Category Archives: Language

Irish Language Acts and debating things which don’t exist…

I had a short cameo on Tuesday’s BBC Talkback programme concerning the case for an “Irish Language Act”. My point was that the whole discussion is somewhat pointless as we don’t know what would be in such an Act! There is a world of difference between, for example, the Gaelic Language Act in Scotland (which more or less confirms services already provided for Irish in Northern Ireland) and the Welsh Language Act in Wales (which places all kinds of requirements even on private businesses).

I would have added two more things, given time. Firstly, the Sinn Fein MLA on the programme said that an Irish Language Act was a “core demand of the Nationalist community“. This may be, but it is exactly that sort of phrasing which plays into the instinctive majority view among Unionists and indeed probably even Progressives that there should be no such Act because it would be ostensibly sectarian. It was also suggested by the POBAL representative, who was otherwise very reasonable, that an Act would mean “more jobs for Irish speakers” - something which is really problematic, at least at this stage of development, for all kinds of reasons (not least that it would favour one “religious background” given the segregated nature of our schooling).

Secondly, I was very concerned as several callers saying that they wished only to speak English “because we’re in the UK and we’re British“, a line I hear alarmingly often. I was concerned because it shows a deep ignorance about what it is to be British, which itself I think touches the core of why so many Unionists are so insecure about their identity. Britishness is an innately multi-cultural identity, by definition – you have to be “British-and”, you can’t just be “British”. The development of the Welsh language, albeit from a much stronger position that Irish (or for that matter Gaelic of Scots) is in now, is one of the best examples of minority language promotion in Europe – by the UK. There was an MSP on BBC Talkback explaining how his Gaelic linguistic identity in no way contravened his Scottish and British national identity. It is an utter nonsense for so many Unionists to cling to a singular “British” identity when everyone else who claims that identity recognises immediately and obviously that it is multi-cultural and diverse.

(It was, after all, the UK which signed the European Charter and gave Irish additional protection and support – Ireland, out of interest, is not a signatory.)

As for an “Irish Language Act”, I’ve always instinctively favoured a “Languages Act” confirming the UK’s and Northern Ireland’s Charter obligations and adding rights for those who wish to speak Irish in education and broadcasting. This would still, by my reckoning, be cost-neutral. What’s not to like?!

Benefits of bilingualism specific to certain types

We often read of the benefits of the bilingualism – notably to delaying dementia. Research is confirming this – but only in particular instances. The difficulty surrounds defining bilingualism or, perhaps more accurately, defining different types of bilingualism.

One issue is the distance between the two languages involved. This language tree is a particlarly good demonstration of how close – both geographically and historically – different languages of Indo-European and Finno-Ugric origin are. The evidence is if someone speaks two languages which are very close together – say Norwegian and Swedish or Afrikaans and Dutch – then the benefits are extremely limited. The difference has to be at least as great as, for example, French to Spanish.

Another point is the context in which a language is spoken. If, for example, a Portuguese person moves to Brussels and uses French professionally but Portuguese at home, the benefit is limited – because the two languages are used in different spheres. Indeed, literally most people in the world are bi- or multi-lingual in such a way. A Berber, for example, may speak Berber at home, Arabic for trade and French for administration. These are three distinct languages but because their use never crosses over, the “bilingual benefit” is significantly reduced.

Then there is, of course, the difficulty with defining “speaking a language”. The ultimate benefit accrues to someone who grew up speaking two languages all the time and continues to use them – say, someone brought up in Belgium by one Dutch-speaking and one French-speaking parent who continues to use both languages professionally and in general daily life. It is more limited – though no doubt still present – for someone who grows up monolingual but learns and regularly uses another language fluently later in life. Then there is the issue of what is “fluency”? There is a range of levels – from being able to order to meal, to being able to “get by”, to being able to hold a conversation, to dreaming in the language; and then competence varies depending on how often the language was used and when it was last used (for example my own Spanish was somewhere between “hold a conversation” and “dreaming in the language” at the end of the half year I studied there; but it has dropped back a level, perhaps more, since).

