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Review: Die Stimme des Windes: Sprachliches zur Geschichte der Sackpfeife/The Voice of the Wind: A Linguistic History of the Bagpipe

Die Stimme des Windes

Michael Peter Vereno. 2015. Hamburg: Baar-Verlag. 240 pages. ISBN: 978-3-935536-76-9

Editor’s Note: Thank to The Journal of Folklore Research Reviews who very kindly gave me permission to reprint this review which first appeared in September 2017.

The subject matter of Die Stimme des Windes: Sprachliches zur Geschichte der Sackpfeife (The Voice of the Wind: A Linguistic History of the Bagpipe) might seem to be of limited interest to folklorists and ethnomusicologists, except perhaps for those narrowly focused on organology, but it addresses a serious and pervasive deficiency in how the field applies linguistic evidence to historic studies. As such, the broader theoretical issues it raises are ones that go beyond the narrow confines of the study of bagpipes or linguistic history.

Scholars who lack physical evidence (e.g., archaeological remains or artistic depictions of a subject) or detailed historical accounts of a subject are often forced to engage in reconstruction based on the information they do have. The methods that predominated in folkloristics in the early twentieth century were closely tied to those of American structuralist linguists, who in turn looked back to the careful and systematic approaches of the German philologists (many of whom, like the Grimms, were also folklorists). It is not coincidental at all that the founding pantheon of both folkloristic and linguistic theorists scarcely diverges until after the First World War: both language and folklore were seen as roads to reconstruct and understand the past, and seemed amenable to the same broad methodologies of study.

This shared approach worked well as long as scholars understood the methods of historical-comparative linguistics, but as the fields increasingly diverged in the inter-war period and finally gained full independence after the Second World War, many folklorists continued to apply linguistic methods without full training in their limitations. As a result, their efforts increasingly came to resemble those of armchair linguists who see patterns everywhere but lack the rigorous methodology needed to distinguish between real and spurious results. Added to this problem, few folklorists are experts in the history of the languages they work with and may end up treating folk etymologies as proven just because they appear plausible.

Michael Peter Vereno’s book illustrates the pitfalls of relying on trace linguistic evidence in the absence of more reliable physical remains. Scholarship has created an origin myth for bagpipes, one that confirmed Romantic notions of their antiquity. According to it, they are an ancient instrument, dating back to around 3000 years ago. They first arose in Asia Minor and spread from there throughout the Mediterranean realm, where they still exist in a “primitive” form as a folk instrument. The ancient Greeks knew the instrument and played it, and the Romans spread it throughout Europe, perhaps using it as a martial instrument with their legions. In the late Medieval period Europeans started to innovate and eventually created a wide variety of forms. In the influential mid-twentieth-century telling of Anthony Baines, the technologically complex form seen in the Northumbrian smallpipes conveniently paralleled the evolutionary superiority of Victorian man and his descendants.

Much of the evidence for this telling is in iconography, literary traces, and linguistic evidence in the form of widespread names for bagpipes. Although space does not permit a full exploration of the purported evidence, the early date is derived from an Alexandrine sculpture that depicts a musician with a panpipe and what is clearly an inflated animal skin. Later on, classical Greek authors refer to instruments played with bags (although they saw the use of a bag as an amateurish “hack” in place of more difficult circular breathing), and Roman sources mention instruments played using a bag, although the famed tibia utricularis—“tibia” refers to musical pipes made from the leg bones of sheep or other animals, and “utricularis” refers to a bag or bladder—appears to be a Renaissance Latin neologism that was subsequently taken to be a legitimate ancient name. (Incidentally, I have heard more than one Scotsman claim in all seriousness, based on that term, that the Romans introduced bagpipes to Scotland and that the Scots therefore have a roughly 2000-year history of playing them.)

In this volume, Vereno, a talented bagpiper and historical linguist, examines the evidence from the rigorous perspective of his field and finds the story and the evidence both wanting. As he carefully demonstrates, the story results from armchair linguistics that has misinterpreted the available evidence and is guilty of naively interpreting Latin and Greek names in Renaissance instrument catalogues.

