Amn’t I glad we use “amn’t” in Ireland

March 4, 2014

From ‘An Irish Childhood in England: 1951’ by Eavan Boland (full poem on my Tumblr):

let the world I knew become the space
between the words that I had by heart
and all the other speech that always was
becoming the language of the country that
I came to in nineteen fifty-one:
barely-gelled, a freckled six-year-old,
overdressed and sick on the plane,
when all of England to an Irish child

was nothing more than what you’d lost and how:
was the teacher in the London convent who,
when I produced “I amn’t” in the classroom
turned and said—“You’re not in Ireland now.”

I grew up in Ireland using expressions and grammatical constructions that I took to be normal English, only to discover years later that what counts as normal in language usage can be highly dependent on geography and dialect. I amn’t sure when I realised it, but amn’t is an example of this.

Standard English has an array of forms of the verb be for various persons and tenses with a negative particle (n’t) affixed: isn’twasn’t, aren’t, weren’t. But there’s a curious gap. In the tag question I’m next, ___ I?, the usual form is the unsystematic am I not or the irregular aren’t I (irregular because we don’t say *I are). Why not amn’t?

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Irish doublethink and unknown knowns

February 28, 2014

A couple of excerpts from Ship of Fools: How Stupidity and Corruption Sank the Celtic Tiger (2009), a fine polemic by the Irish critic and author Fintan O’Toole:

One of the great strengths of Irish culture [is] its capacity for double-think. For a range of reasons – the simultaneous existence of paganism and Christianity, the ambiguous relationship of indigenous society to a colonial power, the long experience of emigration – Irish culture developed a particularly strong capacity for operating simultaneously within different mental frameworks. This is one of the reasons for the rich inventiveness of Irish artistic life and for much of the humour, teasing and wordplay that enliven social interaction. Irish double-think is wonderfully summed up by the old woman in the 1930s who, asked by Sean O’Faolain if she believed in the little people, replied, ‘I do not, sir, but they’re there.’

Much of this is of course unprovable (and unfalsifiable), and you could probably make a case for the same capacity for doublethink in other countries. But O’Toole’s ideas are, as always, food for thought.

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Not a notion about Irish notions

February 12, 2014

‘The Talking Trees’ by Seán Ó Faoláin is the opening story in the anthology Body and Soul: Irish Short Stories of Sexual Love, edited by David Marcus and published by Poolbeg Press in 1979. It’s a humorous coming-of-age tale of a group of teenage boys in Cork city, containing several explicit references to language.

The boys read comics from England,* “which was where they got all those swanky words like Wham, Ouch, Yaroosh, Ooof and Jolly Well.” Educated by priests and nuns, they are at a loss to understand some of the words they hear used in relation to adult and sexual behaviour.

One day the youngest, Tommy, nicknamed Gong Gong for his “wild bursts of talk like a fire alarm”,

sprayed them with the news that his sister Jenny had been thrown out of class that morning in Saint Monica’s for turning up with a red ribbon in her hair, a mother-of-pearl brooch at her neck and smelling of scent.

‘Ould Sister Eustasia,’ he fizzled, ‘made her go out in the yard and wash herself under the tap, she said they didn’t want any girls in their school who had notions.’

The three gazed at one another, and began at once to discuss all the possible sexy meanings of notions. Georgie had a pocket dictionary. ‘An ingenious contrivance’? ‘An imperfect conception (U.S.)’? ‘Small wares’? It did not make sense.

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Lip-sync surrealism in Soupy Norman and Couched

January 29, 2014

Few people outside Ireland are likely to have seen Soupy Norman, a cult comedy that aired in 2007 on our national station RTÉ. Essentially, Soupy uses footage from a Polish soap opera and turns it into an Irish family drama by redubbing the audio track with a surreal Hiberno-English script.

The fun lies in the lip-synching and voiceover, which are done partly to match speakers’ mouths, partly to fit the characters’ actions and interactions, and partly to serve the imaginary and often ridiculous plot. Non sequiturs pile up in disjointed rhythms to wonderfully silly effect.

Below is the first of eight episodes (9½ min. long), from where you can follow links to the rest, including a Christmas special. Your mileage may vary, but if it appeals to your sense of humour, watch the lot; every episode has its own inspired lunacies and running jokes (and, for the dialectally minded, Irish accents, expressions, and slang).

NB: Occasional strong language.

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Clishmaclaver, mar dhea

December 20, 2013

The usual meaning of the Scottish word clishmaclaver (also clish-ma-claverclishmaclaiver, clashmaclaver) is “idle talk, gossip, or empty chatter”. The OED says it was formed “apparently with allusion to clish-clash and claver, with echoic associations”, and finds it also used as a verb (“keep me clishmaclavering”).

