Even Racists Got the Blues

Most of the time, I feel a little bit sorry for people who make horrendous translation mistakes. This is not one of those times.

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OK…I have to say that, most of the time, I feel a little bit sorry for people who make horrendous translation mistakes. This is not one of those times.

This pic came across my desk about nine months ago, and it may just be the worst example of a self-translation disaster I’ve ever seen. 

In fact, it’s so bad, and so out of context, that most of my Irish-speaking friends had no idea what this person was trying to say with those three Irish words: “Gorm Chónaí Ábhar.” It’s beyond gibberish. It even took me a few minutes.

The sad thing is, in order to “get it,” you need to be familiar not only with the ways in which people make translation mistakes (which are legion), but also with a particularly unpleasant segment of U.S. politics.

What this person was trying to say, with this mess of a translation on his t-shirt, is “Blue Lives Matter.”

A Little Background

For the sake of those who don’t live in the U.S. (and without delving too deeply into the dark underbelly of American politics), suffice it to say that the slogan “Blue Lives Matter” arose in opposition to the “Black Lives Matter” movement.

The “Black Lives Matter” movement arose in response to the disproportionate degree of police brutality directed at people of color in the U.S., particularly toward African Americans.  I’ll leave it to you to decide what would motivate someone to oppose such a movement. The term I prefer can be found in your Irish dictionary under “C.”

So no…I’m not very sorry for this person (I am, however, very sorry at the assault upon the Irish language!).

Beyond philosophy, then, what exactly is wrong with this translation? Well, let’s start with how the “translator” went about it:

Sometimes the Dictionary is NOT Your Friend

I’m often baffled by the number of people who seem to think that you can translate from one language to another simply by pulling the words of one language from a dictionary and plugging them into the syntax of the other. It just doesn’t work that way, friends. Repeat after me: “Languages are not codes for one another.”

That’s exactly what happened here, though. Someone either found a dictionary or searched the internet for the three words “blue,” “lives,” and “matter,” and stuck them together as if they were English. Oy. Dia sábháil (that’s Ulster Irish for “oy”).

Irish syntax is very, very (very!) different from English. For one thing, the verb comes first in the sentence. For another, adjectives follow the nouns they modify. So even if you COULD render this phrase with these three simple words, you’d need “Matter Lives Blue.”

Unfortunately, however, you can’t fix this phrase simply by reordering the words, because, among other things…

Idiom Also Matters

An idiom is an expression particular to a particular language or region. For example, in English, when we say that something “matters,” we mean that it has worth and/or that it makes a difference.

It doesn’t necessarily work that way in other languages. In Irish, we’d have to get more specific. We might say something like Tá fiúntas i _____ (“There is worth/value in _____”) or Tá ________ tábhachtach (“______ is/are important”).

To make matters worse, though (there’s another idiom for you!), whoever made this “translation” apparently forgot that the word “matter” in English can have several meanings. In this case, the word he or she chose — ábhar — means “matter” as in “subject matter.” It’s a noun. Oops!

So Does Pronunciation

Another thing this poor “translator” apparently forgot is that the word “lives” in English can be pronounced to rhyme with “gives” or with “hives,” and that the meaning changes accordingly.

What was wanted here, of course, is “lives” as rhymes with “hives.” Three guesses as to which one the “translator” chose. Yep. Wrong one.

The word cónaí in Irish (which in certain grammatical circumstances inflects to chónaí) means “dwelling.” When we want to say that we live somewhere, we literally say “Am I in my dwelling in _________.”

Tá mé i mo chónaí i nDún na nGall: “I live in Donegal.”

Tá Seán ina chónaí i nGaillimh: “Seán lives in Galway.”

To toss another problem onto the pile, in Irish, we probably wouldn’t use the equivalent of the English “life/lives (rhymes with ‘hives’)” to mean “people”. We’d most likely just use daoine: “people.” There’s that “idiom” problem again.

And Then There’s Gorm

The funny thing here is, the Irish word gorm actually does mean “blue” in most contexts. Just not in this manner, and definitely not in this context.

When color is used to describe a person in Irish, it typically refers to hair color. For example An bhean rua: The red-haired woman.

There are exceptions, of course: For example, Na fir bhuí (“The orange/yellow men”) is used to refer to members of the Orange Order because of the color of their sashes. But “blue/gorm” would not be used to refer to police officers as a group. That’s an American thing.

