Thursday, 4 December 2014

Language, Sectarianism — and Dictionaries



Ian Malcolm has an interesting piece over at the Belfast Telegraph on the troubled Protestant relationship with Irish, tracing his co-religionists' alienation to infiltration of the language movement by Republicans in the years leading up to the Easter Rising and pointing out that some iconic Nationalist figures such as Daniel O'Connell were in favour of a wholesale switch to English.

The word "piece", interestingly enough, is thought by some scholars to be of Gaulish, i.e. Celtic, origin, cognate with Irish cuid and thus neatly demonstrating the difference between P- and Q-Celtic.

That could hardly be said of another word chosen by Malcolm himself:
"What really interests my students is what I call 'living Irish' - that's the language that's around us all in our everyday lives. My own favourite word is 'skitter', an epithet often applied to me when I was a wean.
It literally translates as 's****'. You'll also encounter it in the context 'I've a quare dose of the skitters', something one might endure after an ill-advised feed of curry and yoghurt."
The Concise Ulster Dictionary is very clear that skitter is of Scots and English dialectal origin. The Irish equivalent of the word, sciotar, makes no appearance in the magnum opus compiled by Father Dinneen during breaks from his detective work. There is the verb sciotaim, meaning clip or shorten, while a woman in a skimpy dress is termed a sciotóg. There is also the past participle sciotuighthe and sciotán, a word for a dart. But sciotar there is none. Irish influence seems to be limited to reinforcement. There is no need to invoke the substrate when the word is so well attested in more obvious places. Indeed, even if we had no other evidence to go on, the fact that, as Malcolm accepts, the word has something to do with excrement strongly suggests a Germanic origin. It is true that the word is included in Ó Dónaill's 1977 dictionary, but then so is that other Scots and English dialectal word craic.

That's not to say that there is no Irish influence on Ulster English. Indeed, there is rather a lot. Only yesterday evening the Blether Region watched a programme about the campaigning newspaper editor Jim McDowell in which the film's subject mentioned someone who, if its memory serves it correctly, "had a drop on him" — a clear lift from the Irish. Just as in France, however, few words of Celtic origin are heard in everyday speech — even if the French still count in twenties and talk about quatre-vingt-dix, while their Swiss and Belgian neighbours favour the dourly Latin nonante.

The skitter episode, on the other hand, makes the Blether Region want to say, "Would you ever use a dictionary, y'ould skitter, ye!"

Just to prove that it can annoy everyone equally, the Blether Region reports the following. Last week it attended a very informative lecture by Dr. Jacob King of Ainmean-Àite na h-Alba, who had an interesting tale to tell about the town of Kilwinning in Ayrshire.

In the olden days it was common to use hypocoristic forms of saints' names incorporating a possessive pronoun, an Irish example being Mo-Báeth. Although Gaelic has not been spoken in the area around Kilwinning for many hundreds of years, research revealed that the original version of the name had been preserved in the speech of some of the last Gaels on the Isle of Arran. Like Mo-Báeth, it involved a possessive pronoun, this time for the second person singular. Soon after bilingual signs were erected at the local train station welcoming people to "Cill D'Fhinnein", Ainmean-Àite na h-Alba was summarily called to account for the name that it had researched and asked to provide an explanation of the favoured etymology. Kilwinning is in a part of the west of Scotland where sectarianism lingers even if Gaelic doesn't, and more than one local had interpreted the Gaelic name as "Kill da Fenian"!

And with that the Blether Region is off to eat its piece, or as one might say in Irish, "Ith do chuid" ...

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