Ultimately, research shows the benefit is specifically this: people who, when using a particular phrase, are “blocking out” another phrase from another language (because they are fluent in at least one other language) get the benefits referred to – this is something which keeps the brain exercised and thus has significant mental benefits including delaying dementia by an average five years. If, on the other hand, they are not “blocking out” another language – because that language is already similar, or because they would never be using it in that context, or because they’re not really fluent in the other language – will find those benefits reduced, to close to zero.

Whatever, this is a very interesting area for further research!

If you’re going to be a pedant…

Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt corrected Alliance leader David Ford in the Assembly this week – when the latter used the word “referendums“, the former couldn’t get in quickly enough to interject with “referenda!

Well indeed, every Oxbridge-educated scholar would know that the plural of neuter second declension nouns in Latin is -a.

Except, ahem, referendum is not a second-declension noun. It is a gerund, and thus has no plural as such.

It is true that gerunds have plural forms. However, because it is a gerund, referendum in Latin means “referring thing” or perhaps more idiomatically “referred matter”; thus the plural form referenda would mean “referred matters”.

However, only one matter was referred to the people of Scotland last week – thus it was a referendum. The clear context of Mr Ford’s remarks was to refer to similar instances of a single matter being referred – in which case the productive plural formation is quite correctly referendums.

If you’re going to be a pedant, it pays to know your stuff. Quod erat demonstrandum.

UK needs more German students

Germany’s victory at the World Cup was interesting in the sense that most people in the UK reacted to it positively – a great sign of a thawing in attitudes towards Germany in the UK; a shift ongoing since Germany hosted the tournament in 2006.

Yet it also saw an increase in appalling mispronunciations of German words and general misunderstandings of the country itself in the media. One commentator suggested Germany’s anthem is still called “Deutschland über alles” (a phrase whose basic meaning is misunderstood anyway); there was a whole discussion about a “specific German word” to describe the process of taking a penalty in a shoot-out (in fact Nervenstärke merely means “strength of nerve”); and there was constant reference to Angela Merkel as “Head of State” (she is equivalent of Prime Minister, i.e. Head of Government; the President and Head of State, who was also in attendance at the final, is Joachim Gauck).

It would be helpful, first off, if we simply understood more about what is a highly influential country. For example, the Nazis actually replaced “Deutschland über alles” with their own anthem; many “specific German words” merely derive from the German tendency to put words together in writing; and Merkel’s and Gauck’s rise to prominence both involve astonishing scandals the latter of which, in particular, offers a particular challenge to German democracy (the removal of Christian Wulff, Gauck’s predecessor who was forced to resign for a number of minor alleged misdemeanours hinted at by certain elements in the media but all of which were then thrown out in court, was a fascinating disgrace challenging the whole concept of privacy and the free press).

Of course, it would be easier to understand the country if we spoke its language. Here, the disgrace lies firmly in the UK. Fewer students took German A-Level in the UK this year than took it at Higher Level in Ireland – in other words, more Irish students (in total, not proportionately) speak reasonable German than in the whole of England, Wales and Northern Ireland put together. This is scary; for a start, it makes Ireland a vastly more attractive trading partner for Europe’s largest economy.

We need to do more to understand Germany better; and not just for the sake of our football teams!

If you’re going to be a grammar pedant, learn to play fair…

“Hang tough”. “Eat fresh”. “Look good”. These are all perfectly good Standard English, as we all know.

It pays to analyse them, however, because some adverb pedants are making fools of themselves over similar usage!

One case reported this week was of a family who, led by a 15-year old, complained vehemently about the slogan “Barks as bad as it bites”. The slogan is perfectly good Standard English, for the same reason as the first three examples in this post are!

An adverb describes a verb or, typically when placed initially or finally, an entire clause. This can lead to quite different meanings – “He went hopefully to the station” (describing the verb – he was hopeful as he went) is very different from “Hopefully he went to the station” (describing the clause – essentially I, the speaker, was hopeful).

However, in the case of “hang tough”, “eat fresh”, “look good” or even “barks bad”, we have no adverbs. “Tough” and so on do not describe the verb or the clause; they are effectively adjectives (with an implicit noun omitted because the meaning is clear – “hang a tough time”, “eat a fresh sandwich”, “look a good sight”, “bark a bad sound”).

