Monthly Archives: June 2014

Donnacha DeLong

 

Some of the people you find supporting Daniel Cassidy’s nonsense would surprise you. Some of them don’t immediately seem like cranks. One such person is Donnacha DeLong, a journalist and former worker with Amnesty International. For a while, he was also the President of the National Union of Journalists. He was raised in Dublin and attended a Gaelscoil. From his tweets, it seems that he does have some fluency, though his Irish is far from perfect.

For some reason, DeLong has posted in support of Cassidy in several places. In December 2011, he was posting this comment on a review on Amazon.uk:

Cassidy makes clear in the book that he’s speculating about many of the suggestions he’s making. This is how research in this area happens, someone speculates and then others investigate and either verify or falsify what they’ve done. To reject the entire work because you can falsify some (or even most) of his suggestions is unfair and, if as you say, it’s preventing scholars doing further work on the topic, that’s ridiculously unscientific.

The reviewer gave him short shrift. Then more recently, he rushed to the defence of Brendan Patrick Keane’s terrible article on IrishCentral when it was savaged by intelligent people on the comments page:

This is simply not true. Cassidy put a huge amount of research into parts of the book – the parts on jazz, on poker, on nonsense verse – were based on proper documentary research. And it’s not as if he didn’t signpost his guesswork. I’d guess that no more than 40% of the list is credible as an explanation – agus is gaelgeoir mé. He was trying to start something, get others to do the kind of research that they simply hadn’t bothered doing for years. And I think he managed to push the locked door just enough. Slagging him off inaccurately serves no-one. 

Grant Barrett, veteran campaigner against Cassidy’s rubbish, was quick to answer:

You’ve been defending this terrible book and unscholarly research for years. What’s your stake in this? Why are you more interested in Daniel being right than you are in furthering a correct understanding of the Irish and Gaelic influence on English?

As Barrett suggested, there are several main points here which need to be challenged. Firstly, how did Cassidy ‘signpost his guesswork’ or make clear that he was speculating? The book is completely free of any suggestion that Cassidy might have got it wrong. The OED, Merriam-Webster, these people were, according to Cassidy, making ridiculous stabs in the dark, while Cassidy’s own derivations were accurate and correct. If Donnacha deLong or anyone else can find a quote which sounds as though Cassidy is expressing the slightest doubt about his own work, then please post it here. As I’ve said before on this blog, as far as I can see, Cassidy’s book is a humility-free zone.

Secondly, according to DeLong, Cassidy did valid research.  Cassidy put a huge amount of research into parts of the book – the parts on jazz, on poker, on nonsense verse – were based on proper documentary research.  With respect, this doesn’t seem to be the case. What kind of research did Cassidy do? Did he find evidence that his Irish phrases existed? No. And to the best of my knowledge, he never did any research on nonsense verse (which means verse like Jabberwocky). What DeLong means here is nonsense refrains, and that includes the nonsense about Fillfidh mé uair éirithe and his other crazy nonsense about dogies. You would need to be pretty stupid to give any kind of credence to that.

Another is the question of how much of Cassidy’s book is in any way probable. Anyone who has followed this blog will realise that my estimate is much less than ten per cent, including many which are certainly of Irish origin like shebeen, which are already in the dictionaries. How DeLong gets 40% is beyond me. Such a figure is ludicrous. Cassidy’s book is full of weird made-up Irish phrases which simply could not have existed. As I have said, it seems that DeLong does have some fluency in Irish, though the fact that he can’t spell Gaeilgeoir is telling. However, like Grant Barrett, I am convinced that there is something here that we are not being told. I believe that DeLong must have links with Cassidy, or with Counterpunch, or with one of Cassidy’s cronies. There is simply no reason for a person who knows any Irish to support a book like this.

And finally, DeLong repeats the old chestnut that Cassidy was trying to change attitudes and that he succeeded:  He was trying to start something, get others to do the kind of research that they simply hadn’t bothered doing for years. And I think he managed to push the locked door just enough. Slagging him off inaccurately serves no-one.

 This is absurd.  Firstly, it makes me wonder, how do you know this? Are you privy to information about Cassidy’s intentions that the rest of us aren’t? I have not seen any article or anything in the book which suggests that this was Cassidy’s aim. Cassidy presents his book, his rubbishy, childish travesty of a book, as reality. This is the way that many very stupid people have chosen to take it. And meanwhile, it has had no effect at all on research into the Irish influence on English. Personally, I find DeLong’s argument inexplicable in someone describing themselves as a journalist. The figure of 40% is ridiculous, but that is DeLong’s figure and it means that according to him, at least 60% of this book is wrong. Would you buy a book on Irish history, or the Bosnian crisis, or Islam, which was 60% nonsense?!! No. And why would you buy this book if it’s less than half correct?

