In At The Mountains Of Madness the "piping sound" of the shoggoths is transcribed as "tekeli - li". This has always bothered me, as I have no idea how to imagine that sound as piping or whistling. How is "tekeli - li" pronounced (if that is meaningful at all)?

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    As far as I remember, we never find out what makes the tekeli-li sound. It could be a Shoggoth. It could be an Elder Thing. Sep 14 '12 at 8:57
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    What would the "correct" answer to this question be? (as in, was it a habit of Lovecraft to leave little "how to pronouce things" notes, ala Tolkien"? Or some canonical book reading recordings approved by him)? Sep 14 '12 at 15:34
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    @DVK as it turns out, Lovecraft didn't invent it anyway :) Sep 14 '12 at 16:50
  • Non-canon, but one answer can be found in the video at youtube.com/watch?v=LecGuQE6t44 ^_^
    – FuzzyBoots
    Mar 13 '14 at 20:58
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    I can't believe I'm the first one to say this- it's pronounced exactly as it is spelled, of course, and spelled exactly as it is pronounced.
    – Broklynite
    Mar 8 '16 at 20:46

The real answer: Lovecraft did not coin the phrase Tekeli-li!; Poe did, and he gave no specific pronunciation guide.

From At the Mountains of Madness:

Of course common reading is what prepared us both to make the interpretation, though Danforth has hinted at queer notions about unsuspected and forbidden sources to which Poe may have had access when writing his Arthur Gordon Pym a century ago. It will be remembered that in that fantastic tale there is a word of unknown but terrible and prodigious significance connected with the antarctic and screamed eternally by the gigantic spectral and snowy birds of that malign region's core. "Tekeli-li! Tekeli-li!" That, I may admit, is exactly what we though we heard conveyed by that sudden sound behind the advancing white mist - that insidious musical piping over a singularly wide range.

And on reading Pym, one indeed finds:

From absolute stupor [the savages] appeared to be, all at once, aroused to the highest pitch of excitement, and rushed wildly about, going to and from a certain point on the beach, with the strangest expressions of mingled horror, rage, and intense curiosity depicted on their countenances, and shouting, at the top of their voices, Tekeli-li! Tekeli-li!

Although the pronunciation of Tekeli-li! is not stated, other than by Poe's own choice of letters, the linguistic Note at the end of Pym says that Tekeli-li! is associated in some way with the concept of the color white.

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    Lovecraft seems to think Poe is referring to birds screaming the sound, but the quote from Poe is that is is savage men.
    – ohmi
    Sep 14 '12 at 17:19
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    Pipes (duct flutes, recorders) can make very birdlike sounds and tonguing a high recorder with a combination of t-k and l sounds (like "tickle-lilly") would make a suitably harsh, eerie birdlike noise.
    – ohmi
    Sep 14 '12 at 17:25
  • @ohmi Good comment! Also, a little googling around finds some references to Poe being inspired by Arabic. eapoe.org/pstudies/ps1970/p1979103.htm
    – Nemis L.
    Sep 15 '12 at 21:11
  • This seems to have the correct "lilt" and mystical sound; also, it's birdlike -- maybe even penguin-like. I've always read it this way, both in Lovecraft and in Poe.
    – user46296
    May 29 '15 at 0:00
  • To clarify the quote from Poe and answer @ohmi's comment: The natives in Pym shout "Tekeli-li!" when they see something white, but later we discover this is also the call of the white birds: "Mar 22d. [...] Many gigantic and pallidly white birds flew continuously now from beyond the veil, and their scream was the eternal Tekeli-li! as they retreated from our vision." May 29 '15 at 5:06

It would make most sense, according to Poe's spelling, that it should be pronounced teh-KELL-ee-LEE. The way it sounds is a bit more complicated. I imagined it like a mixture between Poggle the Lesser (from Star Wars), Cubert (from the Atari game), a human shriek, and Redeads (from The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time). In my mind it started really low with a sort of "fuzzy" or "filmy" v sort of sound (Poggle the Lesser) for the "Te" syllable. Then it goes up a minor third, if you follow, for "kel". From there it goes up an octave from where it started, but probably about five or six octaves for the first "li". Here is where it sounds like Cubert and it then immediately goes down a half-step for the the final "li". Between the two "li"s is where I imagined the human shriek and Redead cry. It gives this horrifying picture of hazy or shifty vision distorting as the cry is heard. When I imagined it I gagged from the horror.


Pucker your lips like you are about to whistle and then try saying it exactly how it sounds while whistling it out. You get a very eerie and unsettling almost whiporwill type noise. That makes sense as well because in The Dunwich Horror whiporwills are the harbingers of death that come out to steal the soul when it leaves the body.


Interestingly, the word tekeli-li means to shake with fear or rage in the Tongan language and perhaps others. This proto-polynesian language would have been encountered by all sorts of american seafarers during the whaling era. I expect Poe had contact with this word and made use of it. I was reading Lovecraft's Mountains of MAdness during my travels in Tonga and found it quite amusing to disciver this connection, and generally how much Polynesian content made its way into this genre of american fiction. It is spelled exactly as written (minus the hyphen) in Eric SHumway's Intensive Course in Tongan.

  • But how is it pronounced? Does it have a "piping sound"?
    – DavidW
    Feb 11 at 3:32

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