Wednesday, June 14, 2017

A Very Short Gnomish Glossary (non-Tolkien)

So, Tolkien's GNOMISH LEXICON is well-known,* and the Sindarin deriving from it is one of the world's most famous invented languages. Recently I became aware that there was a second gnomish language, this one poorly attested (in fact, we only know two words from it).

I am speaking of course of the once-popular book GNOMES by Wil Huygen (text) and Rien Poortvliet (art), which had a vogue in the late '70s (and was much imitated) but is now I think pretty much forgotten.

I recently tracked down a copy and reread it for the first time in many years, as part of a larger discussion (still ongoing) I've been having with some friends about the origins of gnomes as a player-character race in D&D. It does not stand up well, but I was bemused to find that it does give a little 'Gnomish' in passing.

The first occasion is when we are told about mid-book (GNOMES having no pagination) that the Gnomes' word for 'goodnight' is slitzweitz.

The second occasion comes about a third of the way from the end, on a full page with the header 'Language':

Among themselves gnomes speak their own language. 
But since we come in contact only with solitary gnomes, 
we never hear it. (They can become very difficult 
if asked about their language.) It is certain, however,
that animals understand it. "Goodnight" is slitzweitz
and "thank you" is te diews. We did not progress much
beyond these few words mainly because the gnomes
master man's languages perfectly. And if they cannot
place a word, they immediately ask its meaning. 
Their written language is the ancient runic script.

Beneath this is a picture of a gnome saying "Slitzweitz" = Goodbye
--a slightly different gloss from goodnight but no doubt close enough.

And that's it: I don't know if they made up more words in 'Gnomish' in the books that followed (only the first few of which I read, and that long ago -- definitely a case of diminished returns) but I thought it worth sharing that they at least made the effort. Though I suspect they were inspired more by Richard Adam's WATERSHIP DOWN than JRRT.

--John R.
current reading: PRESIDENT FU MANCHU by Sax Rohmer (1936)**

*among Tolkien scholars, anyway.
**which I bought way back when working on the PULP CTHULHU project but have never read till now.


Murilegus rex said...

I wonder why Huygen's and Poortvliet's creatures (kabouters in the Dutch original) were called gnomes in the English translation, because I always saw them as more akin to household spirits (which kabouters actually are, as far as I understand them) than to the more malignant, treasure-hoarding underground dwellers that gnomes used to be. I guess it is the rise of the garden gnome that has changed the image of gnomery forever ...

Magister said...

Still in print in English and there was even a 30th Anniversary Edition, so I wouldn't call it forgotten.

N.E. Brigand said...

I remember enjoying the book in my childhood. The gnomes reminded me of the brownies in the beautifully illustrated holiday children's book Jolly Old Santa Claus (1958). But I hadn't thought about Gnomes since, except when seeing a garden gnome. Wikipedia says those figurines enjoyed a resurgence in the 1970s. Did that prompt this book? Or was it prompted by the book? Garden gnomes make notable appearances in two fun 1990s films, The Full Monty and Amelie.

Prompted by your post, I was surprised to find that the Gnomes book led to a film and two television series.

ATMachine said...

I suppose the translation "gnomes" came about because English doesn't really have a word for the sort of tutelary household spirits that other languages do (Latin Lares, German Kobolds, Slavic Domovoi). Old English probably did, but the words -- and the associated practice -- probably fell out of use after the Norman Conquest.

ATMachine (Andrew McCarthy)

John D. Rateliff said...

Thanks to all for the comments.

ATM: we do have a name for such house-spirits in English (not so much american) tradition: Brownies or, further back, Hobs. I did a good deal of work on these back when researching THE DENHAM TRACTS and they fit the bill pretty well.

As for 'gnomes', I think it's a good example of the difference between a word that Tolkien reclaimed (like 'elves' and 'dwarves' and to an extent 'goblins' as well) and those he didn't (like 'fairies' and 'gnomes'). Between garden gnomes and elementals and the old movie THE GNOMEMOBILE 'gnome' and the illusionist-jokesters of D&D, gnome is just all over the place.


Paul W said...

I'd love to hear more about that discussion on how gnomes became a PC race for D&D. :)