In conclusion, I don’t pretend to understand what DeLong thinks he’s doing here.  I believe that he is somehow linked to Cassidy and has some ulterior motive for being so positive about this nonsense. However, even if I am wrong about this, I am not wrong about Cassidy or the inadequacy of his scholarship. In relation to Cassidy, DeLong is, as we say in Irish, ag iarraidh an dubh a chur ina bhán orainn – trying to persuade us that black is white. If DeLong wants to claim to be a journalist, then he needs to learn the most basic principles of the craft, principles like being sceptical and being willing to murder your darlings. Until he’s prepared to do that, he’s only playing at being a journalist.

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Did The English Ban Irish?

In my last blog post, I commented on a terrible St Paddy’s Day article by Mark Bergin called May The Road Rise To Meet You. This article, in addition to supporting Cassidy’s nonsense, is full of mistakes. It should be obvious what you are in for as soon as you read this: The Celtic thought process is not like that of the left-brain-dominant world. Irish thought resembles the Celtic knot, twisting and turning with a glorious lilt. And nowhere is that lilt more obvious than in the language. Personally, I despise this kind of patronising mysticism. The Irish are every bit as capable of rational, linear, cause-and-effect thinking as any other people on earth. The idea that the Irish are somehow childlike and mystical and different from the rest of the human race is a discourse derived from British Imperialism, however much of a positive and pro-Irish spin you try to put on it.

However, there is one important mistake in Bergin’s article which I would like to correct, because although (to the best of my knowledge) Cassidy never claimed this, it has been repeated by several of Cassidy’s supporters, the claim that the English banned the Irish language under the Penal Laws. Here’s what Bergin has to say:

But starting in the 17th century, our language was made illegal, banned. Speaking Irish could get you jail time and a good beating.

Bergin is not alone in making this claim. For example, on Amazon, we find this moron holding forth in support of Cassidy’s mindless drivel:

They were also severely penalized for speaking Irish (it was legally banned in Ireland by the British). Not conditions conducive for generating literary traces that professional linguists can track from the comfort of their stuffed chairs.

I am always interested in the way that false ideas are spread and turned into certainties. The fact is, of course, that the English administration in Ireland was no friend to the Irish language. Irish was progressively squeezed out of any realm of life which would have given it power or influence. I am not defending the English here. But the Penal Laws were about disadvantaging Roman Catholics (and to a lesser extent, non-Anglican Protestants), not about attacking Irish speakers or Irish culture. The fact is that there was never any law against speaking Irish. This is a complete myth.

The Church of Ireland (the Anglican church of the British Ascendancy in Ireland) continued to produce material like the Bible (1686) and The Book of Common Prayer in Irish-language editions throughout the Penal Era. In the early 19th century, The War Office even published demobilisation instructions in Irish for Irish-speaking soldiers who didn’t speak English!

So, if this is a complete myth, where does it come from? It seems to me that there are two possible reasons (apart from the sloppiness and incompetence of lazy internet users and crap journalists, that is!) One is that the Irish language was banned inside the English enclave around Dublin called the Pale by the Statutes of Kilkenny in 1367. This was probably not enforced and being long before the Reformation it had nothing whatever to do with the Penal Laws. The other is that in the 18th century, the Irish language was banned in the legal system (possibly misinterpreted by idiots as ‘legally banned’). This meant that whatever the language of a community, the English language was the working language of the courts. However, witnesses continued to give evidence in Irish if they didn’t speak English, and lawyers or clergymen interpreted for them. There was no blanket ban on speaking Irish in courts and there is a stack of well-documented evidence to prove it.

The Famine was a crime against humanity. What the English actually did in Ireland was bad enough. We don’t need to make up false and ridiculous claims that people were randomly beaten up and thrown into jail for speaking the only language they were able to speak.

Loreto Todd and Green English

I recently came across a terrible St Paddy’s Day article by Mark Bergin which references Daniel Cassidy and his crazy theories. With regard to Bergin’s article itself, which is full of nonsense, the less said the better. However, it did point me in an interesting direction, to a book which I had never read before, Green English by Loreto Todd. It is strange that I had never encountered this book before as I had read one of the author’s books on pidgins and creoles decades ago and we both live in the same small contested piece of land known variously as the Six Counties or Northern Ireland.

The book, originally published in 1999, has a certain amount in common with Cassidy’s. It shares Cassidy’s conviction that the mainstream dictionaries and particularly the OED have not looked sufficiently closely at the contribution to English from Irish. A tiny handful of the derivations of English words from Irish are the same as those given by Cassidy. I will deal with this handful in more detail below. 

However, to compare Todd to Cassidy would not be fair. Todd is or was a real academic, with experience in universities all over the world and a string of publications in book form or in journals. Most of the book is a good, though short and not terribly original, look at the possible influences of Hiberno-English (and the Gaelic component in it) on world English. She loves the Irish language (as do I) and writes a very laudable section about how the world is poorer for the loss of minority languages.

The problem that I would have with the book is a general sloppiness and an overall air of romanticism. Todd is a romantic about language and she gets carried away at times and makes claims which lack any kind of evidence.

