Monday, March 08, 2010

Irish writing sucks not in the least

The Irish are proverbially humorous; famine, bloody civil war and murderous sectarian hatred will do that, I guess. Here's Gypo Nolan after he has turned in Francis Joseph McPhillip (last seen in my previous post) in Liam O'Flaherty's The Informer and claimed the twenty pounds reward:

"How, for the first time, he realized the difficulty of making a plan without McPhillip. ... His brain got all in a tangle and he could make a beginning nowhere."
Hmm, maybe poverty, deprivation and bloodshed aren't the only reasons. Maybe Irish syntax has something to do with the occasional humorous effect of Irish English. Irish, according to Wikipedia, has no words for "yes" and "no," so must express negation in other ways. American or British English might express the boldface sentence above as "could not make a beginning" or "couldn't make a beginning anywhere."

"Could make a beginning nowhere" is structured like a little joke, the unexpected payoff ("nowhere") coming at the end, like a good punch line, working its magic by overturning the expectation generated by what had gone before. The context is not humorous, but the sentence still has a surprising effect. That's my theory, anyway. Now, talk me out of it.

© Peter Rozovsky 2010

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57 Comments:

Blogger seana said...

Peter, we've discussed the other part of this in the last couple of Finnegan sessions, which is that there is no "Yes" in Irish either. Don't remember why it came up, as Joyce is not averse to either word, and famously not to the use of yes.

Although in just looking this up I came upon the wikipedia article, which says that Joyce call Yes the "female word", indicating "acquiesence and the end of all resistance". Sorry, Mr. Joyce, but No, I said no, I mean No...in other words, I beg to differ.

March 08, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Ah, I'd like to have been at those no-yes sessions. What this queer state of affairs indicates about the Irish language, I don't know, but it obviously creates rich and suggestive possibilities for when languages meet.

March 08, 2010  
Blogger seana said...

Well, actually, we apparently didn't know about the "no" yet. But I'll be sure to bring it up.

And yes, I would like to know what some Irish linguists make of this omission. Not that the Irish don't get around this obstacle right enough.

March 08, 2010  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

Hmmm, this line of thought could get philosophical. Seana’s noting that: "yes," a word that Joyce described as "the female word" and that [Joyce] said indicated "acquiescence and the end of all resistance” reminded me of the Taoist view of yin and yang > male and female > yes and no > and Lao-tzu’s query: “What is the difference between yes and no?” Poor Lao-tzu, he never came up against an American woman who might have replied: “What part of no don't you understand?”

March 08, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I'd like to know what Irish authors make of it, maybe Flann O'Brien or Seán Ó Faoláin, though speculation by the former might take readers on hilarious, unfathomable journeys far from the matter at hand.

I'm fairly sure that the feature was always transparent to native Irish speakers until they came into contact with languages other than their own. Same with native speakers of any language. We don't know how weird our own languages are until we make the acquaintance of another.

Those benighted speakers of Irish don't know what they're missing because their language lacks an indefinite article, and what a triumoh of human endurance that is.

March 08, 2010  
Blogger seana said...

From this point of view Joyce must have gone into exile because he just didn't have the endurance that the other Irish people did.

March 08, 2010  
Blogger seana said...

Elizabeth, yes (oops!),American women do tend to throw the whole equation. However, if the feminine principle and the masculine principle that these guys were talking about weren't so overly identified with human gender I wouldn't be so, well, negative about it.

March 08, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

And then there's "She Didn't Say Yes," music by Jerome Kern, lyrics by Otto Harback, sung by Ella Fitzgerald.

March 08, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

... if the feminine principle and the masculine principle that these guys were talking about weren't so overly identified with human gender I wouldn't be so, well, negative about it.

The Danish linguist Otto Jespersen wrote a vigorous, highly readable book called Growth and Structure of the English Language around 1905. Its English translation is infused with a love of its subject rare in writing by scholars. He makes a case for the vigor and concision of English as a factor in its survival, and, presumably according to the mores of the time, he refers to the masculinity of English or its masculine vigor or something similar. The choice of words makes a reader today wince, but his point is well-taken, I think, if one removes gender from the discussion. So yes, get sex out of gender, or gender out of sex, or something.

March 08, 2010  
Anonymous Elisabeth said...

"She Didn't Say Yes", huh? I wouldn't know about that one, being "jist a girl who cain't say no," music by Richard Rodgers, lyrics (in dialect) by Lorenz Hart, sung by noir-fave Gloria Graham in the film version of "Oklahoma!".

March 09, 2010  
Blogger seana said...

I'd like to hear Ella sing that.

And Elizabeth, you're right--you don't want to be trapped in the no position all the time either.

A Danish linguist's love of English, huh? I'll have to check that out.

