All Their Wars Are Merry and All Their Songs Are Sad*

This post is republished from my other blog, Read Play Edit. It ran in March 2011.

Words—and the way they are pronounced—can be such funny things. And people are often passionately attached to their own interpretation, even if they’re … well … wrong. Like the pronunciation of Van Gogh. (Look it up; you may be surprised.)

The Irishman and I have done some pleasant business with a company called Celtic Marble and Granite right here in (ahem) the geographical center of the state. The storefront downtown is this fantastical, swirling, hippie-looking façade and I just love it, love going inside and running my hands over the samples of gorgeous stone. The business is owned by the Fretwells; she’s English, he’s Welsh (very, very Welsh).

Which doesn’t really matter, but I was out driving one day and remembered I needed to call them about our current project. I didn’t have the number, so I called information and asked for Celtic Marble and Granite. I pronounced it “KELL-tick.” Wouldn’t you? It never crossed my mind to pronounce it any other way.

The operator told me there is no such number.

Now … I knew there was. 🙂 So I smiled and said: “Oh, of course there is! I do business with them! C-E-L-T-I-C (see-ee-ell-tee-eye-see).”

Long pause. “You mean SELL-tick, then.”

Hahahahahahahhaa. My mistake was that I didn’t get it at first: I was wrong, she needed me to know that. But that just flew right over my head. “No, it’s KELL-tick,” I said without thinking. I didn’t really mean to argue with her, I just didn’t understand I wasn’t playing the appropriate role. 🙂 It made her mad, I could tell. (After the fact. Sorry, BellSouth operator lady! Really!)

But what about the Boston Celtics? you might well ask. Or, if you’re Irish: But what about the Glasgow (Scotland) Celtic? Excellent questions. I was trying, some time ago, to locate a succinct explanation of the origins of the Gaelic language, a language that, written, looks absolutely nothing like how it sounds (would you have guessed the word taoiseach—meaning prime minister, as in “Bertie Ahern, at age forty-five, was Ireland’s youngest ever taoiseach”—would be pronounced “TEE-shock”? Neither would I), when I stumbled upon this, which explains the situation: What is a Celt and who are the Glasgow Celtics?

… It is interesting to note that when the British Empire was distinguishing itself as better and separate from the rest of humanity, it was decided that British Latin should have different pronunciation from other spoken Latin. Therefore, one of these distinguishing pronunciational differences was to make many of the previously hard ‘k’ sounds move to a soft ‘s’ sound, hence the Glasgow and Boston Celtics. It is the view of many today that this soft ‘c’ pronunciation should be reserved for sports teams since there is obviously nothing to link them with the original noble savagery and furor associated with the Celts.

And that, I believe, is the final word on that! Here’s wishing you a Celtic-flavored Paddy’s Day, friends. But stay away from that green beer.

(*From “The Ballad of the White Horse” by G. K. Chesterton: “For the great Gaels of Ireland are the men that God made mad, for all their wars are merry …”)


They Speak English, Don’t They?

This post is republished from my other blog, Read Play Edit. It ran in October 2012.

When you’re planning your first trip to Ireland—excitedly, it’s something you’ve dreamed of for decades—the one thing you don’t think is Oh, and I’d better pick up a translation dictionary. Because they speak English over there.

Don’t they?

Um, yes, of course they do.  But you may find yourself doing the smile-and-nod (which is universal sign language for “I don’t understand a word you’re saying, but … OK”) more often than you’d expect.

(Warning: what follows is not for the sensitively eared.)

Like the time we had a flat tire in Tralee and were directed to Tony O’Donoghue’s Tyre Service. As the driver of the car, I marched in and indicated my need for a new tire to the proprietor, who understood me just fine. (They get a lot of American television over there and are used to—and imitate with glee—our accent.) Tony then replied at length. I smiled and nodded, and as Tony walked away, the Irishman murmured, “I’ll bet you didn’t understand a word of that.” I hadn’t. Not a word. And I’d been trying. “It’s a very thick Kerry accent,” he said. “I didn’t catch everything either.”

