to compare this description with temple statues, which depict the same kind of very curvy body.

One prince finds that his lover is already married, producing an ethical dilemma:

My purpose is almost accomplished, but sleeping with another’s wife will hurt dharma. However, the compilers of the scriptures permit this if both artha and kāma are attained at the same time. I am committing this transgression to free my parents from jail. That should neutralize any sin, and may also reward me with some fraction of dharma.

Fortunately for him, Ganeśa himself appears in a  dream and tells him to proceed.

About the only negative to these stories is that they’re almost weightless.  The characters are vivid and range from princes to ascetics to thieves to courtesans to Jain monks to Greek sailors to jungle warriors, the plots are amusing, but it’s hard to remember them an hour later.  And the cities, though they’re scattered all over India, the cities all melt together.  But these are tales built to entertain, and they still do, 1300 years later.

If you do pick this up, try to get the modern translation by Aditya N. D. Haksar.

 

 

The Fan’s Guide to Neo-Sindarin, by Fiona Jallings, is now out. Here’s where you can buy it. It’s about Neo-Sindarin.

fiona-cover

This is partly a Yonagu Books production: I edited the book and did the book design. But I enjoyed the book a lot and I think most conlangers would.

Tolkien is the greatest of conlangers, and one of the most frustrating. He has an effortless good taste that few of us can match.

I goth ’wîn drega o gwen sui ’wath drega o glawar!
the enemy our flees from us like shadow flees from sunlight
Our enemy flees from us like a shadow flees from sunlight!

You get the feeling that every word has been carefully hand-crafted and polished for decades, probably because it has. He was a linguist, knew his Indo-European and sound changes inside out, and knew how to make a language seem familiar yet with few outright borrowings. The feel of his languages is so natural that it’s become a cliché. (If you’re planning an orcish language, I advise you not to imitate the Black Speech.)

What he couldn’t do for the life of him was finish a language, or write a grammar. He kept messing with things, and he never properly explained even some of the basics. Quenya is in pretty good shape, but Sindarin is woefully underspecified.

That’s where Neo-Sindarin comes in. It’s an attempt by multiple people to finish the language, at least to the point of usability.  There are glaring holes— entire tenses or lines of paradigms, the copula, the pronominal system, just aren’t complete. It would be a little grotesque to make up words to fill things out, and the Neo-Sindarinists don’t do that. They scour the published texts and the slowly accumulating extra material; they extrapolate carefully from Proto-Elvish or from early drafts of Noldorin.

Because so much material has been published only in the last few years, Fiona’s book is pretty much state of the art. It’s a textbook (with exercises), organized in such a way that it can serve as a reference grammar.  You can learn Neo-Sindarin or just learn how it works. It’s also an annotated introduction to the reconstruction process; you can see exactly what was reconstructed, and by whom, and what that’s based on. And it’s lively, or at least as lively as a language textbook can be.

There are also sections on (e.g.) naming and cosmology that remind us that Tolkien was not only a linguist, but a medievalist. The elves are more different from modern humans than many an sf alien.

For me, the most interesting bit was peeking behind the curtain into Tolkien’s study as he conlangs. As I’ve been studying Sanskrit, it’s fascinating to see glimpses of Indo-European poke out in Elvish, such as umlaut and multiple verb stems.

In Sindarin, Tolkien made extensive— really extensive— use of mutations, as in Celtic (and these are not dissimilar to Sanskrit’s sandhi).  There are half a dozen types of mutation, and they make for patterns like this:

drambor – a fist
i dhrambor – the fist
in dremboer – the fists

The article i, you see, triggers vocalic mutation, while the plural in triggers nasal mutation. Often mutation takes on a syntactic role: e.g. only the presence of mutation distinguishes the structure i ’wend bain “the maiden is beautiful” from i ’wend vain “the beautiful maiden”. (Bain is the un-mutated form.)

Sindarin has particularly complex pluralization rules, yet they go back to a very simple rule: add –i to the end. Only the i triggers two separate sound changes, one affecting potentially every vowel in the word, the other moving the –i into the last syllable (and causing some changes there).  And for some words you need to know the ancient form.

Beginning conlangers often want to make simpler languages, Esperanto-style; but later on we usually get a taste for complexity. But merely being weird or randomly irregular is not interesting. Sindarin is a master class in getting complexity out of some fairly simple ideas.

And also, you know, in finishing your grammar. Tolkien had the reworking bug; he was one of those people who can’t stop fiddling with his creation. But really, people, take a sheet of paper and write out all your pronouns.

The other area where most conlangers could learn from Tolkien is in the lexicon. Creating words, he was in his element. This is the opposite of machine-generating a word list and assigning each an English meaning. His words have a history going back to Proto-Elvish and interesting derivations, and they all sound good.

Anyway, I hope you have a wide collection of natlang grammar and a few conlangs; Fiona’s book is a great addition to that part of the shelf.

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