Tag Archives: English

The Language of TELKA

TelkaThere are some people who think that Pearl Curran wrote, if not from her conscious mind, then from her subconscious mind.  That is, information about the language, locations and history she wrote about must have been gathered somehow by her conscious mind and stored in her subconscious to be pieced together, bit by bit,  to produce authentic-sounding historical stories about Medieval England, England during the 1600s, Victorian England or Palestine and its surrounds of 2000 years ago.

However you want to look at it, whether Pearl Curran wrote the poems, plays and novels or Patience Worth dictated them, the trick was amazing.  Just how could someone like Pearl Curran or Patience Worth with a very limited formal education and not very worldly by any definition, do that!  Is it possible that a woman with a grade-school education; one who had not traveled farther than Missouri, Texas or Illinois; who had no dreams to become a writer; who had only read one or two childhood novels, who had little or no interest in poetry and who reported discombobulated knowledge of history and geography could write material acclaimed by numerous  experts of literature to be outstanding if not superior to the writing of recognized authors?

The evidence of Patience Worth perhaps is not of the type that most people want to hear or read about.  It is not what one would expect in the grocery store tabloid.  Patience Worth does not predict the future; there is no finding of lost jewelry or persons, there are no messages from the dearly departed relatives, there are no apports, disembodied voices or apparitions of any sort.  In lieu of those phantasms, Pearl Curran left behind a tangible collection of materials that anyone may consider first-hand. Her evidence is not hearsay or second or third-hand information.   No— it exists in the language of her poems, plays, novels and ‘table-talk’ during sittings with Patience Worth.

Casper Yost who participated in sittings with Patience Worth and who subsequently wrote the first book about her apparently agrees!  He wrote one of the best, if not the only serious discussion of the language used by Patience Worth in her medieval poem ‘Telka’ and I highly recommend that those who are interested in language as evidence read his article.  It can be found at the end of Telka or  in Walter Franklin Prince’s book The Case of Patience Worth.  Casper Yost, when discussing the evidence for Patience Worth writes that, “It is the locutions of Telka, and in particular the vocabulary and the uses of that vocabulary, that are, I believe, miraculous.” Yost continues by saying:

The Story of Telka contains about sixty thousand words, and about nine-tenths of it is in dialogue.  From beginning to end it is rhythmical; not a hidden rhythm such as may be found in the works of many great writers of prose, but a regularly recurring accent in the iambic measure that dominates the entire work.  That is not to say that it is metrically precise.  It is far from that; but the ruling cadence never wholly disappears, and at times it flows from many lines with hardly a break in the rhythm.

Epics of this length are not numerous.  Love stories of ten thousand lines which Telka approximates, are rare in poetic form.  And love stories in metre, with plots that are carried forward with the ease and steady progression of a modern novel, without a diversion from the central theme, are, to say the least, unusual.  So it would seem to be justifiable to assert that a story of this extent and character, put in rhythmical speech, without monotony of cadence; a story that while it has high poetic qualities yet arouses and holds the active interest of the reader in the narrative to the end, is in itself a remarkable achievement..  .  .  it is the locutions of Telka, and in particular the vocabulary and the uses of that vocabulary, that are, I believe, miraculous.  I have said that practically every word in it is of Anglo-Saxon origin or usage.  By that I mean about ninety per cent. of it is of that derivation, as I shall show later.  The remaining ten per cent. is composed of old French, with an occasional Scandinavian word, and, rarely one of Celtic, or direct Latin origin.  .  .  .  it is the southern dialect (of England) that the language of Telka, as well as the language customarily used by Patience Worth subsequent to the beginning of Telka, is most closely allied.  There is in it more of the words and idioms peculiar to, or most prevalent in, that region, at the present time as well as in the past, and she has given reason to believe that if she could communicate vocally her pronunciation would be southern.  Yet the dialect of Telka is not wholly southern.  If it were its sources might be definitely fixed.  But it contains word and phrase forms peculiar to the north, others that are of the colloquial usage of the east or the west or the middle shires, either at present or in the past.  It seems not to be the language of any period of England nor of any locality of England.  I am unable to find that, in the form she gives it, it was ever written or ever spoken.  It has words of various periods as well as of various localities.

One looks in vain through the recorded speech of England, from Ælfric to Chaucer, from Chaucer to Shakespeare, from Shakespeare to the present, for anything with which to compare it.  Far exceeding Chaucer in the preponderance of Anglo-Saxon words, it bears not the slightest resemblance to Chaucer.  Retaining some of the forms of middle English, it shows no general likeness to the works of any writer of the middle English period.  Having much in common with what is technically termed modern English, from 1500 to the present, it differs in many particulars from every writer and every century of this chronological division.  Nor does it seem possible, dialectical as it is, to identify it with the dialect of any time or of any section.

