“The Original Language of Winnie-the-Pooh”
by Aureliano Buendía
From Speculative Grammarian CXLVIII.4, March 1998
Reviewed by Bill Spruiell
Modern readers, particularly ones focusing on Children’s Literature, may not be immediately aware of what a bombshell Buendía’s article was when it first appeared; SpecGram was not particularly known as a venue for publishing in that area—the editors’ resistance to what they view as fads has saved the journal from being involved in some of the more regrettable developments of recent linguistics, such as the early-aughts’ Mergefest, but at the cost of being behind the curve on some real advances. The Board was, if not dismissive of literary concerns, at least more interested in it as a handy source of counterexamples with which to smite opponents. As for Children’s Literature, well, at least two of the editors, as late as 1999, thought The Lion and the Unicorn was probably some monograph about how to represent mixed-referentiality–type nominals in conjoined series in second-order logics, and Editor Pulju was famous for his firm insistence that the purpose of Children’s Literature was to present young readers with vivid images of the horrific fates that can result from violating traditional social strictures. The publication of Buendía’s article thus came as a surprise to many longtime readers, and there was even some scurrilous conjecture that the decision to publish was motivated by a desire to annoy Onesimus (one of whose articles appeared in that issue), or that someone had decided to comply with Editor Pulju’s requirement of “more articles on real languages like Latin” in the most infuriating way possible.
But then people read the article, and the rumors were replaced by fascination. Today, it seems obvious that the English edition of Winnie-the-Pooh is a translation; there are few other ways to account for its more distinctive qualities. Anyone who has taken a “Classics in Translation” course is intimately familiar with the fact that a great work of literature can be the source of an awful translation, but no one had applied this knowledge to Pooh before. It is always the best ideas that seem the most obvious in retrospect. Buendía’s short article has, in a few short years, become a classic for its clear presentation of a novel argument, its careful attention to the linguistic details of Latin, its efficacy in propitiating angry Gallo-Latinists at conferences, and its popularity with readers.
This is not to say, of course, that the position Buendía laid out in this paper has achieved canonical status. The fact that it relies rather heavily on the assumption that the Latin version is an accurate representation of the meaning of the original text renders it vulnerable to a range of criticisms, and several scholars have pursued this line of attack already—e.g., Holtherfrinkl (2011), who has argued that the level of unlikelihood of the events in the text suggests multiple faulty translation stages, and Jarmique and van den Drell’s (2013) contention that the degree to which the text is profoundly boring cannot automatically be used as evidence of a Latin original, given the wide occurrence of extremely boring children’s stories across world cultures, particularly those that are Danish.
A separate line of attack, though one rooted in the “bad-translation” line, has been developed by Sorovnitsovov (2013), who questions what he sees as the Eurocentric bias of Buendía’s argument. Sorovnitsovov’s argument is complex and detailed, but can be roughly characterized as involving two major points: (1) Buendía narrowed the field of possible precursors to Latin by considering only European languages, thus ignoring wider contact phenomena, and (2) a reading of the “Winnie-ther-Pooh” line as a pun on “Winnie-the-Pooh-er” suggests a connection between the text and the Hui trade in pu-erh tea along the Silk Road. While several other scholars have questioned Sorovnitsovov’s analysis (particularly his claims about the reanalysis of nasal-final stems with the Arabic -iyya adjectival suffix as a new -niy suffix attached to *wi < *hwi; see Holtherfrinkl (2014) for an overview), the argument itself has been instrumental in encouraging further investigation of possible precursor texts.
This kind of controversy, however, does not detract from the importance of Buendía’s original article—it emphasizes it. If his claim eventually proves true, the implications are profound, and we have learned much along the way. If someone proves an alternate source—something like Yortano & Velchik’s grand treatise establishing the Proto-Elamite background of Where the Wild Things Are, the field will be similarly enriched, and we will similarly owe thanks to Buendía for it.