You are on page 1of 4

Their Language, So Familiar And So Foreign:

The English Tongue And Its Irish Voice


Kieran Quinlan
Murray State University
The iIrst half of this paper's title is taken, of course, from that highly
signiiIcant episode in Joyce's A Portrait of tbe Artist as a Young Man in
which Stephen Dedalus, the aspiring Irish writer, is confronted with the
more ancient linguistictradition of the English Jesuit priest. Stephen reflects:
The language in which we are speaking is his before it is
mine. How different are the words bome, Cbrist, ale,
master on his lips and on minel I cannot speak or write
these words without unrest of spirit. His language, so
familiar and so foreign, will always be for me an acquired
speech. I have not made or accepted its words. My voice
holds them at bay. My soul frets in the shadow of his

language. I
The occasion for this reflection is Stephen's use of the word tundIsb for
funnel, a usage with which the Englishman genuinely claims to be unfamiliar. Stephen had already passed the incident off lightly by alluding
half-mockingly to the prevalence of the word tundIsb in the Dublin borough
of Lower Drumcondra "where they speak the best English." In practice,
however, "the little word seemed to have turned a rapier point of his sensitiveness against this courteous and vigilant foe. He felt with a smart of
dejection that the man to whom he was speaking was a countryman of Ben
Jonson."2 This whole scene effectively represents so many aspects of the
Irish use of the English language that explication of each of its "nuances"
is called for.
In what follows, the identiiIcation of Joyce with Stephen hardly needs
apology: though the incident itself probably never took place in its present
form, the concerns it expresses were shared by its author, perhaps even to
the extent of being among the fundamental preoccupations of his life. First
of all, then, it might appear from the passage quoted that Joyce's mother
tongue was Gaelic rather than English: "His [the English Jesuit's]
language...will alwaysbe for me an acquired speech." The truth is, however,

115

116

117

that Joyce knew very little Gaelic--far less than the modern-day Irish
schoolboy-and that what little he did know was the standard textbook
Gaelic of the penny grammars then making their rust appearance, a Gaelic
that native speakers in the West of Ireland would have found either incomprehensible or hopelessly impoverished. In common with most Irishmen
of his d~y, English-granted certain Irish pronunciations-was Joyce's native
tongue:. his ancestral Gaelic was the language that was truly foreign to him.
He would have agreed with the substance of Yeats's observation in his 1937

language of commerce and politics.


Gaelic, of course, would not exactly have reminded Joyce of his
freedom-in Portrait, Stephen's nationalist friend, Davin (a student of
Gaelic), is said to have "the attitude of a dullwitted loyal serf" -but English
certainly recalled to him his nation's thralldom and bondage. Elsewhere
Joyce remarks that:
In the tradition of Irish writers of comedy that runs from
the days of Sheridan and Goldsmith to Bernard Shaw,

"A General Introduction for my Work":


...1 owe my soul to Shakespeare, to Spenser and to Blake,
and to the English language in which I think, speak, and

write...everythingI lovehas cometo methroughEnglish.J


And if Joyce would have hesitated at all to give assent to that declaration,
it would have been to acknowledge his debt to French, German, Italian,
and Norwegian, rather than to the language of his ancestors.
Why, then, Stephen's, or Joyce's, "unrest of spirit," his "fretting"
in the shadow of the English language? It seems to me that there are at
least two reasons for this. The rust is Joyce's native resentment of the
English: for all his mockery of the Celtic and nationalist movements in his
own country--rather because of his mockery of them-he remained in the
deepest sense an Irish patriot, more in continuity with the native tradition
of satire than were more obvious Hibernicists like Hyde and Pearse. In this
he would have agreed with the rest of the passage just quoted from Yeats:
"my hatred [of the English] tortures me with love, my love with hate."
Joyce's attitude here is akin to that of Richard Mulcaster, Edmund Spenser's
teacher, on the eye of the English Renaissance, though his solution is quite
different:
our own [English tongue] bear[s] the joyful title of our
liberty and freedom, the Latin tongue remember[s] us of
our thralldom and bondage...1 honor the Latin, but I worship the English..
The irony is that just when England herself was beginning to rejoice in her
emancipation from Rome, in the very spirit of that Roman Empire which
she sought to reject, she attempted to impose her own tongue on the wild
Irish, so that--as Sir John Davies commented--"the next generation [of

Irishmen]willin tongue and heart and everywayelsebecomeEnglish."S


The attempt was bitterly resisted by the Irish and did not even remotely
succeed until the nineteenth century when the Gaelic-speaking Daniel
O'Connell, backed by an enthusiastic Catholic Church, convinced the Irish
that it would be in their best interest to abandon their own tongue for the

