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Linguistic Hazards

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I write this to you, my dear, only to apologize for the lateness of my correspondence, and to assure you that I am well, despite the incident that has shaken me to my core and that I will relay to you in these pages. I hope then that you will understand why I have been in such a state of shock that I could hardly press pen to paper without despair overcoming me, and why I request that once you have read this letter, you will commit it to the flames--if not to conceal the awful truth contained herein, then at least to spare your sensibilities from possession of such cursed words as you are about to read.

It began, as all terrible things to, with what seemed like a serendipitous find. You know, of course, that being to close to the ocean, our fair city sees its fair share of flotsam wash upon the shores, most often during the storm season. This year, among the usual criminals, mad sailors and aquatic denizens seeking their fortunes on the shores, the sea spat up a most curious creature indeed: a barbarian woman, as rough and vulgar as you expect such peoples to be, but for the minor, curious detail that she was elven.

We had happened upon her by chance, as she was loitering at the library, in the reference section for Ancient Languages. You understand, of course, that she was not there for any civilized purpose, as the creature was as literate as a rock with a rude word misspelled on it. I would have thought her nothing more than an unpleasant mar to my day, were it not for the fact that, as I made my way past her and brushed my elbow against her by complete accident, she grunted to me, in syntactically perfect Ancient Mormoranthian Elven, "Watch where you're going."

You understand, of course, my dear, why I was astounded at this incident. Many times, you have had to endure my gripes about the very limited number of people who take study of this dialect seriously. Despite the fact that it has produced some of the most lyrical, culturally significant and unmatched poetry of any era, very few dedicate themselves to studying the language in its purest form, contenting themselves with translations and second-hand imitations of the grand epics which have shaped literature for thousands of years.

Well, as you can imagine, I was sufficiently taken aback that I continued on my way, quite in a haze of disbelief over what I had just heard. I made my way down the length of the bookshelves, when my curiosity overcame my hesitation, and I rounded back towards the woman.

You must understand, of course, that my own well-bred manners were not the sole factor which had induced this hesitation in me. The elven woman was quite large, standing a head taller than anyone in the library, and she had the look of a miscreant to her. She wore a damaged shirt, the sleeves torn off to reveal a set of arms so bulging with muscles, that I would scarcely be surprised to witness those appendages engaged in the strangulation of a large boar.

Needless to say, it was with considerable apprehension that I approached the barbarian, and inquired in the common tongue if she was seeking material about Ancient Mormoranthian.

She gave me a look which managed to convey that I was quite stupid, and said to me, again in technically correct Ancient Mormoranthian, "I appreciate the effort, but I don't understand anything you're saying."

I was, of course, still astounded, though now that I had heard her speak at greater length, I could discern a very bizarre accent to her words, indicating that perhaps she was approximating Vulgar Ancient Mormoranthian instead of Classical Ancient Mormoranthian. I will spare you the full phonetic analysis, as it no longer brings me the joy it may have once done.

By engaging her in conversation, I learned that her name was Ratha--obviously a bastardization of the classical feminine name Elarantha--and that she was a newcomer to this continent. Further details came out to reveal that she had arrived here from an island far south, which had once been a Mormoranthian colony before becoming cut off from the mainland and promptly forgotten. My guess is that her colony must have been established towards the end of the Mormoranthian Empire, just as the civil war was beginning, and that once the Empire fractured, the resulting administrative lapse led to this colony being forgotten to history.

In what seemed at the time as nothing short of a miracle, her colony had been so isolated and stagnant as to have preserved the Ancient Mormoranthian dialect almost unchanged, but for some minor eccentricities of pronunciation. 

You understand, then, my dear, why it seemed absolutely imperative at the time that I should announce an emergency Society meeting, and gather up as many of our number as possible in order to witness this strange creature, and extract from her whatever paltry information we could. I would not have been at such depths of desperation to do such a thing if the number of us studying this venerable ancient language at such an advanced level were not so small, and so I did not think nor suspect at the time the sheer chaos and upheaval this would cause among our small circle of initiates.

My call was answered by some of our Society's more notable contributors, totaling a half dozen, myself included. I believe I had mentioned before a few of them to you by name before: Professor Danning, recently retired from the University; Lady Ledgermain, who you might better know for her iron grip on the copper industry; young Peter Meadowbrooke, the notorious pamphleteer; Sven Shieldbasher, who has surprisingly extensive knowledge of elven culture for a dwarf; and Marion Meldassi, our resident stenographer.

(You are doubtless wondering, my dear, why Peter Meadowbrooke was invited, as he is only known for putting out his pamphlets speculating upon the romantic attachments of various notable Mormoranthian figures, and has produced no material of any scholarly note, but alas, my dear, we are but petty creatures, and we do enjoy a laugh.)

The barbarian Ratha was easily lured to this session with the promise of sweet mead and pastries, which she proceeded to gorge herself upon with all the grace and self-restraint of a dire bear emerging from its winter fast. 

Once she had finished her indulgence--and the servants were summarily called to wipe down the furniture--we proceeded to inquire into the extent of Ratha's knowledge of language. She had the fluency of a native speaker, but tragically her calling was that of a warrior, and therefore at odds with scholarly pursuits (though I hesitate to believe her people had produced scholars of any value since its split from the Mormoranthian Empire either way).

It seemed as a stroke of luck, then, when she revealed that her people had a vibrant oral tradition, and that many epics had been preserved in their entirety by being passed down through the generations. Ratha herself had only a handful memorized in full, but here was a treasure trove of literature that we had not expected to find! She recited the Mourning Song of Ambresh in its entirety and with complete accuracy to the written record, not a single word in all eleven stanzas being different in anything but pronunciation!