It’s interesting, the variety of regional accents one encounters in a country the size of Indiana. (To be fair, I can distinguish a Southern accent on a state-by-state basis, though most non-Southerners would probably hear them as all the same.) And not just accents—the vernacular changes too. When I was seeking editorial help from the Irishman (a Dubliner) for a novel set in Ireland, I had to answer characterization questions first: “Who are the speakers, where are they from? Dublin? The west? Cork? Those Corkmen”—a shake of the head—“have a language all their own. Are they working class or upper class?”

One thing visiting Americans certainly find disconcerting is the use of what we might delicately call profanity, but which are merely mild exclamations or slang completely unrelated to … well, what we Yanks think we hear. Words like feck or arse are somewhat shocking to our Puritan ears, though I am assured those Irish nuns have heard this and more (for example, Dubliners are fond of bluddy hell). It’s just not the same, I’m told. (Don’t believe me? Watch this well-received performance by Fascinating Aïda, complete with subtitles.)

It does get easier when you converse with a native-speaker every day. But when I am with the fam and everyone’s talking at once … I just smile and nod.

May the Blessing of the Rain Be on You

This post is republished from my other blog, Read Play Edit. It ran in September 2012.

Before I visited Ireland the first time, I had the impression (as many do) it rains a lot there. (I packed a raincoat.) Here’s what the Irish Meteorological Service says: “In fact, two out of three hourly observations will not report any measurable rainfall.”

That sounds good. But consider this: “The average number of wet days (days with more than 1mm [3/100 inch] of rain) ranges from about 150 days a year along the east and south-east coasts, to about 225 days a year in parts of the west.” Well. That threshold for what constitutes a wet day is pretty low. And if you do the math, you’ll see 41 percent of the days in the east are wet while it’s wet 61 percent in the west.

So it’s no wonder, then, the Irish have a lot of slang for rain.

My favorite is soft, as in a soft day, which is characterized by a soft rain, which is actually more like mist. (Hence the soft.) A soft day is cloudy and sometimes the wet is a little more drizzle than mist. You might hear a day described as a grand soft day, which is, as best I can tell, no actual rain, just an elevated humidity.

Here are some other wet-weather words (and here’s a chart to help you decipher their relation to size and number of drops):

• Misht: mist with a country accent
• Drizzle: a little heaver than a soft rain, not quite a light rain
• Mizzle: very fine drops, but definitely raining
• Mildering: a light rain, regional version
• Light rain: looks soft, but don’t be fooled; it’ll ruin your hairdo
• Drop of rain: not enough to worry about, but take an umbrella
• Shower: enough rain to know you’ve been rained on
• Sun shower: raining while it’s sunny; watch for rainbows
• Wet rain: yes, they’re teasing you
• Pissing rain: hard vertical rain (not as much wind as lashing rain); an annoyance
• Lashing rain: diagonal, hard rain (due to wind)
• Driving rain: too much wind involved; stay inside or you’ll get soaked
• Heavy rain: you’ll want rain gear
• Teeming rain: heavy rain
• Raining cats and dogs: a heavy rain; careful, you might walk into a poodle
• Spate: a sudden, strong rain, out of nowhere
• Heavens opened: a spate of rain
• Downpour: a heavy rain
• Bucketing rain: you’re instantly soaked, like someone threw a bucket of water at you
• Sheets of rain: like buckets only steadier; walls of rain coming down
• Torrential rain: unrelenting; seriously, stay home
• Almost biblical: can’t get much worse

The real test, though, is the Gaelic. I found this list here, which post is also somewhat amusing for the dueling linguists:

• biadh an tsic (“food for rain”): rain in frosty weather
• brádán báistí: light rain
• braon: the dripping of the rain
• cith agus dealán: sunshine with showers
• ceóbhrán: light drizzle, mist
• durach mor: a big shower
• focíth fearthainne: occasional rain showers
• frás: shower
• fuarbháisteach earraigh: a cold spring downpour
• lá frasaidheacht: a showery day
• greadadh báistí: heavy (pelting) (driving) rain
• plimp fearthainne: a sudden downpour of rain
• síorbháisteach: a continuous downpouring of rain
• scáth báistí (“rain shield”): umbrella
• smurán: a shower
• stoirm ceatha: breeze before a shower
• stoirm shíobhta bháistí: a driving rainstorm
• taom fearthainne: a bucketing down of rain

You’re on your own for pronunciation, so if I were you’d I’d stick to the English. 🙂 And pack a light raincoat. You may need it!

