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Unit 18: Dialectal Variations

Most of their discourse was about hunting, in a dialect I understand very little.
(Samuel Pepys, Diary)

As can be seen by the examples of the hutch rabbits and, particularly, Blackavar, in Watership Down itself, rabbits from one warren have no real difficulty understanding those of another, but nevertheless there are some notable differences in their speech, which I thought it might be interesting to consider here. I intend to use the speech of Watership as our "base" dialect, and compare aspects of Watership Lapine to that of the other warrens encountered in the story.

1. Sandleford (extinct)
Of course, as almost all the Watership rabbits (excepting only Strawberry) are originally from Sandleford, it's unsurprising to find that there are very few differences between the speech of the two warrens. However, the resolutely old-fashioned nature of the Threarah's society led to the preservation of one somewhat archaic feature - the use of the plural forms to, by and about the Chief Rabbit, eg:

[LISTEN] Layth i dayn asith ma, Kothen-rah? Vahl, a layth dayn - Will you come with me, Hazel-rah? Yes, I'll come (Watership)
[LISTEN] Layth es dayn asith ma, Threarah? Vahl, on layth dayn - Will you come with me, Threarah? Yes, I'll come (Sandleford)
[LISTEN] I laynt hay u Rah? E lay thli - Have you seen the Chief? He's [over] there (Watership)
[LISTEN] I laynt hay u Rah? Ai lay thli - Have you seen the Chief? He's [over] there (Sandleford)

This idea closely parallels that of the "Royal We" in human societies, but is subtly different, in that the reason for its use is not the superiority, real or imagined, of the Chief - the "-rah" suffix takes care of that - but because he is considered to be the personification of all the rabbits in the warren.

2. Cowslip's Warren
The most notable feature of this warren's language is the almost taboo status of the word "where?" and the concepts relating to it, because of the unspoken pact amongst its rabbits never to mention the shining wires. However, as will be apparent with a little thought, there are occasions, generally trivial, for which the word is necessary - and, as Strawberry himself mentions, there are tightly defined areas - stories and poems - where the proscription does not apply (except, of course, insofar as only certain types of story are welcome in the first place).

All this means that there are in fact three forms of the word "where?" that may be encountered in Cowslip's warren. Firstly, the ordinary word, yao, which is extremely unwelcome in any context, and generally met by a complete non-sequitur in response:

[LISTEN] Yao lay Hrairoo, Kranahl? - Where's Fiver, Cowslip?
[LISTEN] I lay varu flayrah yen? E lay narn-nyt - Would you like some flayrah now? It's very tasty

Secondly, for stories and poetry, the word thyao is employed. This is a deliberate corruption of the archaic word yaoth, meaning "wherever". Yaoth is to yao exactly as blaeth is to blair - see Unit 13. An interesting point here is that while elsewhere yaoth is used only in Naylte Éan, in Cowslip's warren the terror of using the ordinary word means that thyao is used for any type of story or poem, no matter how trivial - even the simplest stories of Rooli Roo:

[LISTEN] Rooli Roo laynt hay vesth a nesth. "Thyao lay ma?" methant - Rooli Roo looked around. "Where am I?" he said

Of course, using this word safely requires a very distinct pronunciation of the th- prefix, and so rabbits tend to shy away from it altogether in casual speech. In fact, poets such as Silverweed are often judged as much on their diction as on their imagination, and if any one word could be said to be a shibboleth in this regard, then thyao is it.

Lastly, there are some occasions on which asking about the location of something is harmless - for example, asking where the sun is in the sky, for assessing time. Again, however, the word yao is forbidden, and instead a roundabout method is employed using the phrase blao vao,"right place":

Frith lay ven u blao vao? - Is the Sun in the right place?
U sith thanléao, hrow u preetar - The evening side, behind the hedge

It is perhaps a little surprising that "place" is allowed while "where" is not, but this does seem to be the case. However, even this usage is absolutely not permitted to be used of rabbits, and doing so can be extremely dangerous.

