No, it’s not a typo (assuming the gods of cyberfonts are cooperating today). It’s the opening word of the epic poem Beowulf, written before the year 1000, in what we now call Old English. What does it mean? It’s one of those very useful words that means, “well, so, ahem: listen to me! I am about to say something! I’m starting now, so pay attention!”
Handy, right? Actually, my daughter introduced me to the word—that’s the daughter who’s about to graduate from an expensive college with a shiny new degree in…comparative literature. And no job.
But along the way she did acquire the ability to speak some Old English. She already spoke French, and added German in college.
She’s following in my footsteps. My mother used to tell me that when I was very young, I had a Swiss nanny who spoke to me in French (I don’t remember her at all). As a result, when I first learned to talk, I was bilingual—I could switch back and forth, speaking English to my mother and French to my nanny.
French obviously came easily to me when I studied it in school. But then, so did Spanish, Latin and German. I like languages; I like words. It shouldn’t be a surprise that I ended up a writer.
And now I’m trying to learn Irish. Irish is an extremely difficult language. Irish doesn’t relate to any other language. And the Irish have a frustrating habit of changing the spelling and pronunciation of words depending on how they are used, and that usually means adding a lot of letters, to the many, many letters that are already there. Lots and lots of vowels—except that you don’t pronounce most of them. They’re just…there.
So why am I torturing myself? For one thing, William Shatner said I should. No, he didn’t talk to me directly, but on Boston Legal his character said that learning a language would help to stave off senility by exercising the brain. Good idea.
But more important was the fact that my father’s parents were both Irish-born, although they met in New York after emigrating. I never knew them. My (Yankee) mother met them once or twice, hated them on sight, and made sure my sister and I never had any contact with them.
So I started taking Irish classes as a way to get to know them, albeit a bit late. Maybe it sounds silly to hope that understanding how a culture constructs and uses its language can tell you something about its people, but I thought it was worth a try. After all, Ireland has produced some renowned writers, poets and playwrights. And the ordinary people of Ireland have a long tradition of story-telling—in the days before television and radio, sitting around the smoky peat fire spinning tales was an established form of entertainment. Maybe it’s something in the water there, but maybe it’s also something in the sound of the words.
I wish I could tell you that I can now carry on a meaningful conversation in Irish about the subtleties and nuances of literature. Sorry, I can’t. So far, after three years, I can say, hello, how are you? I am fine. Nice weather. I want meat and potatoes, please. And a pint. When somebody aims an Irish sentence at me, I freeze like a deer in the headlights, my mind blank, my tongue numb.
And yet…sometimes the power of the language comes through, when you hear it spoken by someone born in Ireland. Like the music, much of Irish writing is sad. Maybe all that rain is depressing—that and a few centuries of poverty and English oppression and watching all your relatives sail away for a better life somewhere else while you’re stuck with a muddy farm too small to support anyone. Still, sometimes you catch flashes of the verbal brilliance that has kept Irish writing alive--the easy flow of sounds, the crafting of images that capture a time and place that we have all somehow incorporated into our own sense of nostalgia.
Tá mé scríbhneoir. I am a writer. And maybe some small part of that is due to my Irish grandparents. Go raibh maith agat.