Many years ago, I was asked a make or break question at the end of an interview. It was for what was to be my first language teaching job.
Whilst my answer would now sound like a pretentious load of rubbish, back then it came to me somehow too naturally, as if someone else in the room had said it instead of me. It formed hastily in my brain because I was desperate to get a job; luckily, the interviewer found it charming rather than cheesy.
Deep down though, my answer was also born out of the need to justify that I both wanted and was capable of doing a job that had nothing to do with the photos of pyramids, tombs and temples that had covered my high school folder in previous years.
Some 12 years of experience and qualifications later, I still have the daily need to justify that I earn a living teaching English, despite the fact that I hold two postgraduate degrees in Archaeology. It does happen the other way around, too, when conference attendees suspiciously look at the present perfect worksheets slipping out of my folder.
It can get extremely frustrating but, on second thoughts, what is language for, if it isn’t to justify ourselves? Justifying our existence by communicating our needs and desires, by reaching out to others and finding solace in sharing our worries.
And this isn’t a trend which would seem to be on the verge of extinction as new technology develops; a trustworthy source of information tells me that in a recent experiment, two robots were put together and soon enough they both started speaking the same language, learning to communicate with each other.
A language within a language
I have always been fascinated by what language says about us, not just as human beings, but as living communities.
In a previous post, I argued that there are many visions of the world and of reality.
This myriad of realities is expressed in, approximately, 6,500 different (spoken) languages (language often gets reduced to its verbal version but, needless to say, this is just one of the multiple ways in which living beings can communicate).
This often reaches us in the form of trivia, like the almost-urban-legend assertion that the Eskimo have ten different words for snow. But language chunks, and how they are organised, reveal unique priorities and needs; from this, it can be inferred that no language is more important than any other, no matter how much we insist on establishing a hierarchy of patois, dialects, and languages as such.
In this respect, Irish (Gaeilge), like any other language, expresses a reality and outlook on life that is unique to its speakers in its precious details, and which must be preserved. As a language, Irish is officially considered ‘safe’, in so far as it has the support of the State and a substantial number of speakers compared to the total population.
However, recent studies say that many Irish people whose families do not speak Gaeilge at home struggle to engage with its study. Language is a chief vehicle for cultural transmission, and this bears the question, can a culture survive without its mother tongue?
Indeed, some Irish structures encapsulate a particular way of understanding our relationship with our environment.
One of the first ones I learnt, and which still fascinates me the most, is tá….ort.
When translated into English, it literally means that whatever you substitute the ellipsis for is on you or upon you, and it is used to express feelings and states of mind, such as happiness or sadness.
Although English translations of Irish often sound peculiar, it is easy to warm up to the idea of a feeling overwhelming you, be it a positive or a negative one. Not only that but, at least to my Spanish mind, it seems to present moods as variable entities that can move about and take temporary shelter in one person or another. It can also lead to selfless expressions, such as tá uaigneas orm de tusa (loneliness of you is upon me) a sentence which I believe can be used to mean I miss you (do correct me in the comments section if you are a Gaeilge speaker and disagree!).
Comparing it with Spanish
There is also an interesting comparison to be made here; in Iberian Spanish, the most common way of saying you miss someone is te echo de menos, which puts the emphasis on the person who misses, rather than the one who is missed, in the same way as the English I miss you does.
However, it is also possible, perhaps in a slightly more poetic way, to say me faltas (which could roughly translate as you are missing in me). This structure, as does the one in Irish, moves away from the subject experiencing the emotion and places the emphasis on the emotion itself or on the object of affection.
When we learn to speak as kids we are influenced by our teachers and the people around us, but then move on to develop our own personal way of expression. When learning a second language, finding our independent voice can take much longer, but the thought that we can do not only that that, but also tap into a whole new way of seeing the world that was hitherto unknown to us, is certainly an alluring one.
You can listen to our podcast on RadioPublic, the aural place of culture and insight! Also, why not take a look at this article? It’s about a modern Irishman in Madrid. And if you want even more stuff, feel free to check out our video below!
Thanks for reading!