The Irish for No

Posted by on Sunday, March 13th, 2005

The Irish for No by Ciaran Carson.

Let me begin by inviting you into the club:  there is no word in Irish, or in any of the Celtic languages, for "no."  Nor is there a word for "yes."  Rather, answering yes or no requires the speaker to conjugate the verb into its positive or negative form.  If you ask me "Are you going to the store today?" in Irish, I would have to answer either "I am going to the store" or "I am not going to the store."  This makes Irish 101 a challenging class, and it leaves a fine language student like me totally without words when I run into my former Irish teacher in town–I can understand her questions, but I’ve lost just enough Irish to be wholly incapable of answering. 

The importance of these linguistic oddments varies from one speaker or linguist to another.  In many classrooms, the difficulty has turned into a bit of a game–how can you translate campaign slogans (i.e. "No new taxes") and still have them sound snappy?  In Northern Ireland, particularly in nationalist communities, the lack of a native "No" has been relatively important over the years.  Imagine attempting to make a bit of a slogan in your native tongue to refuse actions by an English-speaking government you reject–tough, eh?

Right, so, I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again.  Carson is a fine writer.  In poetry, his dense, velvetty language is even further compressed.  His memory of bygone Belfast geographies is entrancing.  And, he gets me with this every time, the man discusses the needle arts practiced by his mother and aunts lovingly.  It is not a tome of poems about knitting or quilting, but it is a book of poems in which his mother, a needle-woman, appears as a shining example of thrift and talent and creative expressions of love.  That alone makes the book worth reading, in my eyes.  I loved it, savored it, reread it a few times, and will likely reread it several more times in my life.

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