The slogan absolutely does not mean that that the “bark” is “bad”, but that the outcome of it is. It is not an adverb but an adjective. If you’re a pedant, it pays to play fair…

The challenge of Portuguese

With the World Cup taking place in Brazil, some linguistic thoughts may settle on the Portuguese language, spoken officially by all and natively by the vast majority of Brazilians, despite their marked ethnic diversity.

Brazil’s huge population means that this fact alone makes Portuguese one of the most spoken and written languages on the globe. Yet its geographical restrictiveness (alongside some complexities) make it one of the least known by outsiders.

Portuguese in fact has its origins in the Spanish region of Galicia, on the northwest of the Iberian peninsula. During the Reconquista, as Christians speaking languages of Latin origin moved south, they split into five and subsequently three vertical linguistic channels – Galician to the west, Castilian in the middle, and Catalan to the east. While those who remained in the northwest gradually came to merge with the Castilians and others (subsequently including the Catalans) to form “Spain”, those who moved south retained a separate kingdom named for its port, hence Portugal. Adventurous and coastal, they soon kept going, founding colonies in Asia and the Americas, the largest of which became Brazil.

Printing (which solidified Standard languages) was developed at a time when the Portuguese language was in the middle of a sound shift (similar to the one which English had to render pronunciations such as “name” or “fight” from words whose spelling still reflects older pronunciations), giving it a considerably more complex phonology (marked by considerably more complex written accents) than Spanish. Portuguese also allowed significant later spelling reforms to reflect more modern pronunciation (unlike French, Spanish or English), thus making it “look” somewhat distinct – consider Portuguese atenção versus French attention, Italian attenzione or Spanish atención. 

Portuguese not only looks but sounds very different. Firstly, there are the distinctive “slushing” <s> sounds at the end of words or before vowels (although this is more noticeable in Portugal than in Brazil); then there are the nasals, so that bem-vindo ‘welcome’ sounds more like ‘beng-veendu’. Portuguese did, however, retain the initial /f/ often lost in Spanish (probably due to the latter’s contact with the Basques, whose language lacks it), e.g. falar ‘to speak’ versus Spanish hablar.

Grammatically, although I never like to say any one language is “easier” than another, Portuguese is also less accessible than Spanish, with the maintenance of tenses and moods lost in Spanish (e.g. the future subjunctive), wider and unique use of the infinitive, and complex word order of pronoun particles (which itself often varies between Brazil and Portugal). There is also a tendency, as in Irish coincidentally, to avoid “yes” or “no”, instead repeating the verb (Tens a bola? Tenho! ‘Do you have the ball? I have.’)

It is perhaps for these reasons, alongside the (marginally) wider spread of Spanish, that although mother-tongue Portuguese speakers are actually as numerous as mother-tongue Spanish speakers in South America, Spanish is far and away the better known language externally. However, just as the World Cup is offering the opportunity to discover the real Brazil (away from just the stereotypical samba and beach-football), it may also offer an opportunity for some of a linguistic bent to discover its language too!

The committee “are”… singular noun, plural verb?

This week I thought I would put up a quick note on the “correct” verb form to use with so-called collective nouns in Standard English.

The issue is where an apparently singular noun takes a plural verb form in Standard English (actually, Standard British English, see below) – for example, “The Committee are considering your application.

Implicit in the word “committee“, in this sense, is that it is plural – made up of several people who would probably subsequently be referred to as “they“, a plural pronoun (“… and they are keen to inform you that you will be contacted shortly.“).

There are other occasions where the singular verb would be correct, namely when the collective noun is being considered as a unit, e.g. “The Committee is made up of seven women and three men including the Chair“. In this case, it would subsequently be referred to as “it” (“… and it was established for the first time over ten years ago.”).

Some people object to the former usage, arguing that regardless of whether it is acting as a collective or as a unit, the noun is fundamentally singular in grammatical form, and thus so should the verb be. This is interesting – because in fact this is the norm in most languages, and it is in fact specifically Standard British English which is the exception.

German, for example, always uses the singular verb regardless (“der Ausschuss ist…”). American and Australian English both tend to as well.

