Wednesday, November 7, 2012

The Parrot Speaks: A Philological Inquiry into the Chronicles of Conan

Relevant passages from Shadows In The Moonlight:

1) Abruptly the bird spread its flaming wings and, soaring from its perch, cried out harshly: “Yagkoolan yok tha, xuthalla!” and with a wild screech of horribly human laughter, rushed away through the trees to vanish in the opalescent shadows.
[...]
“What did it say?” she whispered.
“Human words, I’ll swear,” answered Conan; “but in what tongue I can't
say.”

2) The blacks shrank back before him, their eyes slits of fire. Lifting a hand, he spoke, and his tones echoed through the silent halls in deep rich waves of sound. Like men in a trance the black warriors fell back until they were ranged along the walls in regular lines. Then from the stranger's chiseled lips rang a terrible invocation and command: “Yagkoolan yok tha, xuthalla!

   The exact meaning of the phrase ‘Yagkoolan yok tha, xuthalla’, which occurs twice in the Shadows In The Moonlight episode of the Conan Chronicles, has puzzled scholars.[1] It has generally been assumed that it is either an incantation or gibberish, and, in either case, untranslatable. It is, in fact, recognisable as an archaic form of Kothian. It is known that Conan was fluent in the Kothian spoken during his day, but it is neither surprising that he was mystified by the more ancient form encountered here, nor that he recognised that what he heard was ‘human words’.
   The word yagkoolan was current in the Kothian of Conan’s era, and occurs during the The Scarlet Citadel episode, where Kothian is employed:
“What year is this?” he [Pelias] asked, speaking Kothian.
“Today is the tenth day of the month Yuluk, of the year of the Gazelle, answered Conan.
“Yagkoolan Ishtar!” murmured the stranger. “Ten years!” He drew a hand across his brow, shaking his head as if to clear his brain of cobwebs. “All is dim yet. After a ten-year emptiness, the mind can not be expected to begin functioning clearly at once. Who are you?”
“Conan, once of Cimmeria. Now king of Aquilonia.”
The verb yagkol means ‘damn’, ‘curse’, ‘shun’, or ‘beware’. Yagkoolan is an admonitory or imperative form. Relevant for comparative interest: the root yag is attested as a loanword in the unrelated Zamoran language. In this context, Yag occurs as the name of a far off planet, home of the alien creature Yag-kosha. Kosha itself is not an ‘alien’ word but a well-attested Zamoran word for ‘cover’, ‘skin’ or ‘membrane’ with an attested Indo-European origin, cf. Sanskrit kośa m.; Russian koža (skin). Properly speaking then, ‘Yag-kosha’ means ‘vessel of Yag’, or ‘embracer of Yag’. Common to most foreign loanwords in Zamoran, yag has no declension.[2]
  Yok meaning ‘you all’ is rare form of the second person plural pronoun which only occurs in archaic Kothian and was obsolete by the time of the Conan Chronicle. The particle tha acts as an intensifier for the verb.  
   Xuthalla is another interesting word. The -la ending indicates the vocative case of xuthal. Some scholars have attempted to find a connection with the Old Kolasa word xu meaning ‘green’, which survives in the names of green stone cities built in the Black Kingdoms by the Kosalans.[3] In fact, this is partially correct, as xuthal must have originally referred to visitors from the city of Xuthal, but in even the oldest Kothian texts, it takes on a more general meaning, referring to anyone of unusual foreign origin, which from a Kothian perspective, would certainly apply to the Cimmerian Conan.[4] The word xuthal was entirely obsolete by Conan’s time.
   All things considered, it is thus possible to render the first occurrence of ‘Yagkoolan yok tha, xuthalla’ as ‘Beware, you foreigners’ and the second occurrence as 'Be cursed you foreigners'. There is a subtle sense of irony in the shift in meaning of the verb as it moves from offering a warning to a curse.



[1] R.E. Howard, for example, provides only a transliterated text, with no explanation or commentary
[2] H. Gröter, ‘Studien über den Verfall der zamorischen Deklination’, Zeitschrift für hyperboreischen Linguistik, 32 (1901), 414-521 (p.490).
[3] A. Evans, ‘Comparative studies in proto-Kothian with special reference to borrowings with cultural signification’, Journal of the British Archaeological Society of Khoraja, 23 (1977), 211-319 (p.247).
[4] H. Persson, Topografische Wörterbuch zu den Kolasatexten (Cologne, 1954), p.77.

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