herman newt and the puddle metaphor

we newts understand nothing half so well as puddles. puddles are what remain when ponds evaporate. they are the result of the uneven distribution of mud, which results in little hills and valleys forming. water seeks its own level and fills valleys while leaving hills high and dry. first you have a pond. then as that evaporates you have small islands appearing above the water level. as the water level drops further the islands get bigger, and then several may become connected by an increasingly continuous stretch of highish ground between them. eventually the proportion of water to land does a reverse – first there’s more water than land, then more land than water. soon only very low areas still contain water.

any hermeneut must be exquisitely aware that metaphors are always a calculated shift away from reality and conclusions drawn from studies made through them must be drawn very carefully with this in mind. any lens distorts. a metaphor’s distortions must be carefully observed and accounted for. then and only then, metaphors are very useful lenses. this puddle metaphor can be profitably brought to bear on the geographical distribution of any old or ancient culture. high ground surrounding a puddle and islands within it represent locations that are less easily retained by the culture concerned than that represented by low soggy ground, pools and puddles. pools and puddles represent homelands, colonies and such.

it also applies to our beliefs, derived from texts, archaeological traces and legends and folk traditions, about the geographical distribution of cultures. concerning the ancient past, we have plenty of belief, precious little hard factual data. so we’re necessarily constrained to work with belief. when a belief contributes to the basis of a major conjectural construct, it gets called ‘a hypothesis’. ‘an hypothesis’ if you are american, or if your speech is influenced by american speech.

now i’m thinking of fionn mac cumhaill, the irish legendary hero. it’s usually pronounced mc cool these days. famed for his thumb-sucking to procure hallucinatory experiences upon the basis of which he prophecied, fionn was a warrior. what else he was is immaterial. the fact is he is known in ireland from some rather old texts which are only of real interest to historians, linguists and celtic revivalists, and to hermeneuts and faerie folk too ethereal to see.

not many would dispute though that, once upon a time, at least someone thought it was pronounced mac cumhaill. that’s using irish spelling conventions, but using current english ones, it would have been spelt mc cuwal, and only the irish would have worried about the slenderisation of the final ll. slender or broad, ll is ll to a pom. or an ozzie, and i daresay a yank. (i use these national nick-names with affection in every instance and am amazed to be told that anyone ever used any of them any other way. i’ve only ever heard them used with neutrality or affection, so that’s how i’m continuing to use them.)

but that hasn’t really satisfied, has it? you’d want to know how the u is pronounced, u for uh huh or oo for oops, or both. both are possible in irish as well as english, depending in both languages on which word this particular specimen of an u occurs in and where you live. but does it matter? cah-well or coo-well. or in irish also caw-well.

it could be any of these and because it is in the nature of speech to vary with location, and references to fionn mac cumhaill must have been made by all sorts of people in all sorts of places, all three were probably in use at some time or another in the pre-renaissance and renaissance periods, and a whole lot of other spellings and pronunciations not recorded in writing as well.

one good bet, because it happens so often in so many other words, is that, like the ll, the mh was sometimes slender and sometimes broad; i.e., sometimes a v and sometimes a w. but poms, yanks, ozzies, kiwis and other users of english would notice the v/w difference, while the –ill/ -all difference, which the irish make much of, would elude them.

so someone at least somewhere would have pronounced that surname ‘mc or mac caval or cuval’.

now wise and wonder-working witches have always been at play with the eyes of newts, always including a good handful in their alarmingest cauldrons, and muttering such spells as would mutate a whole oceanful of newts (if newts could live in oceans) with particular reference to their eyes, with the result that newts’ eyes have some seriously admirable abilities not found in the eyes of lesser beings. they can see round corners, through drifts of densely matted twigs, up twisty apertures in banks and through quite meaningful depths of gravelly murk and slimy silt. nobody knows better than an amphibian how to identify and compensate for incidental or regular distortions.

now this here newt espies not just one ‘caval’ here but a whole ‘cavalry’ and dares to set this against several decades of etymological research and rashly opine that caval means horse and that this is so even when you spell it cumhaill, and find it along with sheep, cows and linen sheets in a list of old irish units of currency, and even when you put a mac in front of it and find it storied and gloried as an irish legenedary hero.

and merely noting here (and then dodging to evade hurled rotten fruit, addled eggs and other unspeakabilia from the academics whose dog-gone, ox-dreaming reasoning has brought them to other conclusions) that mac didn’t originally mean son of but something forgotten from which words meaning son (of), worker (with), student (of), soldier (for) etc, are derived. but i believe it orignated as something close to ‘work’ via mutation of the initial sound of a word ancestral to both work and make. both share a common ancestor with fac- the latin stem of words to do with making and doing. add in the vik or viking there, but don’t pick at it now, sandra, or it’ll go off in your face! believe me, it will! just keep it in your heart.

and no, simon, we’re not dealing with PIE yet. we’re not that far back in time by a long shot, and neither is almost anyone, as you soon shall see.

i just want to share with you my newt’s-eye view of fionn mac cumhaill’s surname, because i’ve got one or two shocks for you faoi. well, i mean i’ve had one or two shocks faoi. faoi is one of my favourite irish words. it means all sorts of things, but here it means ‘concerning it’.

for now, note the horse theme. caval belongs to that whole array that opens out nicely and means horse or other large herbivorous mammal. i’ll just list them; you’ll know how to imagine their distributions through time and space on a map of the world, stopping when knowledge becomes hypothesis, because the PIE hypotheses can’t be trusted and we have to revise our sense of how language correlated to location in the olden days of elves and withces and cavaliers called fionn mac cumhaill.

here’s a partial list to get you started: caval, cheval, capall, cob, camel, gimel, gavar, chevr(on), capri, gabhair…

for homework, class, i want you to add at least a dozen more to the list, and write, say or just think750-850 words on the implications of this list with reference to the main means of conveyance of the scandinavian god thor, bearing in mind that he was a biggish chap and goats are tough but not that tough, and there were lots of little closely related but divergent cultures merging in marriage and working together exchanging words and modifying ways of using them.

that might get a lot of otherwise useful souls out of their goat carts and into some more appropriate conveyance!!!!!

blessed be, humans

herman newt.


One thought on “herman newt and the puddle metaphor

  1. Pingback: herman newt and the puddle metaphor | herman newt and his scaly mates

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