Cruiskeen Lawn January 11th, 1941

 

The lexicographer Fr Patrick Dinneen was a regular source of inspiration for Myles. A Kerryman who had resigned from the Jesuit order (while remaining a priest) so that be could devote himself to studying Irish, he published a famous Irish-English dictionary in 1904. His ability to find a multiplicity of meanings for the same word had a particular appeal for Brian O’Nolan, whose genius for compiling absurd lists also appears in the novels - FRANK McNALLY

A LADY lecturing recently on the Irish language drew attention to the fact (I mentioned it myself as long ago as 1925) that, while the average English speaker gets along with a mere 400 words, the Irish-speaking peasant uses 4,000.

Considering what most English speakers can achieve with their tiny fund of noises, it is a nice speculation to what extremity one would be reduced if one were locked up for a day with an Irish-speaking bore and bereft of all means of committing murder or suicide.

My point, however, is this. The 400/4,000 ration is fallacious; 400/400,000 would be more like it. There is scarcely a single word in the Irish (barring, possibly, Sasanach) that is simple and explicit.

Apart from words with endless shades of cognate meaning, there are many with so complete a spectrum of graduated ambiguity that each of them can be made to express two directly contrary meanings, as well as a plethora of intermediate concepts that have no bearing on either.

And all this strictly within the linguistic field. Superimpose on all that the miasma of ironic usage, poetic licence, oxymoron, plamás, Celtic invasion, Irish bullery and Paddy Whackery, and it is a safe bet that you will find yourself very far from home. Here is an example copied from Dinneen and from more authentic sources known only to my little self.

Cur, g. curtha and cuirthe, m. – act of putting, sending, sowing, raining, discussing, burying, vomiting, hammering into the ground, throwing through the air, rejecting, shooting, the setting or clamp in a rick of turf, selling, addressing, the crown of cast-iron buttons which have been made bright by contact with cliff-faces, the stench of congealing badger’s suet, the luminance of glue-lice, a noise made in an empty house by an unauthorised person, a heron’s boil, a leprachaun’s (sic) denture, a sheep-biscuit, the act of inflating hare’s offal with a bicycle pump, a leak in a spirit level, the whinge of a sewage farm windmill, a corncrake’s clapper, the scum on the eye of a senile ram, a dustman’s dumpling, a beetle’s faggot, the act of loading every rift with ore, a dumb man’s curse, a blasket, a “kur”, a fiddler’s occupational disease, a fairy godmother’s father, a hawk’s vertigo, the art of predicting past events, a wooden coat, a custard-mincer, a blue-bottle’s “farm”, a gravy flask, a timber-mine, a toy craw, a porridge-mill, a fair-day donnybrook with nothing barred, a stoat’s stomach-pump, a

broken –

But what is the use? One could go on and on without reaching anywhere in particular.

Your paltry English speaker apprehends sea-going craft through the infantile cognition which merely distinguishes the small from the big.

If it’s small, it’s a boat, and if it’s big it’s a ship. In his great book An tOileánach,however, the uneducated Tomás Ó Criomhthain uses, perhaps, a dozen words to convey the concept of carrying super-marinity – árthrach long, soitheach, bád, naomhóg, bád raice, galbhád, púcán and whatever you are having yourself.

The plight of the English speaker with his wretched box of 400 vocal beads may be imagined when I say that a really good Irish speaker would blurt out the whole 400 in one cosmic grunt. In Donegal there are native speakers who know so many million words that it is a matter of pride with them never to use the same word twice in a life-time. Their life (not to say their language) becomes very complex at the century mark; but there you are.


To celebrate the work of Myles na gCopaleen, The Irish Timeswill print one of his Cruiskeen Lawn columns each day during October