How Words Get Borrowed

In this, my first post of 2017, I would like to examine an issue that I have touched on before but never really dealt with properly, the question of how words are passed from language to language.

Cassidy’s methodology was simple. He looked at words and phrases in English, especially slang expressions, and then hit the Irish dictionaries and cobbled together ludicrous phrases which he thought sounded like these English terms. Of course, Cassidy was badly educated and did not speak any Irish.

What really happens when words cross language boundaries in situations like this? (Of course, we need to remember that similar processes were involved in Ireland itself, where the issue was colonialism, not immigration.) Well, basically, a group of speakers of Irish (or any other language) turn up as immigrants. At first, they are unable to communicate with the society around them. Some of them never learn the new language. Others manage to pick up a basic knowledge. As they learn the majority language, they retain grammatical structures and certain words and phrases from their own language. Thus we might hear sentences like this:

“There is whiskey go leor in the jug there.”

“Sure I’m after seeing Lannigan out there, the old amadán!”

“Sure, I’m away to the síbín for a drink.”

Because lots of people in the initial generation of learners use these expressions, they are continually heard and learned and used by the younger generation. Before long, people who speak no Irish are using galore and ommadawn and shebeen in their English.

Note that nearly all of these borrowings are single words and nearly all of them are nouns. There’s a reason for this. It wasn’t enough for a phrase to be used once by one individual. These had to be expressions which were commonly used by that first generation of bilingual English and Irish speakers, by thousands of people in different contexts.

And of course, that’s not what we find in Cassidy’s moronic book. We find that according to Cassidy, Irish speakers supposedly stuck the word án onto lóinte to make something sounding like luncheon (even though the phrase lóinte ána was unknown in Irish until Cassidy invented it), or that sách was used as a noun meaning a well-fed person and that that word always had úr (fresh) stuck on to the end of it. Apparently nobody ever separated the two words. They never said that there was a good sách, or a handy sách, or a stupid sách, or a big sách. No, it was always a fresh sách, so that it would sound like sucker. Yeah, right. You’d need to be a real sucker (which comes from the English suck) to believe that.

Pretty much all of Cassidy’s ‘Irish’ candidates rule themselves out because they are absurd and improbable phrases. Things like n-each as the origin of nag are simply laughable, because nobody is going to pluck a random inflected phrase out of conversation and use it. (Plus the fact that each ceased to be the usual Irish word for a horse hundreds of years ago!)

The question of pronunciation is another tricky issue. People learn English and throw the odd word of Irish into their conversation. The next generation grow up hearing these words and use them themselves. They pronounce them the way the older generation did. There would be no reason for them to mispronounce uath-anchor as wanker or sciord ar dólámh as skedaddle or éamh call as heckle or gus óil as guzzle, because there’s an unbroken chain of transmission and there is no stage at which this kind of mangling could take place. (And please note that none of these Irish phrases exists anyway. They were all invented by Cassidy, along with nearly all of the Irish in How The Irish Invented Slang.)

The bizarre changes of meaning posited by Cassidy are also problematic. Why would shanty come from seanteach if a native Irish speaker would call their hut a bothán or a cró or a cábán? Why would loingseoir, a word meaning a sailor, become a word for a landlubber who works on the dock? Why would a native speaker of Irish say “Sure, I hate living here in dis is lom é?” if they wouldn’t say “Dhera, is fuath liom bheith I mo chónaí san is lom é seo?” The answer is, of course, they wouldn’t and they didn’t.

In other words, this isn’t the way that words cross from language to language. Cassidy’s ‘research’ was entirely fake, like the man who invented it. I don’t know why people like Michael Patrick MacDonald or Peter Quinn or Joe Lee still support this dishonest garbage. It seems a very high price to pay for friendship but then I suppose it’s a sad fact that some people really are that desperate for friends – desperate enough to betray everything they claim to believe in for the sake of a worthless fraud like Daniel Cassidy.

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