All that having been said, though, here’s the lovely, delicious irony: When the word gorm is used in reference to people, guess what it means?

It means “Black.”

People of African descent, or with similarly dark skin, are described as “blue” in Irish (most likely because dubh (“black”) and dorcha (“dark”) have negative connotations in the language and donn (“brown”) would be understood to refer to hair color).

That’s right. At the end of the day, allowing for grammatical travesties (of which there are many) and horrendous word choices, what this person’s shirt says is “Black Lives Matter.”

Somehow that makes me strangely happy.

Featured image © 2016 by Karen Reshkin. Used with permission. Karen took this picture at the 2016 Milwaukee Irish Fest. Please visit her Irish-learning website A Clever Sheep (www.acleversheep.net)


In addition to being “The Geeky Gaeilgeoir,” Audrey Nickel is the author of  The Irish Gaelic Tattoo Handbook,” published by Bradan Press, Nova Scotia, Canada.  For information about the book, including where to buy it, please visit http://www.bradanpress.com/irish-tattoo-handbook/

Making Sense of Irish Gender

People who have never studied a language other than English seem to find the concept of grammatical gender confusing.

This post first appeared on my Tumblr blog in September, 2016.

People who have never studied a language other than English seem to find the concept of grammatical gender confusing.

We frequently get requests on the Irish Language Forum from translation seekers who want the “female” [sic] form of “musician” or “poet” or some similar noun, and who are very confused when we tell them that the same noun would be used to describe anyone, regardless of sex.

I’ve wanted for some time to write something addressing the concept of grammatical gender in Irish, and I’m feeling “explainy” today (thank you for that term, mhwombat!), so here goes!

Not All That Surprising

As English lacks the concept of grammatical gender (we’ll get to learning more about this in a second), it’s not too surprising that English speakers should be confused when they encounter this concept in other languages.

And there certainly are languages in which different terms are used when speaking of or to males as opposed to females (and the reverse is also true, of course).

Even Irish has a few terms that are applied only to one sex or the other, for example:

Seanduine: This literally means “old person,” but is only used when speaking of men, and is translated as “old man.”

Amadán: “Fool” when speaking of or to a man.

Óinseach: “Fool” when speaking of or to a woman.

For the most part, however, “gender” in language has nothing to do with biological sex. In fact, some Irish words that you’d assume would be masculine (stail , for example: “stallion”) are actually grammatically feminine, and vice versa.

What is “Grammatical Gender”?

In grammar, we use the concept of gender to describe how a word will behave in certain grammatical circumstances, as well as the effect(s) it might have on the words around it, particularly adjectives.

Some languages have multiple grammatical genders. Irish only has two: masculine and feminine.

You need to know the gender of a noun in Irish to know what will happen with it after the definite article* (the equivalent of “the” in English, such as “the man” or “the car”).

You also have to know a noun’s gender know how it will affect any adjectives used to describe it, as well as to determine what pronouns to use to take its place (Irish has no neuter gender, so everything, from the bicycle in the garage to the shop down the road is either “he” or “she”).

Getting it Right From the Start

The nominative singular definite article an (”the”) is a useful tool for determining gender because masculine and feminine nouns behave differently with the article. When I give vocabulary words to my students, I always pair them with the definite article, and I encourage them to do the same with any words they learn on their own.

It’s really good practice, whenever you encounter a new noun, to look it up in the dictionary to determine its gender and then memorize it with the article.

Here’s how pairing nouns with the definite article is useful (Note: This is for nouns in the nominative case only. As this is the basic form of a noun as it’s listed in the dictionary, it’s the most useful for this kind of memorization):

IF THE NOUN IS MASCULINE and begins with a consonant, the consonant is unaffected by the article:

An seanduine – The old man

An carr – The car

IF THE NOUN IS MASCULINE and begins with a vowel, “t-” is prefixed to the beginning of the word:

An t-amadán – The foolish man

An t-asal – The donkey

IF THE NOUN IS FEMININE and begins with a lenitable consonant other than “s,” it is lenited:

An bhean – The woman

An chláirseach – The harp

IF THE NOUN IS FEMININE and begins with a vowel, the vowel is unaffected by the article:

An óinseach – The foolish woman

An oíche – The night

IF THE NOUN IS FEMININE and begins with an “s,” “t” (without a hyphen) is prefixed to the beginning of the word:

An tsráid – The street

An tSeisreach – The Plow (aka “The Big Dipper” or “Ursa Major”)

Basic Guidelines

The above works well enough to begin with, but as you advance you’re going to encounter new words without the article, and you’re not going to have time to look them up in a dictionary to find out their gender.

