Gashead's Blog Wonders


Why Did The Knights Who Say Ni Say Ni?

Silly people

One of the greatest comedy films of all time, if you are British or love British humour, is Monty Python and the Holy Grail. It stood out for me for its attempt to portray the reality of living in times when the king was the only person not covered in shit.

Like much of the Python work it also had a degree of educational value, we now know, for instance, that a European swallow differs from an African swallow in its physical characteristics. But along with the typical Python trait of showing off their wide knowledge of stuff there were also aspects of the film that appeared to be just plain silly and there's nothing wrong with that when done as well as they do silly. A prime example of just plain silly is The Knights Who Say Ni, or so it seemed at first...

It was a joke on the Swedes

A year after the film came out I abandoned my university French course after one particularly testing lesson when we spent 50 minutes translating a single sentence and ventured into the world of Swedish, guaranteed to break the ice at parties. The course involved learning Swedish from scratch so the usage of the equivalent of "you" soon arose. In the sixties Sweden underwent the du-reformen. Previously you would call close friends "du", but for people you didn't know, particularly of a higher social status the correct form of address was "Ni", pretty much the same as tu and vous in French. Because of the unease with the "you" word it was common to refer to people in the third person to avoid the issue e.g. "would one like a cup of tea", "does Mr Lundberg know where I left my glasses?" In time the usage of "du" as standard for addressing a single person spread throughout the country but there remained resistance in certain areas, particularly amongst rural elderly people who didn't want to change their ways.

So there we have it, case closed, a simple joke at the expense of those diehards in Sweden who wouldn't move with the times and continued to address all but their closest friends and family as "Ni". The Pythons had a track record of poking fun at Scandinavia, the song Finland, the Norwegian blue parrot, a massage from the Swedish prime minister and so it carried on.

Eric Idle cites The Goon Show

At some point in its life the Python commercial machine released a DVD with a commentary by Eric Idle in which he cited The Goons as the source of the word ni. Every few years another version of the film is released with new, improved extras, to be honest I'm not prepared to buy them all so feel free to verify this in whichever deluxe, executive, added 17 seconds or whatever version you have. Agreed the chief knight spoke in a Goonish voice but surely such a key scene would have a bit more meaning? I learned an entire thesaurus of cheese varieties from Python, the origin of the policeman's helmet and the drinking habits of key philosophers.

 The girl with the pioneering anger management technique

Readers of Stieg Larsson's Millennium Trilogy will appreciate the sense of bereavement I felt when I finished the final book in the series. The only option was to read some background and what better than Stieg And Me written by Eva Gabrielsson who lived as his partner for the greater part of his life. Sadly Stieg died suddenly at the age of 50 from a heart attack, Eva didn't even get time to say goodbye, he died so quickly, and losing the man she loved made her very angry.

Then, sensing that I might find a way to grapple with my depression, I turned to mythology for a violent, raw, unflinching way to express all this, something that would measure up to my suffering. We had many books on the subject, and I found what I was looking for in The Elder Edda - a collection of poems in Old Norse, the ancestor of the modern Scandinavian languages - and in particular in the Hávamál (Sayings of The High One or The Words of the Most-High). I realized that my catharsis would pass through the writing of a níð (pronounced nee), a traditional curse which I would recite during a magic ceremony.

Whoa there boy! A curse, pronounced nee, sayings of The High One? The Knights who say ni were particularly tall. Grab the starting handle and fire up Google!

I have a theory and this theory is mine

Up popped a PDF of Alison Finlay's Monstrous Allegations. The very first sentence contained the smoking gun.

In their proscriptions against various kinds of verbal and other insults, the thirteenth-century Icelandic law codes known as Grágás include, alongside the well-known category of níð, the more obscure term ýki.

Now there's another word to conjure with - ýki. At some point The Knights Who Say Ni wavered from their true destiny and became The Knights Who Say Ekke Ekke Ptang Zoo Boing. Alison was most gracious to answer my query and suggested that ýki rhymes with "leaky", not quite Ekke but Eaky is pretty damn close and I doubt Michael Palin has his Old Norse pronunciation down to a fine art.

I will leave you to be the judge. Maybe it was sheer Goonery making up silly words for a cheap laugh. Consider the evidence, Scandinavian curses, sayings of The High One, a film co-directed by Terry Jones the author of The Saga of Erik the Viking and Medieval Lives. I like to think these obscure words were planted in the film, their significance waiting to be found. Terry Jones, feel free to contact me!