Thursday, March 20, 2008



David Stifter lectures at the Institut für Sprachwissenschaft at the University of Vienna although his Sengoidelc: Old Irish for Beginners is written in English and published in the US by Syracuse University Press. It took me a while to figure out what his native language is - the name wasn't much help. Perhaps an American working in Europe or an Austrian who writes even better English than Umberto Eco? The answer came, resoundingly, a few pages in:
The nasalized products of b and d: mb and nd probably were pronounced /mb/ and /nd/ in earliest Old Irish, but changed to pronounciation /m/ resp. /n/ before the Middle Irish period
That resp. is a dead giveaway: an "English" word known only to Germanophones. Having seen that I started finding German constructions all over the place.

The book itself seems to be directed primarily at German-speaking students, and examples from German abound throughout the text. So it struck me as odd for it to be written in English. This obviously makes it more accessible to a wider international audience, but would a similar text-book on Gothic, for example, have been written in English?

Or is there some sort of assumption at play that Old Irish is somehow better learned through the medium of English, as if there were some affinity between the two languages solely by virtue of the fact that they are/were spoken in the same country, albeit hundreds of years apart?

In fact, German has a fine tradition of Old Irish scholarship going back to the acknowledged founder of Celtic philology, Johann Kaspar Zeuß. And the single most important work in the field is unquestionably Rudolf Thurneysen's Handbuch des Alt-Irischen, translated into English as A Grammar of Old Irish, now almost a hundred years old but still indispensable.

I saw copies of it on sale in an academic bookshop in Vienna some time ago, presumably intended for David Stifter's students. Weirdly, though, again only in English. Very likely the German original is no longer available (which just shifts the weirdness one remove).

Whatever about Old Irish, Modern Irish is certainly best approached through English. Indeed, it could be argued that much of the language is inaccessible to anybody not knowing English.

It is not just a matter of the extensive borrowing from English, typically in the form of loan translations. It is that these loan translations do not seem to be integrated into the language as stable elements but remain dynamically linked to the original, borrowed afresh each time they are used.

The situation is worth comparing with that of a bigger language such as German. Concern is sometimes expressed in Germany at the number of English words and expressions being borrowed into German these days. But these loan-words, if accepted, seem to become fully domesticated and to lose their connection with what is going on in English.

I came across an example of this on a Lufthansa flight listening to the English and German versions of the pilot's greeting to passengers. Referring to where he was speaking from, he used the word Cockpit in German, clearly a borrowing from English. In the English version, however, this became flight deck. Presumably because cockpit is now avoided in such contexts for taboo reasons. But German had no reason to change and has stuck with Cockpit.

The bilingual pilot sees nothing awry in using one English term in English and a different one in German - because Cockpit in German is now a German word, not an English one. The reference to its English origin is static/historical only.

Not so in Irish, it often seems. In much spoken and especially written Irish, the relationship to English is dynamic: the language ends up reduced to little more than a code, with as its referent not the real world but the calqued English original. It cannot really be understood without resort to English, into which it first has to be decoded (unconsciously or otherwise). It would thus be impenetrable to a learner not already familiar with English.

Something similar can be found among German-speakers, but only in reverse i.e. it is their English that cannot be understood without a knowledge of German. Things like resp. ...

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