More on Shanty

One of the most disappointing and irritating things about the recent flurry of Twitter activity surrounding a tweet by the Rubber Bandits was that several people (the Rubber Bandits included) tweeted that ‘the Irish’ for old house is ‘Sean Tí’.

Since the efforts of the Irish state to provide you with a basic knowledge of your own linguistic heritage obviously failed woefully because YOU WEREN’T PAYING ATTENTION, here’s a brief Irish lesson:

The Irish for ‘old house’ is SEANTEACH, pronounced SHANCHAH, with the ‘cha’ as in cha-cha-cha.

The Irish for ‘house’ is teach. It’s only in the genitive. means ‘of a house’, so doras tí is door of a house. But on its own means nothing.

Sean is an adjective. Most adjectives in Irish come after the noun, so teach mór is a big house. However, a handful are prefixes which are attached to the noun. So it’s seanteach. Not sean teach or sean-teach. And still less sean tí or sean-tí.

As for the question of the meaning, imagine that you are standing in a mining camp out in the wilds somewhere. You have just chopped down some trees and built yourself a rough cabin. One of your neighbours comes up and says,

“Hi Séamus, nice house! What do you call a house like that in your language?”

“Well, sure, I call it seanteach, which in my language means ‘old house’.”

And your neighbour scratches his head and says,

“So you’ve just finished building the thing, and your hand sticks to the wall on account of all the pine resin oozing from the freshly-cut logs, but you call it an old house?”

“Aah, but you’re forgettin’ dat I’m Irish, and we have a reputation for quirkiness, eccentricity and irrationality to uphold, so we do!”

Yeah, right, you gowls! And then there’s the fact that we have one book written as a memoir in Irish (Micí Mac Gabhann, Rotha Mór an tSaoil) by a Donegal man who joined the gold rush and lived in a mining camp. When he refers to the houses in the camp, he uses the words bothán, cábán, teach and sometimes cábán tí. He never talks about seantithe. And why the fuck would he?

9 thoughts on “More on Shanty

  1. Marconatrix

    Och weel, it isnae sae simple as aa that, mon …
    In the first place it’s not uncommon in Gaelic (all varieties) for the oblique case forms to be imported into the nominative, which in this case means that Old Irish _teach_ gets replaced by _tigh_ which then in Scotland morphs into _taigh_ or _toigh_ although you’ll still see _tigh_ in older books etc. The Manx seem to have the same pronunciation but in their sort-of anglicised spelling write _thie_ with no ‘teach’ form recognised in their Gaelic.
    While I doubt this derivation of ‘shanty’, I feel your debunking fails. A better approach would be to find an alternative, more credible origin, ideally with attestations from literature etc. What does the OED say?

  2. Marconatrix

    Further still, in a clearly Irish-Australian context, this song/poem came to mind which has ‘shanty’ in the first verse. However if the internet can be trusted it was published in 1893. Is that late enough for the word to have spread in English from French Canada to Irish Australia? IMO quite probably, given that 1820 was the first *attestation*, so it might have passed into English a good deal earlier?

  3. DebunkerOfCassidy Post author

    Hi, You’re right on that question but you need to remember that I have been blogging on this subject for years. If you put ‘shanty’ into the search box above you will find a number of posts which deal with the subject of shanty, including references to the French derivation chantier.and the dialect variant in Irish, seantigh. What I was dealing with here was specifically the claim made in the Twitter debate – certain people are arguing that a phrase is the origin of shanty but they don’t know enough Irish to speill it correctly or understand the grammar involved! Also, you haven’t mentioned one of the central arguments here – the inappropriateness of calling a brand-new structure an old house. Why would anyone do this? I think there was probably quite a lot of toing and froing between Australia and the USA (among gold miners, sailors, etc.) so the idea that a phrase like shanty could have reached Australia in several generations from Canada is not at all improbable, in my opinion. Still, the feedback is welcome, so feel free to comment again! 🙂

    1. Marconatrix

      ‘S do bheatha, a chàraid. (Oh, and there’s another one where the oblique case forms have become nominative, c.f. Irish _a chára).
      On thinking a bit about this, isn’t it likely perhaps and an Irish speaker, or perhaps someone with a smattering of Irish, on hearing ‘shanty’ might interpret it or adapt it or just vaguely associate it with _sean-tigh_ ? Folk etymology if you like. This sort of thing happens all the time after all.

      What I find a bit hard to follow, is why you’re so fired-up about all of this. It’s not that important really, given all the shite that e.g. politicians come out with every day 😉

  4. DebunkerOfCassidy Post author

    Absolutely right about the folk-etymology. People have been saying this for decades. Most of the believable claims, true or not, have been around for a long time and have been spread (in some cases) even by Irish speakers themselves.

    As for why I do this, I probably spend an hour or two a week on it, so it’s no big deal. And, as I explained elsewhere, in comparison with famine in Africa, the crisis in the Middle East, the rise of Islamist terrorism and right-wing extremism in the USA, it doesn’t matter at all but the point is that I really don’t have a lot to offer in terms of saving the planet or guaranteeing world peace. I guess I just saw that people are writing all kinds of shite about the Irish language, some of it blatantly fraudulent and exploitative, and nobody challenges them. I’m just doing what I can to make sure that certain stupid and untrue ideas don’t pass unchallenged, whether they come from Daniel Cassidy or from others.

    Irish is at a low ebb, unfortunately. And people like Cassidy are the buzzards hoping to get a free dinner at its expense! 😦

  5. Marconatrix

    “… some of it blatantly fraudulent and exploitative”. Fair do’s then, we can’t be having any of that, for sure.
    “!rish is at a low ebb”. I’m just curious why you think that, surely no worse now than it’s ever been? I honestly thought it was picking up, slowly for sure, but coming on for all that??
    Beir bua libh!

    1. DebunkerOfCassidy Post author

      Bhal, tá súil agam go bhfuil an ceart agat! Ba bhreá liom bheith contráilte sa chás sin! It’s a difficult question. In some ways, the language is stronger than it’s ever been. It has excellent dictionaries, a strong literature, a television station and a couple of radio stations. But undeniably, the Gaeltachtaí are dying. Can it transfer to a community of urban second-language speakers. I hope so but we’ll have to see …

  6. DebunkerOfCassidy Post author

    I had a message there from someone called Catherine:

    So “cábán tí” meets your grammatical requirements, but “sean tí” does not?

    Firstly, Catherine, these are not ‘my’ grammatical requirements. They are the way the language works.

    Secondly, as I stated in the post above, which you obviously didn’t read, the word sean is an adjective, an unusual one which comes before the noun it qualifies and is attached to it. Cábán is a noun and the phrase ‘cábán tí’ (literally a cabin of a house, or a house which is a cabin) makes perfect sense. Sean tí (old of house) doesn’t make any sense and doesn’t sound right in the Irish language. They are completely different cases.

    Thirdly, cábán tí was used by a Gaeltacht writer in a well-known Irish-language book. If you can find a book in Irish which uses the expression sean tí, please provide the details here. Otherwise, please refrain from wasting other people’s valuable time by commenting on topics of which you are completely ignorant.


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