The je ne sais quoi of the Irish

If English was ‘the shadow that fell in the shade of the sword’, French has less baggage

Much is said about the luck of the Irish, in one way or another, but much less about their je ne sais quoi, their indefinable charm-laced way of being themselves, as one English translation of that French phrase would have it. That translation seems – like all the others you might come up with – to entail loss. No wonder, then, that speakers of English tend to avoid translating the phrase altogether.

Speakers of English have always turned to untranslated fragments of French in the search for completeness of self-expression. Think of phrases like double entendre and à la mode. Imagine English without naïveté, ennui and caprice. You might say that, if deprived of such borrowed treasures, the language would lose its very raison d’être.

Such borrowings have rounded out English for centuries. But what about the English spoken in Ireland? What role do untranslated French words play here? To ask that question is to see Ireland as a crucial third partner in the relationship that has long entangled England and France and their languages and cultures.

The attitude of the English towards the French migrant words they commonly use is riven by contradiction. English has borrowed more from French than any other modern foreign language. Yet English culture has never shaken off the suspicion that its mutual entanglement with French culture, whose origins may be traced back to the 11th-century Norman conquest of England, amounts to a humiliating foreign takeover. That suspicion was alive during the Restoration (1660-85), when the French words and phrases listed above first turned English, and it has resurfaced in English political discourse as the UK has decided to leave the EU and go its own sweet self-sufficient way.

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At a time like this, words from abroad recover their power to function as “little cells of resistance” to a resurgent nationalism, as the German philosopher Theodor Adorno once described them. The Irish know all about resisting Sassanach nationalism, of course, as my west Cork in-laws and friends like to remind this blow-in from over the Irish Sea.

Many in Ireland have looked to the French for help in this regard. One famous instance, the rebellion of 1798, lives on in the patriotic song of the poor old woman. “The French are in the bay,” sings the Sean Bhean Bhocht, “and they’ll be here without delay”. “What will the yeomen do?” They will “throw off the red and blue”, and then ‘old Ireland will be free from the centre to the sea, / And hurrah for liberty’.

Of course, the rebellion hardly turned out that way, ending in defeat and the 1801 union with England. The French had offered the Irish too little, too late, and not for the first or indeed the last time. I wonder if, in some kind of cross-linguistic echo, the doubling up, which Frank McNally once wrote about in this paper, of the Irish words for French person (Francach) and rat (francach) has anything to do with a resulting fear of being ratted on by the French.

Be that as it may, however, I observe that the distinctive way the Irish have of turning to French is found, too, in the languages of Ireland. Irish borrowed words and even possibly structures of speech from Old French. That most typically Irish figure of the garsún, for example, is derived – at least in name – from the Old French garçun (in modern French, garçon, ‘boy’). The same borrowing is found in the Hiberno-English garsoon (‘boy’, ‘child’, sometimes ‘servant-boy’, ‘lackey’).

Hiberno-English has long jostled with Irish. In the 16th century, as the literary historian Patricia Palmer says in her book Language and Conquest in Early Modern Ireland, English was “the shadow that fell in the shade of the sword”. The colonising English sought to prevent their emissaries from turning into Irish-speakers and to impose English on the indigenous population. Many Irish people were, as Palmer puts it, pushed towards “venturing into an English to which the sounds and structures of Irish still clung”.

Speakers of Hiberno-English, to this day, view it with the same complex of attitudes that have dominated the wider political and confessional history in which the language partakes. To many in Ireland, however, the words and patterns of the Irish language have offered a homegrown means of resisting Anglocentric dominance and asserting their right to be themselves. Untranslated French words have offered them the same means from the Continent.

A leader of the 1798 Rebellion, Lord Edward Fitzgerald, was inspired by the egalitarian principles of the French Revolution. He was said by one friend to have “turned a complete Frenchman”. Fitzgerald’s Francophilia is reflected in the celebrated Irish writer Maria Edgeworth’s novel about this period, Ennui (1809), the story of a super-rich English gentleman who is cured of his ennui by the astonishing discovery that he is a mere Irish garsoon who needs to start all over again.

Lady Geraldine, one of the Irish women who helps him on his way, is from a distinguished old Anglo-Norman family. To mark her people’s direct historical relationship with France, and keep the English in their place, she playfully mixes French words and witticisms into her speech. Feminist and fiercely patriotic, she openly resists modern Ireland’s voluntary servitude to England, setting her compatriots a challenge: “Let us dare to be ourselves!”

Some UK English speakers might wish to rid their language of French words so as to participate in the Brexit they espouse. Others will keep a linguistic foot in the door – or even keep their European dream alive – by reaching now and again for the mot juste. The people of Ireland, meanwhile, face new challenges and opportunities at the heart of a European Union which has just said au revoir to its largest English-speaking country. Being Irish has long meant speaking more than the one language. In the new configuration, the Irish might do well to put their je-ne-sais-quoi to good use by learning better to converse in the languages of their EU partners, including the one that lent the Irish their je-ne-sais-quoi in the first place.

Richard Scholar is Professor of French at Durham University. His new book, Émigrés: French Words That Turned English, is published by Princeton University Press.