Having finished Master and Commander (see here and here), my wife and I have moved on to the second in the series, Post Captain, and have come to a passage that I want to share for obvious reasons. Stephen Maturin, Captain Aubrey’s friend and ship’s surgeon, is speaking to the lieutenant of Marines, a Scotsman named Macdonald; Parker is the ship’s first lieutenant (and thus in charge of discipline):
‘Two of your men, both by the name of Macrea, I believe, were speaking privately, furbishing their equipment with one piece of pipeclay between them as I stood near them — nothing of any consequence, you understand, just small disagreement about the pipeclay, the first desiring the second to kiss his arse and the second wishing the soul of the first to the Devil and a good deal more to the same effect. And I understood directly, without the least thought or conscious effort of will!’
‘You have the Gaelic, sir?’ cried Macdonald.
‘No, sir,’ said Stephen, ‘and that is what is so curious. I no longer speak it; I thought I no longer understood it. And yet there at once, with no volition on my part, there was complete understanding. I had no idea the Erse and the Irish were so close; I had imagined the dialects had moved far apart. Pray, is there a mutual understanding between your Hebrideans and the Highlanders on the one, and let us say the native Ulstermen on the other?’
‘Why, yes, sir; there is. They converse tolerably well, on general subjects, on boats, fishing, and bawdy. There are some different words, to be sure, and great differences of intonation, but with perseverance and repetition they can make themselves understood very well — a tolerably free communication. There are some Irishmen among the pressed hands, and I have heard them and my marines speaking together.’
‘If I had heard them, they would be on the defaulters’ list,’ said Parker, who had come below, dripping like a Newfoundland dog.
‘Why is this?’ asked Stephen.
‘Irish is forbidden in the Navy,’ said Parker. ‘It is prejudicial to discipline; a secret language is calculated to foment mutiny.’
Lots of interesting material there; if you’re surprised to see “Erse” and “Irish” differentiated, I will quote the OED on “Erse”: “Applied by Sc. Lowlanders to the Gaelic dialect of the Highlands (which is in fact of Irish origin), to the people speaking that dialect, to their customs, etc. Hence in 18th c. Erse was used in literary Eng. as the ordinary designation of the Gaelic of Scotland, and occasionally extended to the Irish Gaelic.”
While I’ve got the book out, I can’t resist quoting a wonderful sentence Stephen utters to Jack Aubrey in the course of expressing strong opposition to the Navy’s disciplinary traditions: “I am opposed to authority, that egg of misery and oppression; I am opposed to it largely for what it does to those who exercise it.”