Never Say Wolf

UntitledImageHow taboo language turned the wolf into a monster:

’ “Listen to them, the children of the night. What music they make!”

So says Count Dracula to the hapless Jonathan Harker in Bram Stoker’s novel. Dracula is talking about the wolves howling in the valley below his castle in the Carpathian mountains. This is the moment in the novel when Harker begins to feel the first twinges of fear.

The howl of the wolf, and the fear that accompanies it, sounds across millennia. Comparing the mythologies of cultures that descended from ancient European tribes, wolves loomed large in their minds. There are myths of heroes brought up by wolves, of great wolves who will devour the sun, of wolves guarding the underworld, and of warriors taken over by the spirit of wolves. Archaeological digs at Krasnosamarskoe, in the steppes north of the Black and Caspian seas, have given us clues that early peoples sacrificed, and even ate, dogs and wolves. Art and collected oral literature from across Asia and Europe hint of coming of age rituals where young men would wear wolf-skins, and live lawlessly on the land, almost becoming more terrifying than the wolves themselves.

When he used the phrase “the children of the night,” Dracula was following an ancient tradition. He was avoiding the word “wolf.” In many societies, words have power, the power to summon what they name. This idea probably emerges from rituals that took place in preparation for the hunt. It was a way of calling prey so the hunt would be successful. But if words can summon prey, they can also summon danger.

Speakers had to find ways of referring to wolves without naming them. The word for wolf becomes taboo: It shouldn’t be said. Instead, the magic of summoning through a name can be tricked. By changing the sound of the word, by using another word, perhaps borrowed from another language, or by using a descriptive phrase rather than the word itself, speakers could talk of wolves, but avoid the dangerous word itself.

We can see these strategies of avoiding taboo words in English. People change the sound of words like “Hell!” or “Christ!” into “Heck!” or “Crumbs!” We have borrowed the French word “toilet” to avoid naming the place where we defecate. When the denizens of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books use the phrase “You-Know-Who” for Voldemort, Rowling is appealing to the ancient magic of taboo.

Languages change. As people move across landscapes, their languages develop in different ways. They encounter new peoples, with different languages, and this can lead to a transformation in how people speak. But some words in languages change because the original term is avoided. Taboo, tightly tied to culture, has wrought radical changes in the original term for wolf in the languages of Europe. Like a werewolf changing its skin, the word for wolf has warped across the centuries, often in quite unexpected ways, as it traveled through the continent.…’

Via Nautilus

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