sláinte

Not that St. Patrick’s Day is a huge thing in Ireland, but this isn’t really for the Irish, it’s for everyone else. They all want to celebrate the Irish, or anyway to party in honour of a culture stereotyped as bibulous, and they want to do that by wearing, eating, and drinking green things and doing so until they, too, are green. Or perhaps grey. They sing rubbishy songs that have little to do with true good Irish music, and they drink themselves sick… toasting each other’s health.

May the road rise to meet you! What that really means, of course, all motion being relative, is that you fall to meet the road. But, you know, same result. So slant your glass, and then slant yourself! Slant ya!

Sorry, that’s spelled Sláinte. That’s the Irish word for ‘health’, as in yours. It’s pronounced like “sloncha.”

Doesn’t look like that’s what it spells? It does in Irish. Irish spelling is much more consistent than English spelling; it just happens to follow quite different rules. Why not? The grammar is different too. Tá do leabhair agam, ‘I have your book’, is said like “taw doe looer a gum” and, word for word, means ‘is your book at-me’. Do bhris sé an cathaoir orm is said like “doe vrish shay a ca-heer orum,” word-for-word means ‘… broke he the chair on-me’, but doesn’t mean he broke it literally on you, just that he broke it to your detriment, the same as in casual English we use “…on me” to mean ‘to my detriment’, as in “He went and sold it on me” or “She walked out on me.”

So anyway, Irish consonants can be either narrow or broad, which means palatalized or not. English parallels would be like the difference between the two common pronunciations of news (/njuz/ or /nuz/) or of mature (/mətʃʊr/ or /mətur/). The way they indicate this in writing is by having them flanked by either “narrow” (i, e) or “broad” (a, o, u) vowel letters, as appropriate. So there are a lot of “silent vowels” in written Irish. (For other reasons, there are apparently silent consonants too – but really they’re part of digraphs, like th is in English – but I’m not going into that now.) But when there’s an e at the end of a word, it’s pronounced, but just as a reduced vowel: /ə/. And if there’s a t right before it, it’s narrow, which means it’s said like “ch” – that is to say, the same thing many of us do when we say “meet you” or “slant ya.”

This word sláinte, which means ‘health’, is – incidentally – related, way back in Proto-Indo-European, to Latin salus ‘health’ and German selig ‘blessed’. Also to Italian salute and Spanish salud, which both mean ‘health’ and both are used as toasts too. We do like to wish each other good health as we raise a glass. However green its contents may or may not be.

Incidentally, the Irish word for ‘green’ is glas. It’s also the Irish word for ‘grey’. Just as we see the sky, the sea, and many other shades and saturations as different versions of blue, Irish sees all these greens and greys – and the colour of blue-grey eyes – as different shades and saturations of glas. (Which means my wife and I have the same colour eyes in Irish, though not in English.) That kind of makes sense; a lot of the greys you’ll find in nature are easily seen as desaturated green.

So about 90% of the scenery in Ireland is glas. Also about 90% of Canadian pub-goers on their way home at 3 AM after St. Patrick’s. And 100% of the ones the road has risen to meet.

5 responses to “sláinte

  1. What a marvelous post! Thanks very much for sharing.

  2. Pingback: sláinte – markstephenraymentsmith

  3. Hi there, just started reading your blog and word tasting notes. The closest equivalent to grey in Irish is ‘liath’. Sometimes ‘glas’, the word for green does refer to grey alright, but not generally. The online dictionary at http://www.focloir.ie is a good place to check usage for Irish words. The Irish for blue is ‘gorm’, so blue-grey could be translated as ‘gormliath’. This isn’t in the dictionary directly, but it follows the rules for combining adjectives.

    • Ach! That’s what I learned from Teach Yourself Irish, so I wish they had told me about liath. I also double-checked glas in my Oxford Irish-English dictionary, and it confirmed that it was green, grey, and blue-grey as in eyes. I should have gone the other way and started with grey and I would have found liath alright. Nach mór an trua!

      • It’s true, where you start out in a dictionary can make a big difference. The usage examples in the online dictionary are really useful for spotting the words without 1:1 equivalents (I’m smiling as type – I realise I used a non-standard version of all right in my original comment).

        I’m really enjoying the word tasting notes. Beir bua.

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