Gaeltacht (GALE-tucked)

This post is republished from my professional blog, Read Play Edit. It ran in October 2012.

I have warm memories of sitting in a pub in Malin, on the Inishowen Peninsula in County Donegal. The population of this village is only 122, and I’m pretty sure most of them were there that late afternoon. It was raining outside—blustering, really—but we were all snug inside. The Irishman had his tea and was watching the game; I had my feet propped up, alternately sipping tea and whiskey. (Highly recommended.)

I loved this place!

I love sitting in a busy place and listening to (OK: eavesdropping on) the conversations around me, little snatches of this and that, meaningless without context but still entertaining. The accents on Inishowen are very thick and Scottish-sounding (to an American’s ear) when folks are speaking English, but as I sat there listening, I realized I was hearing Gaelic (that is, Irish) spoken in natural conversation for the first time. I couldn’t understand a word.

Welcome to the Gaeltacht.

The term Gaeltacht refers to the Irish (Gaelic)-speaking regions of Ireland. Here the road signs are exclusively in Irish, and 75 percent of the people who live here speak it as their first language. There are three principal Gaeltacht regions in the Republic: Kerry, Galway, and Donegal (which is the largest). Historically these were the more rural and remote areas as well.

Nowhere was this more in evidence than in County Kerry, 340 miles to the south and west of Inishiowen. Lying 5 kilometers off the tip of the Dingle Peninsula, the largest of the Blasket Islands (there are six) was inhabited continuously for at least three hundred years, although no one lives there now. It was a hard life—no electricity, no running water, a three-mile crossing to the mainland, weather permitting, followed by a five-mile walk by road for a priest, or a twelve-mile walk to reach a doctor—but in this isolated location, the Blasket islanders retained their own culture and tradition—at the very heart of which lay their continuing use of the Irish language.

“Discovered” in the early 1900s by scholars who were delighted to find perhaps the only outpost of Irish speakers who could not speak English and who had (not coincidentally) a rich storytelling tradition, the islanders were encouraged to write their life stories in their native tongue. This yielded a priceless literary legacy, dozens of books that are still in print today. Three of the most notable are are Machnamh Seanamhná (An Old Woman’s Reflections, by Peig Sayers, 1939), Fiche Bliain Ag Fás (Twenty Years A-Growing, by Muiris Ó Súilleabháin, 1933), and An tOileánach (The Islandman, by Tomás Ó Criomhthain, 1929).

Irish enjoys constitutional status as the national and first official language of the Republic of Ireland. This manifests itself in challenging signage and other ways, too, like the all-Gaelic-all-the-time television channel. The e-mail that comes to me from the Irishman’s place of business is always followed by this:

This email and any files transmitted with it are confidential and intended solely for the use of the individual or entity to whom they are addressed. Tá an t-eolas sa ríomhphost seo agus in aon chomhad a ghabhann leis rúnda agus ceaptha le haghaidh úsáid an té nó an aonáin ar seoladh chuige iad agus na húsáide sin amháin.

When I look at that second sentence, I don’t even know where to start. Gaelic is not easy, not self-evident: the word taoiseach—which means “chieftain” or “leader” in Irish—you’ll recall, is pronounced TEE-shock. You have probably pronounced an Irish name or two, like Seán (John), Liam (William). You’ve heard of Sinéad O’Connor, whose given name is pronounced shin-ADE. But this is not much help when you’re presented with Is tuairimí nó dearcthaí an údair amháin aon tuairimí nó dearcthaí ann (Any views or opinions presented are solely those of the author).

