English and Irish.

A couple of language-related entertainment articles from the NY Times:

1) Michael Paulson’s “Obie Awards Honor ‘English’ as Best New Play”:

The play, written by the Iranian American playwright Sanaz Toossi, depicts four students, each at different stages of life and with different motivations, struggling to master English well enough to pass the Test of English as a Foreign Language. The play was staged in New York early last year as a coproduction of the Atlantic and Roundabout theater companies. In The New York Times, the critic Jesse Green wrote, “Both contemplative and comic, it nails every opportunity for big laughs as its English-learning characters struggle with accents and idioms. But the laughter provides cover for the deeper idea that their struggle is not just linguistic.”

2) Claire Fahy’s “‘Bursting Proud’: Ireland Cheers Paul Mescal for Embracing Irish Language”:

Mescal, 27, was walking the red carpet in London when he stopped to talk with TG4, an Irish-language public broadcaster. The interviewer opened the conversation in Irish, also known as Gaelic, and the actor nervously followed suit.

For a man whom the BBC had erroneously identified as British only a few weeks before, it was quite a moment. The two-minute interaction, posted on Twitter, has been viewed one million times and set off a conversation across Ireland about the state of one of Europe’s most endangered languages.

“I found it very emotional,” said Eithne Shortall, an Irish author who lives in Dublin. “The whole country is bursting proud of Paul Mescal.” […]

Mescal wasn’t the only Irish actor who spoke Irish at the BAFTAs. Brendan Gleeson, a well-known Gaeilgeoir, or fluent Irish speaker, also gave an interview in Irish, while Colin Farrell, his co-star in “Banshees of Inisherin,” slowly backed away and was relieved to quickly find someone who would ask him questions in English.

“Shame on me,” Farrell, who is also Irish, said.

You can watch the interviews at the link; lots of fun (and lots of language-mixing)!


  1. When a learner doesn’t know the Irish for something they just use the English word and carry on.* This also applies to fluent and L1 speakers who have momentarily forgotten the Irish word. Interjections and discourse particles even for L1 speakers are more often English than traditional Irish, though some such were imported centuries rather than decades ago.

    * when I studied French at the Alliance française in Dublin the teacher revealed that the then minister for education was in the beginners class and was using this technique, to the teacher’s bemusement. My sense is that the technique is handy in the early stages of learning, allowing one to practice conversation with fellow learners, but later becomes a crutch that holds one back from achieving fluency.

  2. The Irish minister for education was studying French and inserting Irish words for unknown French ones?

  3. The first thing Mescal says to the interviewer is “I don’t understand your Irish [giggle]” to which she responds, “Donegal Irish” and continues more slowly and simply. It is indeed a quite charming interaction. Mescal subsequently acquits himself well: he says he was good at Irish in school but is now a bit rusty.

    TG4 is known for its humorous twitter account, with tweets usually aimed at sympathetic learners rather than L1 speakers. This viral clip is headed “When the Examiner speaks Donegal Irish”, a nightmare scenario for the majority of students at the Leaving Certificate oral exam who would have studied Connacht or Munster Irish.

    Donegal : Irish :: Denmark : Scandinavian

  4. The Irish minister for education was studying French and inserting English words for unknown French ones

    I was struck that the teacher found this noteworthy. Had they been Irish words then the teacher’s reaction would have been less striking, the minister’s action more so.

  5. David Marjanović says

    Well, where was the teacher from? They don’t use that technique in France, or almost anywhere else.

  6. David Marjanović says

    Donegal : Irish :: Denmark : Scandinavian

    My impression of the interviewer: the consonants are English + [x], the vowels are… Estonian? …Udmurt? 🙂

  7. They don’t use that technique in France, or almost anywhere else.

    Indeed, but I didn’t know that then and, more to the point, neither apparently did the minister.

  8. Giacomo Ponzetto says

    They don’t use that technique in France, or almost anywhere else.

    None of my language teachers have ever endorsed the technique, but I suspect everyone uses it in languages they’re confidently fluent is; especially in their native language. I cannot cite actual data, but at the level of personal anecdotes, several colleagues have told me it’s unusual to the point of being striking how few English words I use in the rare professional emails I write in Italian. I doubt the situation is much different in French, despite the valiant efforts of the Académie française and the Office québécois de la langue française

  9. Jen in Edinburgh says

    I do it the other way round, although not deliberately – when I was studying Gaelic I would find myself filling in gaps with a French word. More likely to be Norwegian these days, but there seems to be something in my mind that considers all non-English words more interchangeable with each other than they are with English ones.

    Not that this is helpful – any listener would be far more likely to understand an English word!

  10. I follow the good lead of Jen in Edinburgh, with a tilt from French to Spanish. No doubt this has offended some Portuguese, Italian, and Catalan speakers, but injecting English into their languages seems at least a little arrogant.

  11. And what with cases? Is it laptopus and teiblus or just laptop and table?

  12. “Speak in French/Gaelic when you can’t remember the Gaelic/French for a thing; it saves time.” Note the subtext here: language is a big bag of words, specifically nouns.

