Irishisms in City of Bohane

March 11, 2018

He was back among the city’s voices, and it was the rhythm of them that slowed the rush of his thoughts. —Kevin Barry, City of Bohane

Kevin Barry’s award-winning first novel City of Bohane (Jonathan Cape, 2011) is an extravagant experiment in language, rich in Irish English slang and vernacular. It may take non-Irish readers a little while to tune in to its sounds and rhythms, but the rewards are considerable.

This post annotates a few items of linguistic interest in the book.

Divil a bit stirred in the Trace that he didn’t know about, nor across the Smoketown footbridge.

Divil (rhymes with civil) is a common pronunciation of devil in colloquial Irish English. The idiom divil a bit has various emphatic negative meanings: ‘not at all’, ‘none at all’, and in Barry’s line, ‘nothing at all’.

Divil is such a frequent feature of traditional Irish English that P.W. Joyce, in English As We Speak It In Ireland, dedicated an entire chapter to ‘the devil and his territory’.

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Anyhow, a hyphen

February 21, 2018

This week I took Alan Furst’s Red Gold (HarperCollins, 1999) off the shelf and am very glad I did. Set in German-occupied France in the early 1940s, it’s an absorbing, rambling spy story full of atmosphere, wry humour, lean characterisation, and suspense.

The protagonist, Casson, is a former film producer scraping by in Paris, hiding from the Gestapo. He becomes a reluctant go-between for various entities in the resistance, and in the following passage has just been told the identity of a contact he hopes to make:

Casson knew him, had sat across from him at a dinner party back in the old days. After that, a handshake two or three times at some grande affaire. Casson hated him. Short and wide, preposterously fat, with thick glasses and tight, curly hair. He floated on waves of amour propre – boundless conceit, in measures rare even in France. He described himself as an ethnologist, no, there was more to it than that, it was better than that. Socio-ethnologist? Psycho-ethnologist? Anyhow, a hyphen. Now he remembered – gods, something about gods. He’d written a book about them.

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Look at the cut of this Irish expression

February 18, 2018

Growing up in rural Ireland, I regularly heard – and still occasionally hear – some version of the phrase the cut of someone. It’s an informal idiom that means the state or appearance of someone and usually incorporates criticism or amusement or both. Here’s an example I just read in Deirdre Madden’s novel Nothing Is Black:

‘Look at the cut of me!’ Claire’s mother had said the last time she’d visited her. She’d been sitting by a mirror, combing out her faded hair. ‘I’m as grey as a badger. How come I look so old, yet I feel no different to what I was forty years ago? Where’s the sense in that?’ She’d started to laugh …

In Irish literature the expression is generally found in dialogue or in vernacular narrative. Madden’s example is typical in a few ways: it’s light-hearted, colloquial, and deprecatory – in this case self-deprecatory. In a similar vein, the next two examples involve mirrors. Marian Keyes, Anybody Out There:

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Hyphenating my little ass-car

January 16, 2018

There’s an xkcd cartoon popular among copy-editors because it combines fussiness over hyphens with gently risqué humour:

Language Log, meeting language lovers’ most niche desires and then some, has a bibliography of suffixal –ass as an intensive modifier. In this vein, you’d expect the hyphen in little ass car to go between the first two words unless you were being seedy, or xkcdy. But there’s an exception, and it’s not rude at all.

Irish author Pádraic Ó Conaire, in his short story collection Field and Fair (Mercier Press, 1966; tr. Cormac Breathnach), refers several times to his ass-car, by which he means his donkey and cart. One story, about how the author came to befriend the donkey, is titled ‘My Little Black Ass’. It’s hard to read that now and not find alternative meanings rubbing up against the intended one.

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China Miéville’s new conjunction

January 5, 2018

One of my holiday-reading highlights was China Miéville’s dazzling dark-fantasy collection Three Moments of an Explosion (Macmillan, 2015). The story ‘The Bastard Prompt’, about imaginary illnesses materialising in reality, begins in media res and quickly flies off on a lexical tangent:

We’re here to talk to a doctor, Jonas and I. We’re both on the same mission. And, or but, or and and but, we’re on different missions too.

We need a new conjunction, a word that means ‘and’ and ‘but’ at the same time. I’m not saying anything I haven’t said before: this is one of my things, particularly with Tor, which is short for Tori, which she never uses.

This ‘and-but’ word thing of mine isn’t even a joke between us any more. It used to be when I’d say, ‘I mean both of them at once!’, she’d say, ‘Band? Aut?’ In the end we settled on bund, which is how we spell it although she says it with a little ‘t’ at the end, like bundt. Now when either of us says that we don’t even notice, we don’t even grin. It almost just means what it means now.

So Jonas and I are here in Sacramento, on missions that are the same bund different. Although honestly I don’t know that either of us thinks we’re going to figure much out now.

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Elena Ferrante delaying the verb

September 9, 2017

A long complicated sentence should force itself upon you, make you know yourself knowing it. —Gertrude Stein

Writers are often advised to introduce the main verb of a sentence early. It’s generally good advice. Delaying the verb by prefacing it with subordinate clauses, adjuncts, participle phrases and assorted throat-clearing puts a cognitive load on readers. They must hold it all in their short-term memory until the verb arrives and they find out what frame the extra information fits into.

This is a particular problem in nonfiction prose, where communicating facts is a primary aim. I see it regularly in texts I edit: long lists and unpredictable subclauses pile up before I learn what the sentence is even about. With a little rearrangement the main verb can be brought forward, and the point is made much more direct and comprehensible.

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Linguistic sci-fi in Embassytown

August 29, 2017

The sun still rose, and the shops sold things, and people went to work. It was a slow catastrophe. —China Miéville, Embassytown

Science fiction offers endless scope for linguistic experimentation, and there’s no lack of creativity at a purely lexical level: new terminology abounds in hard SF, weird fiction, and other speculative genres. But I haven’t read many SF novels where language is a central theme, though I’m sure that says more about my underexploration of the genre than it does about SF itself.

Suzette Haden Elgin’s Native Tongue and Samuel Delany’s Babel-17 are notable examples. But they are several decades old, and – though I’m probably an exception here – the ideas and storytelling in both books underwhelmed me. So when I read China Miéville’s Embassytown (2011), I felt there was finally a linguistic science-fiction book I could recommend unreservedly, should anyone ask for one.

Embassytown does not admit of simple summary, so I won’t try, but I do want to describe some of its linguistic ideas. There will be spoilers. For proper reviews of the book, read Ursula K. Le Guin in the Guardian and Sam Thompson in the LRB.

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