It does help when one’s traveling companion enjoys the role of Chief Instructor and Sometime Tour Guide. I constantly pester the Irishman with requests for the pronunciation of Gaelic names and terms. There are a myriad of them in any museum in Dublin—say, the National Gallery. After he’d had enough one day, he resorted to an answer any parent will recognize: the next time I asked, “How do you pronounce …?” he replied, “What do you think?” We were standing in front of The Marriage of Strongbow and Aoife. (Here’s the painting; it’s a well-known event in Ireland’s history, wherein one of Ireland’s Norman conquerors married a local girl related to the high kings of Ireland, thus solidifying the Norman [French] hold on the country.) I’m proud to report that I figured it out—pronounce this EE-fah. If you say it out loud, you’ll hear the English version of this name: Eva.

May You Live in Interesting Times!

One looks for the good, I think. So recently some of us have been repeating that old saw, May you live in interesting times.

A Chinese curse, we’re told. Or a blessing. May you live in interesting times.

But … it’s not Chinese. 🙂

I know, I know, I’m a wet blanket about these things—but it’s what I do for a living. I’m an editor. I check things. Fortunately I didn’t have to do the footwork on this one: Garston O’Toole over at Quote Investigator has the straight poop:

The British statesman Joseph Chamberlain was the father of future Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and future diplomat Austen Chamberlain. As noted previously, Austen asserted in a 1936 speech that “living in interesting times” was considered to be a curse in Chinese culture. Curiously, Joseph [also] used the same distinctive phrase during addresses he delivered in 1898 and 1901.

There’s a lot more to read at QI, which traces usage of the phrase from 1898 right up to modern times. You can also read about it at Wikipedia.

Bottom line: You can’t blame the Chinese for this, friends! But may you have an interesting year nonetheless. 🙂

Giving Up Your Language

Consider for a moment the effects of being asked to change the language you use. … Brian Friel’s play Translations, written in 1980, depicts this in an Irish setting. The action takes place in County Donegal in 1833: we follow a detachment of English soldiers who are part of an Ordnance Survey team anglicizing Gaelic place names, and their work illustrates the significance of names in framing people’s perceptions of the land, The belief that Gaelic is somehow responsible for Irish savagery, superstition and sententiousness dates back at least to the sixteenth century, when Henry VIII asserted that it was sufficient grounds for compelling the Irish to speak English. (When he declared himself king of Ireland in 1541, he did so first in English and then, as an afterthought, in the language of the people he was bringing under his rule.) Friel’s play dramatizes the moment when one language supplants another.

There are areas of Britain where people still use languages that were present before the arrival roughly 1,500 years ago of the Germanic settlers whose dialects became English. But while the central role of English has not been achieved without bloodshed and resentment, it is a largely uncontroversial fact, historically ingrained. Of the languages spoken in Britain today, Welsh has the most ancient roots. … The decline of Welsh began with the seizure of the English Crown by the part-Welsh Henry VII in 1485, and accelerated in the sixteenth century as English became the language of education and administration in Wales …

In Scotland, English arrived earlier; there were English-speaking settlers as far back as the sixth century. However, English became the de facto public language only in 1707 when the Act of Union joined Scotland to England and Wales. …

In Ireland, as Friel’s play Translations suggests, the situation is rather different. Ireland is not a part of Britain, although in my experience some otherwise knowledgeable people seem to consider this an eccentric statement. The details of Irish history are too complex to digest here. The first English-speakers to settle there arrived in the twelfth century, but it was only in the seventeenth century that Irish resistance to English plantation gave way. By the following century, the use of Gaelic was “a marker of rural, Catholic poverty” whereas English was associated with “Protestantism, ownership, and the towns,” although some towns “had a sizeable Gaelic-speaking working class until well into the nineteenth century.” Gaelic was to a large degree abandoned in the nineteenth century, but from the 1890s it was promoted as a minority language. For present purposes, it is enough to say that Gaelic has in Ireland an appreciable symbolic value; that there is a distinct Irish English with its own grammatical features, vowel sounds, stresses and vocabulary; that Irish English exists in several different forms, and that, these facts notwithstanding, English is spoken by very nearly everyone in both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.

Henry Hitchings

Transcribed by me from pages 253–4 of my hardback copy of The Language Wars: A History of Proper English, © 2011, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux.