LANGUAGE IS …..

Language is a Treasure Chest V

Diarmuid Breatnach

(Reading time main text: 8 mins.)

Language is many things and only part-things too and languageS are only part of languaGE. All humans have it to some extent and some animals also. It communicates but it is not in itself communication. That might sound weird until you realise that when you say Ouch! or Oh! you have usually communicated pain or surprise to anyone within hearing but without any intention of doing so. So language must be intentional communication and that means it can be used to communicate information we believe to be true — but also that which we do not. I think it was Umberto Eco who commented to the effect that if you can’t lie in it, it is not language.

Of course, we do other things with it apart from just communicating our sense or reality or being deliberately false – we can add overtones of emotion, playfulness, disdain, love, respect, hate and many other things besides. If we could not, poetry, acting and novels would not exist in our cultures.

NON-VERBAL

It is strange to think that language is only the minor partner in a human communication system. We are told non-verbal communication is 73-91% of our communication1 and that that words are only part of even the verbal – which contains – apart from non-verbal sounds — also articulation, volume, tone, pitch, speed, rhythm and the pauses in between words or phrases. If we understood only words themselves we would stumble through interactions with other humans as through a mist. There are people who suffer something approaching that condition, in fact.

Despite its comparatively minor role in communication, we relate language to the spoken and intentional communication by the very name we give it: language, from langue, French for “tongue” and indeed in slightly archaic English, we use the word “tongue” also, as in “speaking in tongues” or “in a foreign tongue” for example. Not just in English – for example in Castillian (“Spanish”), lengua and Irish, teanga.

But there are other words too, even in those languages, for example idioma in Castillian and béarla in Irish. Wait a minute, doesn’t béarla mean the “English language”? With a capital letter it does, as we use it now but originally it was Sacs-bhéarla, i.e Saxon language2. I would hazard a guess (but avoiding doing the research) that the word “béarla” is related to béal, i.e “mouth”3. So, still something spoken and the German has that too, with its word for language: sprache (from “speaking”).

Not all languages are spoken and there are systems of codes and also sign languages, of which there are an estimated 300 in use around the world4, divided into deaf sign languages, auxiliary sign languages and signed modes of spoken languages.5 We all use auxiliary sign language, for example in traffic signaling to turn left or right, in pointing “over there”, in indicating “come” and “go” and to insult (various in different cultures) along with “maybe” or “sort of” (hand outstretched palm down, level, then wobbled a little one side to the other). We use a surprising number of those if we stop to count them and those are only hand-signals, without taking into account soundless movements of head, lips, eyes, eyelids, eyebrows, shoulders ….

One of a number of alphabet sign languages, this one two-handed. (Image accessed: Internet)

Some work-trades or specific operations have their own signal-systems too and, for example, in sub-aqua in Europe at least, the “thumbs up” doesn’t mean what it does on land but rather the need to swim to the surface.

My brother Oisín expressed the interesting speculation that the Irish pre-Roman letters system of Ogham could have been used as a sign language also, using the position of fingers across the face. As the European invasion into parts of America pushed tribes out of their traditional areas, many met on the Great Plains and, lacking a common spoken language, developed a common sign language. Early European traders, hunters and explorers learned parts of that sign language too.

Many animals use sign communication and some of it, in animals of higher intelligence, is intentional,6 which means it is language. However we run into problems with that qualification in some cases: bees are not animals of higher intelligence and yet a worker bee acts out a “dance” to indicate to the hive where much nectar and pollen may be found, direction and distance included and clearly the communication of information is intended. However, one supposes that while the bee could not lie, those animals of higher intelligence have the ability to do so, for example pretending nothing is wrong (when it is) or that they have not just transgressed some prohibition (when they have) or that they do not intend to do so (when they do).7

A cleaner wrasse enters the mouth of a cod to remove its parasites; the cold holds its mouth open until the cleaner finishes. But the cod also comes to the ‘cleaner station’ and indicates its wish to be cleaned by remaining stationery and wobbling slightly from side to side. (Photo accessed: Internet)

There are, as we are all aware, many different spoken languages in the world but we may still be surprised by just how many: 6,500 according to one on-line source and 6,700 to another8. One state or country alone may be host to many; ask for a phrase translated to Nigerian language and you may be asked to specify which of over 500 languages you mean.9

And then there are dialects, distinct forms of the same language. People learning Irish sometimes complain that Irish has four (or five, by some calculations) main dialects: different words for the same things, distinct pronunciations of the same words ….. They rarely reflect on the different dialects in the language to which they are accustomed: for example, English may have the most dialects in the world, across English-speaking countries and even in Britain (anyone who doubts this should listen to typical examples of Newcastle, Glaswegian and South London speech). The English imposed a southern dialect as their standard but although a standard has been created in Irish too (an chaighdeán) it has official versions in the main dialects, in addition to non-standard Irish forms being recognised as valid in writing. This may make learning Irish seem more difficult to a learner but, apart from the respect this shows to different regional cultures, one might ask how well learning standard English equips one to exchange communication effectively at certain societal levels in many of the English-speaking cultures of the world.

Map of language groups in Nigeria (Photo accessed: Internet)

ONE WORLD LANGUAGE?

The Christian Old Testament (also containing a number of Hebraic texts) gives us the fable of how those who in their arrogance tried to build a tower to reach God were inflicted with so many languages that they could no longer understand one another, thereby causing the failure of the project. The fable is usually called the Tower of Babel (the words “babble” and “babbling” are supposedly not derived from it but I wonder). The fable seems a harsh judgement on the value of different languages in the world but even some atheists have expressed a wish to have only one language so that we could all instantly understand one another – and some socialists are not free of this notion and consequently disdain national cultures and languages.

As different cultures met one another across the world some types of languages in common have evolved, generally categorised as either pidgins or creoles. Both kinds are composites of two or more languages but a pidgin remains a second language while a creole becomes a mother tongue10. “Pidgins have been particularly associated with areas settled by European traders; examples have been Chinook Jargon, a lingua franca based on an American Indian language and English that was formerly used in Washington and Oregon, and Beach-la-mar, an English-based pidgin of parts of the South Seas. Some pidgins have come to be extensively used, such as Tok Pisin in Papua, New Guinea and the pidgins of the West African coast11.”

Traffic sign in Tok Pisin, one of the world’s pidgin languages (Photo accessed: Internet)

We know also of the past existence of a north-sea maritime pidgin that included words in Euskera (Basque) and Nordic and no doubt others have existed, probably at different times Phoenician or Greek or Chinese-based. Certainly there was a Norse-English-Irish one in existence which became a creole. Perhaps for a short while there was an Irish-Norman one too, before most of the settled Norman conquerors became Irish-speaking12. The Jewish community languages of Yiddish and Ladino probably started off as pidgins but became creoles, based in the first case on German and the second on archaic Spanish.13

Kouri-vini is a French-based creole spoken by less than 10,000 people mostly in the USA state of Louisiana.14 Patois, Patwah or Patwa) is a Jamaican Creole spoken in Jamaica and among parts of its diaspora15. “Notable among creoles is Haitan Creole, which grew primarily from the interactions between French colonists and enslaved Africans on Haiti’s plantations.”16 The Irish Traveller language, Shelta, Cant or De Gammon is also a creole, containing words from Irish, Latin and Romany as well as English.

ONE WORLD LANGUAGE?

To have a world language in addition to others would be no bad thing of course and there have been some attempts at that but never one that succeeded in encompassing the whole world; English has probably come closest, so far. That language had the earlier backing of the largest colonial empire the world has ever seen, the British but now primarily has the backing of the world’s strongest super-power, the United States of America17. In the past, English competed for world cultural dominance with French and both were agreed as official languages for shipping and air transport based sorely on the colonial power of both states rather than the number of speakers, in which case Chinese and Spanish would have been chosen. In earlier times, German was spoken over most of central Europe from Poland to Germany and in the Tyrol. Still further back in the past, Latin, because of the power of Rome and Greek, partly through its earlier colonisation but also through its science and culture, were widely spoken across large parts of the world. Still, even in the Roman Empire, many spoke only a few words of Latin, even in Rome itself at the height of its dominance, where Greek and Hebrew might be more common.

States where English is the official language (Image accessed: Internet)

Before its conquest by Roman legions and the destruction of its culture, a Celtic language or group of languages known as “Gaulish” was spoken from what is today the Italian side of the Alps to what is now northern France and possibly variants of it also in Iberia. Today, Gaulish is gone and of the Celtic languages, only Irish, Scots Gaelic, Manx (the Q-Celtic group) and Welsh, Breton and Cornish (the P-Celtic group) remain. Latin is no longer a spoken language.

