In a word. . . Patsy McGarry

Shakespeare’s Henry IV agus cúpla focail as Gaeilge

In his address last month to the Royal Shakespeare company at Stratford on Avon, President Michael D Higgins spoke of differences between Irish and English and used one word to illustrate the point.

He said that "English English, if I might permit myself the term, has a positive love of all that is definite, short and exact. It possesses, for instance, the shortest, most explosive and emphatic of negatives in the word no. There is no single word in Irish for no. To convey a negative in Irish it is necessary to go a little further."

He continued, "If I frame the question, in English, 'was the audience composed of intelligent, good-looking people?' the answer in English might be no – not, of course, in this present instance. If I were to ask in Irish, 'an raibh an lucht éisteachta ciallmhar dathúil?' the curmudgeonly answer might well be 'ní raibh siad', which you might translate as 'they were not' or 'they were neither' , perhaps with an implied 'alas'.

“Again, I hope you will not think I am referring to present company, since it is evident that you are all intelligent and, if you will permit me, also good-looking.

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“ I offer this minor example of difference in order to point to something that should excite us to celebrate difference.

“Shakespeare’s English was a construct that had by his time melded into itself Anglo-Saxon, Old High German, Norse, Italian, Norman, French, Latin and Greek. By the Elizabethan age, that language had arrived, more or less, at its full powers of expression,” he said.

The word no originated with the early 13th century Old English word "na", meaning "no, never, not at all". This in turn was derived from the Old Norse, Old Frisian, Old High German "ne".

Equally as interesting in the President’s speech at Stratford, home of Shakespeare, last month was his startling revelation from one of the Henry plays.

He recalled how "in Henry IV, Act i., Scene 4, Pistol responds to a greeting in French with what to the groundlings, and no doubt their betters, would have sounded like gibberish. He employs the phrase 'Caleno o custure me'.

“This apparent nonsense phrase is a phonetic rendition of the Irish, ‘Cailín ó cois Siúire mé’, ‘I am a girl from the banks of the Suir.’

"The tune to this Irish folksong appears in the The Virginal of Queen Elizabeth the First, most likely conveyed to her by Edmund Spenser Alfred Perceval Graves, son of the Bishop."

Well, I never!

inaword@irishtimes.com