The language of Telka is, it would seem, a composite of dialects, a tongue that is in a sense artificial, although it contains few words that have not the authority of usage, and it is by no means certain that the exceptions are lacking in authority, for all sources have not been examined.  .  .  .  I believe it is safe to say that no book since the days of Layamond, with the exception of Wickliffe’s Bible, is as exclusively Anglo-Saxon as this work of Patience Worth’s ..  .  .  I have found that an average of about ninty per cent. of them are of Anglo-Saxon origin, accepting Webster as a sufficient authority for such derivations, and including the pre-Norman Scandinavian words.  .  .  .  I am inclined to believe that not fifty words in the entire book are of direct Latin or Greek origin, and I venture the assertion that, with a single exception, there is not one word of later entry into the language than the year sixteen hundred.  .  .  .  It is true that Anglo-Saxon is the essential framework of our language, and it is difficult to write a single sentence of length without using Anglo-Saxon words, but it is also somewhat difficult to write a single sentence wholly in words of Anglo-Saxon origin that would not be commonplace, and I do not believe that any one could write and speak rapidly, fluently and beautifully, as Patience does, so restricted. .  .  . at no time since the beginning of English, as we now know it, in the fourteenth century has there been any writing having more than seventy percent. Anglo-Saxon with the single exception of the Bible, which Weisse gives seventy-seven percent.  Weise does not include Wickliffe’s Bible in his calculations, although he analyzes a single paragraph.  This, although written late in the fourteenth century, is almost exclusively Anglo-Saxon in its verbal origins, and the relatively pure Anglo-Saxon of our King James Version of the Bible is in many cases due to the influence exerted upon its translators by Wickliffe’s remarkable work.  When the figures here given are compared with the ninety per cent. of Telka, it is to be seen that this product of the present has but a single precedent in this particular (Wickliffe) until we get back to the thirteenth century when Anglo-Saxon was still unmixed with French, at least in the speech of the common people.

But the Anglo-Saxon of Telka bears little resemblance to the Anglo-Saxon of Layamon, or even of Wickliffe.  It is modern in the form of most of its words.  It retains few or none of the old Anglo-Saxon inflexions.  There are not a dozen words in it that are obsolete as a whole.  There are many words that are obsolete in the forms she gives them, but their stems are in constant use today.

And it is her construction, more even than her vocabulary, that is peculiar and individual.  She has no reverence for the parts of speech, and little respect for the holiest rules of syntax.  “I be dame,” she says, and therefore not amenable to rule.  If it suits her to make a noun, an adjective, or even a preposition do service as a verb, it is done.  If she wishes to make a noun of an adjective, so be it. .  .  .  But not all the words and locutions that are contrary to accepted standards of the present are without authority of usage in other times.  Patience has said that she is not attached to precedent.  “I be a builder ‘pon word,” she says,“for doth it to stand at low I then do fetch a-high and set at up and make o’ that that be not that that be.”  And one can imagine a twinkle in her eye when she adds, “Thee’dst merry at the word awaked that knoweth not itself.”

It is an interesting and pertinent fact in this connection that the Elizabethan age, with which Patience Worth seems to be most closely associated, was one in which grammatical forms had least stability.  There was in all the leading writers of the period a striking disregard of the precise functions of the parts of speech, and this was especially characteristic of Shakespeare.  “Almost any part of speech can be used as any other part of speech,” says Professor Abbot in his “A  Shakesperian Grammar,” referring to Elizabethan English in general.  “An adverb can be used as a verb, as a noun or as an adjective.  Any noun, adjective, or neuter verb can be used as an active verb.  An adjective can be used as an adverb or as a noun.  Every variety of grammatical inaccuracy meets us.”  The reason for all of this is found in the transitional state of the language, but the fact is a further proof that even in her grammatical anomalies, Patience is in accord with her time.

“Telka, then, is unique in its Anglo-Saxon purity, in its combination of dialectal forms of various localities and various periods, in some of its grammatical peculiarities, and in its diversions or extensions of verbal meanings.  Is it conceivable that anyone would attempt to create such a speech for literary purposes?  What purpose could be accomplished that would not be attained with greater ease and greater certainty by simpler methods? But conceding this attempt, how should it be done?  Setting aside the difficulty of acquiring a vocabulary of English words of Anglo-Saxon origin and skill in their idiomatic use, to the total exclusion of the vastly greater number of modern words with which our minds are saturated, let us assume that the one attempting this thing is already steeped in philological lore, has a thorough knowledge of English etymology, and the ability to separate almost intuitively the Anglo-Saxon words in his vocabulary from those derived from other sources.  I doubt if any philologist has that faculty, but let us admit that he has, and is able to think and express his thoughts in that restricted speech.  Could he make it the vehicle for a literary work of poetic character, intensely emotional, dramatical and spiritual?  I have said that in the dark period between the Norman Conquest and the days of Chaucer the Anglo-Saxon tongue lost many of its words, and the greatest loss was in those of a literary character, for the reason that literature in the vernacular was dead, and it was only the terms of colloquial speech that survived.  .  .  .  And Dr. Murray says: “When the educated generation that saw the arrival of the Norman died out, the language, ceasing to be read and written, lost all its literary words.  The words of ordinary life, whose preservation is independent of books, lived on as vigorously as ever, but the literary terms, those that related to science, art and higher culture, the bold, artistic compounds, the figurative terms of poetry, were speedily forgotten.  The poetical vocabulary shrank to a fraction of it former extent.”