Esperanto was conceived of as a world language, though largely euro-centric in origin and for a time was popular as a project with many socialists18. It is still in use but estimates give us a figure of only 100,000 speakers at present19. However that number may grow, through the Internet for example and as a project to internationalise ease of communication while at the same time resisting the current linguistic dominance of the US empire.

Even within one state, the need for a common language may struggle with the claims of different languages or even varieties of the same language. For example many different languages and varieties of language were spoken across what is now Italy and the unification of all that variety into a one-State Italy was assisted by the imposition of standard Italian20.

Huge states with many languages on the African and South Asian continents have adopted the languages of their colonisers as languages of state, which is why so many people from those parts of the world can speak English in addition to their native tongues (or French, especially in parts of Africa).

The adoption of a common language for use across different cultures and languages has its advantages but also its dangers, in particular for those languages that find themselves at a power disadvantage. Those languages may suffer a lowering of respect among speakers of the dominant language and, in time, even among their own native speakers. They can struggle with reduced resources in education, publishing or physical resources in their heartlands. They can even by forbidden and their speakers punished.

REPRESSION OF LANGUAGES

In fairly recent times child-speakers of Welsh and Irish were punished in school for speaking their maternal tongues, one example being the count of physical blows to be inflicted by a teacher for the number of words spoken in the forbidden language. That was an expression of the cultural domination of British colonialism through the English language21 in the respective conquered nations and it has a history dating back at least to the 14th Century in Ireland when a number of attempts were made to prevent its settlers from speaking Irish.22

Euskera (Basque), Asturian, Gallician and Catalan were all banned or restricted at different times in the Spanish kingdom and most definitely banned under three decades of the Franco dictatorship. Breton, Catalan, Corsican and Euskera are not forbidden in France but they do suffer from under-resourcing in education and infrastructure.

Irish suffers similarly in the British colony of the Six Counties and also in the Irish state despite being officially the latter’s first language.

Kurdish was forbidden in any official domain in Turkey and its speakers still suffer discrimination. Esperanto was banned by the Nazis and the Franco regime and though never officially banned in the Soviet Union, Esperantists did suffer severe persecution there for a period under Stalin23. Native Peoples’ languages were banned in the state (and many Christian) schools in the USA and in Canada.

As a result of past repression, cultural domination, starving of resources and other factors, 40% of languages in the world are in danger of extinction24, according to UNESCO, a great number of those being of colonised peoples.

LANGUAGE IS MUCH MORE THAN COMMUNICATION

Earlier on, we noted that as well as variations of tongue and speaking, there is another word for language which we find in Castillian (Spanish) as idioma. There is a reflection of that word in English too, in idiom25, which a dictionary explains as

  1. a group of words established by usage as having a meaning not deducible from those of the individual words (e.g. over the moon, see the light).
  2. a characteristic mode of expression in music or art. (e.g. “they were both working in a neo-impressionist idiom”)

Digging deeper into the origins of the word, through etymology, we find: late 16th century: from French idiome, or via late Latin from Greek idiōma ‘private property, peculiar phraseology’, from idiousthai ‘make one’s own’, from idios ‘own, private’.

Clearly it cannot be private, by very definition of language, but language is ‘owned’, it does ‘belong’. It belongs to the culture from which it comes. It can be shared, of course but some at least of it always remains an expression of the culture that gave birth to it, that moulded it over centuries. And even of its adoption of other words, expressions or concepts in the course of its development.

The language of a culture expresses its way of seeing, its understanding of aspects of the world around it and how it sees itself. That also finds its expression in song, poetry, instrumental music, yes and even visual art.

When a language is lost, so is all that. And so too is the future of that language and its mother culture. It may be replaced of course. And the dead language may carry much of its furniture, baggage and knick-knacks into its replacement home26. But not all – much is lost and lost forever. Especially that language’s future – where it might have gone, could have become.

Bilingualism is good and multilingualism better but the better bilingual or multilinguist is aware, as is a good translator, of the many different ways of speaking and seeing and also the less than satisfactory experience of translating some expressions from one language into another. In the latter case, we search for approximations.