First, he addresses the iconographic evidence and finds it lacking. The Alexandrine sculpture, rather than depicting a bagpipe, shows an inflated skin that was rubbed to produce rhythmic sound, an interpretation that makes much more sense given that the figure is holding a pan flute, an instrument that could not be played simultaneously with a bagpipe. Similarly, an early Neo-Assyrian depiction shows a man with a bag fitted with a blowpipe of some sort, but this almost certainly depicts a swimmer using an animal skin as a flotation aid. As Vereno shows, the early iconographic evidence evaporates under scrutiny that reveals other simpler and more plausible explanations.

Turning to the linguistic evidence, he finds a fundamental problem in that early “bagpipes” were never considered their own class of wind instrument, but rather were what he terms “half instruments.” He uses this phrase to describe a situation in which the same instrument could be played by mouth or with a bag, a situation that persists to this day in the Near East, North Africa, and parts of the Balkans. Any discussion of the history of bagpipes therefore has to deal with the fact that early examples were not part of a separate class of instruments and that using the modern term is an anachronism in understanding them.

Bagpipes emerge as a distinct class of musical instrument only with the addition of drones, which makes them more difficult to blow without bags. Obligatory drones created instruments that were played only in bagged configurations. This shift is hard to date precisely, but probably happened in multiple locations in Europe during the Medieval period. As a result, looking for terms for bagpipes prior to the Middle Ages (such as tibia utricularis) is fundamentally problematic, because the terms refer to instruments and bags as separable qualities, much like modern references to “electric guitars” today do not create a new class separate from guitars in general.

Much of this book is based on close examination of the early linguistic evidence, which is ambiguous or even completely misunderstood by scholars. For example, according to Vereno, earlier scholars interpreted the Greek term pithaules as a combination of Greek pithos (barrel or flask) and aules (pipers), to create “barrel pipers,” and “barrel pipe” as a name for early bagpipes. As the author shows, however, this interpretation is wrong, and the term referred to musicians who participated in rites for the Pythia, the high priestess and oracle of Apollo at Delphi. The term, which accords with Latin attestations, thus meant a “Pythian piper” rather than a “barrel piper.” Vereno dryly notes that in this case scholars managed to create an entire type of instrument for which no evidence exists at all.

Adding to the confusion, Renaissance authors reinterpreted phrases like tibia utricularis as neo-Latin terms for the instruments they saw in medieval Europe and labelled them as such. This shift led subsequent scholars to reinterpret the Greek and Latin terms as referring to bagpipes as a natural class of instruments. This misreading has coloured scholarship on the subject to the present day.

Vereno then turns to the names later used for instruments that are indisputably bagpipes, and shows how previous scholars often relied on facile observations to derive etymologies (and from them histories). Although I will not go into his explanations, which are often quite technical, they depend on the sort of knowledge of languages and linguistic methods that few folklorists have. In more than one case that Vereno examines, scholars seem to have relied on dictionaries, intuition, and a good deal of imagination, rather than on rigorous methodology, to spin out supposedly factual histories.

At the end of his book, the author turns specifically to the names for the instruments used in German-speaking countries to see what they can tell us about the history of bagpipes in that region. This section is valuable for showing how linguistics connects to history in a period where we have much better information than for the ancient instrument. Even here, Vereno tells us, caution is in order, and the unknowns often outweigh what can be reliably determined.

Stimme des Windes is not just a critique of naïve linguistic methods or a debunking of Romantic notions of history. Rather, Vereno illustrates what a principled linguistic examination can and cannot accomplish. His methods and approaches apply more widely than to just bagpipes. Folklorists interested in using linguistic reasoning and etymology to support their work would be well advised to review this work. A careful reading that compares it to how folklorists use linguistics to investigate other subjects is likely to lead to the evaporation of other historical “facts.” More than one founding myth may be revealed to rest on similarly weak foundations.

Although scholarly German has a reputation for being impenetrable and dry, Vereno’s text is accessible and enlivened by a sardonic wit that carries across well for an English-speaking audience. Unfortunately for non-German-speakers, Stimme des Windes is currently only available in German. I reached out to the author, who told me that an English edition is planned, but he had no time-frame for its release. If and when it appears in English, it is a book that will deserve a wider audience among English-speaking folklorists than its subject matter might suggest.