Friday, October 5, 2012

The irish Language

by Sheila Connolly (aka Sile ni Conghaile)

I'm in the midst of copyedits for the first book of my forthcoming County Cork Mysteries, Buried in a Bog, and I'm in a quandary.

The thing is, I'm trying to write about native Irish characters.  I've spent time in Ireland, and I've listened to a wide range of people speaking; I've watched Irish movies (love The Commitments!) and television shows (Ballykissangel in particular), and I like to think that I have a good ear for languages.  But setting them down in print is something else altogether.

Obviously I have choices.  I can write in ordinary American English and let readers fill in the accent on their own.  But that looks wrong on the page.  Dialogue, internal or external, does not follow tidy grammatical rules.  People stop and start, drop syllables or word endings, and interrupt each other.  If they all spoke properly, no one would believe them.

That's true of dialogue in general, but writing slang or dialect creates additional challenges.  You may hear it in your head, plain as day, but set down what you hear and you leave people scratching their heads.  Huh?  If they have to stop and sound out what you've set down in order to understand it, you've dragged them right out of the story, and you don't want to do that.

Worse, how do you the writer distinguish among individuals and social classes by how they speak?  More complications.  Word choice and pacing help, but that doesn't convey the sound of the words.  Put two guys face to face on the street, one in a nice suit, one homeless and panhandling:  are they going to sound the same?  Of course not. But it's even more difficult when you're in the midst of a different culture and you don't know the social indicators.

The Irish have a long tradition of respect for language—theirs is a culture of poets and storytellers who valued oral traditions.  They also have had a long and complicated history with their language. It's the spelling that is a mess. 

Irish was still the majority language through the eighteenth century, but it became a minority language in the twentieth century, thanks in part to the English government, which insisted that only English be taught in schools. To be fair, the problem probably began with the Great Famine in the mid-nineteenth century, when which many native Irish speakers (primarily from poorer areas) either died or left the country. There are ongoing efforts to keep the language alive and encourage its use (I've benefited from Boston-area Irish language classes), and it is taught in most schools in Ireland (which does not mean that students speak it with any fluency).  There is an all-Irish-speaking school in each of Ireland's counties. Irish is a required qualification for applicants to the Garda Sioch├ína, the Irish police force.

In the 1950s, an Official Standard for spelling was introduced, in theory to simplify spelling and make it easier for regions with different dialects to communicate.  There was also a change from the traditional Irish script to modern Latin script.  If you compare some words in the old script to those in the new, it's clear that trying to make the language "modern" only made it more complicated.  Which in turn alters how anything is read on the page.  When, for example, you look at a poem on the page, you see an unlovely jumble of letters, half of which are not pronounced as they appear (why does "mh" sound like "w"? or "bh" like "v"? In the Old Days, the original m or b would have had merely a dot over it, which would indicate a change in pronunciation—simple.)  But listen to the same poem read out loud, and you hear the rhythm and the flow.

Christian Brothers First Irish Grammar, ca 1920
Not that it was ever easy.  Here's a pair of pages from a Christian Brothers First Irish Grammar, dating from (I think) the 1920s—in other words, before the English-imposed changes in spelling.  Note this is the "First."  Not an simple language, is it?  Unless, of course, you grew up speaking it and didn't worry about the formal rules of grammar.

Despite all of the technical hurdles, one of the glories of the Irish language is its musicality, the lyricism of its inflections.  There's a wider range of pitch in any Irish conversation, a different pacing, an altered structure (for example, many conversational sentences will begin with "so,…" and end with "then." "So you've been to Dublin then, have you?" It's a "soft" language that flows off the tongue easily.

But there's danger for the writer trying to capture this in any authentic way: it often looks silly when you write it down.

And then there's pronunciation, and that's where I'm stuck.  An Irish person outside of Dublin would not say, "how are you?"  They'd say, "how are ya?"  But is "ya" the right transliteration?  There's my problem.  Is "how are yeh?" better?  That's what I'm struggling with.

Which writer's use of dialect do you admire?



Kathy Lynn Emerson said...

Try reading a bit of Dorothy Dunnett's first Lymond novel, Game of Kings. Her characters are 16th century Scots and some of them also cap quotes in four or five other languages. Some readers do give up. Others (like me) don't always have the ability to translate but are captivated by the story anyway.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Great example, Kathy. The whole Lymond saga is my favorite example of how an author can "show, not tell" the intelligence, even brilliance, of her characters. On the other hand, I just (accidentally!) read a romance novel set in 16th century Scotland in which the characters started every other sentence with "Wheesht" and "your" was written as "yer" throughout the book, and I hated it. Sheila, just keep it real. I'd rather your characters said "feck it" than "begorrah." ;)

Sheila Webster Boneham said...

Great post, Sheila! I have struggled with the dialect issue as well, and I think we have to strike a balance between enough to give the flavor and not so much that we create caricatures. Look forward to reading Buried in a Bog. I'll be back in Ireland in January and plan to revisit the bog people in the museum - fascinating stuff.

Sheila Connolly said...

I'm late in responding because I was away at Bouchercon. Sheila, I hope to meet again with the Bog Men next month, in between interviewing publicans (for research, of course).

Liz, I'm always amused when publishers have no problem printing "feck" or "fooking" but balk at using the "u" spelling. We all know what they're saying, but change one letter and it's acceptable?

Steven M. Moore said...

Hi Sheila,
First, an explanation about why I hang out here sometimes: I admire smart women! It's as simple as that. In particular, your post reminded me of some of my own struggles.
Sheila Webster Boneham has it right. I call it the Goldilocks Approach (this works for many writing issues). Spanish is a second language here in the States and will become more so with time if Chinese doesn't overtake it. It's no coincidence that my two NYPD homicide detectives are Dao-Ming Chen and Rolando Castilblanco.
I speak Spanish (or, should I say, Colombian?--Spanish has even more dialects and variations than English). It's as easy for me to write a book review in Spanish as English. It's just as easy to add Spanish words and phrases to my books. I have to watch it, though. I do enough to add either local color or complement a character description, but even in that case I provide the meaning ("Mugre que no mata, engorda," the guerrilla said, picking up the ripe fruit, meaning that what doesn't kill you will make you fat--note that in this example, guerrilla is also Spanish, but an accepted word in English).
In Soldiers of God I start many sections with Latin sayings, many ecclesiastical. I don't bother translating those...people can Google them or read the end of the book where I do translate them. Somehow a dead language seems different to me. Maybe that's wrong?
All the best,

Mamun said...

Thanks for your good thoughts! And I look forward to catching up with everyone!