Tricks of language
An Irishman’s Diary: Watch your Ts and Ds
‘One day in a cafe I saw some Italian customers wince visibly when a departing Englishman at the door of the cafe called back to an Italian friend “Domani mattina!” (Tomorrow morning!), using those English D and T sounds.’ Photograph: Getty Images
Irish people who go to the Continent, and who wish to communicate in one or other of its languages, are well advised to take Irish with them. This is because the sounds of Irish, especially the consonantal ones, accord much better than the sounds of English with those used in Continental languages. Indeed, this oddness of many English sounds begins in Ireland for Irish-speakers. Think how we Gaeilgeoirí shudder quietly when someone, using the English T and D sounds, says “Tá sé dána”.
When I was living in Italy, one day in a cafe I saw some Italian customers wince visibly when a departing Englishman at the door of the cafe called back to an Italian friend “ Domani mattina !” (Tomorrow morning!), using those English D and T sounds. They are of absolutely no use when speaking, not just Italian, but any Continental language. However, if you use the Irish D and T you pass almost like a native.
The English R is also a no-go for all languages, but especially for French which has a guttural R that is very difficult for non-French-speakers. I struggled with it for years until a visit to the Gaoth Dobhair Gaeltacht in Donegal gave me a remarkable solution.
In Gaoth Dobhair they have a way of pronouncing CH in some words as a sort of R. Rather than saying beannacht, for example, in the normal way, they say beannort.
Pondering this phenomenon, it struck me that there must be some mechanical similarity in the production of the CH sound and R sound enabling the Gaoth Dobhair people to slip naturally from the former to the latter.
So I tried this out in the opposite direction with the French word partir , to leave or depart. Instead of struggling to get that first R right, I decided to say instead, deliberately, the Irish CH-like this, pach-tir – and behold, it worked, and I was amazed by how French I sounded. You can try it for yourself and use it to placate those French who are so hypercritical about foreigners speaking their language.
Forewarned is fore-armed. Irishwomen who take their knowledge of Irish with them to a certain pub in Douglas, Isle of Man, can get a shock if they have occasion to visit the ladies’ toilet. The pub is frequented by speakers of Manx. It is a Gaelic language but the words are often slightly different in form or meaning from their Irish counterparts and its spelling of them – invented by a Welsh Methodist missionary in the 18th century – is utterly different.
All the signs in said pub are in Manx. The signs on the two toilet doors read deiney and mraane , suggesting to an Irish-speaker “people” and “women”. But the offence is illusory; it is simply that in Manx the Irish words “duine, daoine” have changed their meanings to “man, men”.
Irish people abroad, when talking among themselves, often use their knowledge of Irish, great or little, as a sort of “secret language” in the presence of foreigners, believing that they will not be understood. This belief is usually well-founded – but not always. Years ago when I was working for Gaeltarra Éireann, which sold tweeds and other products made in the Gaeltacht, I was asked, because I spoke German, to accompany the general manager on a sales visit to Germany.
On the evening after our first meeting with a prospective customer, we were sitting at our hotel bar in Frankfurt discussing in Irish the tentative deal and what we would say to the new customer on the morrow. At an advanced stage of our conversation, a young man sitting beside me with his drink, asked me in Irish did we often come to Germany.
It turned out he was a Connemara man serving in the American forces stationed in Germany, not a spy in the employ of the German businessman, and we chatted with him for an hour. But it does show that Irish travellers wanting to use Irish as a secret language would do well to first of all address a few words in Irish to the foreigners nearby and be sure that they show no comprehension.