Friday, April 25, 2008

Sad news: there is "no Irish at me"

When (thanks to Colm Doyle's Corcaighist) I came across Gaelchultúr's Language Placement Test on the Irish language, I thought I would at least give myself a chance to try out one or two questions. One quick look at the test made me think otherwise. I decided right then and there to "make quick the road" (an Irish phrase meaning "to head home before trouble begins") and instead work on my Hiberno-English as a starting point.

What is Hiberno-English? This phrase refers to English as it is often spoken in Ireland. Another way of looking at it is this: Hiberno-English is English spoken in the style of the Irish language. The syntax of the two languages is very different (in fact Irish syntax is very different from most Indo-European languages). A native Irish speaker automatically gives their own twist to the use of the English language. That is how Hiberno-English came about.

Let me give you an example. The Irish language does not have words that translate directly to yes or no. If you would like to reply negatively or positively to someone's question, you must rephrase the question and make a full reply.

For example, if asked "Are you coming for dinner?" a Hiberno-English speaker might answer, "I am" intead of "Yes". If asked, "Is your friend coming with you?" they would be likely to answer, "She's not" instead of "No".

In Hiberno-English, someone who can speak a language is refered to as "having a language". This phrase borrows from the Irish translation. As further explained on Wikipedia's Hiberno-English webpage, the sentence "She does not have Irish" is translated as "Níl Gaeilge aici", literally meaning "There is no Irish at her". Sadly, I realize that I "do not have Irish". The way that sentence sounds makes it seem like I could just go out and get it. If only learning a language was so easy!

According to the History of the Irish Language webpage,
The version of English spoken in Ireland, known as Hiberno-English bears striking similarities in some grammatical idioms with Irish. Some have speculated that even after the vast majority of Irish people stopped speaking Irish, they perhaps subsconsciously used its grammatical flair in the manner in which they spoke English. This fluency is reflected in the writings of Yeats, George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde and more recently in the writings of Seamus Heaney, Paul Durcan, Dermot Bolger and many others.
The distinct Hiberno-English may today be losing some of its hold over Ireland, particularly within younger age groups and in urban areas, yet the impact of the Irish language on its birthplace (and the world) remains.

After all, who ever referred to Cork County? Of course, the correct name is County Cork - a result of the original Irish word order. The same is true of lakes and rivers, such as Lough Neagh (the largest lake in the United Kingdom) and the well-known River Shannon, Ireland's longest.

Cork itself appears to have its own "dialect" of Hiberno-English, recognizable by its commonly generous use of emphasis words. Here's an example, in case you are in need of a good insult:
"You are a howling, thundering, rampaging, galloping, creeching langer, so you are!"
(Warning: it might not be a good idea to use this on your friends.)

Now it's time for me to put the kibosh on. In closing, I thought you might enjoy a reminder of some of the words that the English language has borrowed from Irish. Where would we be today without galore, phoney and smithereens?

I hope that this little introduction to Hiberno-English got you thinking, and that you'll find time to dabble in a little bit of Irish slang yourself.

Need a good starting place? Try Slanguage: A Dictionary of Irish Slang by Bernard Share and A Dictionary of Hiberno-English by T.P. Dolan, both recommended by Corcaighist's Colm Doyle.

Go n'éirí an t-ádh leat! (Pronounced guh nye-ree un taw laht)

The best of luck to you!


Colleen Johnson said...

I never thought about the way the Irish speak English. You drove it home with "County Cork" and "River Shannon" examples. You had me laughing. Brilliant.

Colm said...

As an Irish person I have to say that I really enjoy reading blogs and articles that discuss Ireland from the outside because for me all this just seems as normal as saying the grass is green and the sky is blue.

You have some good examples there of Irish speech. Good work on the blog-article! :-)

The syntax of Irish flows so deep in my veins that I even do not realise that alot of the way I phrase things is from Irish. It's a very subscious thing. I once had a (warm) argument with someone once when I told someone: "Ich habe nur ein bisschen Deutsch." They told me not only was that construction wrong in German but it's not in English either! "But I'm a native English speaker I said!" We asked an English girl and what do we know, the phrase "to have a language" is direct from Irish.

As regards the word "langer" its meaning depends on the tone of voice it is said in. It can more often than not be a playful word. Cork men especially joke around calling each other langers ("ya langer ya", "how's it hanging, langer?") but if you said that about a third: "he's a langer!" it would be a negative comment.

Another nice way of calling someone an eejit is to call them a "ludramaun".

Two words though that should be used carefully outside of Ireland are "craic" meaning 'fun' as in: "how's the craic?" / "argh, the craic was mighty" and "fag" meaning 'cigarette'. There is an urban legend that two "boyos" on a trip to the States were asked about their business in the US of A and they replied: "sure, like, we're here for the craic." Well, you can imagine what happend next...

Another story goes that an Irishman alarmed his office workmates one day by proclaiming that he was "dying for a fag".

Lisa said...

Thanks, Colleen, for the kind words and for taking the time to read and comment. I'm glad that we share an interest in our Irish heritage.

Lisa said...

Colm, your comments are exactly why I wanted your input! I'm thankful to hear that I'm not likely to offend anyone with my description and examples of Hiberno-English.

The example of your foible in German was very interesting to me since I have a background in Deutsch (although I do not use it much). Translating a foreign tongue is such a tricky task. It is amazing how even going from one English-speaking country to the next can be so challenging!

Thanks again for your input and your comments from the perspective of an Irishman.

Janice said...


As usual another very lively and wonderful carnival. I also enjoyed your own comments. I remember my mom using the term "kibosh" in the way you describe. I really need to use that term more often to keep it being used in my own family.



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