Sally Richardson reviews A Dictionary of Hiberno-English, compiled and edited by Patrick Dolan, Gill And Macmillan, ISBN 0 7171 4039 3, €12.99/£9.99 pbk
THE WAY the Irish speak English - so often the butt of English mockery - constitutes a dialect as legitimate as standard 'British' English. This revised and expanded edition, appearing for the first time in paperback, is a cornucopia documenting and explaining a mass of Hiberno-English expressions and usages.
Drawing on the resources of a recently established Hiberno-English website hosted by University College Dublin, the new edition contains over a thousand new entries.
The author is a professor of Old and Middle English, which helps give him an inside-out understanding of his subject because, as he explains in the introduction, Hiberno-English preserves a good deal of the vocabulary, grammar and pronunciation current in England in the 17th Century.
Did you know that crack meant loud conversation in Middle English? I found many words now obsolete in England but which Shakespeare would have recognised, such as fardel, a word used by Hamlet, meaning parcel or burden.
I also kept coming across words still current in northern English dialects but not accepted as standard English.
A lot of words have been taken straight from Irish. The Irish simply took great chunks of their own language and transplanted them into the language of the occupiers. Dolan explains how many Hiberno-English contructions are translated directly from Irish; in particular, the absense of words in Irish for 'yes', 'know' and 'to have' leads to typically Hibernian ways of framing sentences. The Irish suffix -in (-een) is frequently tagged onto English words to form diminutives.
Dolan's written sources range from the 17th Century to Roddy Doyle and, in addition to this, he has done a great deal of field work collecting current and recent Irish usages. The result is a book most readers will find hard to stop dipping into.
The book is prefaced by a quote from Seamus Heaney, who describes Hiberno-English as "the wrong Grammar which kept us allied and at bay". The language issue in Ireland is a political one; rightly so, since language is power and whose language is accepted or rejected says a great deal about a society and its power structure.
Perhaps the way the Irish use English is itself subversive; it's no accident that that so many of the greatest and most inventive writers in the English language have been Irish. Their irreverant attitude to English allows them to treat it in ways that no English writer could imagine or dare.
They have taken a language imposed on them by a foreign power and have deconstructed it, put it back together and turned it against their oppressors. There's a lesson for colonialism here, perhaps.
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Copyright © 2006 Sally Richardson