3. Hutch rabbits
Watership Down mentions that Clover and her fellow hutch rabbits - two Himalayans and two Angoras - spoke in "slightly strange but perfectly intelligible Lapine". All domestic rabbits are the same species - Oryctolagus cuniculus - as British wild rabbits, so this is not that surprising. Given that they are domestic breeds, it seems very unlikely that they had ever spoken to a wild rabbit before Hazel and Pipkin arrived, and so their language had presumably developed in isolation, passing down the generations from the time when their ancestors had run free.

Very little is imparted to us in WD about exactly how the hutch rabbits' Lapine differed from that of Hazel's band, but we know that they "had learned a great deal about elil from some soure or other" (ch. 24), so the words for such creatures, which might have otherwise been lost, were presumably well known - pfeffa of course being a special case, as the farm cat had been known to come and stare at them through the hutch's mesh. However, despite this, it seems reasonable to assume that concepts such as long-distance reconaissance would mean little to them.

Overall, though, two points stand out: the hutch rabbits' almost total ignorance of Naylte Éan, and their accents. The latter are the most notable things about them, in particular a tendency for the ao diphthong to become simply a throughout - so that "evening" is pronounced as thanléa, and "tomorrow" becomes hyath. The word u ("the") is also very often dropped completely - which means, of course, that ao as a word ("and the") also becomes just a.

4. Efrafa
As might be expected of a warren kept under such rigid discipline and where contact with other rabbits is largely confined to violent confrontation, Efrafan Lapine developed several unique aspects under General Woundwort's rule. Perhaps the most interesting of these is the -fa suffix, as seen in Owslafa and of course in the name of the warren. In fact, the name "Efrafa" is itself an invention of Woundwort's. He chose it as being reminiscent of the words eth-fran, meaning "one-fight". The idea behind eth was that Efrafa should be considered not as a warren of individual rabbits, but as a single entity under a single, unquestioned command. The fran element of the name referred to both the militaristic nature of Efrafa and to the never-ending fight against the worst and most dangerous of all elil - man.

Woundwort liked clearness and order, and so it seemed to him obvious that his subordinate groups should be named logically. Like any other warren, there was an Owsla. However, there was also a small group of experienced rabbits who worked as a sort of "Cabinet". These were the Council, known in Efrafan Lapine as the Owslathaf or "above the Owsla". Off to one side, as it were, came the justly feared Council Police, of which Vervain was the head. These were the Owslafa, which can be roughly translated as "fighting Owsla". Of course, in Woundwort's Efrafa, all Owsla officers had to be determined fighters, so the term also carries with it the sense of their being the warren's "enforcers".

This -fa suffix came to be applied quite widely within the warren. For example, flayfa was food reserved for those officers training for battle or Wide Patrols. The Patrols themselves were hrayfil (singular hrayfa), literally "fighting runs", and an officer was simply known as a naylfa, a contraction of naylte fa. Perhaps most chillingly of all, ordinary does were referred to as marlifil (singular marlifa), here having the sense of "does of the struggle" - in other words, rabbits whose only functions were to assist the military ambitions of Efrafa by producing litters and providing recreation for the Owsla. Does who were considered unsatisfactory in either of these areas might expect a visit from the Owslafa, and in some cases this might be the last event of their lives.

On a less unpleasant note, the accent of Efrafa is also worthy of mention. Blackavar's accent, as we see in Watership Down, becomes noticeably more pronounced when he is feeling under stress, and the same phenomenon occurs throughout Efrafa. Its most obvious manifestation is a tendency to use the object forms of personal pronouns universally, so that we might see:

[LISTEN] Ma lay uthow il mi! - Me am listening to you!
[LISTEN] Mon laynt zayn il u preen - Us went to the tree

The defeat of Woundwort and his replacement as Chief Rabbit by Campion left the warren's language somewhat in a state of flux. The Owslafa were abolished, and the Owslathaf reformed, but the name "Efrafa" itself was kept, although now with more of a sense of lapine solidarity than war. Campion himself, of course, had held high office under Woundwort, and the warren remained rather more rigid in both its social and linguistic structures than Watership; with the hrayfil, for example, being retained. (Vleflain, incidentally, took linguistic elements from both sides, but in general tended to err on the side of Watership as the victorious warren, which is why I have not treated it separately here.)