Hiberno-English has the related short form clash “gossip” as both noun and verb. Terence Dolan notes clash in Sligo (“He’s an awful old clash”), while a century ago P. W. Joyce reported clashbag* “tale-bearer” or “busybody” in Armagh, Northern Ireland. There’s also the verb phrase clash on, meaning “tell tales on”.

In historian Brian Bonner’s short book A Society in Transition: Cameos of Irish Life I came across another, related sense of clishmaclaver, for a person who trades in such talk:

Every village has its vendor of local gossip, and Lagaguee was no exception. Thereabouts, the role was filled by a lady known as Cassie the Larker. The older people, when annoyed with her, called her a “clishmaclaver”, thereby expressing their contempt for her while indicating the Scottish influence on the speech of the area.

Clishmaclaver was the name of the Chambers Editors’ blog, but my encounters with the word have dwindled since that blog wound down.

The Irish phrase mar dhea, which I’ve described before as a sceptical interjection, also appears in Bonner’s book:

At eleven she made her way back to the Macklin Tavern, to join those who had gathered there to imbibe coffee or beer and exchange the gossip of the day. She took up her position among her own special cronies and in confidence, mar dhea, related the gist of the events of the early morning.

Here the phrase implies that her gossip was professedly just for her friends’ gratification, but that all parties understood it would soon be spread beyond those confines. Such is the clishmaclavering imperative.

*

* This -bag suffix remains popular in Ireland, as in the more recent ledgebag, etc.


This blog post is cat melodeon

December 3, 2013

A distinctive feature of the English spoken in Ireland is the colloquial use of cat as an adjective to mean: awful, unpleasant, rough, terrible, bad, calamitous, or very disappointing. I heard it a lot as a child, and I still do occasionally in the city – someone wants to criticise a situation, such as a bad sporting performance or a job done ineptly, and they say “It’s cat” and that sums it up.

Adjectival cat shows up in writing as well; I came across it recently in Angela Bourke’s short story ‘Charm’, in her collection By Salt Water. The narrator, an eleven-year-old girl, is staying at her aunt’s and hanging out with Brian Molloy, a neighbour around her own age, and Bernie, his older cousin:

Bernie was at Molloys as well. She was their cousin and she had a job in the hospital for the summer. She was from another place up in the mountains, called Derrylynch, that Brian said was the arse-end of nowhere. He was always teasing her, saying things like that. Any time Bernie didn’t like something she said it was cat, and Brian used to go around after her asking her if the dog was cat. He said cat himself though, and if he was talking about something really bad, like his school, he said it was cat melodeon.

Bernie is later reported as saying, “it’s cat when they’re dying all over the place” (i.e., rats); and “it was cat, the things some of them expected” (i.e., men). Often it appears as cat altogether or cat melodeon (or melodium), these longer phrases emphasising the cat-ness of the situation. (Cf. the expression melodeonised  “left in an awful state”, suggesting the image of being crumpled like an accordion.)

Browsing the popular Irish web forum Boards.ie for examples, I found the following things described as “cat”: a head cold; processed food; Rocky V; poems; dark ales; bad weather; golfing ability; heavy traffic; rugby jersey design; video gameplay; an athletics result; a music performance; band members not coming to a gig; and the state of Main Street in Lanesboro. You get the idea.

The origin of this peculiar usage is uncertain: is it an abbreviation of catastrophe/catastrophic, or a derivation from Irish cat mara or cat marbh – literally “sea cat” and “dead cat”, respectively, but meaning “mischief” or “calamity”?

Bernard Share’s Slanguage quotes Victoria White in the Irish Times calling cat melodeon “the greatest expression in Hiberno-English”; her review of a book on Irish traditional music by Ciaran Carson reports his hypothesis that it comes from the aforementioned Irish phrases, and relates:

the tendency of the piano-accordion players (who often refer to their instruments as melodeons) to play two notes at once.

Two discordant notes, presumably, maybe evoking the yowling of a tom-cat on a hormonal night. But I don’t know if there’s anything to this origin story beyond speculation.


An aitch or a haitch? Let’s ’ear it.

November 19, 2013

The oddly named letter H is usually pronounced “aitch” /eɪtʃ/ in British English, but in Ireland we tend to aspirate it as “haitch” /heɪtʃ/. In my biology years I would always have said “a HLA marker”, never “an HLA marker”. This haitching is a distinctive feature of Hiberno-English, one that may have originated as an a hypercorrection but is now the norm in most Irish dialects.

A search on IrishTimes.com returned 1,946 hits for “a HSE” and 92 for “an HSE” (HSE = Health Service Executive), excluding readers’ letters and three false positives of Irish-language an HSE “the HSE”. Even allowing for duplications, this shows the emphatic preference for aspirating H in standard Hiberno-English. Haitchers gonna haitch.

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