Tuesday, 15 June 2010

Maori, Mac Cruislig and Mirab

I thought I'd written about this here before, but no. Above, a trio of pleasant miniature books in Reed's Lilliput series published in 1963 by the New Zealand non-fiction publisher A. H. and A. W. Reed (now a Penguin imprint called Raupo Publishing - a name change to the Maori for "reed" to avoid legal clashes with Reed Elsevier). One's a Maori-English dictionary, one lists Maori placenames, and one lists Maori proverbs.

Bibliographic curiosity apart, I was struck particularly by the strangeness of proverb and idiom in the third book; a large number of the sayings (whakatauki) are rooted in placename, personal or mythological references that are impossible for an outsider to deduce. Some are explicable; some not. "The ear-lobes of Rotu" = we've got nothing for you to eat (i.e. in Rotorua we've no food to offer unless we cut off our ears for you). "So you are rushing off to Orutai!" = you're getting thinner (Orutai being a place that had suffered from famine). "Climbing the mountain of Ruhaine" = growing older. "The fine weather of Hewa" = a state of inner anxiety when things appear outwardly normal. "The plug of Taumarere has come out" = it's crowded here. "The fine weather of Ruhi is spread everywhere" = peace prevails.

Paul Moon, in Traditional Maori Proverbs: Some General Themes, comments that this "personification" is often little-represented in collections of Maori proverbs, perhaps because it's rare in Maori proverbs anyway, but perhaps.
... other possibilities for the scarcity of personification in traditional Maori proverbs include their omission from published collections because the (mainly European) transcribers or publishers were looking for particular types of proverbs suited for particular markets, and hence rejected those proverbs whose personification may have seemed obscure, or may have required extensive prior knowledge ... Kei takahia a Tahu (Lest Tahu be trampled on - Tahu personified food supplies); Kua tu te haka a Tanerore (The dancing of Tanerore has begun - Tanerore is the quasi-religious personification of the quivering, heated air of summer).
However, Maori is not alone in having obscure proverb and idiom. Going right across the world, we find Alexander Nicolson's 1882 A collection of Gaelic proverbs and familiar phrases, based on Macintosh's collection (Internet Archive collectionofgael00nicouoft). Many of the sayings are perfectly clear. For instance:
Am fear a's mo a gheallas, 's e a 's lugha 'choimh-gheallas / He that promises most will perform least.

Am fear a 's luaithe lamh 's e 's fhearr cuid / Quickest hand gets biggest share.
Am fear a's fhearr a chuireas 's e 's fhearr a bhuaineas. He who sows best reaps best.
Others, however, are very strange.
larr gach ni air Camaronach, ach na iarr im air. /Ask anything of a Cameron but butter.

Bughadh an leinibh Ilich, rughadh an teine. / The bloom of the Islay child, the bloom of the fire.
The 'leanabh Ileach' was a remarkable boy, with a hard stepmother, who fed him badly, and heated his face at the fire, when she wished to pass him off as a well-fed ruddy child. See Cuairtear, 1842, p. 79.

Roinn Mhic Cruislig air na crubain / Mac Cruslick's dividing of the crabs.
He put the contents of the best-looking ones into the worst-looking ones, which he afterwards got for himself.

larraidh Mhic Chruislig air na h-eich. / Mac Cruslick's search for the horses.

M.'s master sent him to search for his horses. 'Where shall I look for them ? ' said M. ' Look for them wherever they are or are not likely to be,' said his master. Presently M. was seen on the roof of the house scraping away with a sickle. On being asked 'what he was about, he replied that he was searching for the horses where they were not likely to be. Campbell's W. H. II. 309.

Cho carach ri Mac Chrùislig / As tricky as Mac Cruslick
From the last anecdote, I think we can assume that Mac Cruslick is an archetypal trickster/fool akin to a Gaelic Till Eulenspiegel, but it's anyone's guess if he was a real person at some point in the development of the phrase.

Both the Maori and Gaelic idioms remind me strongly of one of my favourite Star Trek:TNG episodes, Darmok. This features an encounter with a humanoid race called the Children of Tama, whose captain, Dathon, opens communications with this exposition:
"Rai and Jiri at Lungha. Rai of Lowani. Lowani under two moons. Jiri of Ubaya. Ubaya of crossed roads. At Lungha. Lungha, her sky gray."
The Tamarian language, the Enterprise crew quickly realise, is made 100% of idiom in unexplained historical and mythological allusions (the meanings are later revealed; for instance, "Shaka, when the walls fell" means failure, and "Sokath, his eyes uncovered!" means an epiphany). Dathon attempts to initiate contact by involving Captain Picard in a ritual of shared battle against an alien monster. Tragically, however, Picard doesn't immediately grasp this intention and thinks it's a challenge to fight Dathon, which he refuses. But finally, when Dathon is mortally wounded by the monster, Picard understands and is able to convey to Dathon a little of the Epic of Gilgamesh.

Darmok raised a lot of interest; see Raphael Harper's Darmok Dictionary for a selective annotated transcript. It also led to justified criticism on linguistic grounds; see, particularly Tenser, said the Tensor, which points out the essential difficulty in speaking in archetypical generalisations.
I also don't believe that a language based entirely on allusion is at all suitable for situations requiring precision. If all you're doing is arguing about a general course of action, Tamarese-B might be enough, but how can you run a starship using it? When the captain wants to tell the helmsman to go to warp factor five, does he say, "Darmok...uh...that time he went warp factor five"? At the end of the episode, in fact, the first officer orders his ship to warp out of orbit with "Mirab, with sails unfurled", which is used several times in the episode to mean something like 'go'. Shouldn't the helmsman reply, "Mirab-with-sails-unfurled factor what, sir?".
Quite so. It would be like trying to express "The cat's not eating; take it to the vet" as "Vitus in the arena. 1 Androcles in the forest. 2" without the ability say, "Ask them about FIV vaccination, and pay them the £13.75 we owe them." As the Star Trek site Memory Alpha explains in its Tamarian language article, non-canonical fiction has filled in explanatory detail of non-verbal elements and a musical bolt-on to the language for precise technical discussion.

Nevertheless, you can analyse these things too much. I think Darmok definitely has 'heart' as a story, and is a very nice episode in dramatising, by exaggeration, the difficulty of acquiring idiom when learning a language, and capturing the idiosyncratic flavour of such idiom in some languages.

1. Saint Vitus, whom, according to the tradition, the lions refused to eat when he was thrown to them in the arena.

2. Androcles in Aesop's Fables, who took a thorn from a lion's paw.

- Ray

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