Saturday, November 04, 2006

The Sound Within by Kate Fennell

The Sound Within
Kate Fennell

I don’t know how old I was when I realised that it wasn’t only people with brown eyes that spoke that other strange language which I didn’t understand. I must have been around 7 because it was at that point that we left Maoinis Island, Conamara and moved to the metropolis of Galway. There I noticed that even the people with grey, blue and green eyes, the same as my friends’ and family’s, spoke this language. The two brown-eyed brothers in Maoinis school, known as the ‘come-day-go-days’ because of their frequent excursions to a faraway country called Thurles, had been the only children I had known until then who spoke and understood fluent English. I was soon to be immersed in this language and my family home was to become an island of Irish. Well, not entirely because my new city school had a rule where we were not allowed to speak English. Yet they had difficulty understanding my Irish.

The language police would circulate in the clós during break-times noting down the names of people who were singing the skipping rhyme “Vote, vote, vote for De Valera” in English. I couldn’t win. I was proud now to be beginning to converse in this new language but already it was a crime. While, at the same time, my Irish was the cause of much mirth since I pronounced guttural ‘ch’ with much more of an ‘ach’ sound than they. While their ‘chs’ were rendered as ‘ks’, mine were softer and more like the ‘ch’ in the Scottish ‘Loch Ness’. Teachers would not hesitate to make me stand up in class and speak to my new classmates in my native tongue so that they could hear this beautiful Irish. I didn’t know what they found beautiful about my rough accent, as I saw it. The language I was learning was a lot cleaner and less wild. All I knew was I never had any difficulty with those ‘agam, agat, aiges’ and spelling tests were easy. What did cause me confusion though was madra, tonnta, ag dul, páistí, ag cur fearthainne, tar anseo! and other phrases and verbs. My equivalents were gadhar, maidhmeanna, ag gabháil, gasúir, ag screachadh (báistí) and gabh i leith! respectively. I started to get the feeling that my Irish was wrong. I should be saying these words that were in the book. Their pronunciation of my language was totally different too. A slight feeling of shame and embarassment began to creep into my psyche. Why do I speak this language so differently from them? No child wants to be different but as soon as I would open my mouth in class the difference would be as plain as day.

Language is sound. It is the first sound that reverberates in the human body. The mouth and the vocal chords are shaped by these words that we utter. It is not grammar, syntax, or old, middle or modern. It doesn’t know borders, religions and it has no sense of time. It is the coming together of the mind, heart, and physical body to communicate with the world around us which since time immemorial has been inhabited my humans. Therefore it is the most common tool that humans use to communicate with one another. Apparently language was not always there. As cavemen we grunted and made noises to suit our intentions. Our way of communication now is the same but more sophisticated. It is still a basic expression of the human being.

Songs seem to carry these expressions most effectively over generations and geographical distances. Each tribe has dirges, each tribe has songs of victory, of pure joy, of love, of longing and so on. Song is a translation of feeling and thought into sound so as to communicate more directly with the heart and soul of others. When this is successful we often get the meaning without understanding the words. The sound suffices to close the gap between language and understanding.

When I was uprooted from Conamara, the world of sounds that I knew vanished almost completely. I started to make new sounds. They were crisper, sharper, harder and varied less in tone than my native tongue. There were a handful of people that I knew who spoke native Irish like me. Each time we would converse I felt that we were excluding others because very often they would be left with blank faces. With English it was the contrary. Everybody understood me when I spoke. It was inclusive. It could be a beautiful language in poetry and prose. But the sound of it never became my sound, I felt. It felt alien to me.

In my life today these are the sounds I have to make to be understood in the main. But they don’t make me feel whole. I feel I am speaking from my head. When I speak Irish I feel I am speaking from my heart. It is not surprising, therefore, that I was drawn to the Slavic languages to find the sounds that I missed. Russian has those ‘shhs’ and ‘chs’ and ‘nyas’ and thick consonants that I was used to mouthing from a young age. It is an old, rich and very poetic language. I fell in love with this language, learnt it, lived in Russia and felt that a hole had been considerably filled. After all, you can live there and everyone speaks it, not just in a pocket somewhere where there is little employment and a dependence on grants, but everywhere and, importantly, they are proud of it. Yet the gnawing feeling of lacking something was to return later and 20 years after leaving Conamara I returned for my fix. I wanted to live in a world where my original sounds were understood not by a select few but by everyone from the postman to the county councillor. I didn’t want to be seen as a freak for speaking this ‘dead language’ as I had often felt while studying and living in Dublin. I wanted to hear the same sounds returned. Now my heart was singing in earnest. I had needed to be reconnected. The fact that it was an emotional experience as much as a linguistic one was not lost on me.