March 09, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

You should be able to find the lyrics on line or even a recording of the song. It seems that copyright protection software is stopping me from copying and pasting the lyrics into a comment.

The refrain of the song is, if I recall correctly, "She didn't say yes, she didn't say no, she did just what you'd do, too."

March 09, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, Ella and Jespersen should both be easily available. I think "She Didn't Say Yes" is on the "Jerome Kern Songbook" album, and the Jespersen turns up in used bookstores in a handy, compact Anchor edition. It might even still be in print.

March 09, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

From this point of view Joyce must have gone into exile because he just didn't have the endurance that the other Irish people did.

You mean he couldn't say-- Oh, never mind.

March 09, 2010  
Blogger seana said...

Googled Ella singing it quite easily. Once again I'm struck by the felicity of the lyrics.

We're so fast on so many levels these days, but verbally--not so much.

March 09, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I talked about S.J. Perelman over the weekend. Perelman, Cole Porter, Johnny Mercer. Scotland and Ireland may have hard men, but America has fast ones. Or used to.

March 09, 2010  
Blogger seana said...

They're still fast, but their enunciation is not as clear.

March 09, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

You're thinking Bob Dylan, maybe?

March 09, 2010  
Blogger seana said...

I'm thinking pretty much anybody.

But Dylan is a good (or bad) example.

March 09, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I'll scare you even worse: Kurt Cobain. OK, he's dead, but he was alive, not even his fans claimed to be able to understand him.

March 09, 2010  
Blogger seana said...

Not scared, but it is sad that being understood is not one of the modern virtues. I never listened to Cobain. Like so many things, I was out of the loop on that one.

March 09, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I remember visiting with some friends in Rome in the 1990s. One of the friends was a reporter for the Associated Press and was complaining vehemently that Cobain's drug overdose in Italy was diverting the reporting staff's attention from real news. I'd say my friend has his priorities straight.

The only Nirvana song I know was their biggest hit, "Smells Like Teen Spirit," the one whose words no one could figure out. That this band was regarded as embodying the spirit of a generation has got to say something about that generation.

March 09, 2010  
Blogger seana said...

I suppose the odd thing is that not only do I not know Nirvana's music, but that none of my younger friends seem to have become groupies.

It's not that they don't like music.

March 09, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I don't know how young your younger friends are. Nirvana wold have been big in the '90s, I guess.

In any case, now that discussion has turned to the inferior music of generations later than one's own, I'm reminded of the scathing remarks Frank Sinatra once made about the Beatles. But he then called "Something" the greatest love song in fifty years and recorded the song himself -- and destroyed its most magical moment with cringe-inducing sensitivity.

March 09, 2010  
Blogger seana said...

brett, there are times when having a language that includes a simple no is a great advantage.

March 09, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I think he got the message.

March 09, 2010  
Blogger adrian.mckinty said...

Peter

I'm no Irish expert however I'm fairly certain that that kind of locution comes from translating an Irish expression into literal English.

Whats interesting to me is the fact that after 80 years of forced learning and cultural protection the number of Irish speakers in Ireland is still falling. I dont think Irish is doomed by any means but Welsh seems more secure. Perhaps because the Bible was printed early in Welsh and Methodism encourages the studying of scripture.

March 09, 2010  
Anonymous solo said...

The Irish are proverbially humorous; famine, bloody civil war and murderous sectarian hatred will do that

You left out 800 years of English oppression, Peter! An oversight, obviously.

I don't think you can read too much into the absence of yes or no from Irish.
If I were to say to you:
Would you like a pint of Guiness?
you might reply
Yes, I would
or (less likely)
No, I wouldn't
In Irish, the answer would be
I would
or (even less likely)
I wouldn't

Either way, you'd get used to dropping the yes or no pretty quickly.

March 09, 2010  
Anonymous Rafael said...

But he then called "Something" the greatest love song in fifty years and recorded the song himself -- and destroyed its most magical moment with cringe-inducing sensitivity.

you have no idea of music, in my opinion.

March 09, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Adrian, I'm fairly sure you're right. A native language is transparent to its own users, and there is no reason a native speaker of Irish should find anything especially humorous about its syntax until he or she finds another language with which to compare it.

The phenomenon of speakers carrying over syntax and vocabulary from a native language into a new one is probably universal. Think of Russians who drop the article when speaking English. I've even found in the speech of some black people in the U.S. what may be carryovers from African languages.

If the number of Irish speakers in Ireland is falling, perhaps the Irish language will live on in remnants scattered throughout Irish English, something like the way the administrative structure and nomenclature of the Roman Empire lives on in the Roman Catholic Church.

March 09, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Solo, I had thought of including 800 years of English oppression, but I thought such a reference a bit inflammatory for what was a passing, jocose remark rather than the substance of the post.