According to UNESCO, 40% of languages in the world are in danger of extinction27. According to the same organisation, Irish is one of 12 languages in the EU area that are in danger28. The loss of such a language would be a pity anywhere but perhaps particularly damaging for a small nation struggling to develop to serve the people it encompasses. Irish predates English by centuries and has a wide body of literature and artistic expression form and was the earliest expression in Europe of literature in the vernacular, i.e in the language of the common people. The harp is our oldest recorded musical instrument and also our national state symbol …. but its playing was often accompanied by spoken, chanted or sung words. In Irish. Most our place-names even in their English forms retain their Irish origin, including 29 of our 32 Counties.

Languages of Europe and their respective groups (note that Basque is an “isolate”, i.e not recognised as belonging to any other group; note also the current position of two languages of formerly great European reach: Greek is much reduced and Latin non-existent). Kurdish, of the Iranian family, does not appear appear because its area is out of view on the Turkish part of the map. (Image accessed: Internet)

A world containing one, two or three languages only may seem useful but it would kill so much history, so much variety in the world around us. Ultimately perhaps, even with globalisation and internet, speciation of language might take place, as areas developed dialects that might possibly develop into new languages. We don’t know that would happen, however and it makes sense to hang on the variety in the world at the moment. To spend some time, effort and yes, even physical resources to protect languages that are in danger. To speak more than one language ourselves and to protect our own if it is threatened. The strategies to carry out that protection are subjects for another day’s discussion. But first we have to understand the value of doing so or at the very least, some idea of what its loss will cost us.

We might begin by learning some Irish and speaking what we know of it – in Ireland, most everywhere. Beatha teanga í a labhairt29.

End.

FOOTNOTES

https://www.independent.ie/irish-news/irish-languagedefinitely-endangered-as-linguists-predict-it-will-vanish-in-the-next-century-40427361.html

1https://www.lifesize.com/en/blog/speaking-without-words/

2In all the surviving Celtic languages, the English are still referred to as “Saxons” (e.g in Irish Sacsannach/ aigh, which became Sasanach/ aigh), which testifies to an enduring memory (and not a good one) of the people who overran the Celts in much of Britain many centuries ago.

3and that word can be found in many place-names around Ireland, usually denoting a river-mouth and corrupted in English to “bel”, as in Belmullet in Mayo and Belfast.

4https://www.signsolutions.uk.com/what-are-the-different-types-of-sign-language/

5https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_sign_languages

6Most of it, however (like our own), is unintentional: the startled cry and flight, the erection of ears to hear better or to focus, the turning of the head to look in the direction of movement, sound or scent, etc. All of those actions communicate information to neighbouring animals (even of different species) but they are not intentional.

7Most will have seen this behaviour perhaps in dogs, cats or pigs.

8https://blog.busuu.com/most-spoken-languages-in-the-world/ and https://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/Indigenouslanguages.aspx

9https://translatorswithoutborders.org/language-data-nigeria#:~:text=Nigeria

10https://www.oxfordhandbooks.com/view/10.1093/oxfordhb/9780195384253.001.0001/oxfordhb-9780195384253-e-26

11https://www.britannica.com/topic/language/Pidgins-and-creoles

12The Yola of Wexford was more an ancient English sprinkled with Irish words.

13Of course, Hebrew is a Jewish language and many of its words are to be found in both Ladino and Yiddish but for centuries there were many more speakers of those creoles than there were of Hebrew.

14https://www.britannica.com/topic/language/Pidgins-and-creoles

15I heard it often enough in my decades in London.

16https://www.britannica.com/topic/language/Pidgins-and-creoles (and perhaps its survival is partly due to the fact that 1) the African slaves were from different language groups and 2) that Haiti was the first slave colony to achieve liberation in a successful uprising (1791-1804))

17Yet even there Hispanic has made great penetration from some US states, from Latin America and from the Caribbean.

18I use the word here to include reformist social democrats and revolutionary communists and anarchists.

19https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Esperanto

20All of current Italy was not united into one state until 1861 https://history.state.gov/countries/issues/italian-unification

21The irony here is that English is historically a fairly new language, a fusion of in the main of Anglo-Saxon with French, in which the latter is the origin of around 60% of its words.

