Language is a window into the soul.

This saying helps to explain why I have (unsuccessfully) tried to learn Irish Gaelic -- to better understand the Irish people. In one lesson early on, it was explained that Irish has no system to show possession. In other words, Irish has no words for "my" as in "my book," or "his" as in "his wife," or "ours," as in "the house is ours." Possession is not an idea the Irish embrace.

Once I was with a friend in County Mayo, and we happened to be close to a cottage she had once shared with her former husband. After a couple of calls on her cell phone, it was determined that himself was somewhere in the Kingdom of Kerry, so we stopped at the cottage so she could have a look around. As she walked round and round the garden, telling me the story about each flowering plant and bush, I suggested she take a flower from one of them as a remembrance. She looked at me as if I had two noses, saying she could never do that, explaining that “The flowers belong here in this garden. They don’t belong to me, Susan.”

In another Gaelic lesson, the class was studying how to answer the simple question, "Where do you live?" In English, the answer is stated as a fact in simple present tense: "I live in Virginia Beach." In Irish, the answer to this question is in present continuous tense, which translated, goes like this: "I am staying in Virginia Beach." The lack of permanency here is another manifestation of the Gaelic mind in Irish-English. As Van Morrison explains in his song titled What Makes the Irish Heart Beat, "But I know I’ve got to roam, That’s what makes the Irish heart beat.”

These, and other phrases I have learned over the years, have affirmed for me that language is a window into the soul. However, Tim Robinson, in his book titled Connemara: A Little Gaelic Kingdom, has recently changed my perspective entirely. Robinson points out that English and Irish are "… life’s alternative ways of dealing with the same world." Instead of seeing language as a way of looking into someone, Robinson understands language, most especially Irish, as a unique way of looking out onto the world and "this business of living," as he so aptly puts it.

Once when my children were young, we attended a family reunion on an older brother’s farm, where my seven-year-old son had a private conversation with my older brother whom my son had never met before. The conversation was about my son’s pet, a cat named Peanut. After telling his uncle all about his beloved pet, his uncle told him that he had a cat, too, and his cat had kittens last week. But he could not keep the kittens, so he put them all in a pillow case and drowned them in his pond over yonder. I did not hear about this till we were on our way home in our car. After telling me about this encounter with his uncle, my son asked me why his uncle would tell him that. I responded that his uncle told him that story because "Your uncle loves you so much, Brendan, that he does not want you to cry at his funeral."

I was given that as an answer once in County Galway after an unkind act was taken against me. I have never forgotten it, for this is the Irish way, and a good alternative at that, of dealing with a world that can, at times, be unkind.

Views: 835

Tags: Gaeilge, Language

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Comment by That's Just How It Was on November 25, 2015 at 10:08am

Indeed very good answer to a young child .

Comment by Katarzyna Gmerek on November 29, 2015 at 7:46am
There exists a similar form in Polish, meaning 'to be once for a while', 'to do something sometimes', like 'bywac' (to be for a while) instead of 'byc' (to be) - so-called frequentative form of verb, but it is not used all the time, rather to describe something that happens sometimes, or to emphasise abnormality of situation or fragility of human condition. Also used in poetry. I would like to ask an Irish linguist, if that form as mentioned by the author, was always common in Irish language (Old/Middle Irish) or if it appeared in modern era, as a possible result of permanent hard times for the Irish people. It would be a sociolingusitic explanation, but maybe I am fantasising here...
Comment by michael dunne on November 29, 2015 at 11:26am

Ní dóigh liom go bhfuil an cur síos seo fíor. A bhfaca éinne an scannan "The Field" agus an scribhnóir Jonn B Keane?

I dont think the above account is true. Has anyone seen the film "The Field" by the playwright John B 

Some years ago on the edge of a small fishing pier a group of tourists were traumatized by the sight of a puffin ensnared in the fishermans netting. A local fisherman responding to the audience spent considerable time weaving through the netting and eventually freeing the Puffin to the delight of the tourists. He did not burden them by offering them this beautiful but badly injured bird. In fact he reassured them that this creature would be fine. When they moved off he done the necessary which took one second. There are no vets on duty in remote parts of Ireland who would only have probably taken the same course of action as this thoughtful Ciarrioch. The same would be done and is done in fishing villages worldwide. Its how one manages the emotions and this is universal. It would not have been appreciated if these visitors to our shores had been introduced to the harsher side of lifes realities.

