Monday, May 2, 2011

The sound of amateur etymology

auf wiedheresen.

Like the vast majority of this islands inhabitants I just about never ever speak in Irish because, insomuch as language is a tool for communication,— Irish is at once gorgeous and impractical— like a beautifully sculpted golden spanner that can only be used to loosen bolts of bronze in imperial 1/8th-inch measurements, while English is a comparatively ugly but far more utilitarian instrument— like an oily oul' vice-grips or one of those multi-tool Leatherman™ things.

Language is a tool and we speak the one that is most useful.

In terms of the vocabularies of most of the Irish people, English is the handier idiom for getting a thought from head A to head B.
In terms of international communication it's also pretty nifty.
It's noteworthy that we do sometimes fall back on our school Irish in particular situations when we don't want to be understood, when we are surrounded by eavesdroppers that we don't necessarily trust, when on holiday for example, working in a B&B on the Aran islands or when doing a stretch in the maze at her majesty's pleasure.

I've a very vivid memory of two National school teachers brazenly discussing their previous nights debauchery in front of all the 'smallies' as Gaeilge .

How did I know what they were talking about if I don't speak the lingo? Well you know what a dirty laugh is even when you're seven, and whatever they were up to they must have deemed inappropriate for our ears, sure why else would they be talking in Irish?

I mean we were seven but we weren't amadáns altogether.

Erudite observers wil have noticed that despite my championing the language of Shakespeare I just used an Irish word there and you might think that that means that I'm only spoutin' rámeis out of me now, but a word or two isn't the language.

Words are great and the more the merrier but personally speaking I need this language to give them context.

Now, one word that I do use a lot is slán* (for folk who don't know that's pronounced 'SLAWN' in a yankee doodle accent and 'SLAUN' by a british person and we have our own way that's a little bit different from either; this is important).

Why do I like slán so much?— because it's different from 'goodbye'. It feels less permanent and not as formal.

Why that should be I'm not really sure, I mean yes, they do have different 'etymologies', or origins: the term 'slán' derives from 'slán leat' meaning 'be safe' or 'slán abhaile' meaning 'safe home' or more accurately 'safe back to your town'(bhaile) and 'Goodbye' either comes from 'God-be-with-you' or 'God buy* you' but either way it doesn't matter because the two ways of saying it have really just become sounds at this stage. A verbal signal that things have concluded, the announcement that says: "Now we separate", "It's done"
* 'buy' had an original meaning of 'save'

'Slán' is handy because it's neither mean( you are the weakest link...'Slán' sounds like Ann Robinson doesn't mind if you come back next week and have another go ) nor is it frivolous like the George-Formby evoking sassanach farewells like 'toodle-oo' and 'pip-pip'.

Something of the twinkly-eyed irish soul has to reside in 'Slán' and it remains a useful option where 'Ciao' is too pretentious and 'Cheerio', 'Tatty-bye' and 'laters' are just too wrong and too lame and too twee and too english.

'Slán', nice, informal and you can still say it to someone after a funeral.

I have a pet theory about slán and it's embarrassing in a sense because it's an etymological (word-origin) theory and one that is dismissed in etymological circles— a better man would shrug his shoulders and say: 'Well they are etymologists after all, they do this all day long year-in year-out so I s'pose they must know what they're talking about'

Not me. I'm not having any of it.

They're wrong and I'm right and I believe that history will come out in my favour.

Okay where will I start? Sing this song to yourself in your head:

auf wiedheresen.

Yes. That is what I propose, and I honestly think that this has to be true.

Ladies and Gentlemen of the interweb I now present to you my most dearly held half-baked notion: namely that the origin of the expression 'so long' has only one truly credible source, and that source is the irish language.

Now I'm gonna get rightly into this and before we start I would ask you to do two things:

Number one #, forget, if you can, that you ever saw 'so long' written down as two english words. If the expression migrated, as I believe it did, from one language to another purely vocally, then the individual words 'so' and 'long' have no more significance, to the origin of the phrase, than the words 'bucket' and 'mercy' have to the corruption of the french for 'thank-you-very-much' ( 'merci beaucoup') as 'mercy buckets'.

Number two # Remember, that the irish farewell sounds like "slawn", that's not what we think of we when we say 'Slán' but please divorce the look of the word from your brain and think about the sound instead.

To aid you in this difficult task I shall be spelling both versions of goodbye phonetically, as "slawn" and "suhlawng".

You see? Now that we're discussing whether "sulawng" (meaning goodbye) has its origin as "slawn" ( meaning the exact same thing ) it doesn't seem like such a leap does it?

It seems far more straightforward now doesn't it?

Would that life were that simple my droogs, but I have a small mountain of serious debate and research to dismiss completely out of hand before I get anywhere near to explaining myself.


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