My Prima Donna Swamp Princess [ 1 ] : Sojourn

  • 2005-08-31
Who but I, uncouth academic, could have expected - no, deserved - such an acquaintance? I mean, synchronicity has tossed together some strange characters in unlikely circumstances, but the way it conspired to join the two of us, in the bogs outside Marijampole, was downright ludicrous.

Yet with the wisdom of hindsight, I have come to believe that her explanation for how it all panned out is the most rational: It was not random chance that brought us together, but a whim of the gods. I smile each time I recall how she bemoaned our encounter. Oh, Perkunai!

I had just departed from Kaunas to begin my lengthy sojourn across Suvalkia, the southwestern region of Lithuania. I had a Volkswagen Golf, a trunk full of books, and a soul yearning for intellectual stimuli. Most of all, I had my Sony voice recorder and an IBM ThinkPad. Outcast linguist at an American university, I intended to single-handedly recreate the Germanic-Slavic-Baltic protolanguage, and my first step was to compile a complete catalogue of Lithuania's most archaic dialect. The rich consonantal system of the tongue that so fascinated the fathers of modern linguistics had beckoned me long ago in the beginning of my career, and I was finally heeding its call. I intended to tape it forwards and backwards.

Now I don't doubt that most of you know that Lithuanian is the oldest - often said, the most conservative - living Indo-European language. Standard knowledge around these parts. But I bet you don't "live" the fact as I do. If someone were to say the Lithuanian word jega (power), you're likely just to hear two syllables. I, on the other hand, instantly register a front-vowel palatalization of proto-Indo European "*aig," an unattested root-word that, via the law the Grimm brothers gave posterity, you may recognize as oak - that beloved tree of all Balts, once upon a time the pagan symbol of "divine power."

Likewise, I'm sure you know that wealth in ancient times was measured in terms of livestock. So English "pecuniary" comes from Latin pecunia, meaning wealth, with the root being "peku," or cattle (which, by the way, is the same word in Sudovian, a Baltic language.) But did you know that nauda in Latvian is a cognate of ancient Scandinavian "naut," also cattle, which in turn evolved into "neat" - again, cattle - in Old English?

I'm just getting warmed up. Let's take a closer look at lord and lady, two words that call to mind nobility, propriety and all that other Anglo-Saxon aristocratic crap. The truth, however, is far more pedestrian and boils down to… a loaf of bread! Lord is a shortening of Old English "hlaford" and means "bread-guard" - from "hlaf" (loaf) and "weard" (guardian) - while lady, originally "hlaefdige," denotes a "bread-kneader." So there you go. Next time you hear news of British royalty, think of a sweaty virago slaving away over a vat of dough.

I love these little histories. I could go on for hours, days even, once I get started. Every word is its own complex puzzle, and this is why phonology and etymology were my hobby as far back as my teenage years. For that I was called a geek, nerd, pedant, esoteric nincompoop (and at several recent academic conferences, much worse). But I don't mind. I'm a thrall to my passion. When I hear talk of infixes, isoglosses, case syncretism, lengthened o-grade formations, I get, well, titillated.

Weird, isn't it? Believe me, she thinks so, too.

Anyhow, I now understand my obsession was a blessing of the gods. The ancient Baltic ones. After my encounter in Suvalkia, my vocation would be my vindication. For if I hadn't been drawn to the swamps, I would've never stumbled upon her.

Ah, Arva! Thorn in my pride, feather of my ear. Surely no two individuals in contemporary Baltic history were more appropriate for each other than me and my "born-again" princess. And if you don't believe that, then I'll defy you and go further: Surely no tale more than ours better reflects the absurd pathos of an era.

The question is, which era?

Hers, or ours?