  13. My two foreign languages are French and Swedish. I used to get confused when a word would pop into my mind when speaking one language, and I would worry that it was from the other one. It is made worse by the fact that Swedish has quite a number of French loanwords, like paraply, fåtölj (fauteuil) and ambassadör. Of course I’d say ‘ja’ for ‘oui’ quite a lot when speaking French, which must have sounded odd.

  14. “They don’t use that technique in France, or almost anywhere else.”

    That’s right, not in French, but it happens for Breton speakers (for instance) to use French words when they cannot get the Breton one any more at the moment. Or, when referring to administrative things which are known to them mostly through the medium of French even if there are Breton equivalents for them (neologisms most of the time but that another topic).

    In fact, this technique is relevant only for languages that are in contact, especially in the case of diglossic situations where minority languages and/or heritage languages are involved.

  15. @Glottologue: yes, that’s typical for diglossia, especially if one language is used for the technical realm. I remember locals in Uzbekistan in the 90s talking mostly Uzbek among each other, but when they discussed technical items (I was working in telecommunications), they mostly used Russian words and phrases, and sometimes even switched to full Russian sentences before going back to Uzbek. Those, then, were the parts I were able to follow (my Uzbek is barely sufficient for ordering food in restaurants).

  16. TOEFL was made by Ferguson’s team…

    But it is also how pidgins arise. For a piudgin to arise people must try to speak to each other…

    What is exotic about language learning is that communication is not the goal. It is done outside of a practical need to make yourself understood by someone who does not know your language.

  17. I watched a bunch of Ecolinguist videos over the weekend. In the recent ones, the theme is “Do speakers of languages A, B, C, … understand language Z?” Each participant speaks their own language. The Z-speaker has a word in mind and provides a set of (extremely verbose, often repetitive) clues to its meaning; then the others can ask questions to which the Z-speaker replies; sometimes they help one another. At the end, the A-, B-, C-, … speakers write down in their own languages what they think the word is and reveal them all at once; then the Z-speaker writes down and reveals the original word. Sometimes the words are resemblant, sometimes (as with ‘butterfly’) very much not so.

    There are supertitles in the language being spoken and also subtitles in English (which can be turned off). Both are typically available to the audience only. When the Z-language was Old English, the supertitles for it were provided to the participants as well, because few people can understand Old English when it is spoken.

    In one video (I forget which), everything went smoothly for the A- and C-speakers, but the B-speaker ran into a problem: although he was eventually able to figure out the meaning of the hidden word, which was ‘cooper’ (barrel-maker), he simply did not know the word for ‘cooper’ in his own language!

  18. I feel for him!

  19. J.W. Brewer says

    I daresay “cooper” is fairly archaic in American English, because the occupation itself is archaic outside certain niches of the economy. (E.g. the whiskey industry, where “cooperage” is a significant part of any distillery’s expense structure and supply chain.)

  20. @JWB: I would say the same holds for the German equivalent Böttcher and the cognate Küfer “maker of (wine) barrels”, which Duden marks as Southern and Swiss. I guess it’s easier for speakers of languages where the equivalent is “barrelmaker” or a similar transparent derivation of “barrel”, like Russian bochkar’ from bochka “barrel”.
    (German also has the more transparent Fassbinder “barrel-binder”, which Duden marks Southern and Austrian, and yes, that’s what the director’s last name means.)

  21. Hans, except I know ennumerable Бондаренко while Бочкарёв is a brand of beer.

    I guess the other Russian word is бочар:

    производное от бочка или *бъчи. Брандт (РФВ 21, 212) видит в нем, едва ли правильно, преобразование заимствования из нем. Böttcher “бондарь, бочар”. Ср. гонча́р.

  22. I guess the other Russian word is бочар
    Yes, sorry, that was the word I misremembered. And I totally forgot about бондарь. Post in haste, repent at leisure.

  23. David Marjanović says

    Kufe < cūpa
    Kübel < cūpula

    Mind blown.

  24. PlasticPaddy says

    For Kübel, dwds has “Ausgangsform für die Entlehnung ist wahrscheinlich aprov. cubel ‘kleiner Bottich’”, but “Voraus gehen spätlat. cūpella, selten cūpellum, cūpillum ‘kleine Kufe’””

  25. John Cowan says

    I feel for him!

    In another video, the Z-language word meant ‘wedge’, and the Z-speaker defined it as a device for splitting something or for preventing a door from opening. The A-speaker, a francophone, figured out cale-porte ‘doorstop’, but nothing else even when shown a drawing. The Z-speaker apparently had looked up the French word in advance and came up with coin in the first sense and cale in the second, but the A-speaker understood coin only in the sense ‘corner’.

    Recurring words in different videos were mister, sometimes ‘object’ and sometimes ‘profession’, and cristianu ‘person’.

  26. the A-speaker understood coin only in the sense ‘corner’.

    And yet they presumably knew the common verb coincer ‘to wedge, jam’ (“Le tiroir est coincé”). Lexical gaps are interesting!

