Friday, June 15, 2007

Wæs hal, the British tongue, and English as infection

From the intriguing blog Varieties of Unreligious Experience, Gervase of Tilbury inspires a meditation on toasts:
Otia Imperialia, Book II, chapter 17:
It was Hengist's daughter who introduced the well-known custom of extending a solemn invitation to drink by saying, 'wes hāl', which means 'be merry'; to this the guest in turn replies: 'drink hāl', that is, 'drink merrily'. In the British tongue the corresponding words are cantinoch and boduit.
Nowadays we write, 'wassail' and 'drink hail'—and that's 'hail' as in hale, ie. whole or healthy, rather than merry. According to the OED, the words are not attested as toasts in either Old English or Old Norse, but were probably first used as such by the Danes in England; the earliest reference is from Geoffrey of Monmouth, and in English from Lawman's translation of Wace's Brut, itself based largely on Geoffrey. The first time I toasted a health with Mrs. Roth—it was a small glass of port, my favourite drink, which she was happy to essay, and relieved to enjoy, on the occasion of her 30th birthday, spent in the City of Love; we were not yet married, but on our way—I softly called 'wassail', and was disappointed not to receive the correct response. (You say I have unreasonable standards? This I expected purely because she counts herself a mediaevalist, and an Anglo-Saxonist to boot. Still, she knew for next time.)

Gervase's editors footnote thus:
Professor Patrick Sims-Williams and Dr Marged Haycock suggest that cantinoch could be Old Welsh (or Cornish or Breton) can(t) tin uch, meaning 'with bottom up', while boduit could be Old Welsh (or Breton) bod (d)it, meaning 'goodwill to you' or 'thanks to you', influenced by Middle Irish is buide duit, 'it is well for you', or else equivalent to Modern Welsh boddwyd, 'it/he has been drowned', which is used metaphorically to mean 'celebrate'. The word can is attested in Welsh from the beginning of the seventeenth century with the meaning 'tankard'; it is quite conceivable that this loanword from English can was in the language for centuries before its first attestation, in which case the phrase would mean 'tankard bottom up!'
Conrad Roth then goes on in his blog to lament the fact that we seldom toast anything anymore. It's hard to disagree. In fact I'll toast that sentiment.

What's most interesting to me about Gervase's version of this famous scene from Geoffrey of Monmouth is that he provides -- or attempts to provide -- the "British tongue" version of the toast. In Geoffrey of Monmouth, the originator of the episode, we get a weird moment when Latin is interrupted by an outbreak of English. Geoffrey seldom interjects English (or Welsh, for that matter) into his Latin, "Stonehenge" being the other notable exception. In Wace, Geoffrey's first vernacularizer, the movement is from French to English, since the former language is being used to narrate the British story (though, admittedly, Wace has a way of making Geoffrey seem a historian of England, since Angleterre takes the place of Britannia). In Lawman, the archaic English into which Wace is being rendered is interrupted by ... more English. None of these authors gives the British version of the toast, since in each case Latin, French or English is substituting for the "British tongue." Welsh, it seems, is a language assumed incapable of communicating outside of the southwest of the island into which it has receded.

Further, for Geoffrey the English toast wassail is a kind of infection, propelled towards the British leader Vortigern by a Saxon seductress. Wassail is a fragment of Englishness that, once imbibed with the drink, lodges deep in Vortigern. He madly desires the speaker, whom he marries in a baleful miscegenation. For Gervase, it all seems so much more neutral, perhaps because the cultural stakes had by the thirteenth century become so low.

[The illustration above is a hoard of Roman drinking cups from Roman Britain (late 1st century AD) found in Hockwold cum Wilton, Norfolk. More information from the British Museum here. Though these cups had been crushed before interment, vessels from the underground which, had they been discovered in the Middle Ages, might have told a story of a deeper history of the land than was commonly recounted always remind me of a story from William of Newburgh which features a mysterious goblet purloined from a tumulus.]

5 comments:

Nicola Masciandaro said...

Well, it seems that you are hitting upon the toast as the site of both a preservation of and a reaching out towards a form of alterity, the alterity that is simultaneously past and foreign. What is it that compels us to use the toasts of other languages and not to speak our own, with our own tongues? (though I do not think the practice is in as sorry shape as C. Roth, who seems to be into meaningfulness as mourning the death of meaning, suggests) A symbolic inclusion of the foreigner that deepens the communion which toasting seeks? Or is ther something incantatory about it, a need for a secret word, a closed/open language that can speak the truth while preserving the truth's otherness from language? Or is it a nervousness near the fear of a present loving encounter with others that the foreign toast or the mock toast, as a formalizing deferral, registers? Or all of the above?

Cin Cin!

Geoffrey Chaucer said...

Ywis, at long last ich do vndirstond the wordes of an oold soong by Magister Malleus ywrit:

uh huh huh huh uh uh
cant tin uch this!

Le Vostre
GC

Karl Steel said...

though I do not think the practice is in as sorry shape as C. Roth, who seems to be into meaningfulness as mourning the death of meaning, suggests

Ah, but I don't think you're representative, NM, given your close ties to toast-happy Italy.

I do think you've put your finger on it with incantatory.

None of these authors gives the British version of the toast, since in each case Latin, French or English is substituting for the "British tongue." Welsh, it seems, is a language assumed incapable of communicating outside of the southwest of the island into which it has receded

Or English becomes the Other, the past, the site of remembrance and forgetting, to thrust the Welsh into invisibility.

Eileen Joy said...

Oh my god, GC, you're just too funny.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Thanks for the link. I wonder if Giraldus has anything to say on the matter?

Also, I wondered what this means--"Roth, who seems to be into meaningfulness as mourning the death of meaning". Is this good or bad?