In Ireland Irish is more of an emotional question than a linguistic one. The sound of Irish seems to be lodged in the sub-conscious mind of our people. That might explain why discussions about Irish are more of an emotional nature than about the intricacies of the language itself. If I had a service which gave a listening ear to those who wanted to vent their frustration, disappointment and anger at the way Irish was taught to them in school I would be able to retire now on the profits. If, on the other hand, each payment was withdrawn when someone told me how they loved Irish and how they wished they could speak it or were attending nightclasses or were foreign but had learnt it like a native, well I’m afraid I would then be back where I started. It is such an emotionally-charged subject in Ireland it nearly ceases to be seen as a European language with a culture and a history as unique as Spanish or Portuguese. The fact that Irish is the third written European language after Greek and Latin or that it was Irish monks who first separated words seldom arises as part of a discussion about Irish. It’s the longing to know it or the very hate of it. Rarely is there apathy towards it. Never is there as much emotion expressed in relation to the other languages they failed to learn at school or didn’t enjoy. And even less knowledge about them. The sounds that I made as a child are still ringing in our ears and pounding in our hearts waiting to be released.

This was highlighted for me recently when I was asked to say a Prayer of the Faithful in Irish at a friend’s wedding. The congregation was reading from their pamphlets in English and when I uttered the short prayer in Irish there was some surprise. Nothing could have prepared me for what happened afterwards. If I ever felt what it was like to be a popstar, well I had my moment. The amount of congratulations and gushing praise that I received could have been equal to that of an MTV award winner. There were outbursts such as “Oh it’s so beautiful to hear the Irish spoken; such a beautiful sound! Oh your Irish is beautiful! Oh I wish I could speak it! I’ve forgotten it all. I used to love it at school!” or “My teacher was terrible at school.” and so on. Barely thirty seconds of Irish had eclipsed two hours of English. I wished I could have given them more or waved a wand so that their Irish would come flooding effortlessly back and this barrier from ourselves would be lifted. These are the moments when being an Irish speaker is a warm feeling. Yet it is not always so.

I fear there are many misperceptions about native Irish speakers in Ireland today. Broadly speaking, this seems to arise out of a misunderstanding between those who live in the Gaeltacht and those, to use an Irish-language term, who live in the Galltacht, i.e those who have been brought up in an English-speaking area and speak English in the home. This gap is rapidly being reduced because of the proliferation of gaelscoileanna, the popularity of TG4, our growing confidence and improved economic climate. The end result of this is that the stigma of speaking Irish has lessened but confusion between the camps still remains.

I’ve witnessed many people in the Galltacht expressing the belief that Gaeltacht people have a real sense of pride about their language and would prefer to keep the ‘blow-ins’ out. This may be true of some but the truth is that a feeling of inferiority is rampant among native Irish speakers and has been for centuries. If, as I have previously alluded to, hundreds of years of its existence has penetrated our psyche and and continues to draw us towards it, equally the hundreds of years of persecution and suffering linked with it have left their indelible mark on Irish speakers in the Gaeltacht today. Many instances have made this plain to me.

For example, several years ago, I was a wandering spectator at an outdoor event during an Irish language festival, Pléaraca Chonamara, in the heart of Conamara. A local woman, within earshot of me, was reprimanding her young child. It may be surprising to know that the language she used with her child was English even though she normally spoke Irish. You could tell by her quite broken English that she rarely had reason to speak it. I got the impression that she used English because, I, a stranger whom she mistook for an English-speaking ‘blow-in’, was standing nearby. Instead of feeling proud that her mother tongue and everyday language was Irish she appeared to feel ashamed of it. I approached her and made chit-chat about the weather in Irish. She was taken aback but smiled and answered me in Irish.

English is felt to be the ‘better’ language by many in the Gaeltacht. The teenagers speak English while they are eating their sandwiches outside the local shop at lunchtime in Carraroe. They speak English when they are playing in the yard. On saluting a stranger in Conamara, English is more often than not the language used. There is a shyness about using the language unless we are sure the other person converses in it comfortably. Amongst the younger generation English is considered cool, Irish not. In the past English meant being educated and getting on in life. Understandably, it is hard to shake off those shackles.

Usually, in a circle of Irish speakers, if one person joins who doesn’t speak the language the conversation will turn to English. This, of course, changes the dynamic. It feels strange for me to speak English to my siblings or to close friends whose native language is Irish. But because we are bilingual and communication is the key the minority language gets dropped sooner. It is the lesser of the two in practical life and so has a very fragile existence even on a daily basis. For a language to thrive there has to be a feeling of it to be equal to any other language around it.

The bridge between the Gaeltacht and the Galltacht is a wide one and Irish has often been looked upon as the poor cousin. Certainly when I was on the receiving end of the comment recently at a party “You speak Irish and you’re not a geek?!” I realised the gulf between the two worlds was far too wide for any Bille Teanga or well-meaning Minister for the Gaeltacht to narrow. In brief, Irish comes with baggage. And so there was only one thing for the ugly duckling to do.

I still had my blas when I returned to live in Conamara for a few years which meant that after the preliminary round of questioning to ascertain my stock I was treated like one of their own. I don’t think I would have had the same experience if I had been a non-native speaker from, let’s say, Tipperary. That is natural. A language is not simply the words you say to someone else to convey a message. There is a whole attitude and way of expressing yourself that is unique to that language. Each language has its own nuances from particular words to body language to the type of humour that belongs to that language. Similarly with Irish, our points of reference are different to that in the English-speaking world. We have different heroes, different connections and a different vocabulary. Words themselves and how they are used is something that the ordinary person pays attention to everyday when speaking. They are the tools we use to construct the image of ourselves that we would like reflected for others. As a result, I think it’s true to say that we feel and express ourselves differently when speaking different languages.