  27. David Marjanović says

    I’ve never associated coincer with a wedge. I imagine the pressure coming from the other sides, as in “squeezed into a corner” or “the walls are closing in”.

  28. “concave corner” v “convex corner”

  29. Rincón vs. esquina.

  30. John Cowan says

    mister, sometimes ‘object’ and sometimes ‘profession’

    The latter sense corresponds to English mistery, mystery, now archaic. Etymologically this is < ministerium, but confounded with mystery < mysterium and also with mastery < magisterium.

  31. As fully discussed here in 2009.

  32. When a learner doesn’t know the Irish for something they just use the English word and carry on.

    Ronan O’Gara, an Irish rugby player now coaching in France, has gone viral for using this technique en français in his team talks. Especially for swears; it’s very hard to swear convincingly in a foreign language.

  33. David Marjanović says

    Especially for swears; it’s very hard to swear convincingly in a foreign language.

    Except, by definition, if you know it reasonably well.

  34. Well, that depends, doesn’t it? A person can know a language quite well indeed without having any facility in swearing (this can be true even of the person’s own language). The more important factor is not general language knowledge but specific immersion in the world of swears.

  35. John Cowan says

    Quite so. My mother’s L1 was Standard German (she had no command of the local dialect), and if she knew how to swear in it, it was from literature. She didn’t swear much in English either. She left Germany at age 12 (1931-32), though it remained her home language for another 6 years, maybe a bit more, until she married an American (not my father).

  36. A former colleague of mine, a native Russian speaker, told me the story of how he once had to attend a meeting with a minister in one of the Central Asian countries together with a German engineer who had been advertised to him as a fluent speaker of Russian. When they met the minister, my colleague was highly embarrassed to find out that this engineer’s Russian talk mostly consisted of бля, ё, х.., and other choice swearwords, while otherwise his knowledge of Russian was atrocious. He clearly had learnt the language at building sites and construction camps.

  37. I meant have mentioned this before, but my freshman year in college I often hung around after dinner at the video arcade* in the basement of the student center at MIT. I wasn’t a particularly good player, since my reflexes are rather slow; moreover, I have never much cared for competitive fighting games. That meant that I spent a fair amount of time on the sidelines watching, when there were intense informal tourneys being played on the fighting game cabs. A lot of the regulars in the arcade were from Hong Kong, and most of their conversations in the arcade were in English. The significant exception was when they talked trash to each other during matches; that was mostly in colloquial Cantonese. However, there was, in turn, an exception to the exception, which was that for swearing they would largely switch to English. So while one figure on the screen shark-stomped an opponent, his player would emit a rapid patter of Cantonese, with occasional, “Fuck, fuck, fuck you!” interjections dropped in.

    * For about the first year I was there, the games were frequently replaced—sometimes with whole new cabinets, sometimes updated with new games on the same hardware. So every three or four weeks, we would have a new game or two to play. This lasted until it was discovered that the student group that oversaw the arcade and some other facilities (the Student Center Committee) was actually broke.** After that, there were maybe one or two replacements per year, and people got really good at playing the games that were already there. For a long time, the most popular game was the X-Men: Children of the Atom, a Capcom fighting game fairly similar to the Street Fighter II series.

    ** The Office of Residence and Campus Activities was really a rats’ nest of incompetence, which we MIT students cynically suspected that was due to the fact that the office was staffed, practically from bottom to top, with people who had not gone to MIT.*** At least in this instance, the lack of serious computing chops was definitely part of it, since the office had been trying to manage all the campus student groups’ internal accounts using a homebrewed accounting system—which turned out to have been programed very badly. As this financial mess was becoming known, the upper administration brought back in somebody who had gone to MIT and had previously worked there, so sort things out and eventually take over running the office. You can see one of the articles about it that I wrote here.**** It features this great quote from Jay Muchnij (who I actually interviewed for two completely unrelated stories that day): “We’ve known they were incompetent for a long time…. We’re glad that someone else has evidence of that now.”

    *** The one-time director of admissions, who had not gone to MIT, said that she felt that she needed to claim that she had gone to an engineering school in order to be taken seriously at the Institute. While I (and a fair number of other people—both students and employees) spotted that she was a massive fabulist pretty quickly after she took over the top admissions job (which entailed a big increase in visibility), obviously her shtick worked on a fair number of otherwise seemingly bright people.

    **** The Tech had the first new Web site, and the first automated production of Web pages from published copy. However, they changed over to a different system a few years after I left, and ten years of digitized content was replaced by raw, unsearchable PDF files.

  38. Charles McNulty has a detailed and interesting LA Times review of English (archived). Thanks, Eric!

  39. for swearing they would largely switch to English.

    Are you trying to suggest Cantonese lacks a rich vocabulary of swear words? The language of sailors, fisherman and port workers along the South China littoral?

    If it wasn’t swearing I heard in the vehement language when I lived there, I don’t know why they’d switch from English to protect my sensitivities.

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