Wilde became,like them, court jester to the English.6


Though Sheridan, Goldsmith, Wilde and Shaw, not being themselves of
Gaelic ancestry, were able to speak English (the language of their immigrant
forebears) without any of the misgiving that afflicted Joyce, he considered
that all of them had ended up merely providing English societywith its comic
relief, no matter how serious their commentary may sometimes have been.
He was also well aware that the Irish in general, irrespective of their
background, had been depicted in the English theater from the time of
Shakespeare onwards as mispronouncers of the language, saying tay for
tea, say for see, and so on, rather than as serious participants in the human
comedy. Moreover, the bulk of the Irish population in the 19th century,
learning English from fellow countrymen whose knowledge was at several
removes from the source, ended up with a Babu version based on English,
Gaelic, and Latin. Alan Upward, in a book appropriately titled The New
Word, describes such debased, popular language among colonized peoples

thus:

...they spell our words correctly, and they have some notion of what the words mean; but English has not replaced their native speech, and hence it fits them like a borrowed garment, and they are betrayed into awkward and
laughable mistakes in using it, which have given rise to the

term Babu English.7


Joyce himself, of course, as a university trained English speaker from a
middle-class family, wasn't subject to such embarrassing usage, but he was
sufficiently aware of its existence to feel some unease about his own grasp
of the language. Thus, here Stephen/Joyce experiences "unrest of spirit"
because he is sorely tempted to sacrifice the "scrupulous meanness" of his
pose and prose, his "classical temper," for the buffoonery of his deracinated
tradition. Without exercising caution, he might rmd himself reduced to the
condition of Forster's Dr. Aziz.
A second, and closely related, reason for Stephen/Joyce's "fretting"
in the shadow of the English language is simply the supposed inferiority

119

118
of the provincial--and especially the Irish provincial--speaker to the native
well-spoken Englishman. How different are the words on his lipsl The emphasis here is less on quaint idioms of speech than it is on pronunciation.
This uneasiness of the regional speaker, the speaker with pronounced acceqt, in the presence of those who are judged to be "proper" speakers of
the language, however, is commonplace: such was Wordsworth's experience
on first arriving at Cambridge; Chekov, the provincial Georgian, was teased about his accent in sophisticated St. Petersburg; Camus' Algerian French
was mimicked in Paris; and, to offer a more recent example, the contemporary British poet Donald Davie remembers "what wickedlyexact fun...[a
friend at Cambridge]...made of how my West Riding [of Yorkshire] accent handled the vowelsof Marlowe Roadl'" It might also be added-a point
frequently forgotten--that a school-trained speaker of Gaelic is very likely
to meet a similar response when he first addresses a native Gaelic speaker
in the West of Ireland.
Again, returning to our original scene from Portrait, one should note
that the reference to Lower Drumcondra "where they speak the best
English" is more than merely defensive on Stephen's part. After all, it was
another Dubliner, one with quite a strong accent, who-in Pygmalionwondered why the English couldn't learn to speak and later set himself the
task of reforming their outmoded orthography. The theory that the' 'best"
English is spoken in pockets of Leinster or Ulster, or, for that matter, in
North Carolina, has long been a source of local pride for the inhabitants
of these regions and rests on the fact that a number of Elizabethan words
and pronunciations still remain in these areas while they have been lost to
more cosmopolitan speakers. There is in Ireland, Jeremiah Hogan observes
in his standard The EngDsb Language in Ireland,
as in Scotland and America, a tendency to defend the correctness of certain Irishisms against English usage. This
applies especially to matters in which Irish pronunciation
is known to agree with old-fashioned English as in pronouncing words like herb, hospitai, and, now, humor,
without the aspirate, or...where the Anglo-Irish sound is
felt to be nearer to Standard English than vulgar English,
especially Cockney, or at least to differ from it in a more
desirable direction...
9

What, finally, are we to make Stephen's "smart of dejection that the


man to whom he was speaking was a countryman of Ben Jonson"? The
dejection that Stephen experiences in this situation may in part arise from
the fact that a countryman of Ben Jonson is unfamiliar with the MiddleEnglish word tundish. Here is the Poundian Joyce, who is enraged because
he has found that the English themselves have forgotten their own heritage.
More obviously, however, the reference is to Jonson's Irish Masque, for

