Monday, July 31, 2006

NY Times on Irish: No impovement on Safire

This week's "On Language" column in the NY Times Magazine is guest-contributed by Marion McKeone, and it really is a pretty sad example of grammatical characterization.

She seems to be trying to say that the Irish (like many cultures) have more conventionalized circumlutory politeness formulas than speakers of American English (though I'm not 100 per cent convinced of even that). But she attributes this to the influence of the grammar of Irish (Gaelic)...

She correctly notes that Irish repeats the complementizer/auxiliary and a type of pronominal to express agreement or disagreement (there's a negative complementizer), rather than use a single word 'yes' or 'no'. However, there's no necessary connection between using this grammatical mechanism (also used in several other languages) and directness or indirectness—in particular, one can of course directly express disagreement with the negative complementizer just as easily as with a word like 'no' (another example of the Language X has no word for concept Y trope). Here's the passage, in which she goes on to attribute the perceived tendency to circumlocute to genetics (does anyone need to be told that genes have nothing to do with the particular language one speaks? though of course they have everything to do with the ability to learn a language at all):
But we Irish just can’t say yes. Or no. It’s not in our genes. In Irish Gaelic, our native tongue, we don’t even have a word for them. The closest is “Is ea,” which means “It is so.” And “Ni hea,” which means “It is not so.” There are, however, about 50 different approximations that indicate various degrees of equivocation.

Our genetic inability to call a spade a spade and our compulsion to say no when we mean yes, and vice versa, are but surface manifestations of a deeply ingrained reflex to subvert, invert and pervert the English language at every opportunity.
A "genetic inability" is just a surface manifestation of something deeper?

The very next thing she says maligns the ability of Irish to be used to express logical truths, a conclusion which I'm sure would have horrified the great Irish scholars of the Middle Ages, when the rest of Europe looked to the Irish monasteries as great centers of learning:
In Ireland, the words must fit the rhythm, often at the expense of logic or clarity. Irish Gaelic has its roots in the ancient Goidelic of the Celts. English comes from the Germanic. We may be geographic neighbors, but when it comes to linguistic traits, we’re poles apart.
For someone who makes her living writing in English, it seems a bit much to claim her linguistic traits are poles apart from those of other English speakers. She quotes some famous Irish users of Irish English on the characteristics of Irish Gaelic. Here's Colum McCann, a novelist, claiming that Irish is 'convoluted' and 'evasive' compared to direct, forthright (Germanic!) English:
“The Irish language is convoluted in its grammar, evasive in statement and relies much more on sound, rhythm and onomatopoeia than English does,” he says. “It ducks and swerves. The forced marriage of English to Irish, resulting in what some people call Hiberno-English, has resulted in a great deal of wonderful literature but also a lot of head-scratching.”
And here's Shane McGowan, formerly of the Pogues, on swearing in Irish English (song)writing:
The liberal, and frequently illogical, peppering of conversations with swearwords by Irish writers is more a method of retaining a rhythmic pattern of speech than an expression of hostility. Shane MacGowan, founder and frontman of the Pogues and arguably the finest songwriter of his generation, colors his lyrics blue because it reflects the Irish way of speaking, of emphasis and underscoring a point. And besides, he says, “they plug the rhythmic gaps.”
Now, it's possible that this point has more substance, especially in the realm of poetry and song—meter is a harsh mistress. But the connection to 'illogic' is, well, illogical. And he goes on to refute the apparent earlier assumption that there's something logical and direct about English. In discussing Joyce, McGowan says:
“Joyce was simply taking the inner Irish rhythm to the limit and imposing it on the English language. There were all these mad English language rules that don’t work anyway. The entire book is about pointing out the absurdity of the English language.”
And, not to impugn the Irish Gaelic credentials of any of these sources (I'm a big fan of the Pogues and McGowan's songwriting myself), but the assertion on the part of McKeone that Irish Gaelic is the "native tongue" of the Irish in general also doesn't reflect reality, or maybe reflects a misunderstanding about the normal use of the term 'native tongue'. Irish is an endangered language; Irish English is the first language of the vast majority of Irish citizens. The Ethnologue claims 260,000 speakers of Irish, while the population of Ireland according to Wikipedia is 5.9 million people, in short, less than five percent of Irish residents speak Irish Gaelic as a native tongue. I sort of doubt that McGowan's a native speaker of Irish, since he seems to have spent his early childhood in the center of the country (not in the Gaeltachtaí, the Irish speaking regions, mostly in coastal areas). He might still be, of course, but odds are against it. And I don't know about Colum McCann (who's from Dublin) or Marion McKeone. But surely the NYTimes Magazine can do better than this, linguistically speaking, if they want to publish on Irish! I am not one iota more inclined to read "On Language" now than I was before I accidentally stumbled on this guest post this weekend; quite the reverse, in fact.

(I hasten to add that I'm absolutely not any kind of Irish expert, either—but I at least know people who are.)


Blogger jbviau said...

I totally agree, Heidi. I'm so glad that my native language allows me to say to everyone I know, categorically, "No, that NYT column was without question a waste of space!"

5:12 PM  
Anonymous ACW said...

I think you made an arithmetic error while figuring the fraction of Irish that speak Irish. Your result looks like it's off by a factor of 10, and the right fraction is closer to 5% than 0.5%.

12:36 PM  
Blogger hh said...

D'oh! Sorry ACW -- you're right, it should be 5%. I've fixed it now. (Though even the 260,000 figure is probably somewhat high, I believe.)

3:53 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

well, ahem, yes, it's true that there's some romanticizing going on about the fact that the irish language has no one syllable words for "yes" and "no." however, to assert that this has not had an impact on irish culture is, in my opinion, a stretch. who have the irish had to deal with for centuries? the english. did the english colonial mind tend to denegrate the cultures of those it conquered and see them as "wrong" or "heathen" or "incorrect" or "lesser?" you effin' bet it did, and this was visited upon the irish for centuries. it was the english who saw the irish as evasive and secretive because they wouldn't just give a yes or no answer. when your first language is irish and you learn to speak englih, you speak it with irish grammar. the english mind, i would contend, likes absolutes much more so than the irish mined (which is why devout catholics made room for fairies and leprechauns right along side Jesus Christ).

11:48 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

oops, sorry about the typos in the previous - me mind was thinkin' faster then me fingers

11:50 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

i mean "than"

11:50 AM  
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7:27 PM  

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