Blowing away the mists of time in search of the old language.
I'm going to ask you, for a moment, to plug yourself into the visual cortex of a Crested Serpent Eagle, you're cruising at altitude over a valley in the far North of Thailand, at the risk of missing your strike I would like you to take in the scene below you.
I'd like you to ignore the fire and the thatched rooves, the assembled old men and children, stop, if you can, thinking about the chickens.
Concentrate on the four people sitting on the mat, they're an odd bunch and therefore perhaps the most interesting (I notice that, having asked you to be a bird of prey, you can't take your mind off the chickens so perhaps you can now come to earth and observe - pay attention!).
Of the four one is emphasising his point with an outstretched finger, he is talking louder than the others because he is slightly deaf in one ear, perhaps the only concession his body and mind seem to have made to his eighty-two years, he's the man the others have come to learn from, a man born under an absolute monarchy, at a time when his country was covered in forest, a man born and raised for one calling, a calling that he hasn't been able to follow for more than forty years, the latter half, now, of his life. The loss of his calling may have been through outside interference (as he sees it) but definitely was not through loss of skills or fitness. Though his calling is a dangerous one and his body isn't what it was, he'd go tomorrow if he could.
Next to him is a younger man of the same trade, we can say younger as there are no older left, now in his late forties he reached maturity (and, in those days, fourteen was considered maturity) after the calling of his people had been outlawed. The younger man has grown up watching and living the transition of his people, has watched the world change and it is fair to say that, as befits his skill and intelligence, he has had a good life and has made good of it. He has learned from and listened to the older man (and those even older that have now passed) since he was a child, it is hard to say if he regrets the passing of the calling of his people as his life in the transition, tough though it has been, has turned out well.
Sitting diagonally across from this man, talking into the older man's good ear, is the youngest of three, not of the people but from the same country, born in the capital city. She is the only lady on the mat, not that her sex matters more than her youth and her interest in the subject, but I've asked you to pay attention so I'm sure you'd notice this and ask. Though having no link to the calling of the older man's people by birth she has chosen to make some of their problems her own for the sake of the creature involved at first, and as time progressed, for the people that surround them.
The fourth person on the mat is a foreigner and has no right to be there but since it was his idea, he signs the cheques and he was the one that borrowed the voice recorder they have to let him be there or he'd throw one of his famous tantrums.
The fourth, being the least interesting, is the first I'll identify. He types as you read.
The young lady is Dr Cherry, our vet, here to bring the Thai language to the table as well as answer her own questions.
The younger of the older men is our Chief Mahout, Lung Lord, a lifelong elephant raiser and carer, a man who can sing elephants to sitting position and a man that can speak to the older fellow in the language he grew up with, an interesting language, pasar suay, but not the one we're interested in.
The older man is Mor Meu, the oldest surviving and most prolific elephant catcher in Thailand, a man who's calling, as we've learned in a week of interviews for the Elephant Spirits movie, is the catching of elephants, for the forty years since he was prevented from following this calling he has, like Lung Lord, cared for elephants but there is no doubt he feels catching them was what he was born for.
But this is personal for the foreigner, this isn't part of the movie, this is based on a story he heard a long time ago and a chance to try something that has never been done before (to the best of his knowledge): to record a language that hasn't been spoken in action in forty years.
He aims to record the so called spirit or forest language of the elephant catchers: the rumour goes that all elephant catching peoples have the tradition of a language used only in the forest when catching elephants, known only to a select band of initiates, a language designed to confuse the spirits enough that they don't warn the elephants of this band of biped's intentions.
It is a rumour that has fascinated him for years.
Away from the scene and into the first person.....
With Mor Meu on site and in full flow we had a chance to confirm one part of the rumour, the language exists, it was written by the first Khru Ba Yai, elephant catcher of the Guay tribe, Phra Mor Tao, who also gave the tiger his stripes - these stories are part of the movie so I'll leave them alone for now and suffice to say that the language has descended to its last active speaker from the time of myths.
So, how do you go about recording a language? As you'd expect I have no idea, I'm just the elephant boy, and so I'm ashamed to report that, through my incompetence, the romantic scene described above quickly descended into comedy; perhaps culminating in my asking a wise older gentleman to tell us, in a language that was designed for the catching of elephants in sweltering jungles the word for 'snow'.
Were he not a gentleman he'd have sworn at me then, the look I got reminded me of my idiocy (in my defence, all my requests to linguists for protocols to perform the task I set my self had fallen on deaf ears - ironic for linguists - so I was stuck with a list of words that a proper scientist called Richard Johnston had used some time in the 1960's to try and record both older men's home language of Suay - the so called Swadesh 200 word list).
The plan had been that I would say a word in English, Dr Cherry would say it in Thai, Lung Lord would say it in Suay and Mor Meu would impart the Spirit Language. Suffice to say after two hours of laughter and general confirmation of the stupidity of foreigners we got about 180 words of English, 150 words of Thai, 120 words of Suay and, remarkably, 65 words of the spirit language.
Mor Meu was at pains to point out, the reason for the outstretched finger in the first paragraph, that the language must not be spoken frivolously, if he was to allow us to record it it must not be mis-used (although he later told us how to say 'the girls are beautiful'). So I won't tell you what we learned, except to say that it appears to be distinct from any of the local languages and that, now we have the recording my job is to find some anthropological linguists to see if we can learn more about these amazing people.
I have no idea if what we got is enough to define a language but it was enough to confirm part of a rumour and, perhaps more important, four people from different backgrounds and points around the globe had two hours of fun. As the proper scientists who have to listen to the tape may find out, I wouldn't be surprised if the whole thing is lost in laughter.