Comment by Eoin Mac Lochlainn on November 29, 2015 at 11:38am

Dear Susan, I don't know where your teacher got the idea that there is no way to show possession in Irish. I'm an Irish speaker and I can tell you that 'my book' is 'mo leabhar' ;  'his wife' is 'a bhean';  'our house' is 'ár dteach'.  mo, do, a/ a, ár, bhúr, a... I'm no expert of grammar but I can tell you that :-)  - But I agree with you absolutely that there is a different emphasis in different languages.  Thank you for your interesting post, eoin 

Comment by Katarzyna Gmerek on November 29, 2015 at 11:43am

Michael Dunne, that's indeed realities of life in some remote areas of the world; the fisherman did not want the bird to suffer so he killed it. I have watched The Field in tv, long time ago, and remember impression it did to me - strong characters, people fighting for a piece of land, with long-kept claims and remembrance of dispossesions. Similar things here in the past.

Eoin Mac Lochlainn, thanks for the clarification! I think that the frequentative form of verb must be old Indoeuropean, and it survived only in some languages, Celtic, to lesser extent Slavonic, up to this day..

Comment by Mark Bois on November 29, 2015 at 5:01pm

When you speak of death on an farm, I am reminded of Seamus Heaney's 'The Early Purges''. No apologies there, either, for unwanted kittens It is a hard world, that is not for the innocent or the naive. I am usually guilty on both counts. 

"I was six when I first saw kittens drown.
Dan Taggart pitched them, 'the scraggy wee shits',
Into a bucket; a frail metal sound"

Comment by Micheal O Doibhilin on November 30, 2015 at 3:56am

This is a very strange article. Whoever Susan's irish teacher was certainly did not know much about our language. As has already been pointed out, we have certainly got the idea of possession, and can express it very clearly in our native language. See Táin Bó Cualigne, for example, for possession concepts. "Mo", "Liom", "Leat", "Do", "Linn" etc. all mean direct ownership.

As for residency - equally we have the words. "Cónaím I ..." - "I live in...". "Tá cónaí orm i ..." "I live in ..."

I think the concept or word Susan is referring to for "I am staying in Virginia Beach" would probably be "Lonnaím I Trá Bhirginia". Lonnaím means "I am placed" or "situated". "I live in Virginia Beach" would be "Cónaím i Virginia Beach".

Irish is a beautiful language, much more poetically expressive than English, an it does not need ethereal fantasies to make it so. It is a very practical language, used for living, and is totally adaptable to the way of life of the speaker. I must confess I prefer to speak irish than English when I have anything complex or expressive to say.

Comment by Claire Fullerton on November 30, 2015 at 9:14am

I had it explained to me once, by an Irish speaker, that the Irish language has more connections in it than does English. In English, we would say, "It's a nice day," but in Irish, it would be, "It's a nice day that's in it," which is all encompassing, in a manner of speaking. This particular Irish speaker told me that the Irish language offers, and I quote, "A better way of being human." I've never forgotten that line.

Comment by michael dunne on November 30, 2015 at 10:25am

The ubiquitous holy pictures of "Our Lady" and the "Sacred Heart" are absent as are the pictures of any of our Irish Patriots like Parnell or Pearse. Nor am I convinced of the inclusion of a Blunderbus type gun over the fireplace. The bookstop gun dogs on the mantelpiece were an ornament popularly associated with the Irish soldiers in World War One. Majority of the Irish Volunteers sided with Redmond at this time and supported the noble concept of "The Fight for small Nations" blindsighted by this propaganda in their failure to see Ireland was equally small and abused. It took the sacrifice of the men of 1916 for public opinion to cop on to this and of course the threat of conscription. Initially when conscription was introduced it did not apply to married men so the British records indicated a huge spike in marriages. They were fooled too.

I like to see the sweeping brush in these photos of the Irish family hearth as it was the symbol of power in our homes. As the Mace would be symbolic of colonial authority the sweeping brush was the symbol of Bean an Tí here. Anyone be it the son or husband that stepped out of line would have to be light on their feet or else could  depend on getting a clout across the back.  

Comment by michael dunne on December 2, 2015 at 9:53am

Go raibh Maith Agat Susan agus Nollaig Shona duit


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