it is there that the Irish are potrayed as saying Chreesh and mayshter instead of Christ and master. Jonson's masque, first performed at the English
court in 1613,has the rude Irish renounce their course manners and customs
and come forth "as newborn creatures all." At this juncture the Irish bard
sings in polite English:
So breaks the Sun earth's rugged chains
Wherein rude winter bound her veins.
A recent English critic has pointed out the absurdity of Jonson's presumptions, for it was at this very period that the Gaelic language was enjoying
one of its greatest flowerings in terms of an austere, classical tradition. 10
For Joyce, though, the reference would have had a somewhat different
meaning, probably more in line with Jonson's. Here, then, the artist Stephen
Dedalus, about to launch on his career writing in the English tongue, is
like the Irish bard in Jonson's masque. He enters into his chosen profession with passion, misgiving,and arrogance, somewhat distressed, however,
by his actual encounter with his courteous English foe.
Joyce's passage in Portrait epitomizes the situation ofthe Irish writer
of English at the beginning of this century. That the situation has since
dramatically changed is due only in part to his success. For example, one
can see Joyce's career in terms of an attempt to construct a new identity
for himself by composing a polyglot language of which his once despised
Gaelic tongue would form a significant part. A casual examination of Brendan O'Hehir's A GaeDeLexieon for Finnegans Wake shows that whilePortrait has just one page of Gaelic entries for it, Ulysses has 17, and the Wake
a total of 331 (even if, as O'Hehir notes, the Gaelic is still "elementary"
and the grammar "faculty"). II Irish perversity is tempted to argue that
Joyce's radical reconciliation of English with what Samuel Beckett's Mrs.
Rooney calls "our own poor dear Gaelic" resulted in a "new" language
which subsequent (British) English writers would have to strive to master.
In fact, of course, Joyce went beyond what most Irishmen and Englishmen
alike can readily understand.
The finding of an Irish voice for the English tongue has been, instead,
largely an unconscious process of natural evolution. John Millington Synge
attempted to do it consciously, and though the authenticity of his achievement is still in dispute, the fact that the early Abbey actors had difficulty
in learning its rhythms suggests that his particular dialect was not too common among the people. Later writers such as Frank O'Connor and Sean
O'Faolain tended to pay their debts to the native tradition by their more
careful translations of the Gaelic poets. Austin Clarke is remembered for
his introduction of Gaelic meters and assonance into Anglo-Irish poetry,
an approach that many subsequent poets have found to be too contrived.

121

120
Seamus Heaney, a contemporary Ulster poet, has written "The Wool
Trade" as a glosson Joyce's text from Portrait. "Traditions," another poem
in the same collection, however, offers a more comprehensive summary of
the implications of the scene between Stephen and the Jesuit and of the
whole course of the English tongue and its Irish voice from the time of
Spenser and Shakespeare, through the long period of identity crisis, to more
recent times:
Our guttural muse
was. bulled long ago
by the alliterative tradition,
her uvula grows

vestigial...
Weare to be proud
of our ElizabethanEnglish:
"varsity," for example,
is grass-rootsstuff with us;
we "deem" or we "allow"
when we suppose
and some cherished archaisms
are correct Shakespearean...
MacMorris, gallivanting
round the Globe, whinged
to courtier and groundling
who had heard tell of us
as going very bare
of learning, as wild hares,
as anatomies of death:
"What ish my nation?"
And sensibly, though so much
later, the wandering Bloom
replied, "Ireland," said Bloom,
"I was born here. Ireland." 12
In what has since become a classic text on the subject, Daniel Corkery
wrote as late as 1931 that
the Irishman feels it in his bones that Ireland has not
yet learned to express its own life through the medium of
the English language. If he be a literary Irishman he knows
that whatever moulds exist in this literature are not the inevitable result of long years of patient labour by Irish
writers to express the life of their own people in a natural
way. 13

Fifty years later, and very much aware that Corkery would have rejected
several of the names that follow, we can say that Yeats, Synge, Lady
Gregory, Joyce, Colum, O'C~ey, O'Connor, O'Faolain, o 'Flaherty,
Lavin, Clarke, Kavanagh, Moore, Friel, Heaney, McGahern, and a host
of others have patiently and successfully labored to render that life into
English.
Furthermore, the English language that an Irishman today seeks to
speak or write has not remained unaltered on the mainland. Indeed, it is
not uncommon for English writers to look to the example of Yeats and
Joyce to see how they themselves might incorporate more of their own
Anglo-Saxon roots. And by a peculiar irony of fate, the political party in
England that is generally considered to be most unsympathetic to Irish nationalism derives its popular title from the Gaelic word "toraidhe" (Tory),
meaning an Irish Catholic rebel of the seventeenth century. To conclude,
in a situation where prominent English writers such as Anthony Burgess
and John Braine acknowledgethe influence of their immigrant Irish Catholic
grandmothers, one can only remain hesitant about making any fmal pronouncement about the Irish voice of the common language of the British
Isles.
'Portrait (New York: Penguin, 1976), 189.
'Portralt,
189.
'Essays and Introductions (New York: Collier, 1968), 519.
'Quoted in The Norton AntholollY of EnaJIsb Literature (New York: Norton, 1974), I, 478.
'Quoted in Philip Edwards' Threshold of a Nadon: A Study In EnglIsh and Irish Drama
(New York: Cambridge University Press, 1979), 85.
'The Cridcal WridDgs of James Joyce (London: Faber & Faber, 1959), 202.
'Quoted in Donald Davie's Ezra Pound (New York: Penguin, 1975), 55; Frank O'Connor refers to Babu in A Short HIstory of Irish Literature: A Backward Look (New York:
Putnam's, 1967), 139.
'These the CompanIons: RecoDections (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1982),29.
'The EDglIsh Langoage In Ireland (Marylaod: McGrath, 1970), 62.
"Edwards,
13.
" A Gaelic: Lexic:on for FlDnegans Wake (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976),

ix.
"Poems: 1965-1975 (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1980), 109-110.
"Synge and Anglo-Irish Literature (New York: Russell, 1965), 12.