Among examples of the sloppiness is a tendency to use Gaelic or G willy-nilly as a term for Irish or Scottish Gaelic, without distinction (sonsy, for example, is plainly from Scottish Gaelic, not Irish). Another is the lack of consistency in terms of spelling. Sometimes the spellings are derived from the forms given in English dictionaries (cainnt, sean-tigh), sometimes they are the modern standard spelling. Her Irish is by no means perfect. For example, she thinks a stóir is the correct Irish version of the Hiberno-English asthore. The grammar books and dictionaries insist that it is a stór. She says that the OED doesn’t recognise the origin of puss as in sourpuss as Irish, which seems to be completely untrue, though a lack of proper referencing means that it is impossible to check which version of the OED she is referring to.

The claims which lack any evidence at all are more serious and I would like to discuss this in greater depth. There is a complicating factor here in that we need to be clear what Todd is actually claiming. She seems to be making a claim that when languages are in contact, a similar word in one language can reinforce the use of a word in another, even if it’s not a borrowing. The example she gives is a certain African pidgin, where the word uman is plainly English woman, but apparently in a local language, Efik, the word for woman is uman anyway, so this would reinforce its use.  

There are several problems with this. The most obvious is that it is completely untestable. In this English-based pidgin, would people have used uman for woman anyway or did the Efik language have some impact? Maybe, but I can’t think of any convincing way of proving it. The derivation from woman seems sure, the influence of Efik is nothing more than a ghostly presence. It is when she gives examples of the Irish words which might have influenced English in this way that the sloppiness and the romanticism come together to produce a bit of a train-wreck. For one thing, it is unclear whether she is claiming that these words are derived from Irish or reinforced by it. For another, she makes no attempt to look at the history of the word and see what other scholars have said about its derivation. While she invites people to consider the list at the end of the book and draw their own conclusions, she doesn’t give them sufficient information to do this.

For example, she claims that cuddle may have been reinforced by (or derive from) Irish codail, which means sleep. Really? Why? I can’t see a close semantic connection between cuddle and sleep and it seems to me that this word is somehow linked to words like coddle and huddle. The same with hug, which Todd links to Irish cuaich (properly cuach in the modern spelling). This doesn’t sound like hug, even in the past tense form chuach, and in any case, most sources link hug to a Norse word meaning ‘to comfort’.

Then there is her claim that the pronoun she in English might be a loanword from Irish . The usual explanation is that she developed out of a demonstrative pronoun in a parallel way to the development of sie in German. This makes sense to me and linguists will tell you that borrowing of pronouns is really uncommon. Perhaps she is right in saying that Irish should have been considered as a source .. but not for very long!

She says that while many linguists, including Irish linguists, believe that craic came into Irish from English crack, she is not so sure and thinks it might be the other way around. She cites as ‘evidence’ that the first use of it is found in Scots and that Spenser used it, and Spenser lived in Ireland. This is really clutching at straws. Scots, of course is mostly Germanic and there is not much Gaelic in it, and Spenser hated the Irish and wrote for his wealthy patrons on the other side of the Irish Sea. There would be no reason for him to put words into his writings which were not English, so her claim seems unlikely here.

Again, arsehole in English is, according to Todd, either borrowed from or reinforced by (what a tiresome get-out that is!) the Irish asal, meaning a donkey. Why not English arse+hole?

There are a lot of others. Jig (derived from French giguer) is linked to Irish dígeann meaning climax (ooh er, missus!) Teem (to drain, from Norse) is linked to Irish taom, which comes from a Norse word for to drain. Drool, which is really linked to words like drivel and dribble, is from dreolán, meaning a fool (why? I know plenty of fools but few of them actually dribble …) Spree is variously given as spré (to scatter, squander – FGB actually defines it as spread, dowry, spark) or as spréigh, while in Irish the word equivalent to spree is always spraoi. And as for through-other, this could be influenced by Irish trína chéile but the fact is that this phrase is found in Northern England and Scotland and is cognate with durcheinander in German.In other words, I can’t see much, if any, value in her speculations here.

Before I leave this (rather long) post, let me deal with the handful of words where Todd’s claims are the same as Cassidy’s. Both of them derive so long from slán, ignoring well-known derivations from German and Scandinavian languages. Brag is derived by both of them from bréag, bum from bumaire, and cop (to stop, seize or think) from ceap, hack from each, and twig from tuig. (There may be one or two others but I really can’t be bothered comparing every claim of Todd with every claim made by Cassidy). The only one here likely to be correct is twig. The rest of the handful of words in common between Todd and Cassidy (mavourneen, achushla, poteen etc.) are also found in other dictionaries and sources and didn’t originate with either of them, so they are irrelevant to the argument that Irish words have been ignored.

However, it is important to stress that the claims in Todd’s book do not confirm or support Cassidy’s claims in any way.  Todd didn’t find áilteoir scaoilte in helter-skelter or uath dubh in hoodoo or béal ónna in baloney or steall béideán in stool pigeon or indeed any of the hundreds of other crappy made-up pieces of nonsense in Cassidy’s book. If Cassidy had been right, you would expect at least half of the words and phrases in his book to be found in Todd’s book as well, not the pathetic handful which we really find.