My heart swelled with excitement as I looked to my fellows, and we all immediately understood the opportunity which had presented itself to us. I was so stricken by the momentousness of the situation, that my voice failed me entirely, and it was Lady Ledgermain who requested of Ratha if she knew the Saga of Reventh and Katalle.

You know this, of course, my dear, as I have written to you often when we have found a new fragment, or when any new words have eluded us. The Saga was one of the ancient Mormoranthian Empire's greatest creations, the distillation of its literary art, and one of its most elusive products all the same. It is referenced and alluded to in countless written sources, by artists, philosophers and historians alike. For the ancient Mormoranthians, it was a cultural touchstone, so known to them all that you may scarcely find an ancient Mormoranthian who could pick up a writing implement and not reference the Saga at least once.

Yet of its 113 stanzas, only 25 have survived the vagaries of time. We know its plot and some of its latter segments solely through quotes and allusions, and despite its ubiquity in Mormoranthian society, it seemed that rarely had it occurred to any of them that it should be committed to paper. An inexplicable folly, my dear, which we did not understand until that fatuous day.

Because you see, the barbarian Ratha did indeed confirm, with a cheeriness that seems sinister in retrospect, that she did indeed know the Saga of Reventh and Katalle. All 113 stanzas of it were committed to her memory, and she acquiesced to reciting it for us in its entirety.

I cannot describe the rapturous heights I experienced during that recitation, except to note that they stood in proportions to the despair I would soon experience. The barbarian absolved herself of the task admirably for one so uncouth, taking on the solemnity of the most dedicated court troubadour, every gesture and emphasis shaping the performance like hot iron upon the anvil. Were her calling not that of a warrior, doubtless she would make an adequate performer.

You know, my dear, the plot of the Saga as I have recounted it to you: of Reventh looking out over his kingdom, of the moment his sharp elven eyes spot Katalle interloping upon the border, of the tense confrontation and violent duel that ensued, and of the stalemate and mutual respect that this duel ended on, and the alliance that resulted from it.

Now that we are at this moment, my dear, I must reveal the horrible truth to you. I have been wrong. Myself, the Society, the common scholars of Mormoranthian history, we have all been deceived by our own foolish blindness and assumptions.

For you see, after Ratha finished her recitation, and we were all overtaken by tears in its aftermath, profoundly touched and bonded by the experience we just shared, the barbarian took one look around the room and poised her tongue to shatter us completely.

"Well, that's not the usual reaction," she said.

"Forgive us, noble warrior," Sven Shieldbasher replied to her, as he dabbed his handkerchief to the corners of his eyes, "but much of the Saga has been lost to us, and we have never heard it in its entirety until now. It is a singular occasion for us."

"Ah," the barbarian nodded, "I get it then. I couldn't imagine the Saga being lost to us. It's hands down the most popular erotic saga on the island."

In that moment we all froze in place, as surely as if she had unleashed a spell upon us, save for our eyes, which proceeded to bulge, and Peter Meadowbrooke's filthy heathen mouth, which proceeded to show many of his teeth.

"Erotic saga, you say?" Peter Meadowbrooke asked in his reedy voice--of course he was the one to ask! That accursed lecher and his speculations! Of course he would jump on any opportunity to be proven right!

"Of course, what else would it be?" the barbarian shrugged.

It was then that we were shaken from our states, and burst into talking all at once, each to answer the question with our own protestations while Peter sat in his chair and spread his villainous smile wider.

The barbarian seemed bewildered completely by our reaction, looking upon us as if we were the mad ones, and not she, for voicing such unseemly accusations about the Saga.

"No, it's definitely a sex thing," she insisted, even after we thoroughly denied any such thing. "What did you think all those bits about pounding their shields meant?"

"Well," Lady Ledgermain said, as our resident martial expert, "it is a known tactic for intimidation to have armies pound their shields--"

"They're just two men," Ratha interrupted. "What about the parts about baring their swords and then Reventh sheathing his in Katalle as he moaned?"

"Th--that's obviously a description of a sword blow!" Sven defended, looking increasingly red-faced, and now using his handkerchief on the wash of sweat pouring down his forehead.

"Uh huh, and Katalle really bounced back from this injury, considering there's still fifty more stanzas after that," the barbarian condescendingly replied. "What did you think the part about their tongues battling for dominance meant?"

"They... traded banter...?" Professor Danning said faintly, as he looked with horror in the middle distance.

"No," Ratha replied firmly.

In the next moment, Professor Danning crumpled bodily to the floor, utterly destroyed.

Peter Meadowbrooke said not a word, but the way he sat there, smiling, will be etched unto the fabric of my nightmares for many years to come.

 

(...)

 

You understand now, my dear, why I urge you to burn this letter and its contents. Let its horrible revelations be committed to the flame and never released upon the world. No respectable being of such elevated intelligence should have their life's work dashed so thoroughly upon the jagged rocks of historical misapprehension as to risk becoming the subject of mockery for all our peers unto the centuries.

I confess to you these things only so that you will avoid our mistake. It is better not to know, and to be safe in uncertainty, than to be told and have to hastily speak to your publisher to have one hundred copies of "Reventh and Katalle: The Elegance of Mormoranthian Lyricism" pulled from shelves because you have unwittingly riddled your analysis with more innuendo than you had realized possible.

Before, I had hoped my name would go down in history as a premier scholar with elevated sensibility to literature's greatest masterpiece. Now, I can only hope to be forgotten rather than remembered as a fool.

I look forward to your reply, and to the return of the advance copy I sent to you with my last letter.