22The Statutes of Kilkenny in 1366 castigated the Anglo-Normans who had conquered parts of Ireland and settled in them as “the degenerate English” who had “become more Irish than the Irish themselves” through their adoption of Irish customs and culture. The Statutes forbade the now Irish-Normans from adopting those cultures and from speaking Irish (without success except in the heart of the colonial administration in Dublin).

23https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Esperanto

24https://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/Indigenouslanguages.aspx

25In fact, reading a discussion on this word alone can teach us so much about language, expressions we use without thinking and how language works.

26Generations that have not spoken Irish still retain not only some words from the language but even forms of construction and of pronunciation. Take for example the reply to “Will you go?” as “I will” or “I won’t”, because in Irish there are no words for “yes” or “no”. Or to say “I have a thirst on me” instead of “I am thirsty” (very close in fact to the “I have thirst” Romance languages – e.g tengo sed or j’ai soif). Hear also the pronunciation of a hidden vowel between L and M (or R and N) in pronouncing the Irish name Colm and words like “film” (fil-um).

27https://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/Indigenouslanguages.aspx

28https://www.independent.ie/irish-news/irish-languagedefinitely-endangered-as-linguists-predict-it-will-vanish-in-the-next-century-40427361.html

29“The life of a language is to speak her” (“One keeps a language alive by speaking it” would be an approximate but single-layered translation).

SOURCE & FURTHER READING

Sign languages: https://www.signsolutions.uk.com/what-are-the-different-types-of-sign-language/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_sign_languages

Place names in Ireland: https://www.libraryireland.com/IrishPlaceNames/Bel-Root-Word.php

https://blog.busuu.com/most-spoken-languages-in-the-world/

Pidgins and Creoles: https://www.oxfordhandbooks.com/view/10.1093/oxfordhb/9780195384253.001.0001/oxfordhb-9780195384253-e-26

https://www.britannica.com/topic/language/Pidgins-and-creoles

Esperanto: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Esperanto

Endangered languages: https://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/Indigenouslanguages.aspx

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Idiom

LONG LIVE THE VANDALS!

Gearóid Ó Loingsigh

(Reading time: 2 mins.)

In the midst the protests in Colombia the press can be heard denouncing the vandals and various politicians from the left and right have echoed these criticisms in one way or another.  The headlines speak of the destruction of private property and in some cases they try to mark a distinction between what they say is legitimate protest and vandalism.

The word “vandal”, means someone who commits acts pertaining to savage and destructive people and is who destroys a public asset or installation.  Other definitions speak of destroying or damaging what is beautiful.  It should be said that the Transmilenio mass transport system stations are not one bit beautiful.  But should the youths be ashamed or proud of being called vandals?

Resisters in Colombian city of Madrid shelter behind makeshift shields as they are bombarded with water canon in May 2021 (Photo crdt. Juan Pablo Pino, AFP/Getty)

We should look at the origin of the word.  The first vandals were Germanic tribes that in 455 A.D. attacked and sacked Rome carrying away great riches and also destroying buildings, amongst them the Temple of Jupiter, though there is some dispute about the severity of the destruction of the city.  However, they went down in history as the vandals who destroyed that city.  The more modern use of the person who destroys public assets or private property or damages what is beautiful dates from the middle ages and its use is widespread nowadays.

Of course when Vicky Dávila and other right wing journalists speak of vandals they are not talking about Germanic tribes, or at least that is what we believe, though with Vicky even drug traffickers, paramilitaries and corrupt politicians are decent folk, so one is never sure about the meaning of the words that fall from her lips like the Police stun grenades.

“The Police rape and murder” (Photo: G.O.L)

But words and their meanings are not set in stone.  Some words enter a language and in short time fall into disuse, others last for centuries and some come back to life when least we expect like when Kim Jong-un’s translator used the word “Dotard” to describe Trump.  That word hadn’t seen the light of day since the US Civil War in the 19th Century.  Other words simply change their meaning, sometimes slowly and on other occasions they do so more abruptly.

The press has used this word so often to describe and disparage the social protests that we may be witnesses to another change in meaning.  The bourgeois press has emptied the word of any meaning and now in the marches people can be seen with placards that say Vandal’s Honour and in social media there are memes doing the rounds on the subject.  One of them says “The country turned upside down and this one says, what are you and I?  Well, vandals my love.”  They used the word so often to describe any act of rebellion, nonconformity or to and try and shut down and discredit the demonstrators that it has lost its power, its meaning.  Now it is a badge of honour for many.  Vandal no longer means a savage destructive person but rather a person who fights to be heard, for justice.  A vandal is whoever fights against Duque, neoliberalism and poverty.

