How to accept language change, with David Cronenberg

June 24, 2022

Language change is something I watch closely, both as a copy-editor and as someone broadly interested in how we communicate. I read usage dictionaries for fun; I also read a lot of fiction, and sometimes, as a treat, it throws up explicit commentary on shifts or variation in usage.*

This happened most recently in Consumed (Scribner, 2014) by David Cronenberg (whose thoughts on language invention I covered earlier this year). Nathan, a young photojournalist, is visiting Roiphe, an elderly doctor, who calls Nathan ‘son’ just before the passage below, emphasizing the generational gap. They’re sitting in Roiphe’s kitchen:

“Want some ice water? Maybe coffee? Anything?”

“No, thanks. I’m good.”

“ ‘I’m good’ is funny. Sounds funny to me. We never used to say that. We’d say ‘I’m fine. I’m all right.’ But they do say ‘I’m good’ these days. So what are we looking at here?”

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We ourself can use this pronoun

March 25, 2022

On a recent rewatch of the 1979 film The Warriors, I noticed an unusual pronoun spoken by Cleon, played by Dorsey Wright:*

Still image from The Warriors. Cleon, played by Dorsey Wright, is shown in close-up wearing a head-dress, saying, 'I think we'd better go have a look for ourself.' It's night time, and the background shows pale blurry lights.

Ourself, once in regular use, is now scarce outside of certain dialects, and many (maybe most) people would question its validity. I’ve seen it followed by a cautious editorial [sic] even in linguistic contexts. The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (2002), describing it as the reflexive form of singular we – ‘an honorific pronoun used by monarchs, popes, and the like’ – says it is ‘hardly current’ in present-day English.

But that’s not the whole story, and it belies the word’s surprising versatility and stubborn survival outside of mainstream Englishes, which this post will outline. There are graphs and data further down, but let’s start with usage.

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Spey the planets

April 22, 2021

In a recent post I noted an Irish sense of the word gentle meaning ‘enchanted or visited by fairies’, used in Charles McGlinchey’s book The Last of the Name. That book also features the unusual word spey:

I think it would be a descendant of these Dohertys of Keenagh who was a great harp player, the best in Ireland. One Christmas market he was going to the fair of Carn, but his stepmother, who could spey [foresee] and read the planets, advised him not to go for there was blood over his head. When he insisted on going, she killed a rooster and sprinkled the blood over him.

On his way to Carn, a fight broke out between Catholics and Protestants; Doherty stabbed a man and had to leave the country. His stepmother’s spey proved accurate. Though glossed in the original as ‘foresee’, the verb spey is closer to ‘foretell’: more clairvoyance than prediction.

Also spelled spae (which is how most dictionaries list it, if they do), or spay, the word entered English from Old Norse spá around the 14th century and throughout its history has been in mainly Scottish use. I’m not sure of the connection, if there is one, to spy, which comes from the Indo-European root spek- ‘observe’.

The Dictionary of the Scots Language shows how spae may be used intransitively (‘spae nae mair about uncannie things’) and transitively (‘spaeing folk’s fortunes’). Robert Burns used it thus in ‘Halloween’:

Ye little skelpie limmer’s face!
How daur you try sic sportin’,
As seek the foul Thief ony place,
For him to spae your fortune!

The verb gave rise to a noun, spae ‘prediction, prophecy, omen’, which is in much rarer use. The OED cites Sabine Baring-Gould’s Iceland: its scenes and sagas (1863): ‘The Finns’ spae is come true, so here we shall settle.’


Gently enchanted

April 10, 2021

The Last of the Name by Charles McGlinchey (1861–1954) is an account of life in rural Ireland generations ago: customs, beliefs, practicalities, peculiarities. Published in 1986 with Brian Friel as editor, it is acclaimed as a ‘minor classic’ by Seamus Heaney. It’s also linguistically rich; in this and the next post I’ll note two words that caught my eye.

Cover of 'The Last of the Name' published by Blackstaff Press, 1986. The cover is cream-coloured and dominated by a black and white illustration, almost like a woodcut, of an old woman wearing a shawl and standing in a dark hilly landscape. The book title is in all caps and red typeface above the picture. Below the picture is the author's name in black, followed by the text: 'with an introduction by Brian Friel'First up is gentle, in a supernatural sense not widely known or used. Here’s McGlinchey:

I always heard you should never strike a cow with a holly stick. Holly and hazel are two trees that are gentle [enchanted]. The people used to have a rhyme ‘Holly and hazel went to the wood, holly took hazel home by the lug.’ That meant that holly was the master of the hazel.

[Lug means ‘ear’. The parenthetical gloss for gentle is Friel’s.]

Holly and hazel recur in folk belief and have been credited with protective powers since ancient times. Niall Mac Coitir, in his book Irish Trees: Myths, Legends & Folklore, writes that in Ireland holly is a crann uasal, a ‘gentle’ or ‘noble’ tree, and that ‘you annoy the fairies when you misuse it, for example by sweeping the chimney with it’.

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Seven videos about language

February 5, 2021

A few years ago I shared six videos about language, so posting seven this time may set a perilous precedent. (I’ve also blogged a bunch of others, before and since, if you want still more audiovisual diversion.)

Below, there are two short, three medium, and two long videos, in that order. See what grabs your fancy.

A wild one to begin: Why Werner Herzog refuses to speak French:

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Wasn’t It Herself Told Me?

December 15, 2020

Last month I mentioned my new essay on Irish English dialect, ‘Wasn’t It Herself Told Me?’, commissioned for the winter 2020 edition of the literary magazine The Stinging Fly.

Cover of the magazine. Title across the top in red sans serif all caps: 'The Stinging Fly'. Below in, in black: 'New writers · New writing'. Below that, dominating the cover, is a circular watercolour painting by Maeve Curtis, with black, grey, and red swirls on a pale pink rough oval, yellow in its centre. The colours are pastel and flow into each other. Below that are the publication details and the text 'The Galway 2020 edition'.If you didn’t get a copy of the Stinging Fly and want to read more of this material, you can now do so at the Irish Times website, which has published an abridged version of the essay. (I did the abridging myself, but some of the italics got lost in transit.)

Because the new Stinging Fly is a Galway special, the essay looks in particular at the Galway dialect, though this does not differ hugely from Irish English more broadly. The excerpt below elaborates on that point, using geography as an analogy:

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Irish English dialect in The Stinging Fly

November 23, 2020

I have an essay on Irish English dialect in the latest Stinging Fly (winter 2020–21). The issue, just out, centres on Galway – the city, the county, the state of mind – to tie in with its status as European Capital of Culture this year.

The Stinging Fly is an Irish literary magazine on the go since 1997 and a book publisher since 2005. You can order its publications from the website or, depending on where you are, from your local bookshop.

My essay looks at Galway dialect, though its features are not that different (or different mainly in degree) from southern Irish English in general. The grammar, vocabulary, idiom, and phonology of Irish English are all considered from my vantage point on the Atlantic coast.

I also discuss dialect more broadly, because people new to language studies are often unsure just what it means – linguistically, politically, performatively.

Cover of the magazine. Title across the top in red sans serif all caps: "The Stinging Fly". Below in, in black: "New writers · New writing". Below that, dominating the cover, is a circular watercolour painting by Maeve Curtis, with black, grey, and red swirls on a pale pink rough oval, yellow in its centre. The colours are pastel and flow into each other. Below that are the publication details and the text "The Galway 2020 edition".

cover art by Maeve Curtis; design by Catherine Gaffney

An excerpt:

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