Hiberno What?

The Way We Used to Talk

Just had the good luck of chancing in on a talk by Dr. Diarmuid Ó Muirithe. He has given a lifetime of study to the subject that many of us dabble in somewhat blindly – the relationship between the version of English that evolved in Ireland (Hiberno English) and the Irish language that it only gradually replaced. He gave a flavour of several studies from different parts of the country, citing words and phrases that the speakers of Hiberno English were not themselves aware derived from direct translation. He shared glimpses of how Joyce played on this language and cited convincing evidence of the author’s knowledge and love of the original language.

He sadly intimated that all the evidence points to this Hiberno English language disappearing almost entirely over the forty years during which he has been working with it. I am certainly not doing justice to all that Diarmuid covered. I’ll be getting his book to digest more: Words We Don’t Use – tellingly evolved from earlier editions entitled Words We Don’t Use: (Much Anymore).

The talk has stimulated lots of thoughts, some of which I will inflict on you here.

A way of talking reflects a way of being

The sadness that I find in the poor prognosis for Hiberno English is not just for a language no longer used. Linguists might worry about that. The way I see a language is as a reflection of a culture, not as an end in itself. The way we talk reflects the way we come at thinking about things. If the loss of Hiberno English means we are losing older approaches to engaging with each other, to living in fact, as I believe it does, then that makes the loss great.

The reason that Hiberno English emerged to me seems obvious. The imported language had to be taken on for survival. But it lacked many of the words to describe people and things as they were seen here. It also did not allow people to speak to each other in the ways that their culture required them to. Therefore, the best that people could do without entirely adopting an alien way of looking at the world, was to learn the Engish words, supplement them with Irish words, and forge them together into Irish language structures, causing bemusement to the custodians of ‘correct’ English.

Hiberno Being – good manners?

A  way of talking tells of a way of being with each other a way of communing. It is central to the civilization, in the broad sense of that word. A language does not have much meaningful existence in isolation of a culture. Hence, where a single language is used by different cultures, it is inevitable that each will fashion the language to suit the ways of the culture. The vernacular Portuguese spoken in Brazil uses different words, uses some common words differently, and is considered highly ungrammatical by the Portuguese. English as spoken in Lagos is quite unrecognizable to a person from London, but no doubt is very well suited to the way that Nigerians engage with each other.

At the time of mass imposition of English in Ireland, surely the ways people interacted with each other were very different than the ways of people in England, the custodians of some imagined pure version of the English language. Very different too, than the ways of interaction of those who saw themselves as the bastions of English civilzation in Ireland – the people variously known as the ‘Protestant ascendency’, the ‘Anglo Irish’, and to themselves as ‘the Irish’. (In their world view, it was the majority who had no right to be referred to simply as Irish – they were Gaelic Irish, Irish servants, Irish tenants, Irish catholics, simply peasants, and sometimes sub-human. The battle for the right to call oneself Irish is another day’s work – and also cannot be looked at in isolation of other colonial projects.) Most of those delineations have thankfully long since gone. Nobody worth talking to these days cares whether your ancestors were born into a Big House, a Glebe, or a mud hut. But during the early life of Hiberno Irish, these were important distinctions for all concerned. 

In the culture of which Hiberno Irish was born, great attention was placed on the other person’s point of view. Directness was considered rudeness (as it still is in many parts of the country). You did not lead with your own view on any matter but solicited the views and feelings of the person you were communing with. To do otherwise would be disrespectful. Any look at the Irish language reflects this. There is what an English speaker might consider, a lot of cushioning and lack of directness in everything from greetings, to expressing views, to communicating important information, to conducting commercial transactions. The same was therefore reflected in Hiberno English.  I regard this as a lovely aspect of life in Ireland and not being a linguist, the erosion that I feel sorry about is less that of the language for its own sake, but of the way of being that it reflected.

Damnable duplicity….

Of course, this way of being was not everyone’s cup of tea! And one can put oneself in the shoes of our closest and probably most critical observers: the Anglo Irish, the ascendancy of the 19th and early 20th century. The keenness of their criticisms have to be seen in the context of fear. No doubt, many from the 1860’s onwards saw that the only life they knew was disintegrating. A mild punishment for their collective behaviour during and after the Famine one might say, but a human feeling nonetheless. In part, they defined themselves by contrast to the majority of their countrymen and like colonists elsewhere, tried to emulate English ‘virtues’ even while England itself was moving on. The very same feature that I see as respect for the other person’s point of view, they saw as  duplicity, untrustworthiness, lack of forthrightness. Again, there are many parallels with the convenient subordinating lenses through which other colonized people were viewed. Oppression, like violence, is easiest to sleep with when you manage to think of your victims are sub-human.