The word is changing its connotation and once again it is closer to its original meaning, a tribe that defied an Empire, although in this case the Colombian emperor seems more like the Emperor Nero (54-68 A.D.) who played on his Lyre whilst Rome burned than the poor Petronius Maximus who only lasted a few weeks in power.  Duque doesn’t play the Lyre but rather the Guitar, but there he is and Nero’s regime was one of extravagance, waste and tyranny and Nero in the middle of it all playing on his Lyre.

The sacking of Rome in 455 A.D. was the third sacking that the city suffered.  There were a further five sackings after the Vandals.  It should be remembered that the Vandals sacked the capital of a decadent Empire that deserved to be extinguished.

Burnt out bank from 2006 (G.O.L)

So as the meme puts it, ask the question, what are you and I?  And answer:

We are Vandals my love, we damage the hated system of mass transport built with public funds legally stolen to set up a private transport business which to top it all takes 94% of the profits of a business and barely contributes a penny to its own maintenance.

We are Vandals my love, we destroy banks that receive more subsidies from the state than the poor who are denied loans by these banks, which don’t hesitate for a single moment to confiscate the houses of the poor.

We are Vandals my love, who in the face of the lives and censorship of the bourgeois press make our smothered voices reverberate on the walls of the city.  Who needs Twitter when you even the poorest can see the walls?

We are Vandals my love, who in the face of the attacks by the Police throw rocks at them that are found all about the place in the poorly built public infrastructural projects, in a country where the thieves don’t know how to build a pavement and where half the bricks are badly placed.

We are Vandals my love, we fight against a decadent government and system.

We are Vandals my love, and our favourite letter is V:

V for Vengeance on the rich that kill us, rob us and lie to us.

V for Victory against the neoliberal regime.

V for Vandals my love.

Long Live The Vandals!

End.

LANGUAGE IS A TREASURE CHEST 3: THE POWER OF THE WISH AND THE CURSE

Diarmuid Breatnach

(Reading time: 4 mins.)

Apparently the Subjunctive Mood is disappearing from modern languages, including the Indo-European groups of Celtic, Germanic, Nordic, Romance and Slavonic. The Subjunctive is the grammatical mood by which we expressed wishes and desires, with an underlying feeling that their realisation was uncertain. But why is the Subjunctive disappearing? I think that its disappearance reflects a profound change in our general thinking, a definite shift towards a scientific view of the world.

Subjunctive forms of verbs are typically used to express various states of unreality such as: wish, emotion, possibility, judgement, opinion, obligation, or action that has not yet occurred; the precise situations in which they are used vary from language to language.” (Wikipedia)

Wishing while blowing the seed parasols off a dandelion ‘clock’. The form of words combined with an object and perhaps an element of chance was believed to have a power of realisation. (Image sourced: Internet)

Firstly, let’s look at relatively common phrases where we find the Subjunctive Mood and in English, these are not as common as in other Indo-European languages such as Irish and Castillian (Spanish), for example.

In its article on the grammatical use of the subjunctive mood in English, the online Collins Dictionary gives, among others, these examples:

  • God save the Queen!
  • God bless you!
  • God help us!
  • Heaven help us!
  • Heaven forbid that that should happen to me.
  • Suffice it to say he escaped with only a caution.

As an antidote to monarchical and religious expression, I give you the example Long live the Revolution! which is also in the subjunctive mood.

Often we can arrive at the subjunctive form by beginning the sentence with the word “May”: e.g May God bless you; May Heaven help us; May Heaven forbid. Sometimes when we use “May” we have to change the order of words a little: May it suffice to say from Suffice it to say; May you go with God from Go with God; May the Revolution live long from Long live the Revolution! And sometimes the May or even more words might have disappeared in common modern usage but be understood as in (May) thy Kingdom come1 and (May you be) welcome or (May) God speed (you).

Certainly the calling or greeting of Happy Christmas and a Merry New Year heard and read everywhere around this time of year were originally preceded by May you have a ….

