Officially ‘bilingual’, I am more of a monolingual speaker of an English that lives with the ghost of another language peering over its shoulder. While Ireland has two official languages and Irish is a compulsory subject in schools, less than 2 percent of the population uses the language daily. An bhfuil cead agam? (Do I have permission?) is a phrase most of the population knows because it is used to ask the teacher’s permission in primary school. For most of us, on a conscious level Irish brings us back to the classroom where it was another subject to learn. However, there are unconscious traces of the language in our everyday speech and perception of the world.
Irish-English is the palimpsest of the most widely spoken language in the world placed over the ancient, pre-Latinate tongue of a small community with little or no capacity for the abstract. English easily accommodates the use of the conceptual: whereas the verb ‘esperar’ in Spanish would be used for the vastly different ideas of ‘to wait, to expect or to hope’. In Irish, the phrase for the same notion would be ‘tá súil agam’ ‘I have an eye’ which would be only way to describe the idea that you were looking towards the future – your eye was physically placed in a different place. It makes for interesting translations and descriptions that Irish-English speakers use daily.
There are studies about the influence of Irish on English spoken in Ireland, about grammar, syntax, and pronunciation, but technical study can not address the sense of hearing or using a language that is ‘ours’ but not really spoken by us. We use certain words in Irish, and it is considered an affectionate gesture to call a person by the Irish version of their name (James becomes Séamus, David becomes Dáithi, etc.) Calling a person with an Irish name by the English version is not the same, however – it creates an officious distance. There are no such words as ‘yes’ and ‘no’ in Irish, which also affects the speech of the Irish native: ‘Are you going? I am. Did you? I did. Was she? She was. It may seem like a simple substitute for the affirmative or negative response to the question, but it also a way of intensifying the meaning.
Sometimes this feeling of a thin membrane that separates the two languages (and the two universes) stretches very thin and becomes almost transparent. There is a feeling of proximity when hearing some words in Irish: you are reminded of your place in the world. Then a vast expanse opens up again as you realise you understand very little, and you are a small child again, asking the teacher for permission.