Friday, March 28, 2014

The Delicate Etiquette of Correcting Someone's Irish

First published in the Western People on Monday.

The fortnight-long Seachtain na Gaeilge – yes, it is odd if it’s called a week and runs for a fortnight – has just ended. How many people noticed? How many people knew it was on in the first place?

In theory, Seachtain na Gaeilge is about encouraging people to make a special effort to use whatever Irish they have for that week (or fortnight, if you insist). But to use it for what? If you go down to the shop and order a mála milseán, will young Svetlana behind the counter have the first notion what you’re talking about?

The nation’s attitude to the first language was discussed in a piece in the Irish Times on St Patrick’s Day by Úna Mullally who, as well as being an Irish Times columnist, is also a presenter on TG4, and thus knows whereof she writes.

In the Irish Times piece, Mullally makes two points. Firstly, she believes that people who speak Irish outside the Gaeltacht should get the same support for their endeavours in speaking Irish as people who live in the Gaeltacht. Secondly, she believes that Irish that is not fluent is as worthy of celebration as Irish that is.

The problem with the first point is that Mullally contradicts herself in her own piece. In her third paragraph, she claims that “given the massive population of young people attending all-Irish speaking schools in the greater Dublin area, there’s an argument for Dublin eventually even being the largest Gaeltacht in the State.” Two sentences later she writes “if you want to ‘keep up’ your Irish in the capital, you’re pretty much on your own.”

Both conditions can’t be true. If Dublin is hopping with Irish speakers, then you cannot be “pretty much on your own” in keeping up your Irish. To use some broken English, the case has gotta be dis or dat.

Mullally’s second point in noble in thought and intent. She speaks of celebrating efforts that people make to speak Irish even if their Irish in poor, writing that, for those who are not fluent, “the intent to speak …[Irish] … is as valid as the poetic prose that flows from a native speaker.”

The problem with this noble thought is that it has very little bearing on reality. Concepts like “celebration” and “validity” have nothing to do with talking. “Celebration” and “validity” are words that have to do with equality politics. They are not about communication, understanding and being understood.

There’s a reason a person’s ability to speak a language, any language, is graded. If the person’s ability is insufficiently good, then that person can’t be understood. Celebrations and measures of value don’t come into it. The person may be a saint or a sinner but we’ll never know because he or she can’t tell us.

What we’re left with, then, is tokenism. I pretend that I can speak Irish and the person to whom I’m speaking plays along, while we both know that if either us hit a little bump we can drop in an English word, we both being – amazing co-incidence, I know – fully fluent in that language. But what we serve by doing that I can’t imagine.

Correcting someone’s Irish is seen as one of the rudest things we can do. The only Irish language book to ever make Number 1 in the Irish booksellers’ charts was Breandán Ó hEithir’s Lig Sinn i gCathú, first published in the mid-1970s. There’s a scene at the end of the novel where two professors are roaring at each other over the inscription on a plaque to commemorate the 1916 Rising.

One man insists the plaque should read “D’ardaigh siad an tine beo,” and the other says it should read “D’ardaigh siad an tine bheo.” This is not the celebration of validity that Úna Mullally was writing about, but it is a fairly accurate snapshot of what’s been going on in the country since Independence – fighting with each other has been more important than promoting the language.

But if no-one’s Irish is corrected, who’s ever going to get it right? Seán Ó Ruadháin, the great Irish scholar from our own County Mayo, wrote in frustration once that the idea of broken Irish being better than clever English was only meant to last for a while – it was never meant to be a licence for bad Irish.

Ó hEithir’s beo/bheo difference is a relatively subtle one. But there’s a picture floating around the internet currently of a man who’s made the most tremendous blunder in Irish, and he’s now stuck with it forever.

The picture is of a man who had a motto in Irish tattooed onto his back, right between the shoulders. The motto is from the poem Invictus, which Nelson Mandela famously recited to himself during his long years of captivity on Robben Island. The lines read:

I am master of my fate
I am the captain of my soul

There are two ways of saying “I am” in Irish – “tá mé,” and “is mise.” This man chose “tá mé.” He should have gone with “is mise.”

This tattoo is valid celebration of the Irish language by Úna Mullally’s lights. By someone else’s lights, it’s a disaster. Firstly, the man is stuck with it. It’ll only come off if he’s flayed, I believe, and bad and all as the translation is, getting skinned alive would be worse. But what’s worse is the confusion it creates.

Someone who’s struggling to learn when to use is mise and when to use tá mé will get confused if he or she is not shown good examples at every turn. Bad Irish means bad examples. Bad examples mean worse Irish, and worse Irish will eventually mean no Irish at all.

If the cost of saving the language is hurt feelings, it’s cheap at the price. I’m sorry Dublin. You’ll just have to offer it up.