One More Hibernophile

“He had been thinking of how landscape moulds a language. It was impossible to imagine these hills giving forth anything but the soft syllables of Irish, just as only certain forms of German could be spoken on the high crags of Europe; or Dutch in the muddy, guttural, phlegmish lowlands.” 

-Alexander McCall Smith, 
Portugese Irregular Verbs

I’m smitten with the Irish. One week in and around County Clare was all it took. Add me to the long Hibernophile rolls. 

My smitten-ness has roots in three emerald green fields: language, history and personality. The ancient Christian history is everywere palpable. It pervades and even preserves, modern Ireland. And there is an “Irish personality,” still.  It is plain and unpretentious. (More on those in the next post.)

But, oh, how I love their language!  The Irish speak like a song.

I’m smitten by the sound of Irish speech and its language forms. Irish English and Irish Gaelic; both charm me. Its soft gentle vowels; its gracious, agreeable grammar.

‘Tis a lovely sound, isn’t it? 

Its easy, rolling cadence explains why ‘twas and ’twill, ’tis and ye,  keep jumping in to start sentences.  I think it’s why Irish place names issue from my tongue, unexpectedly, soothing like M&Ms:

Lisdoonvarna, Ballyhooly,  

Toomyvara (in Tipperary) Kilkee, 

Doolin, and Enniskillen.  

You see?  I bet you couldn’t just say one, could you?

You end words in hard consonants! It’s like an abrupt and unexpected car crash! Let’s take things easy shall we? The ‘t’ at the end of right is softened almost to a sh sound in the Emerald Isle (or even done away with altogether in North Dublin, and pronounced roy).

We also “ch” up our t’s and “j” up our d’s if they would have a ‘y’ incorporated in them in British English. So the second day of the week is Chooseday, a tube is a choob, and ‘due’ and ‘jew’ are pronounced the same. And if you are spelling words for us, instead of imitating a pirate when you get to the 18th letter (aaaarrrrgh!!), just say it like ‘or’ please 

Mapping speech to spelling was tantalizing, too. Why Corca Dhuibhne (Dingle Peninsula) is pronounced “Cor-kah-guy-nay;” why Dia duit! (Good day!) is pronounced “djiah gwich.”  It’s makes my very-amateur philologist head spin!

Gaelic grammar, though, is way beyond my ken. J.R.R. Tolkien described finding a Finnish grammar book as, “entering a complete wine-cellar filled with bottles of an amazing wind of a kind and flavour never tasted before.” What Finnish was to him, Irish is to me. I spent more time than I care to admit in on-line “wine cellars” like this, trying the Irish Gaelic on my own tongue.

Irish language is at once ancient and modern. Like a fantastic elvish language; like listening in on a conversation between Arwen and Elrond. Thomas Cahill describes the Irish people’s love of their own language, dating as far back as the late 5th century just after literacy reached the island. How The Irish Saved Civilization is explains the love of the Irish for their language. He writes:

Though the early Irish literates were intensely interested in the worlds opened up to them by the three sacred languages of Greek, Latin, and -in a rudimentary form-Hebrew, they loved their own tongue too much to ever stop using it.  Whereas elsewhere in Europe, no educated man would be caught dead speaking a vernacular, the Irish thought that all language was a game- and too much fun to be deprived of any part of it. They were still too childlike and playful to find any value in snobbery.  p. 160

Hearing my (poor) imitation of Irish English since my return last week, my 7 year old, asked, “Was ‘Twas brillig and the slithy toves” Irish?  It sounds like how you’re talking.”  (I looked. Victorian Web reports that Lewis Carroll did have “Irish connections.”)

Just a bit on Irish word choice before I close. It’s quaint. Quaintness graces the lips even of sportscasters. On my return flight, I watched a re-broadcast of the 2013 Gaelic Athletic Association’s hurling championship. Commentary included these delightful phrases: Enterprising move. Great character and fighting ability we see there. He collects it, but immediately dispossessed. Great character, as well.  Isn’t it delightful?

The Irish do speak like a song. I love it. I’ve taken to warning my friends, Beware my Irish accent breakin’ out upon ye.  And I don’t doubt there’ll be some Irish breakin’ out in heaven.