Last month I spent a while cat-sitting for friends in the Burren in the west of Ireland. The Burren is one of my favourite places, a thinly populated area in County Clare renowned for its botanical, geological, and archaeological richness.
The late cartographer Tim Robinson described it as ‘a vast memorial to bygone cultures’; I would extend that beyond human cultures for reasons that will become clear. Robinson’s meticulous map of the Burren was among those I took exploring from my base in Corofin village.
This post is more of a photo/geography/archaeology post than a language one, but it does include notes on place names.
The name Corofin comes from Irish Cora Finne ‘white ford’, or ‘weir of the white (water)’ as translated by Deirdre and Laurence Flanagan in their book Irish Place Names. The same root may be familiar from the fair-haired Fionn Mac Cumhaill of Irish legend.
The white water is the River Fergus, which flows past Corofin and links the two lakes that bracket the village. Its riverbank enjoys constant activity from herons, swans, and other wildlife. This arched stone bridge across it was built in 1790 and is a protected structure:
Here’s a verb I don’t remember encountering before. It crops up near the end of this passage in Seamus Deane’s novel Reading in the Dark (1996), where the author describes a dramatic childhood winter in Northern Ireland:
The Germans came only once, made a bombing run on the docks where the American ships were lined up in threes and fours, missed, and never came again. The sirens had given several false alarms before, but this time the throb of the approaching planes seemed to make them more frenetic. We woke to their wild moanings, were carried to safety under the stairs and cradled sleepily between our parents, lightly asperged by the bright drops of cold Lourdes water that my mother would every so often sprinkle on us. I remember the silence when the droning stopped and then the long lamentation of each plane’s dive.
A mondegreen is a misheard song lyric, like ‘Excuse me while I kiss this guy’ (instead of ‘. . . kiss the sky’). The word is itself a mondegreen, stemming from a mishearing of ‘laid him on the green’ as ‘Lady Mondegreen’ in an old ballad. I wrote about mondegreens for Macmillan Dictionary back in 2014.
Recently I discovered an elaborate one of my own. In my early teens I had a rave-music phase, playing a tape compilation continually for months (and baffling my parents, who were paying for classical piano lessons). This was years before I started clubbing, but something in the music’s rebellious energy and fun samples connected with me.
One of the highlights on that tape was a cartoon rave track named ‘Trip to Trumpton’ by Urban Hype. If you don’t know the song or the source of its samples – a children’s TV series from Britain – then I invite you to play a game: Before reading further, write down what you think the line at 0.42 is. It’s repeated four times:
Don’t overthink it or create a spectrogram or anything – just go with your first hunch. It doesn’t have to make sense. My interpretation certainly didn’t. Then let me know in a comment what you heard.
When the Irish author Molly Keane (1904–1996) suggested to her daughter Sally Phipps that she write Keane’s biography, she told her: ‘I trust you completely; the only thing I’m afraid of is that you won’t be nasty enough.’
The result of that proposal, Molly Keane: A Life (Virago, 2017), is an excellent account I can recommend to anyone who enjoys Keane’s work. It contains several passages and items of linguistic note, which – this being a blog about language – may be of passing interest also to those who have not read her.
Keane wrote her first dozen or so novels as ‘M. J. Farrell’. The name came to her fortuitously:
When returning from hunting one evening she saw the name M. J. Farrell over a pub doorway and she took it as a pseudonym. Secrecy was important to her as she thought no one would dance with her in the horsey society in which she moved if it was known she was a writer.
The seriousness of ‘horsey society’ extended to the horses themselves:
Terrence Malick’s film Days of Heaven was in large part created as it went along, its makers open to creative possibility and rediscovering it in editing and post-production. One major change in its design was the removal of much of its dialogue, with Malick and colleagues intent on telling a visual story as much as possible.
To compensate for this reduction of plot and exposition, Malick added a voiceover, as he had done in his earlier Badlands. It was provided by young Linda Manz and can be heard in the beautiful clip below. Some of the voiceover was written by Malick, and some came from Manz based on her hearing a woman read from the Book of Revelation:
In the book Terrence Malick: Rehearsing the Unexpected (2015), edited by Carlo Hintermann and Daniele Villa, film editor Billy Weber talks about Manz and the indelible effect she had on the film – including its characters’ names:
‘Words for punctuation,’ Lynne Murphy writes in her new book The Prodigal Tongue, ‘offer a neat little laboratory for viewing the possible fates of migrating words.’
When North America was being settled, norms of punctuation, including the marks’ names, were very much in flux. So when things stabilized, the names in the US and the UK sometimes differed. Certain marks, such as the comma and question mark, acquired the same name in both regions; others, such as the full stop (period, full point), diverged.
The latter group also includes quotation marks, aka inverted commas. But the facts are more complicated – and therefore more interesting – than is generally supposed. Here’s Murphy:
In A Brilliant Void, a new anthology of vintage Irish science fiction edited by Jack Fennell (Tramp Press, 2018), I saw some examples of a grammatical feature I’ve been meaning to write about: the Irish English suffix –een. Anglicised from Irish –ín /iːn/, it normally signifies littleness or endearment but can also disparage or serve other functions.
Look up –ín in Ó Dónaill’s Irish-English dictionary and you’ll find such diverse examples as an t-éinín bíogach ‘the chirpy little bird’, an choisín chomair ‘the neat little foot’, an bheainín ghleoite ‘the charming little woman’, an méirín púca ‘the foxglove’, and an paidrín páirteach ‘the family rosary’.
The –ín suffix is so productive in Irish, and Irish so influences the traditional dialects of English in Ireland, that it’s no surprise –een became established in vernacular Irish English, especially in the west. You probably know it if you’re at all familiar with Irish speech or culture; even if not, you may recognise some of the examples below.