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Green English

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My partner directed me towards what she thought was and what I was anticipating to be an exciting New York Times article on Irish-inspired American Slang. The author makes the exciting observation that taken-for-granted phrases and words like “thanks a million” and “gimmick” are in fact anglicized Irish Gaelic phrases and words. That isn’t the whole story though. The Irish didn’t just come into English (American or otherwise), they took English in and made it something of their own.

What I’m referring to is Hiberno-English, English that borrows from the deep as well as the surface features of Gaelic.. It’s not simply that certain Irish immigrants borrowed words and phrases from their native tongue when trying to make the switch to English more familiar. For those born and raised speaking Gaelic, a whole way of approaching language itself is brought to the new language. What this means is that phrases like “thanks a million” point to more than borrowed words, but borrowed syntax and morphology too. Such a phrase, both awkward and natural in our mouths, indicates more than merely a translated cobble of words, but a linguistic rationale that obviously comes from outside English’s own.

The book on this has already been written though. It’s called “Green English: Ireland’s Influence on the English Language,” by Loreto Todd. Todd’s thesis takes Kilgannon’s much further, and well before his too. Todd argues that there is more Irish in English than we think, from borrowed words and word-construction to sentence-structures, to even the feminine personal pronoun, “she.” This view seems to be shared by Seamus Heaney, who in his recent translation of Beowulf explains how he used Hiberno-English to render tricky Old English linguistic formations into contemporary English while retaining the poetic sense of the original poem. It’s a beautiful translation too, and bilingual ta-boot. Needless to say, there is something profoundly beautiful about the cadence and sounds of Hiberno-English and otherwise Irish-influenced English, and we gain much from its influence.

For those who were intrigued by the article above, I suggest checking out Todd’s book first. Admittedly, I haven’t read Kilgannon’s book, so I don’t know if he makes the appropriate gesture to work already done in this field, but just the way it was described in the article, commited so to its subject matter of slang, it comes across as pedestrian. It’s nonetheless exciting that he’s bringing the idea of a relationship between Irish and English to a popular venue like the New York Times. I just hope that people don’t get the wrong impression that all this language borrowing stuff is just about surface-level phrases and words, but about mingling sensibilities about the world of language itself.

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Written by Joe

November 13, 2007 at 6:49 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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2 Responses

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  1. A number of linguists and etymologists have come out against the nonsense etymology used in Kilgannon’s book. For example, languagehat and world wide words.

    Jason Adams

    November 14, 2007 at 9:37 am

  2. It doesn’t surprise me. In fact, that was my initial reaction to the piece. There just seemed to be something too sloppily didactic about the whole thing, what with the way he just looked up similar sound phrases in his Irish-English dictionary.

    My point in mentioning the article and then Todd’s book was to direct some of the enthusiasm for seeing the connections between Irish Gaelic and English to sounder accounts of the relationship. Admittedly, Todd’s book is somewhat of an popular introductory piece itself. I think it takes a better orientation with the issue than (from what the article suggests) Kilgannon.

    pdxstudent

    November 14, 2007 at 9:42 am


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