Interestingly, when I am in England or in central Europe even though I speak and understand their languages I don’t feel that connection with them that I feel when I travel to countries further East. The Eastern outlook on life sits more comfortably with me than that of the continent or Northern Europe. I always feel that the people further east are more like people from Irish-speaking Conamara. Equally, I feel more at home in Mediterranean countries than in English-speaking ones. I have pondered this and tried to work out why this is so. As we know, the roots of our language are not Germanic or Nordic nor even descended from Latin. If it is true that Irish is a Celtic language, a tribe that is believed to have had origins near Czech and up as far as the Black Sea, then it seems that a language carries with it more than sounds. The language reflects the way the people think, feel and see their place in the world. Generations of shaping the language means generations of people sharing a simliar worldview which their language serves to put across. English cannot express us in the same way because it has been shaped by different peoples who adored different gods. We have undoubtedly shaped the English that was brought here and everyday I hear expressions which are direct translations from the Irish.

Yet, on more than one occasion, I have met people who feel cheated because their native language is English and not Irish. Deep down they feel Irish is their language but they do not speak it. English doesn’t seem to serve its purpose for them when they try to express who they are. It seems our native tongue has a grasp on us that even we cannot comprehend.

Personally, I often wish I only had one native language. It would simplify my internal and external worlds. As it is, I feel I am living in two cultures. If I would like to participate in the world that understands sean-nós, tradition, turns-of-phrase in Irish, lyrical descriptions of the landscape I grew up in, well then I would be living in the Irish-speaking world, which means the Gaeltacht. If on the other hand I would like to be a part of a lively, young, modern, fast-changing city-life then I would be living in an English-speaking world or abroad where Irish is not the everyday sound. To live in either culture involves a decisive geographical choice which leaves me feeling split in two.

I sometimes try to join the two by attending Irish-language events in the city or going to places where the music and traditions are alive but I’m afraid it doesn’t fulfill me. It exaggerates that feeling of being a dinosaur in an oasis. Along with that the Irish that is learnt in the Galltacht, an Caighdeán Oifigiúil differs considerably from my native tongue. It differs in terms of sound and vocabulary. It’s rare that someone has the same richness and fluency if they haven’t had the opportunity to spend time in a Gaeltacht. Sometimes I feel that it impedes real deep communication in Irish because I am aware that our sounds are different and there are grammar mistakes to overlook and so on. I cannot fully relax in the conversation because I am aware I could use an expression that they may not know and then it turns into a language class when all I want to do is converse with my fellow countrymen!

Native Irish also has its own inherent music which is mostly missing from the Caighdeán Oifigiúil. English sounds are much thinner than the Irish so it is often difficult for an English speaker to make them. My great sadness is that the music and the richness of the language is dying with the native speakers and the new language pronounces its ‘chs’ as ‘ks’. Noone is to blame, it is simply the way things are.

I am aware that as I write the above, Irish could be substituted with Konkani or Ruthenian or any of the minority languages in the world which are dying off faster than species of insects if you believe the newspapers and the linguists. It is not unique to Ireland. In fact what is unique these days compared to the ancient past is that most of us are monolingual. The rich tapestry of accents and dialects in Ireland tells of a much more varied linguistic plateau in times gone by. In many countries this is true today. Although we now only have two, the language question in Ireland is still a complex one. I watch the Nuacht sometimes and wonder how it must feel not to be able to understand the reader who is purportedly speaking the first official language of the country. I am sure many English speakers feel let down by the way Irish was taught to them in school. Personally, I feel privileged to know Irish from my birth and for it to have been shaped by the rocks and rough seas of Conamara. It has certainly made my world richer.

It is also strange to be living in a time when the language of my birth is by all appearances dying, a culture dying with it. One may ask, why bother to save this language which is perhaps for many nothing more than a nostalgic vestige of the past? Maybe because Irish is our sound. Passed on from our ancestors, it is ingrained in the crevices of the monastery walls, Viking ports, Norman castles, thatched cottages and even the luxury duplexes. All we have to do is look at our placenames and know that every hillock was baptised by the people who lived and worked the land for hundreds of years. They had an intimate knowledge of and a communion with their surroundings. Just as our ecosystem changes when another species dies so does our conscious world when a language, which is a key to an entire culture, dies. The effect of losing our language is a subtle shift in our harmony with ourselves. It will not make headlines but its survival is necessary for our fundamental feeling of belonging and our understanding of who we really are.
This article was published in the Irish Times, March 2004.
It is extracted from the book 'Who Needs Irish? Reflections on the Importance of the Irish Language Today'
Murchaidh, Ciaran Mac (ed.)Publisher Veritas PublicationsISBN 1853907774
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