But there was also something unique in the stand-off between the Anglo Irish and the majority of their compatriots. For interesting insights on how ‘their’ peasantry appeared in the eyes of the Anglo Irish ascendancy, I would suggest the fascinating writing of Molly Keane or Elizabeth Bowen. The sometimes conscious parody and more often unintentional asides, reveal a view of the Irish Irish as duplicitous and unfathomable. Depending on the time and the mood, the ascendecy view of this could be patronizing and romanticized varying right through to regarding it with the barely masked ‘scientific’ racism prevalent amongst colonialists from the mid nineteenth century onwards. 

The language of power

Dr. Ó Muirithe made mention of how the balance of power, having shifted so dramatically in the mid-nineteenth century, forced most communities to either abandon Irish altogether or to maintain it in parallel with the Hiberno flavour of English that had emerged. This is very well illustrated in the fact of there being a pocket in the South of County Carlow where Irish continued to be spoken much longer than it survived for in any of the surrounding areas. This of course was the domain of the MacMorrogh Kavanaghs, the one old Irish family that survived as landowners in that region after many episodes of rebellion against the English. The language was not quashed in that area in the ways it was in much of the rest of Leinster. This quashing was not so much by decrees. It was the simple economics of survival. If the landlords of your area insisted that all transactions be through English, then practicalities overruled sentimentality.

The same is true today in a different way. The power behind the gloablization of the English language could be said to be fuelled by the human quest to broaden ones knowledge and interests, by desire to be entertained, by sheer possibility, and more, but underlying all is economics. The economics are not just in the advertizing and global marketing forces that drive the internet – when China determines that the second language for all of its population will be English, it is not for love of England or English culture. It is a pragmatic economic decision.  

Global English

I don’t see all this as gloomy or terrible, by the way. There is much that is good happening but that is a separate subject from the feelings people have of loss of language and dilution of culture.  It should be said that the brand of English that is emerging as ‘Global English’, is not forced on anyone. In fact you could say it is emerging in a collaborative way with all participating countries conributing elements to it. For sure, US English is over-represented in there – but then it would be, given that the US has a lead in both technology, business, and in numbers of people speaking a version of English.

There is also a sense of new communities forming even while we are losing others. International communities. And new sub-languages springing up and dying away – some to the extreme horror of purists. Bring it on, I say! It’s fun. If new words and expressions work, they live. Naturally, bloggers situated in Korea, Australia, Canada and South Africa, communicating and arguing about which of the Batman movies is most true to the original comic book, will end up passing on some elements of language to each other. While we bemoan the loss of various dialects of English, what is currently happening to language is not without its own excitement, in my view. 

The Gormachs of Europe

And while I’m rambling: someone at the talk asked why Black people are referred to in Irish as ‘Gormach’ (blues). Since answers from the floor are not the thing in these sessions and since Diarmuid did not have any ready answer, let me venture an opinion now: the first question is not why people were called ‘blue’ in Irish but why they would be called ‘black’ in English. I’ve never met a black person any more than I’ve met a blue or a white one for that matter. If skin description was intendted, brown might have been used. The fact is that in that period of ‘scientific’ racism (where a misunderstanding of evolution led to justifications for colonial excess and later for eugenics), ‘black’ came to be used by the colonial powers including England as referring to ‘inferior’ or sub-human peoples. In Europe, the Germans used deriviatives of the term in relation to Slavs and others. There are English references to the Irish and others as Blacks and ample evidence that amongst the subjugated peoples, we were regarded as ethnically inferior in the same way as Africans and Indians were. According to L.P. Curtis, words used by the English and some of the Anglo Irish in relation to the Irish, into the early twentieth century, included: childish, emotionally unstable, ignorant, indolent, superstitious, primitive, dirty, vengeful, and violent. (Other than that we remain pretty much faultless!)

I am haunted by the human chimpanzees I saw [in Ireland] . . . I don’t believe they are our fault. . . . But to see white chimpanzees is dreadful; if they were black, one would not feel it so much. . . .” (Charles Kingsley in a letter to his wife, quoted in L.P. Curtis).

There has been much written on this subject. It too is part of a bigger subject and one that leads to a better understanding of the pseudo-science that, unchecked, led to eugenics and genocide in the twentieth century. White Britain and Black Ireland as well as The Irish Through British Eyes are interesting on the subject.  

Perhaps the Irish speakers who first coined the word ‘Gormach’ had encountered this perception of themselves? Or maybe that first use came from a colourblind elaborative yarn teller, returned from a stint with the British Army?

It very comfortable to condemn nineteenth century English racist perceptions and actions against our people. It is only useful though if these reflections inform not a reaction against modern English people, but against those of our own people who purvey negative stereotypes of recent immigrants to Ireland. There is no place for those attitudes in our country and thinking people should not remain quiet when they hear ignorance and prejudice creeping into modern Irish discourse.  

Great book

Incidentally, my father produced a book a couple of years ago which is a window into ways of living that he has seen fade during his life time. Some he was sad to see go and others not so. In it he includes some of the idioms and terms that he believed came directly from Irish and he made the point that I heard Dr. Ó Muirithe make yesterday – that many people in our area who thought they knew no Irish, spoke in terms and words that reflected a wealth of the old language. The book is called, A Social History.

