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Pronunciation tip: more Irish

For St. Patrick’s Day I covered just a couple of phrases and their related bits of Irish phonology. I thought it would be good to let you in on a bit more of it. Irish can seem like Scrabble, in that you start with a bunch of letters but you’re very lucky if you can put them all in play. In truth, there’s always a reason for it. Here’s part of why. (I also sing a song. A short one.)

Pronunciation tip: Sláinte, Céad míle fáilte

St. Patrick’s Day is almost upon us, and that has inspired me to do a quick pronunciation tip video for the two things in Irish you’re most likely to encounter on St. Paddy’s. You will see that I had fun making this video. How much fun? Well, why don’t you watch it – it’s not that long.

sláinte

Not that St. Patrick’s Day is a huge thing in Ireland, but this isn’t really for the Irish, it’s for everyone else. They all want to celebrate the Irish, or anyway to party in honour of a culture stereotyped as bibulous, and they want to do that by wearing, eating, and drinking green things and doing so until they, too, are green. Or perhaps grey. They sing rubbishy songs that have little to do with true good Irish music, and they drink themselves sick… toasting each other’s health.

May the road rise to meet you! What that really means, of course, all motion being relative, is that you fall to meet the road. But, you know, same result. So slant your glass, and then slant yourself! Slant ya!

Sorry, that’s spelled Sláinte. That’s the Irish word for ‘health’, as in yours. It’s pronounced like “sloncha.”

Doesn’t look like that’s what it spells? It does in Irish. Irish spelling is much more consistent than English spelling; it just happens to follow quite different rules. Why not? The grammar is different too. Tá do leabhair agam, ‘I have your book’, is said like “taw doe looer a gum” and, word for word, means ‘is your book at-me’. Do bhris sé an cathaoir orm is said like “doe vrish shay a ca-heer orum,” word-for-word means ‘… broke he the chair on-me’, but doesn’t mean he broke it literally on you, just that he broke it to your detriment, the same as in casual English we use “…on me” to mean ‘to my detriment’, as in “He went and sold it on me” or “She walked out on me.”

So anyway, Irish consonants can be either narrow or broad, which means palatalized or not. English parallels would be like the difference between the two common pronunciations of news (/njuz/ or /nuz/) or of mature (/mətʃʊr/ or /mətur/). The way they indicate this in writing is by having them flanked by either “narrow” (i, e) or “broad” (a, o, u) vowel letters, as appropriate. So there are a lot of “silent vowels” in written Irish. (For other reasons, there are apparently silent consonants too – but really they’re part of digraphs, like th is in English – but I’m not going into that now.) But when there’s an e at the end of a word, it’s pronounced, but just as a reduced vowel: /ə/. And if there’s a t right before it, it’s narrow, which means it’s said like “ch” – that is to say, the same thing many of us do when we say “meet you” or “slant ya.”

This word sláinte, which means ‘health’, is – incidentally – related, way back in Proto-Indo-European, to Latin salus ‘health’ and German selig ‘blessed’. Also to Italian salute and Spanish salud, which both mean ‘health’ and both are used as toasts too. We do like to wish each other good health as we raise a glass. However green its contents may or may not be.

Incidentally, the Irish word for ‘green’ is glas. It’s also the Irish word for ‘grey’. Just as we see the sky, the sea, and many other shades and saturations as different versions of blue, Irish sees all these greens and greys – and the colour of blue-grey eyes – as different shades and saturations of glas. (Which means my wife and I have the same colour eyes in Irish, though not in English.) That kind of makes sense; a lot of the greys you’ll find in nature are easily seen as desaturated green.

So about 90% of the scenery in Ireland is glas. Also about 90% of Canadian pub-goers on their way home at 3 AM after St. Patrick’s. And 100% of the ones the road has risen to meet.

Blarney, baloney, and etymology

I’m about to tear a strip off a guy who died in 2008. That may not seem fair, but what he did lives on, in his work and in the work of countless others who do the same damn thing. He presented his work as etymology, but it’s just plain baloney – or, as Daniel Cassidy would have said, béal ónna.

Daniel Cassidy would have said that because he was in the habit of saying that all sorts of American slang came from Irish. Slang can be very hard to etymologize, because it tends to originate in oral tradition, and so to show up rather late in print. But Cassidy was sure he had the skeleton key. He wrote a book: How the Irish Invented Slang. In it he looked at a variety of American slang terms, and explained how every last one of them really came from this or that Irish phrase. Stool pigeon was from steallaire béideánach (steall béideán being the related verb phrase), but stoolie was from steall éithigh, jazz was from teas, eighty-six from éiteachas aíochta, bunkum from buanchumadh, spiel from spéal… yes, really.

Cassidy’s method was fairly straightforward. He would seize on some slang expression and toss around for an Irish Gaelic phrase that sounded something like it (as the above do; teas is said rather like our chass, for instance) and had a meaning that could be tortured into supporting the connection – teas means “heat”, steall éithigh means “spout a false oath” – and then he would note that there were Irish immigrants in the area during the time that the phrase seems to have arisen, so it must be true. Never mind if the Irish source was never known to have existed as a stock phrase or cliché; never mind if it includes a rare word or an uncommon usage of the word; never mind if there was no reference made anywhere in history to an Irish origin; never mind if the phonological transformations he posited go beyond the expectable; never mind if there is a persuasive etymology pointing to a different source (as with bunkum, baloney and spiel). It makes a good story, it fits together, so it must be true.

Does this seem like shoddy methodology, nothing but hooey and blarney? Well, it is. A saying among linguists is “Etymology by sound is not sound etymology.” Think of the father in My Big Fat Greek Wedding coming up with an etymology for Japanese kimono from Greek kheimon. Pure “below knee”—oops, baloney. Give us a smoking gun: citations. A clear connection.

But why should it matter, if it’s a good story? Well, for one thing, it’s bad history. For another, the real stories are often more interesting. For a third, if you want facts, don’t you want facts? And fourth, sometimes it’s needlessly provocative, as with the claim that picnic and nitty-gritty are racist terms, in spite of more-than-ample evidence to the contrary. (Meanwhile, no one seems bothered by bulldoze…)

So enough with the blarney and baloney. Sound coincidences can be the spark of an investigation, but never more than that.