Anglo-Saxon and Irish have more in common than you might think. In both instances, a sizeable proportion of native speakers became ashamed of their own tongue and adopted the language of the conquering invaders: Normans in Britain and English here.
Never mind this talk about tally-sticks and oppression. We abandoned our own language, and the process accelerated after independence. The next time you’re talking to some patriot who dies for Ireland every Saturday night in the pub, and he tells you about the Penal Laws, ask him how much Irish he speaks, apart from Tiocfaidh Ár Lá.
Anglo-Saxon at least continues to live conjoined to its French sibling in the strange pair of Siamese twins we call English, yet it inhabits an oddly contradictory role. Despite Fowler’s stylistic advice to prefer the Saxon to the Romance at all times, we still use the Norman words when we want to sound serious, scientific, clever, educated and civilised. Two TV doctors might discuss the troublesome case of a patient who has difficulty defecating, but you’ll never hear one of them saying He can’t shit.
Why not? It means precisely the same thing, yet one form is acceptable while the other is considered crude and vulgar.
The clue is in the word vulgar, ironically, itself a Latinism.
Vulgar: of the common people.
The underclass, who spoke Anglo-Saxon when the haughty invaders arrived with their court French and their fancy manners, soon realised that their language marked them out as unworthy. It wasn’t long before they began to adopt the speech of the new ascendancy, but yet they didn’t abandon their own tongue. Instead, the two separate strands intertwined while remaining distinct so that English, more than any other language in the world, has evolved the ability to express subtle shades of meaning because it has so many words for the same thing.
Nonetheless, Anglo-Saxon knows its place as the language of the serf and the flat-cap. The echoes of this sense of inferiority have echoed through the centuries and still survive in the way English is spoken today. Anglo-Saxon is not the language of the law, nor of medicine, nor of government, nor public administration. It has its existence on the football field and in the factory. It has exclusive rights to insults. When was the last time anyone advised you to have sexual relations with yourself?
But it still knows its place to this day. What words are allowed on the 9 o’clock news? You can say copulate and sound like an authority, but say fuck and you sound like a guttersnipe.
Why? Because the sense of inferiority attached to Anglo-Saxon never went away.
It was precisely the same outlook that led the Irish to abandon their language and encourage their children to speak English, which they saw as the language of prosperity, influence and power. And that process didn’t stop with independence. If anything, it accelerated, despite the efforts of an education system so abysmal that after thirteen years of full-time instruction, most Irish students emerge unable to hold a fluent conversation in their native tongue.
Our sense of inferiority is still not satisfied, though we’ve shaken off our language in its entirety. We’re now actively trying to stamp out all traces of regional accents in favour of a bland mélange of tortured vowels borrowed from American and British accents and pushed on us by the national broadcaster among others.
Our willingness to apologise for being who we are has no limits.
We saw the same forces at work recently in the way politicians sought to justify the criminal transfer of public money to support those who made foolish investments in Irish banks. One grovelling, forelock-tugging politician after another has explained to us that we must pay this money, even though we didn’t incur the debts. Why? Because if we don’t, certain officials in Europe will be displeased with us.
Our betters, in other words, will be disappointed in us. The Normans won’t like it.
Brian Lenihan, a man who comes from a long line of blustering wafflers, tapped into the Irish penchant for hyperbole in a way that has destroyed our nation, by issuing a blanket guarantee to the tune of €460 Billion — a sum we could never hope to raise if called upon to do so. The cheapest bank bailout in the world, Lenihan assured us with a straight face. Brian Lenihan became his own bullshitter father reincarnate, with the only difference that Lenihan Senior lived in an era when people believed any old nonsense. Indeed, he and Haughey built an entire era of politics on talking utter guff to a gullible public, while simultaneously pocketing the corrupt benefits accruing from it. Brian’s silver spoon has more than a little tarnish on it, and he knows it full well. Despite the confident front, his body language speaks of defeat, of rage at being questioned and of arrogance that the peasants of his little isle would dare to disagree with him. Brian’s arrogance is in direct proportion to his insecurity which he betrayed with one or two little slips, including the time he reminded us that he had spoken to Christine Lagarde In French!!
Astounded at himself, Brian couldn’t resist telling an underwhelmed Irish audience that he had managed to acquire another European language, something all Continental schoolchildren do as a matter of routine before the age of 12. For a brief moment he possibly imagined he was nearly as good as the French finance minister, in a forelock-tugging sort of way.
And in a forelock-tugging sort of way, Brian sold his people into slavery, as he fingered the unblemished European tally-stick that hung about his neck.
Last but certainly not least, we turn to Micheál Martin, the Bobby Ewing of Irish politics. The man who emerged from the shower to discover that his previous fourteen years were all a dream and didn’t happen. He was never a member of the cabinets that destroyed the Irish economy through their greed and incompetence. He had nothing to do with the decisions that ran the health system into the ground. He didn’t give away our energy resources for nothing. He didn’t hand over countless billions to a banking system controlled by criminals.
Not only that, but he’s now a fervent advocate of parliamentary reform, something he just didn’t have time to deal with for the previous fourteen years because he was having a shower.
Micheál Martin has also abandoned a language of sorts, but perhaps his sense of inferiority is better grounded than the rest. After all, the language of Fianna Fáil for the last decade and a half has been the language of bluster, of mystification and of ignorance. From the semi-literate Bertie Ahern’s contemptuous and ill-informed attack on those who defended use of the pencil in elections to his namesake Dermot Ahern’s denial that the IMF were coming, Fianna Fáil have taken us all for fools, and in some cases they were right. All those fools who reelected them last time, after Bertie cried salt tears on the main evening news and spun the nation a pack of lies have much to reflect on.
Whatever else he is, Micheál Martin is not a fool. He must know that his entire political career has been an abject failure and that his party is now a text-book example of corruption, opportunism, cynicism and crony politics.
Therefore, in abandoning the language of his ancestors, he has done no more than any intelligent man might do, and stepped away in shame from the thing it represents. It’s a pity he hasn’t also abandoned denial and magic thinking, but perhaps that’s too much to ask a member of such a mis-shapen, aberrant creature as Fianna Fáil.
Where are we going with this?
I think it’s time we rediscovered our language, but I don’t mean the words or the forms of the ancient Gaelic tongue. I mean the language of self-respect, of courage, of belief in what is right. Concepts that glad-handing political operators like Lenihan, Cowen and their cronies never understood.
The language of telling another man that, much as you sympathise with his loss, it isn’t your responsibility, and you’re not prepared to carry his burden when you have a big enough load of your own.
It’s time to say, quietly and with respect, I’m afraid this debt doesn’t belong to me. It’s a pity you lost all that money, but after all, you took the gamble, not me.
In the immortal Anglo-Saxon urging of Ciarán Fitzgerald, Where’s your fucking pride?
Elsewhere: India’s Linguistic Crisis