My two favorite things in this world, besides my family and friends, are knitting and languages. I love the feel of yarn in my hands, getting immersed in a project, or creating a new pattern almost as much as I love studying different languages, speaking them, or looking at the patterns in their grammar.
So when in 1998 I was given my Peace Corps volunteer assignment to Latvia, a land of several languages and thousands of expert knitters, it should have seemed a perfect fit. My initial reaction, however, was one of slight disappointment. I had been devoted to the Russian language for years, starting when I was 16 years old at Russian language camp and continuing through four years of college (including one glorious year in St. Petersburg, Russia). Now finally with the help of the American government I was going to complete this long-time goal of speaking Russian as close to fluently as possible. But instead, I was assigned to a little, rural town in Latvia close to the Baltic Sea coast, many hours and a visa away from Russia.
I had loved the Russian language for so many years, but by the time I left Latvia in the year 2000 I had grown to love Latvian too. I love the long vowels, the unusual sound of the dipthong o, the soft letters ņ (like el niño in Spanish) and ķ (between k and ch) and ģ (between g and ch). I love how some Latvians turn all adjectives and nouns into diminutives (e.g., chica to chiquita in Spanish), making whole sentences sound like sweet little adorable nothings. I love the names of trees and natural things in people’s names. I love reading, singing and speaking the language of my friends there.
And I admire the culture of knitting there, honed over the last few centuries, according to their dainas, the thousands of traditional, pre-Christian song-poems which were painstakingly recorded and compiled at the end of the 19th century. Here is one section of that collection that my friend Rasma kindly scanned and e-mailed to me, entitled 6) Knitting, which includes daina numbers 4198 to 4263. (For more on the subject of knitting, a footnote reads, see the section on “Sheep tending.”) I picked out a few dainas, below, and translated them as best I could to just give a glimpse of knitting history in Latvia.
Liela ceļa maliņā;
Ņem, brālīti, adītāju,
Lai palika rakstītāja:
Adītāja saimi ģērba,
Rakstītāja pūru dara.
A knitter, a pattern writer
On the edge of a wide road;
Take the knitter, brother,
Let the embroiderer be:
The knitter clothes the household,
The embroiderer makes the dowry.
Most of the dainas in the knitting section from Rasma are about making socks and mittens for one’s dowry, either happily, early in the morning, or sadly while watching one’s true love marry another.
Preciet mani, ciema puiši,
Es bagāta mates meita:
Viena zeķe pūriņā,
Otra – aitas mugurā.
Marry me, local boys,
I’m a rich mama’s girl:
One sock in the dowry,
The other – on the back of a sheep.
The dowry, or pūra , mentioned in the first daina is made into a diminutive, pūriņa, in the second (the same is done below with mittens, from cimdi to cimdiņi). The diminutive either adds another syllable, makes the ending rhyme better with another word, or just softens the word a little. It’s also more fun to say!
And lastly, you thought you were busy in your life, behind on e-mail and forgetting the kids’ school permission slips at home? Listen to this:
Rudens nāk, rudens nāk,
Rudens darbi nadarīti:
Ne ir kulta kviešu rija,
Ne cimdiņi noadīti.
Autumn is coming, autumn is coming,
Autumn’s work is still unfinished:
Neither has the wheat been threshed,
Nor have the mittens been knitted.