May 15th, 2019


A suggestive linguistic trifle

In The Lord of the Rings, there is a land called Khand, southeast of Mordor, whose people are tributary to Sauron. They take part in the Battle of the Pelennor Fields. They are called Variags. One presumes they are Men, not Orcs or Trolls or whatnot. The name is never explained by Tolkien, and no information on their culture or history is ever given.

That said, Tom Shippey points out in Laughing Shall I Die that the Swedish vikings who went east and south to Constantinople and became the Rus originally called themselves vær-gengi, which means those who travel together in a business enterprise (piracy or trade). In Constantinople, this became the name of the emperor's Varangian Guard. It survived into modern Russian, though, as varyag = "trader, pedlar."

Not saying that Tolkien imagined the Variags of Khand to be piratical, mercantile, or mercenary. But as a people of the distant East, living at the southernmost extremity of the plains of Rhun, perhaps he pulled the name out of the recesses of his mind as one that just "sounded right."

My $0.02 worth

When I was in junior high, I was in love with Latin. I hadn’t taken Latin yet, but both my older sisters had, and my mother had in her youth, too. I read a lot of mythology, I knew Roman history, I was primed for it. And I enjoyed my two years of Latin in high school. I can still function in the language to some extent.

That said, I began to feel the tug of Old English at about the age of fourteen. Reading The Lord of the Rings probably prompted this interest, but I had already spent a long time poring over the maps in my mother’s History of England college text. I knew all the kingdoms in the Heptarchy. Unfortunately, I never found any college course in Old English. I never even had a course in the history of the English language – and I’m an English major! So, I’ve had to learn Old and Middle English on my own.

In college, I opted to take German. Five semesters of it. This is the only foreign language I can say I am reasonably fluent in. I can read German, and I can talk on the street in German – as I did a couple years ago in Switzerland. I try to keep up with it.

In seminary, I took a cram course in Koiné Greek, followed by Exegetical Grammar and a Preaching and Exegesis course. I still get out my Greek NT, Concordance, and Lexicon at times, especially if I’m working on a new Bible study. I thought about taking Hebrew in seminary, but by the time I had room for it in my schedule I was a senior and desperate to get out of school. My poor brain was too tired to take on another language. I regret this now.

Since then, I’ve learned to exchange pleasantries in Swahili and French, and I can puzzle out signs and menus and headlines in French, Spanish, and Italian. When one of my Dutch friends posts on FB in his native language, I can often make out most of what he’s saying.

I love accents and dialects and learning the history of words and expressions.

I think the way we teach English in public schools is bizarre, and the way we teach foreign languages is largely useless. Any attempt at curricular reform that doesn’t address the misology of the education establishment will yield no net improvement. In Scouting today, as in the rest of society, we are all trying to show how up to date we are with new STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) programs. But America is still a leader in STEM fields. What Scouting could do to help the youth of America is to launch a Grammar Merit Badge.