In fact, British English used to use the singular too. I noted a Pathe news reel from 1952 which used a singular where modern usage in Standard British English would be plural (it was in fact “Newcastle retains the Cup“). In fact, it is still not uncommon, in the Northern Ireland regional press, to see the singular verb preferred.

So, the use of the plural noun with the singular (collective) noun appears to be a British (perhaps even specifically Southern English) innovation in the last half-century or so. I must say I prefer to avoid it in my own writing (probably most obviously in my sports pieces, as British English now tends to use a plural verb with the names of sports teams, where American and Australian use the singular), but it is debatable.

What’s the matter with youse?

I have written before about the distinction between non-standard language on one hand (e.g. “Me and him is friends), and wrong usage on the other (e.g. “for you and I“). This is an important distinction – and it is interesting how often we get riled by usage which is non-standard but in fact perfectly good speech in certain contexts (and, usually, certain dialects).

One example I came across during the week was “youse”. It was raised in the context that its use is an obvious error – the plural of “you”, surely, is simply “you”. In Standard English this is of course true. However, in informal speech in certain dialects, not least all of those which predominate in Northern Ireland, “youse” is perfectly acceptable. Indeed, I would argue it has attained a degree of prestige to an extent that it’s use is deemed acceptable at a higher level than, say, “Me and him is friends”. There’s a connection, in fact…

Firstly, what are we talking about? We are talking about personal pronouns, which are notable in English because, unusually, they have retained vestiges of the case system – i.e. their form typically differs when used as the subject of a clause, or as an object. Thus, in English, I (plural we) is the subject of the sentence (“first person”), and me (plural us) is an object form – which is why the aforementioned usage “For you and I” is wrong. In the “third person”, this becomes more complex as gender becomes involved in the singular – he/him, she/her and it/it for masculine, feminine and neuter. The plural “third person” form does not differ depending on gender – simply they/them – although it already hints at the implicit instability of the system, as they/them (and the possessive their) are borrowings from Scandinavian (North Germanic) which replaced earlier, Continental (West) Germanic forms. I have noted before that the so-called “object” forms of English person pronouns derive from the older dative form once only used for an indirect object (this remains distinguished from the accusative in German, whose personal pronouns thus typically have three forms – so er/ihn/ihm as against he/him).

So, what about the “second person” – you? Well, that is unstable in a lot of languages, because most distinguish not just between singular and plural, but also between familiar/informal and polite/formal. Consider the line in Shakespeare’s Hamlet:

Ophelia: “Hamlet, thou hast thy father much offended!”

Hamlet: “Mother, you have my father much offended!”

Here, there is an important register distinction – Hamlet’s mother Ophelia uses the familiar and apparently loving familiar form thou, but Hamlet replies with the formal, colder, more distant you. (Out of interest, the modern German translation would be “Du hast deinen Vater viel beleidigt” – retaining the cognate of thou and the same second person singular verb form hast).

In Middle English, pre-Shakespeare, both the singular familiar form thou/thee and the plural or formal form ye/you had distinct subject/object forms as with all the other personal pronouns.

However by modern times English – to be precise, Standard English – did away with: a) the distinction between singular and plural; b) the distinction between familiar/informal and polite/formal; and c) the distinction between subject and object. You became the second person personal pronoun in all contexts – familiar, polite, singular, plural, subject, object. This is no doubt to the delight of foreign learners, but it does cost us subtle distinctions such as the one Shakespeare was able to utilise above.

Most of us would know, of course, that most languages retain not just a singular/plural distinction for you, but also an informal/formal distinction – known by linguists as a “T-V distinction” with reference to the French tu(/te/toi)-vous. 

French is actually much more straightforward than most – tu/te/toi is both familiar/informal and singular; vous is anything else.

German uses du/dich/dir as the familiar/informal singular; ihr/euch/euch as the familiar/informal plural; and Sie/Sie/Ihnen as the formal form (either singular or plural). It gets slightly more complicated as there was a tradition of capitalising Du/Dich/Dir in letters; and Royals were often referred to by the apparently otherwise informal plural Ihr/Euch/Euch (again capitalised).