There’s also the issue of initial consonants that can’t be lenited. “L,” “M,” “N,” “R,” and (when it occurs) “V” can’t be lenited. Neither can the combinations “Sc,” Sm,” Sp,” and “St.”** Pairing these with the definite article won’t help you remember if they’re masculine or feminine.

When you run into such words, these basic guidelines are helpful:

Words are typically masculine if…

  • They end with a broad consonant (béal – mouth, féar – grass/hay)
  • They are occupational words ending in  – óir/-oir, – éir/-eir or -úir/-uir (ceoltóir – musician, báicéir – baker, dochtúir – doctor).
  • They are single-syllable words ending in -eacht or -acht (ceacht – lesson, fuacht – cold (temperature)).
  • They end with the diminutive suffixes -ín or -án (cailín – girl/young woman.Yes, this word is actually masculine)
  • They end with -ste (páiste – child, coiste – committee)

In addition, words are typically masculine if they are loan words from another language (vóta – vote), and they’re always treated as masculine if they’re foreign words that haven’t been “Gaelisized” (”bicycle,” for example).

An added bonus: There are more masculine words in Irish than feminine ones, so if you really do have to make a wild-ass guess, guess masculine. You have a fair chance of being right!

Words are typically feminine if…

  • They end with a slender consonant (barúil – opinion, uirlis – instrument)
  • They are multi-syllable words ending in -eacht, -acht, or -íocht (gluaiseacht – movement, beannacht – blessing, filíocht – poetry)
  • They are place/location names that end with -lann (leabharlann– library, otharlann –  hospital/infirmary).
  • They end with -eog or -óg (brídeog – bride, feadóg – whistle).
  • They end with -chan (athbheochan – revival).

An added bonus: The names of most countries, languages, and rivers are feminine.

Compound Nouns

Compound nouns are words that are made by combining two nouns (for example, in English we take the nouns “light” and “house” and put them together as “lighthouse”).

In Irish, compound nouns always take the gender of the SECOND noun:

Sráid – street (feminine)

Combines with…

Baile – town (masculine)

To become…

Sráidbhaile – village (masculine)

Exceptions Exceptions!

There are exceptions to grammar rules in most languages, and Irish is no exception (see what I did there?).

There are some words in Irish that, given the guidelines above, you’d assume to be feminine, but that are actually masculine (and vice versa).

For example, even though most country and language names are feminine,  Sasana (England), Ceanada (Canada), Meiriceá (America), Meicsiceo (México), and Béarla (the English language) are all masculine. The two-syllable word bunreacht (constitution) is also masculine.

On the flipside, the words méar (finger), and timpiste (accident), which you might assume to be masculine, are actually feminine.

These aren’t the only ones, of course.There are a few exceptions in most of the categories above, and you’ll just have to memorize them.

And About Those Pronouns

Generally speaking, you use the pronoun appropriate to a word’s grammatical gender. For example, if I’m speaking about my harp (cláirseach) I use feminine pronouns because “cláirseach” is feminine:

Cá bhfuil do chláirseach? Where is your harp?

Tá sí sa charr. It (literally “she”) is in the car

But if I’m speaking of my car (carr), which is masculine, I use masculine pronouns:

Cá bhfuil do charr? Where is your car?

Tá sé sa gharáiste. It (literally “he”) is in the garage.

Common sense prevails, though, when you’re speaking of living creatures:

Is í mo chailín. She is my girl (even though “cailín” is masculine)

Don’t Worry! You’ll Get Used to It!

The good thing is, the more speaking and listening you do, the more comfortable you’ll be navigating the gender minefield. You may make the occasional mistake, but that’s OK. We all do (even some native speakers!).

Hope this helps! Happy gendering!

Beirigí bua!

GG

* Irish does not have an indefinite article, i.e., the equivalent of “a/an” in English.

** An easy mnemonic for remembering which “s” words can’t be lenited is “Scallions Smell Spicy in Stew.”


In addition to being “The Geeky Gaeilgeoir,” Audrey Nickel is the author of  The Irish Gaelic Tattoo Handbook,” published by Bradan Press, Nova Scotia, Canada.  For information about the book, including where to buy it, please visit http://www.bradanpress.com/irish-tattoo-handbook/