I agree one should not read too much into the absence of yes and no from Irish. The language and its speakers have probably got along just fine without them for many centuries. My point was that neutral, transparent syntax from one language can acquire novelty and lose its transparency when transferred to another language

This weekend a friend asked me if I'd taken my Vitamin C. I could have answered "Yes." Instead, I replied, "I did." I made no conscious effort to imitate Irish or Scottish or any other word pattern, but I like that way of answering a question and, without intending to, I find myself using it. Hey, everyone knows of catchphrases that become familiar through movies or television. Why not through books?

If you asked, "Would you like a pint of Guinness?" I might reply, "Yes, if it's poured properly and has the creamy texture of the stuff served in Ireland, rather than what we get in America." That's the standard reply, I think, because Irish lacks a word for yes.

March 09, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Rafael, you're a careful reader. I meant to write that Sinatra destroyed the song's most magical moment with cringe-inducing insensitivity, not sensitivity.

Your remark was curious, though, because I never revealed the magical moment to which I referred. You're a mind reader, in my opinion.

March 09, 2010  
Blogger seana said...

I was wondering when the actual Irish among us would check in.

I happened to go to a benefit for the Irish Cultural Center in San Francisco this weekend. (My sister was dancing in it--I'm not normally a big benefit goer). There was a little Irish spoken in the speeches, but I got the feeling from the Irish-American audience that they were glad someone was speaking it, not that they were going to go to the bother of learning much of it themselves.

March 09, 2010  
Blogger adrian.mckinty said...

Peter

Its an important distinction to make. For scientific purposes I've had Guinness in various countries on six continents and the conclusion I've reached is this: do not drink the stuff outside of Dublin, Ulster or Connaught. In the south west of Ireland i.e. around Cork you should probably stick to Murphys.

March 09, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Adrian, I enjoyed the glass I had in Carrickfergus at a little place called the Joymount Arms -- so creamy that I said I wouldn't mind being buried in a vat of the stuff. I had a glass in England on a subsequent trip that I did not like as much.

March 09, 2010  
Blogger adrian.mckinty said...

Peter

Ahh The Joymount Arms, the best pub I know of owned by a member of my family...

The best pint of Guinness I ever had in N America was at a bar called An Beal Bocht in the Bronx. Readers familiar with Flann O'Brien will of course recognise the name of the place.

March 09, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, that's a comment of great sociological interest. I wonder if the speakers' accents were good. If they can't learn the language, they can at least listen to some Irish music -- Luke Kelly, I mean, none of that ethereal bushwa.

I've heard Irish being spoken or sung my Irish singers on two clips. In neither case did they display anything I'd call an Irish accent. This phenomenon would bear further linguistic investigation, I think.

I found the following, by the way, which makes me suspect that Irish and British people, at least younger ones, may occasionally snicker at martial arts or Japanese drama:

The word shite may refer to

...

The shite, the principal character in a Japanese Noh play

Shite, the person who performs the technique in aikido

March 09, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Adrian, I've spend precious little time in the Bronx, I'm afraid.

March 09, 2010  
Blogger adrian.mckinty said...

Mrs Doyle explains how the word "no" came to Ireland

March 09, 2010  
Blogger seana said...

I wouldn't know about the accents, but yes, it was sociologically very, very interesting.

March 09, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I now understand the Irish psyche, I do.

March 09, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Seana, here’s “Galway Girl,” a huge hit in Ireland though written by America’s own Steve Earle, sung in Irish by an Irish singer. I detect nothing I’d identify as an Irish accent. Could it be a certain smoothness in that particular singer’s presentation that smoothes out such things? That is not the case with all singers I’ve heard in my recent flirtation with Irish music. The singer here is younger than a lot of the singers I’ve listened to, which could be part of the reason: smoothing out of regional differences thanks to mass media, and all.

It's no surprise, really, that Irish Americans or anyone else might grasp at scraps of their heritage as they feel it slipping away.

March 09, 2010  
Blogger seana said...

I meant the accent in what I would call Gaelic.

What they seemed to be most grasping on to were 'The Young People', who, for the most part, were not there.

I'll check out that Galway Girl, though.

March 09, 2010  
Blogger seana said...

Sorry--that version of the Galway Girl was in Irish. I liked it very much.

March 09, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

That's what I meant, too. I've heard so little Irish (a.k.a. Gaelic) that I can reach few conclusions about accent. When an Irish person or anyone else not from my part of North America speaks English, I'll naturally notice differences between his or her speech and my own, and these differences will include accent. When the language is Irish, which I don't know, I have no basis for comparison so might tend to miss any "accent."