Well and good2 but what has that to do with the “profound change in our general thinking, a definite shift towards a scientific view of the world” which I interpreted as the cause of the disappearance of the subjunctive?

Well, although the use of the subjunctive expressed a wish about the outcome of which we were not certain, it seems clear that its use was believed to have power. So to wish someone to (May you) go with God in English ((Que) Vaya con Dios3 in Castillian and still common in most of South and Central America and in the USA Southwest4) expressed a feeling that by saying those words, one could invoke protection upon the person leaving. Go5 dté tú slán, an equivalent in Irish but without any mention of God, one can find in the last line of the chorus in the Irish Jacobite song Siúil a Ghrá. And when we did not wish someone well, we might express a curse, invoking ill upon them: May you go to Hell! May you never prosper!

A curse tablet from ancient Athens — sometimes it was not enough to say or to write the curse but one had to attach it to an object (or to the object of the curse). (Image sourced: Internet)

Uncertain as the outcome of expressing a wish for another, whether good or ill, was believed to be in more ancient times, we are fairly convinced today that it is empty of any predictive or enforcement power, i.e we can’t make it happen by wishing alone. The only power left in the words is in the expression of emotion for us and to convey a strong wish of good (even if only socially conventional) or conversely an intense dislike towards the object of the phrases.

So when we wish someone well today we are only expressing a positive regard (whether strongly emotional or only as a social convention) and similarly the reverse with an ill-wish. Gone is the belief that the use of the words themselves had any power at all over the outcome. If we were to say nowadays May you go to Hell or the truncated Go to Hell, we would do so without the slightest belief that we can somehow convey the person to that destination6 by the use of those words – we’d merely be saying something like “I really dislike (or hate) you” or perhaps “I am angry with you at the moment”. To really express a malevolent feeling, we might instead use “I hope” but again with without any expectation of realisation, as when Bob Dylan sang to the Masters of War:

“I hope that you die

and your death will come soon”.

Today, we find the remains of the Subjunctive mostly in prayers and greetings7 and to some extent in curses and in prayers. In religion, the traditional forms of prayer tend to be preserved, whether through strong devotion, convention or habit. The survival of the Subjunctive in greetings is probably retained through the inertia of convention. We also find its survival in a few grammatical constructions and in the feeling that “I wish I were in Carrickfergus8” is somehow better than the more commonly-heard “I wish I was in Carrickfergus”.

Hands in prayer, by Albert Durer. (Image sourced: Internet)

In general we no longer believe in the power of invocation, in making things happen by expressing a wish for them in a certain verbal way. We know now or believe that to make something happen, that we need to act. Even if wishful thinking can still be seen in much of political and social expression, that is more a reflection of a reluctance to confront reality or of hope for the future, rather than a real belief in the power of expression in verbal form. A scientific outlook has replaced that of the religious, of the otherworld, giving us a stronger intellectual tool to govern our actions, to bring a wish to reality.

As with the study of history, the study of language tells us a lot about who we were and who we are now — and helps us to speculate on who we are becoming.

End.

La Malediction Paternelle (the Curse of the Father) by Jean-Baptiste Greuze (1725–1805). (Image sourced: Internet)

FOOTNOTES

1 go dtaga do Ríocht in Irish, from The Lord’s Prayer of Christians.

2 Or the full Conditional Mood: That may be all well and good 🙂

3“May you go with God” — the subjunctive mood – compare with Ve te con Dios (“Go with God”), the imperative mood.

4 And sometimes in Hollywood “Westerns”.

5The Irish word Go (pronounced as guh might be in English) in the Subjunctive precedes the verb to correspond to the use of the word May in English we saw earlier. In Irish, the name for the group of greetings is Beannachtaí which interestingly translates as “Blessings”.

6If we even believe any more in the existence of that place.

7And since greetings are important for social communication the Subjunctive often gives the learner of a language some difficulty, as in the Irish Go raibh maith agat, for example.

8A line in a centuries-old macaronic Irish song (i.e a verse in Irish followed by one in English etc), Do Bhí Bean Uasal or in English, Carrickfergus. Sadly most people are probably completely unaware of the verses in Irish.

FURTHER READING

https://grammar.collinsdictionary.com/easy-learning/the-subjunctive

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/English_subjunctive

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Subjunctive_mood

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grammatical_mood