In many languages, the complexities become almost impossible for learners. In Spanish, tú/ti is taught as the familiar/informal singular; vosotros/os as the familiar/informal plural (feminine vosotras); usted/usted as the formal singular; and ustedes/ustedes as the formal plural (these latter two are used with third person verb forms). However, in most of the Spanish-speaking world this is not the case. In some cases, vos replaces ustedes replaces vosotros and so on. I once received a text from a Venezuelan friend referring to me and my wife as ustedes and wondered what we had done to offend him – until I realised that was the Venezuelan system! Portuguese has a similar story (with a different outcome) and further distinctions between Brazilian and European standards; Italian has also developed third-person verb forms with apparently second-person pronouns.

Fundamentally, this all demonstrates that personal pronouns, particularly “second person” are unstable. German has adopted a particular personal pronoun (which can also, confusingly, mean they/them or even in some contexts she) and used it to be formal in both singular and plural; Spanish has adopted a highly formal word originally meaning “your mercy” and developed it as usted(es) to make the formal distinction; Portuguese and Italian have done their own thing too.

As for their “own thing”, many English dialects have done their own thing to make up for the lack of a plural form. Some Yorkshire dialects (most notably, among others) have in fact essentially retained thou and thee; some southern Irish dialects retain the ye/you distinction but have made it plural/singular; Texan (notably, among others) has developed y’all from you all to emphasise plural meaning (not totally unlike Spanish developed vosotros above from vos+otros “you+others”, also seen in certain contexts in French, e.g. vous autres belges “you Belgians”).

After all that, it strikes me that a perfectly reasonable way to emphasise that you is meant as a plural is simply to use the regular, productive plural form – and yous (I personally tend to stick with that spelling to emphasise its regularity) is common in much of Australia as well as parts of Scotland, Northern Ireland, Dublin and Northumbria for that reason.

Of course, this is not Standard English; but it seems to me a perfectly good form in spoken, informal usage and, as far as I’m concerned, long may it thrive on the streets of Belfast and elsewhere!

Dealing with the Irish Language in NI

The Irish Language is in that unfortunate space in Northern Ireland where reactions to it are emotional – often flavoured by “community background” – rather than rational. Cases around it are made to suit the existing narrative rather than on a genuinely reasoned basis; and anyone stepping outside the “expected norm” of their own “side” (most obviously the East Belfast Mission at Skainos) is castigated mercilessly (but often unreasonably) by that “side”.

It is worth noting that this is rarely done by stating outright untruths, but rarely by emphasising the truths which suit our own narrative. Thus the fact few speak it as a native language in Northern Ireland can lead to it being easily dismissed as “dead” (even though it is all around us); or the fact that Presbyterians were central to its revival in the late 19th century can be hailed as “proof of an inherent cross-community interest” (even though this has not been meaningfully apparent for over a century). As too often in Northern Ireland, we find facts being made to suit a case, not a case being made to suit the facts!

For all that, there are actually two core ways of looking at the development of the Irish Language (and the government’s/tax payer’s role in it). It is worth looking at them in the (no doubt vain) hope of a rational compromise.

Firstly, the argument goes that the Irish Language is unique to the island of Ireland; that if we don’t take action to protect it we’ll lose it (because only we can save it); and that it is all around us (not least in place names) and part of all of us (regardless of background). On those grounds, we in Northern Ireland should play a full and comprehensive role in its development (and, particularly relevantly right now, we should certainly not be deprived of that role by funding for development organisations being shifted in its entirety to Dublin and the Gaeltacht).

Secondly, the argument goes that the Irish Language is a minority community interest, effectively a hobby; that it is not the government’s (tax payer’s) role to fund hobbies; and that if people want to develop it that is well and good, but they may do so in their own time at their own expense because public money is needed for schools and hospitals. On those grounds, it is dubious whether there should even be a “Department of Culture”, English should be the sole language of administration at all times (not least because it’s cheaper that way), and if anything Polish should be the second language as it has more native speakers.