March 09, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I like it, too. Did you pick up anything you'd call an Irish accent? There are clips on YouTube of the same singer performing the song in English, and I detect no Irish accent there, either. (His name is Mundy, and I believe that he wrote the Irish lyrics himself. I suspect they're a faithful translation, based on the two Irish words I know that I hear in the song: dub, black, and agus, which means "and."

March 09, 2010  
Blogger The Chosen One said...

I believe a favourite expression of John Wayne was 'not hardly', which I presume he must have got from Ford.

A favourite expression of ours, though perhaps relatively rare since the birth of the Celtic Tiger, is 'tis himself', which is addressed to said person, and if nothing else serves to bide time while you try and remember the particular individuals name

May 15, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I believe a favourite expression of John Wayne was 'not hardly', which I presume he must have got from Ford.

Is "not hardly" characteristic of Irish English? Is that why you assume he got it from Ford? (I have read that Ford was an enthusiastic supporter of the Republican cause.)

A favourite expression of ours, though perhaps relatively rare since the birth of the Celtic Tiger, is 'tis himself', which is addressed to said person, and if nothing else serves to bide time while you try and remember the particular individuals name

The expression still crops up in Irish crime writing. In re expressions becoming rare with the advent of the Celtic Tiger, Bruen's "Sanctuary" is full of reflections on Americanisms and their penetration into Irish speech. He'll have a character say, "Are you down with that?" and Jack Taylor will think, "Jesus, everyone in Ireland was talking like that these days."

May 15, 2010  
Blogger The Chosen One said...

I like to use it occasionally, myself, ever since I heard The Duke use it.
I'm not sure that I would have heard it much when I was growing up, - in the 60s.
There are enough of us who are waging war on the creeping proliferation of 'upspeak': I myself prefer the more parochial, 'y'know, like?'

I'm not sure was Ford a Republican; The Duke certainly was

May 15, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I meant Republican in the Irish sense:

"Ford scholar Tag Gallagher asserts that Ford was "essentially apolitical", although he also notes that the director became an ardent supporter of the Irish Republican Army after his first visit to Ireland in the 1920s and that he channelled funds to the IRA for the rest of his career."

May 16, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I forgot to ask: What's upspeak?

May 16, 2010  
Blogger The Chosen One said...

I believe 'upspeak' originated among 'Valley Girls' in California malls: the practice of ending a statement with the intonation usually reserved for a question.

One of these days I'll get around to reading my copy of Joseph McBride's 'Searching for John Ford'

May 16, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I believe 'upspeak' originated among 'Valley Girls' in California malls: the practice of ending a statement with the intonation usually reserved for a question.

One of these days I'll get around to reading my copy of Joseph McBride's 'Searching for John Ford'


Thanks. I knew that annoying phenomenon, though I had not heart the term "upspeak." Valley Girls may have made upspeak a fashion item, but they were just exaggerating a tendency that has long existed, I think.

That little John Ford article I read suggested that he may have become a Republican in the American sense as well in his later life. He supported the Vietnam War, Barry Goldwater and Nixon.

May 16, 2010  
Blogger The Chosen One said...

I think I saw you make reference elsewhere to an apparent racism in some of the pulp crime stories: I'm a huge Ford fan, but I have to allow that in appreciating his films, as with the pulp stories, you have to make allowances for 'accepted' argot of the day.

His 'The Sun Shines Bright' and 'The Prisoner of Shark Island' are two that tests the tolerance of the modern-day viewer

May 16, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I think I saw you make reference elsewhere to an apparent racism in some of the pulp crime stories: I'm a huge Ford fan, but I have to allow that in appreciating his films, as with the pulp stories, you have to make allowances for 'accepted' argot of the day.

His 'The Sun Shines Bright' and 'The Prisoner of Shark Island' are two that tests the tolerance of the modern-day viewer


I and readers of this blog probably have made such references, and you're right about the necessity of allowances.

On to a later time, I did read somewhere that Clint Eastwood never allowed an Indian to be a shot in his movies. Whether this is true, and what to make of it, I don't know.

There is evidence in Chandler's stories of attitudes that would not be acceptable today, but also that he made real efforts at understanding these "others."

May 16, 2010  
Blogger The Chosen One said...

On to a later time, I did read somewhere that Clint Eastwood never allowed an Indian to be a shot in his movies. Whether this is true, and what to make of it, I don't know
thats possible, although I don't think Indians featured much in Clint's self-directed Westerns.

But I seem to recall him allowing a gen-u-ine 'Native American', Chief Dan George, to steal the film from him in 'The Outlaw Josey Wales', which might have been some kind of 'retribution', I suppose

May 16, 2010  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

I don't know his self-directed Westerns, either, but Eastwood's real-life reputation as a political conservative, in the constricted sense of that term in daily American political discourse, made the observations about Native Americans interesting -- though, since Dan George was Canadian, the term Native American is problematic.

May 16, 2010  

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