My Prima Donna Swamp Princess [ 15 ] : Reminiscing

  • 2005-12-07
Arva didn't recognize most towns on the Lithuanian map, but there was a handful that struck a chord. She recalled Kaunas and Kernave, of course, and even claimed to remember when Vilkija was founded, circa 1430. All the modern trappings had her feeling lost; the cell phone meant nothing to her, the ATM was a Teutonic sham. So she expressed a desire to see ancient castles and sacred hilltops. She wanted to trace her roots. So she studied a map of the region I had on the dashboard, and soon she found an anchor. Thus upon her request, after we spent the night in a Marijampole hotel, I took her to see Veliuona, a village on Suvalkia's northern crescent. I didn't object to the idea, since I could carry on with my linguistic research in that area as well. For me, it was all an adventure.

Along the way we exchanged small talk, and I learned more about Arva's upbringing and the intensity of her adolescent years, which she spent traveling and forging bonds among the disparate Baltic tribes to prevent the Christianization of the region. Soon her narrative drifted deeper into her childhood, and though I couldn't follow everything she said, the wistful tone of her voice needed no interpretation. She recalled her innate fondness for trees, flowers, berries, mushrooms. How Baltic, I thought (somewhat sarcastically, I'll admit.)

By way of forcing myself to pay attention, I started playing that linguistic game of mine, which basically consists of chopping down words etymologically and pinpointing their common heritage. Where I could, I pondered their psycho-mythico-cosmological significance.

But she was all over the place linguistically. She used "sena" for mushroom, which although Latvian was originally Finno-Ugric, then for oak she would say "tamm" (Estonian) in one breath and then "anzonas" (Yotvingian) in the next. As you can see, it was definitely hard keeping up with ole' Arva.

Then the princess told me about her pet dog. Suns, I thought; Latvian for dog. Easily recognized in the English word cynosure - literally, "dog's tail" - which denotes a focal or guiding point. It is Greek by origin, but we could take a different route and get to the same point. Take Indo-European *kwon 's where the "k" changes to "s" in proto-Baltic and "h" in Germanic, giving us our word hound. Oh, how I love language!

"Dogs were invaluable to us," Arva rambled on, "they guarded us from both the crusader and the rat."

Rat, I repeated in my head. Now there's an interesting one. "Among contemporary man the rat doesn't get the credit it deserves," I said, interrupting her flight down memory lane. "Thousands of years ago it used to be considered the guardian of subterranean secrets, a source of prophesy and clairvoyance. I mean, come on, it's no coincidence the German word 'rat' means advice, and Old English 'wraett' means wealth."

"You are a crusader," the princess said. "You know so well the language of the Christian oppressor."

To this jibe I struck back the best way I could. "On the other hand, the rat has many phallic connotations. 'Ret' in Old Indic denotes the male seed, while 'rethr' in Icelandic is penis," I explained (quite scientifically, I might add in my defense).

"Oh, Perkunai! There you go again, and it's not even noon!"

I bit my bottom lip. How was I to explain to her, princess from the 15th century, that it was not I who made up these words.

"Anyway, I remember my parents bred horses, hogs's"

More sexual symbolica, I thought with a subdued sigh. Hog! In Old English 'hagan' meant genitalia, and in German 'hecken' can mean mating, especially among birds.


The Russian word for chicken, "kuritsa," is directly derived from the root "kur," which is some Slavic languages (Slovenian, for instance) is vulgar for the male member.

"And cows, whose meat we had in abundance 's"

The word 'meso' meant meat, which in turn was related to 'mate.' Another pretty piece of flesh, I thought..

"'s and whose milk we drank aplenty."

Here we had 'piens' [Latvian for milk] and penis.

My oh my, I thought, this woman sure couldn't leave out the innuendo. And I thought I was bad.