At a purely rational level, I can absolutely see both of those arguments. However, the issue then becomes consistency. Frankly (and almost crudely), if you take the first argument you have to deliver a meaningful cross-community basis to all Irish Language activity (which means getting out of “silos” such as using the language to “mark Republican areas”, and removing some of the more fanciful notions about the language such as its alleged “ancientness”); if you take the second argument to its logical conclusion, the Orange Order should pay for its own marches (including security arrangements, notifying residents of road closures, post-parade clean-up and so on).

I do tend, personally, towards the first of the above (I personally am willing to pay something towards protection of a language on the grounds of cultural value even if I don’t speak it); but I respect those who tend towards the latter – as long as we are all consistent! Therefore, it would be helpful at least if we could shift the debate on to more rational ground, and then recognise the logical conclusions on other aspects of culture of the position we choose to take.

Belfastisms… and Ulster Scots

The Daily Mirror published a list last Friday of 28 expressions you will only know if you’re from Northern Ireland.

This begs the obvious question – are they Ulster Scots?!

“Ach, yous-uns are eejits” – could be; Scots would have Ach, yous anes is eejits (“yous-uns” is a pluralised “you” plus “ones” or Scots “anes“).

“Yer man is doing my head in” – probably isn’t; it’s likely English dialectal.

“I’m totally scundered” – is derived from Scots although the phrasing is English; but the <d> is a hypercorrection, the Scots word is in fact “scunner” (“A’m fair scunnert“), but idiomatically it would usually be used as a noun (“A taen a fair scunner“).

“Let’s head out for a wee dander” – is derived from Scots; but again the <d> is a hypercorrection – Scots has “wee danner“.

“This jallopy is banjaxed” – isn’t; it is perhaps onomatopoiea.

“Yer ma’s blootered again” – is derived from Scots; the word “bluiter” means the sound of a gust of wind, but “bluitert” has come to mean “drunk”.

“He fell on his hoop” – probably isn’t.

“Away on with ye” – probably is derived from Scots; Scots does frequently use awa “away” almost as a verb.

“Alright mucker” – probably isn’t.

“Catch yourself on big lad” – probably isn’t.

“Do you like my new guddies” – probably is derived from Scots; Scots more usually has “gutties” (originally meaning anything made of rubber, then more specific to shoes).

“Shut yer bake” – could be from anywhere; but indeed Ulster-Scots poems from two centuries ago do use “bake” (“beak”) for “mouth”.

“My gub’s killin’ me” – again, could be from anywhere; “gub” certainly is used in Scots, including in such a context.

“Give us a gravy ring there mate” – probably isn’t; this seems to be a Northern Irish speciality!

“Shut that windee” – probably is derived from Scots; Scots typically pronounces final “-ow” in English as “-ee” (usually spelled “-a” or “-ae” – e.g. winda(e), folla(e), Glesca(e)).

“We’ve been firing bricks at the peelers” – isn’t.

“Bout ye” – probably isn’t.

“Give us a juke at that” – is derived from Scots; Scots has “deuk“, actually meaning “duck”, in this context.

“Have a wee hoak for it” – is derived from Scots, even idiomatically, although has come to be slightly mispronounced; Scots would be the same phrasing, usually written “hae a wee howk for it” (“howk”, strictly, has the same vowel as “cowp”, but then so has “bowl”…)

“My da will knock your ballix in” – isn’t really; “da” is typically Scots, but is in widespread usage across Ireland too.

“He’s half-cut again” – isn’t.

“That dinner was ratten” – hmmm, is English!

“Quit yer faffin’ about” – is derived from Scots, even idiomatically; Scots would have “Quit yeir faffin about” (though “faff” is a perfectly good English word too).

“Get your lazy hole out of bed” – isn’t, particularly!

“Do you think I came down the Lagan [more commonly actually Bann] in a bubble?” – isn’t; coming down a particular river in a bubble is known across the British Isles and probably elsewhere in the English-speaking world too.

“Give us a pastie supper” – is derived from Scots; the concept of “fish supper” and the like is understood in Scotland but not generally in England.

“This is pure wick so it is” – “wick” isn’t, but “so it is” is, so it is…

Essentially, most of the examples are relatively usual Urban Dialect English, but there is a widespread Scots influence.


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