Casper Yost concludes by saying that anyone,

.  .  .  who attempted this thing would require much more than a knowledge of Anglo-Saxon derivatives, and their middle and modern English forms and meanings.  He would have to know Norman- French words in order to make even a small use of them, and to know many English dialects.  A working knowledge of dialects is hardly to be acquired from books.  One who attempts to write a contemporaneous dialect story without having an auricular acquaintance with the dialect he presents is undertaking a difficult and somewhat dangerous task.  How much more difficult is it to make use of an archaic dialect for which there is no written guide except the fragmentary utterances of provincial characters in old stories and plays or the comparatively rare dialectal ballads and folk songs.

Yet, conceding that the one who is attempting this feat has acquired all the general and special knowledge of words and idioms required for the purpose, he has still to weave a composite of dialects in with a restricted literary language, and make of the mixture a harmonious and beautiful fabric; he has still to put it to use as a vehicle for poetry, for fiction, for the expression of emotion, of a warring of the material with the spiritual and a triumph of the spirit; for the making of pictures as delicate and ethereal as the cobwebs that sometimes drift across the vision on a summer’s day.  Where is the man, or the woman, who can do this, consciously or subconsciously?

Here is a representative example, chosen at random, of the language in Telka taken from the opening paragraphs of Chapter XI, Page 120.  For the full text of Telka see this link.

      The heaven’s eye a-closed at sink o’ moon.  Night’s cool and sweets put silence, a-musiced with winged scrape and notes o’ birds, who wait at eager for the morn and spill o’ note unto the night.  The sun’s robe a-crimsoned, floateth like to a veil up and o’er the gray, till questioning he riseth for to look where night hath hid her loves.  Paths a-show be-glistened, and flower’s- cup waketh for to ope and drink.  Sleep a-hangs e’en ‘pon the morn, and night holdeth sway within the walls a-high.
     Rich silken-covered couch a-standeth it ‘mid gray, where thredding o’ its strand a-showeth not.  RICARDO, bowed deep in dark, a-stopped o’ sleep, a-claspeth blade and shield, a-rest ‘pon him a-stilled.
Soft-whirred the wing o’bird by lattice where dew doth bead.  A rose-light creepeth it athin.  Morn’s breeze, a-born with sun, seeketh it a-through and sootheth it ‘bout the twain a-clasped in sleep.
      Curls, a-loosed from tuck, shower ‘bout the face a-bent.  A-start, wide-eyed, she looketh as a dream.  Sigh, born from out the heart, slippeth ‘pon the air.  The cradled form stirreth, and sway, the TELKA putteth soft hum and sway.

For those not familiar with the archaic language of Patience Worth, with great forbearance allow me to attempt a translation of the above.  I cringe at doing this as any translation is a desecration of a piece of literary art but perhaps by comparison one can see how extraordinary and creative the words of Patience Worth really are.  I find I am not satisfied with any translation I could make, but if you can stand it, read this macerated attempt and then go back and read and reread the beautiful descriptions and metaphors of Patience Worth in this opening to Chapter IX.

It was early morning and the moon had slipped below the horizon.  The birds and crickets, silent during the night, begin to waken as the sun slowly rises.  The roads are wet with water and the flowers are covered with dew.  The world is slowly awakening, except within the castle walls where it is still dark. Ricardo is seen upon a couch, sound asleep holding his sword and shield on his chest as he dozes.  The birds begin to flutter and the rosy light of dawn highlights two people asleep in each other’s arms.  Telka, with her hair hanging about her face is seen as beautiful as she sighs, and then hums to her baby as she rocks its cradle.

Now tell me how, in God’s green acres, did Pearl Curran write this out of her subconscious mind, one letter at a time on the Ouija board?  Remember, this story came quickly as a stream of letters, unparsed and unpunctuated.  Well, of course according to some critics, Pearl Curran must have read old English literature at some time in her life or heard philologists speaking it and stored it in her subconscious to be brought forward word by word to be arranged as beautiful and meaningful poetry.

Occasionally someone criticizes the  language of Patience Worth by saying that it has more of a Scottish dialect in it than a southern English dialect especially when Patience speaks in her 16th century tongue.  Irving Litvag points out in his book Singer in The Shadows that Patience Worth had said that her father was English and that her mother was Scottish.  Perhaps that could account for the amount of Scottish words in the default language of Patience Worth.