On Languages

Dec 21, 2010 | Opinions

I started thinking about languages the other day, which lead to a little light googling that wound up on this wikipedia article.

Strange but true – the English spoken in Ireland is actually a dialect called Hiberno-English, which is heavily influenced by Irish. The way we say things and the words we use are not altogether similar to British English – like any evolving language, it has words chopped and changed and borrowed and mutated that, altogether, produce the language that we babble on a daily basis.

Part of being a writer means being interested in language. In my case, it usually means I have to make sure I’m writing in flat English, without the phrases and words common in Ireland that wouldn’t make sense to a non-native. I write in English because it’s the only language I’m fluent in, but I’ve often wondered – what would it be like, to write in another?

Unlike many Irish people, I speak reasonably good Gaeilge. (That’s the Irish language, in case you’re wondering.) I spent six years in a coláiste lán-Gaelach – a secondary school where all the subjects, bar English, are taught through Gaeilge. I would say that I found it somewhat difficult in the first six months, but after that, it became a part of the daily school life and I thought no more about it.

Looking back now, I’m astonishingly grateful that I had those six years. Irish is a very odd language in many ways – the grammar is a pain to learn, with hundreds of exceptions to the rules, and the pronunciation of words is bloody difficult; the root is Celtic, not Romantic, so it’s very different to French or German. But it flows like a song, and sounds a bit like the Elvish from Lord of the Rings, and it has ways of saying things that can’t be properly translated. I credit a lot of my writing skill to the fact that I learned the rhythm of language from being immersed in Irish. I often wondered if I could write a story in Irish, but unfortunately there isn’t much of a market for Irish fantasy or sci-fi – or, at least, not any that isn’t somewhat connected to Irish folklore, and although I know the old mythological cycles, I’m completely uninterested in writing those kinds of stories.

Irish words I like:

  • Piscin (pronounced ‘pishhh-kinnnn’) meaning kitten, usually used as a term of affection for any cat regardless of age
  • Pleicíocht (pronounced ‘pl-eye key-uhk-t’) meaning mischief, but not in a bad way; mostly refers to children messing about
  • Flathiúlach (pronounced ‘flah-hool-ahck’) meaning generous or loose, usually with money; spending freely and unwisely
  • Uisce beatha (pronounced ‘ishh-kah baah-haah’) meaning literally ‘water of life’; the root Irish phrase where we get the word whiskey from

I think I’ll add a Word a Day thing to the sidebar for Irish words.