A Scheherazade thing

Sometimes I wish dearly that I had more formal education in linguistics. Storytelling is one of those times. Not only does folklore have history and common elements, but it sparks a desire to engage in folk etymology and/or pseudolinguistics.

I love the Spanish phrase for “once upon a time”: Érase una vez. I know the se isn’t necessarily reflexive–it might be passive or a “narrative se“– but it would be so cool if it were. Time would act on itself, double back on itself. In Irish, the word for “excuse” is leithscéal, literally “half story.” I would imagine that a really good excuse would count as a full story, something like a tall tale perhaps. “Excuse me” is Gabh mo leithscéal, literally “Take my excuse.” “Take my half story.” Of course literal meanings rarely apply to conversational speech, but I’d like to think (all right, pretend) that they retain some of their charm for storytelling.

Take Scheherazade. She saved her life by doling out stories in nightly fractions, pleading “Take my half story.” Time must have become so strange, measured in breath and fantasy instead of clocks. I wonder if she left her life for a few moments, if she disappeared into the characters or voices and forgot she was afraid. I wonder if it was hard to come down after the story was over each night. No–I know it was hard.

With storytelling, time opens up. You can speak a complete thought at once, joining the halves of a sentence to tell something whole. It reminds you that you have a voice, unbroken. People take your half story because they want to know what happens next; they may interject with guesses, but you are always free to continue and tell what you mean to tell.

With storytelling, your throat opens up. You forget the tension and constriction of scrabbling to get a word in edgewise. With storytelling, your throat becomes round with voices, louder and surer than you ever get a chance to be. The silence as you begin to speak becomes a whole sky. You create someone out of lips and tongue and throat. You might become a wide-mouthed frog, or an Irish giant, or a troll, or maybe just discover that you have a totally passable parrot voice. It’s almost weightless.

And sometimes, even when you’re done, you’re still floating in some halfway space between. After telling “Molly Fiddler“, an Appalachian folk tale, for the last Dance around the World, my mouth still held the shape of Molly and the giant’s twang. “I’m tellin’ ye,” I said to Miss Kathy, “this ain’t my day!” (Pardon my attempt at phonetic spelling.)

And it was hard to come down from that, to where I really stand. But I know that the library, Main in particular, has many many stories waiting to be told. As for me, I need to go look up some linguistics.

About Amy

Children's librarian, Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh
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