Grammar of the Irish Mind
I took a one week course in Cruinnscríobh na Gaeilge (Accurate Writing of Irish) in Kerry this summer. It was organised by Oidhreacht Chorca Dhuibhne in Ballyferriter, and was a wonderful experience. Outstanding teaching, great social activities. The average age of participants was about 60, I think it’s fair to say – so it was Irish College not so much for grown ups as for pensioners. Many of them had been to Irish College when they were children. When will they ever learn, you might ask?
Some people asked me, with surprise, why I was doing it. I thought you knew Irish already, they said. One or two who don’t know me very well expressed pleasure that I was brushing it up and gave me tips. Watch Ros na Rún. Listen to Raidio na Gaeltachta.
It is difficult to explain to non-Irish speakers or daoine ar beagán Ghaeilge that even fluent Irish speakers don’t necessarily speak or write the language accurately. In fact, very few people do the latter – even people like me, who write regularly in Irish. It is becoming more and more difficult for publishers to find reliable editors, and more difficult for government departments to find accurate translators. In the great class in Ballyferriter, were some ‘native Irish speakers’, several professors (not of Irish, I hasten to add – professors of Irish can usually write it properly. I think.)
Irish is a difficult language. Although it is said to be easier to spell and more regular from that point of view than English, it is much more highly inflected than that language, and more complex than many modern European languages. This means that people can have a big vocabulary, and can speak fluently, form sentences, and manipulate the language skilfully, but nevertheless make botúns the whole time. The phrase líofa lofa refers to denizens of the Gaelscoileanna. But a large proportion – I would guess the majority – of fluent Irish speakers are lofa to some extent.
Explaining why I was taking classes in Irish, while at the same time writing a novel in Irish, to a friend from Sweden – which is a bit more inflected than English, but much more regular than Irish – I declined the word English cat, qualified by the adjective black, as if it were Irish (as it happens, the Irish for ‘cat’ is ‘cat’.)
This is how it would look:
The cat black is crazy.
Oh chait bhlaick!
I kick the cat black.
The tail of the chait bhlaick is long.
Talk to the gcat black.
The cait blacka are crazy.
Oh chait bhlacka!
I kick the cait blacka.
The tails of the gcat blacka are long.
Talk to the gcait blacka.
In English – as you know - black cat remains constant in all these cases. But in Irish it changes, head and tail, all the time. Cat is a masculine noun of the first declension and one of the easiest to decline. Most of the ordinary liofa lofa brigade have no problem becoming familiar with the inflections necessary in the notorious genitive and the less challenging dative, even when the noun is coupled with an adjective. But it gets much more complicated than that, where irregular nouns are concerned – such as bean.
The bhig whoman is kind.
Oh bhig whoman!
I kiss the bhig whoman.
The hat of the bige mnawho is ridiculous.
Talk to the bhig whoman.
‘Bean’ is tricky. And yet,most liofa lofas handle it, since of course it is a common word. When you get to the agreement of adjectival verbs when the noun is femine and the words end in dentals, it becomes really difficult - that is the sort of thing we dealt with in the Cruinnscriobh na Gaeilge course. Lucidly explained by our fantastic teacher, Caitriona Ni Chathail, amid great hilarity.
Does the complicated nature of Irish grammar affect the Irish mind, as, according to scholarly folk belief, the long vowels gave Irish speakers a long upper lip, evolved over centuries of saying A fada and O fada? And if so, how would it affect it?
It would make it subtle, nuanced, ambivalent, and uncertain, I think. Probably all very admirable characteristics when it comes to the production of art or literature. Possibly not so useful when it comes to legal matters, or governance. Would it explain why in 2013, a minister can promise that Under Fives will have free GP care from 2015, and in 2014, a minister can say that that is impossible? Would it explain why you can have access to abortion in Ireland if you prove you are suicidal, but unfortunately you can only prove you are suicidal if you committ suicide. Alternatively, if you jump through a hoop the size of a thimble witnessed by three doctors, one of whom has a degree in Old High German, you may be allowed to travel to London for an abortion. But only if you come from South County Dublin and have a credit card.
Sometimes a degree of simplification makes everything better.
(Published in The Irish Times, 2014)