Saturday, March 08, 2008

Glossolalia in Lovecraft

{It's been a while since Chrispy wrote an original mini-essay. I had plenty of time to think as I reread Lovecraft on several hours of my plane trip.}

In November and December of 1920, Lovecraft wrote Celephais and Nyarlathotep.

In both of these prose-poems he coined a number of new proper names of individuals and places. These form a disctinct pattern. It's likely he chose these names for their difficulty of pronunciation, and their strangeness.

Here is a list of those names*: Celephais, Kuranes, Nyarlathotep, Ooth-Nargai, Tanarian Hills, Serannian, Leng, Athib, Cerenerian, Naroxa, and Mt. Aran. We can ignore Trevor Towers, as it is a very ordinary name. We can also omit "hotep" which is clearly derived from Egyptian pharoahs. Hills and Mountain are also common enough.

What we have left is a series of consonantal sounds intermixed with an arrangement of vowels. We will make a leap of faith that consonants are more telling since there are but 5 vowels (or 6 if one counts y). There are 20 consonants left. Lovecraft is not random in his selection. Lovecraft is playing with sounds here, and is picky in what he chooses.

I playfully call this "Lovecraft's glossolalia". While he would not be amused in comparison to Jimmy Swaggert and lesser known Pentacostals, this is what he's doing. He's using ecstatic language to describe his alien terrain and eclectic saints and gods.

There are, in that mix of Lovecraftian 1920 words, clear consonant choices. Of the majority are: 13 n's and 9 r's. These are the roots of Lovecraft's glossalalia. N/R roots. 8 of the 11 new words are based on the N/R system.

To this he begins to play with aspirations (1 ph, 2 th) and sibbilants/near sibbilants (3 s's, 2 t's, 1 b). He also adds to the minor key some gutterals (2 g's, 1 k, 1 x) and also the L sound (3). I don't know whether he intends leading c's to be pronounced hard like Colour and Cthuhlu, or soft like Celene Dion or Cere (the flesh above a bird's beak).

The analysis shows that we have words that are often N/R/Gk or N/R/L. There are enough aspirations and sibillant and near-sibilant sounds (s, b, t, th, ph) mixed that we begin to see that Lovecraft is drawing from a very limited pool of sounds. About 9 of the 20 consonants are chosen, and they are selected for a dramatic, phonetic reason.

A year later, in Outsider (1921) he creates and uses Nephren-Ka, Neb, Nitokris. The N/R root is still dominant, as well as his use of the collateral sounds of aspiration and sibillants. In this case, the N/R/Gk is strongest.

This approach would dominate his future methodology as he continued to create weird sounding names and places. While he became less dogmatic about using the N/R/Gk and N/R/L, there are still plenty of other examples. Nig, Shub-Niggurath, R'Lyeh, Cthulhu, and Shoggoth come to mind. He also liked names others suggested or inspired. As the years moved forward, aspirathion and gutterals overcame the initial N/R root system: Yig, Azathoth, Yog-Sothoth.

Later, I'd like tolist a chronology of Lovecraftian names and how he made the transition to different phonetic sounds in his creative nouns.


*As a chemist, I know that selection criteria and methodology can affect conclusions. I tend to define Lovecraft in periods. I won't take time to set them all down, but he was productive for some reason around Thanksgiving of 1920. Some new thought entered his mind, and I attribute that NOT to Dunsany but to his correspondence with Samuel Loveman. The Statement of Randoph Carter (Dec 1919) is nearly a love letter to the man. :) He was so excited, he write the story out THREE times, at least, and sent it as a dream in letters to Kliener and Galpin. (If memory serves).

*I selected Celepahais and Nyarlathotep becuase they have nearly the same mythological theme. OK, the PLOT is different, but plot means little in early Lovecraft. It's all about the mood, the setting, and the madness. In these two stories, he just explodes with new names and sounds. As Mr. Joshi says, he's enamored by Dunsany, but there's still plenty of Poe to balance that out.

*My methodology is semiotic. The sound is the thing. Lovecraft is going for weird and alien names to strengthen the eeriness of the pieces. He succeeds.

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