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A few more thoughts on Irish-English …

© PHOTOALTOSinead – one of the commenters on Roisin Muldoon’s recent blog – speculated that the Irish-English verb ‘to give out’ (to talk disapprovingly or tell someone off) may be a direct translation of a similar verb in Irish (the Gaelic language of Ireland). This happens a lot when languages co-exist, and Irish-English borrows not only vocabulary but also grammatical patterns from Irish – which by the way is a much older language than English.

So, where standard English would say ‘I wonder if/whether it’ll rain today’, Irish-English speakers would usually say ‘I wonder will it rain today’, and this reflects the way the grammar works in Irish. Since Irish has no real equivalent of ‘to have’, it uses prepositions to indicate possession, and expresses what we would call the ‘perfect’ tenses by using a preposition that’s similar to English ‘after’. This then appears in Irish-English in phrases like: ‘We’re just after eating our dinner’ (We have just eaten our dinner) and (from our corpus) ‘Your aunt is after taking a turn for the worse’. For the same reason, Irish-English speakers are – like Americans – more likely to use a simple past and say ‘Did you finish your homework?’, where Brits would ask ‘Have you finished …?’. (Maybe American English got this preference from the Irish?)

Sometimes Irish-English assimilates an Irish word into an English word that looks or sounds similar. In Irish-English, you can say ‘I have no mass for her’ (or ‘great mass for her’), but the noun here is unrelated to English mass, coming rather from Irish meas, which means respect or esteem. This process works especially well when the Irish and English meanings seem to be be in harmony. There is a (now rather old-fashioned) term ‘jumper’, used for referring to someone who has converted from Catholicism to become a Protestant: this might sound like a figurative use of the English noun (implying that someone has ‘jumped’ from one group to another), but in fact the word comes straight from the Irish expression d’iompaigh siad ina bProtastúnaigh (they turned Protestant).

Finally, an appeal to any Irish speakers out there to adjudicate on a similar case. I read somewhere an explanation of the mystifying English idiom ‘warm the cockles of someone’s heart’. Why ‘cockles’? This has nothing to do with shellfish, but apparently comes from Irish cochall (assimilated to English cockle). And one of the meanings of cochall is the pericardium, the membrane that encloses the heart. But sometimes these etymologies sound too good to be true, and I wonder if this is such a case.

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Michael Rundell


  • Cochall is a hood, and by extension any hood-like thing; I suppose the implication is that to have the cockles of your heart warmed is to be endraped in loving warmth around your heart.

  • P. W. Joyce offers variations on the cockles phrase, e.g. “take the cockles off your heart” and “raise the cockles o’ my heart”, and suggests (p.194 here) that “cares and troubles clog the heart as cockles clog a ship”.

    But this seems to be a guess. T. P. Dolan connects the phrase with the Irish cochall. Bernard Share concurs: in Slanguage, he includes the phrase “i gcochall mo chroí” (“deep down in my heart”), and quotes from a Sunday Tribune article about research carried out by Dymphna Lonergan. The last four lines are about cochall (which, as Pageturners says, means “hood”).

  • I’ve only ever heard meas used with on, e.g. “She has no meas on him since the day he burnt down the barn.” But I think it can also be used with in.

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