Similarity to African languages

Dr. Ó Muirithe mentioned an expression ‘Fan óg’ that he came across on a visit to the South of Carlow. It was what an old man said to him as he was leaving.

It reminds me of how many ways in which the modes of communing reflected by the Irish language are similar to the ways of communing reflected in those few African languages with which I am slightly familiar. In common, there is a consideration of the other person’s point of view. Directness is considered an affront in rural Ireland as it is in rural KwaZulu and any other part of Africa as far as I’ve heard. There is a delicate social process to addressing any contentious subject, whether the issue is wandering livestock or an impending marriage. There is much that is about showing respect for the other person. There is a recognition that when you talk to another person, you are not just talking to an individual. You are talking to her family, to those who went before her and those who will come after. There are many ways of asking about the well-being of the other’s family and many ways of responding. The Irish language had no need for ‘Yes’ or ‘No’. You would never answer a question so bluntly. Similarly with isiZulu and seTswana. There are no short words for Hi or Bye. In both Irish and the African languages the nearest equivalents are merely abbreviations of lengthy greeting and parting blessings and wishes for your welfare.

This brings me back to the expression that caught the ear of Dr. Ó Muirithe. ‘Fan óg!’ literally means stay young!. It was a commonly used parting expression in Kilkenny and Carlow. How similar to the Southern African parting expression, ‘Sala Gahle!’ which mean stay well!

This is a big subject and one that theses could be written on. All I have here is a tentative observation. But is it not nice to sometimes let thoughts flow? Isn’t it nice to think that perhaps the ways of speaking, reflecting very sophisticated and civilzed modes of human interaction, have been preserved in our culture for not just millenia, but for tens of millenia – all the way back to that migration from Africa?

Of course it’s dying out

Circling back to the main question of the day: of course, Dr. Ó Muirithe is right. Hiberno Irish is dying out. Without doing any studies, I would guess that the rate of disappearance has accelerated over the past five years. That is not only true of Hiberno English but probably of all versions of English – including the Queen’s which has gone from being the standard to hovering somewhere in popular culture between quaint and ridiculous: every bit as much a throwback as Hiberno English. So if you find consolation in the discomfort of others, there’s plenty to go around. The internet is causing a lot of bother in many households!

 While many of the Hiberno English words have disappeared, I suspect that other aspects of Hiberno English will prove more resillient. Accents and cadences are surprisingly stubborn. Yes, there is a Calafornianization in some intonations. In pockets where there used to be a West Brit accent you might now find a US West Coast intonation. And there is some bland uniformity creeping through across the board. Yet despite forty years of TV and 10 years of internet, you’ll still know a North Kerry accent from a South Kilkenny one, not to speak of a Donegal one from a Dublin one. Some elements of the way our ancestors talk will remain for a long time to come. I do understand though that this is but a ghost of what Hiberno English was, that most of the words and much of the richness is gone.

The endearing Anglo Irish

Another minor diversion: Diarmuid appeared to use the term Anglo Irish interchangably with Hiberno English. I might make a suggestion that ‘Anglo Irish’ needs to be reserved for another purpose.  Almost the converse of the original Hiberno Irish where Irish speakers directly translated some words into English without sacrificing any other aspect of the original Irish language, is the situation now common where struggling Irish speakers translate English words to Irish but retain entirely English grammar, sentence structure etc. That’s Anglo Irish – the mirror image of Hiberno English! Yet another language unique to Ireland though one our next Joyce will hardly bother celebrating. 

And by the way while it is easy to mock the Anglo Irish (language I mean of course) we should go easy on that. For many of us it is a brave first step, showing willing; and for some, with encouragement, it will lead to a navigation back to a proper grasp of the language.

The end of a colourful life

Diarmuid addressed this question with some despondency, understandably. To me, if the issue is how to save Hiberno Irish, there is no solution. It still exists in pockets, more now in idiom than in words. But it will continue to fade ever more quickly. Hiberno English lived a colourful life from its glory days in the mid nineteenth century to fade away in the late twentieth century leaving only accents, essences, and pockets behind. In the light of many other dialects of English being globalized out of existence, to think we could save this beautiful language is unrealistic. 

But it’s not all bad news though. At least we have re-growth in the original language these days. Through the rise of the Gael Scoileanna and the resurgence of interest amongst people outside of the traditional Gaeltacht areas, the Irish language itself is gaining a new lease. So even if the hybrid is no longer present to remind us of the refined ways of our ancestors, the language itself has a much better chance of preserving that.

Seeking a publisher

By the way, Dr. Ó Muirithe mentioned that he is needing a publisher for a study of Hiberno Irish words and idiom gathered in the Westmeath area over thirty years. I can’t imagine but there are a few Mulinagar moguls who would be delighted to help with this?

About fionnfolk
My stories are all nearly true.

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