23 August 2006

There is a language, terrifying to us...

Since that remote time when I was a wee lad and learned there were other languages, I have never stopped learning as much as I could about language. Apart from seriously studying a few languages, I like to take tastes of pretty much any language I can get some reference on. There is a joke — "What is a linguist?" "Someone who takes a Swahili grammar home on Friday, and says he knows Swahili on Monday." But you just never know when it's useful to be able to say, "why, yes, West Greenlandic Inuit is ergative."

Apart from these many sampler plates, I have managed to reach what I call a "philological reading ability" — that is, I can read the language fairly reliably with occasional (or more frequent) recourse to no more than a good dictionary — of a number of languages with a somewhat scary reputation. Ancient Greek of course, by far the strongest currently, Classical Chinese, Sanskrit. My Classical Arabic is very poor these days, though I can still use a dictionary reliably, a greater accomplishment than you might think. Once I could read Old Norse somewhat well, and Old English.

But there is one language that has always stopped me dead in my tracks. It is the only language, apart from perhaps Navajo, that gives me anxiety to think about. That language is Old Irish. I have approached it several times, only to be defeated. Every time I pick up Lehmann's book, I become inconsolable before the week is out. Fortston, in his Indo-European Language and Culture gives the best description of the horror (I omit the macrons):

14.45. As these examples hint at, the effects of syncope and apocope in Irish are nowhere as apparent or as devastating as in verbal conjugations, especially those of verbs compounded with one or more preverbs. The effects are particularly widespread partly due to the fact that Old Irish had an especial fondness for piling preverbs together, giving syncope and apocope no shortage of syllablic gallows-fodder. ...

4.46. The amount of allomorphy (that is, variation in the form of a given morpheme) that these changes created was incredible, and it is worth digressing to give some examples. The Irish root fed- 'say' appears in such varied guises as fét, id and d, as in the following forms of the compound verb *at-fed- 'relate': 3rd sing. present ad-fét 'relates', perfective present ad-cuïd (*ad-com-fed), and 2nd pl. conjunct perfective present -éicdid. Sometimes the root is reduced to a single sound, particularly in the conjunct 3rd person singular s-subjunctive. Thus the 3rd sing. conjunct s-subjunctive of the verb as-boind (*as-bond-) 'refuses' is simply -op (pronounced -ob, the regular outcome of *-óss-bod-s-t!); and from *ret- 'run' (present rethid 'runs') we have the compound do-fúarat 'remains over' (*di-fó-uss-ret-), whose conjunct 3rd sing. s-subjunctive is -diúair (*dí-fo-uss-ret-s-t), with only the -r remaining of the original root, subjunctive suffix and personal ending (and very little left of the preceding preverbs).

Some famous historical linguist apparently said that learning Old Irish is like mowing the lawn — you have to do it regularly. (I forget the details of the quote, but that's the gist of it.)

So I know perfectly well what sort of language this is. And yet, last week, when I saw Sengoídelc: Old Irish for Beginners at the local bookstore (do they know I shop there?) I was overcome by language lust, and had to buy the thing, even though I had sworn myself to study no language other than Greek for a year last May. I'm just not going to have time to study OIr. until I retire or win the lottery (which I don't play).

But I'll be happy to have this book around when I finally decide I need to learn it. It's much nicer than the standard presentations available heretofore. It has graded sentences! which are even marked to give you some idea how much they've been modified from a wild original. Normally I'm a big fan of seeing wild version of the language as quickly as possible, but the amount you have to learn before you can reasonably understand OIr is so great that this somewhat gentler start is very welcome. There's still an awful lot to learn, but this book I think organizes that better.

I cannot imagine anyone other than a college student learning Old Irish, but this book is nonetheless somewhat eccentrically filled with cartoon sheep saying improbable things like guithir in tón "the hind side is being warmed" and fech in rríg "behold the king." But these are probably a relief when you're dealing with a language with a regular declension that goes fer, fir, fiur, fer, a fir ("man").

The standard list price of this is a little excessive, and it's not like I really needed it at a discount price either. Perhaps I'll dedicate a single dollar to the Tuatha Dé Danann and see about the lottery.


nick said...

To me, learning Old Irish is one of those things I imagine doing if somehow I end up serving a long prison term.

I'll look for this book, and maybe take a shot at it without the trip upstate. Thanks!

Tom said...

Surely nothing in OI is quite as bad as trying to work out where the stress falls in Russian?