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John Cleese versus the Irish language: Don't mention the 'bh' war

Cleese said that Irish names look like deliberate attempts to mislead innocent people but this is not the case, writes Darach Ó Séaghdha.

Darach Ó Séaghdha Writer

IN THE MODERN WORLD, we tend to assign more value to skills and innate qualities that are profitable than we do to refined capacities of appreciation. Being handsome or being able to kick a ball very far in the direction of your choosing are more highly prized than having a great nose for cheeses, a keen ear for operas or an extremely perceptive palate for wines.

The exception to this rule is humour – being regarded as having a sense of humour is seen as far more important than being funny.

While funny people certainly are enjoyed, comedians are in more of a hurry to change jobs than any other kind of entertainer: guitarists and ballerinas who become famous aren’t constantly planning on using their platform to become TV presenters or a children’s authors. They just want to play more guitar or dance more ballet.

Being funny is grand, but having a sense of humour is expected of everyone from plate-dropping waiters to the Taoiseach.

Once the scales of social expectation tip to where the expectation of a listener to laugh at a joke exceeds the expectation of a joker to tell a very good one, we get the OBOYR (only buzzin’ off yeh, relax) problem: where any obnoxious comment can be excused through the loophole that the teller was actually trying to be funny and the listener lacked the refined comic palate to truly appreciate it.

This problem came to the fore this week when veteran comic actor John Cleese attempted to make light of the spelling conventions of the Irish language.

Taking to Twitter to complain about a “hatchet piece” about him by Giles Coren in the Sunday Times, he made a remark about an “unearned sense of superiority”, a comment which prompted a tweeter from Dublin to ask Cleese what he had said about Irish names before.

Apparently lacking the self-awareness to realise that this rhetorical question was a dig at what he’d just said, Cleese replied that Irish names “look like deliberate attempts to mislead innocent people”. 

This started to generate a bit of animated discussion, but things really kicked off when he subsequently asked, in reply to a woman explaining how a h in Irish changes the consonant before it, “if an Irish bh is a v sound, why don’t you write it with a v?”

The answer to the bh/v question is that Irish is a bit like Latin, which Cleese studied at public school. Slight changes are made to the spellings of verbs in different tenses and to nouns depending on where they sit in a sentence (the nominative, vocative, accusative, genitive, dative and ablative cases).

(Can’t see the tweet? Click here

Rather than being an attempt to mislead anyone, adding a h (a séimhiú) to bosca (a box) when it is in the genitive case (an bhosca) is a way of showing a reader that these are in fact, the same word. This is especially useful if mo bhean (my wife) is inside mo veain (my van). 

However, Cleese is not interested in learning Irish. As a multilingual Cambridge graduate, he has certainly been exposed to the idea that different languages have different spelling and pronunciation conventions – key scenes in Life of Brian and A Fish Called Wanda hinge on it.

If he was sincerely curious, he could have pursued the matter offline. But he was being a very naughty boy, confident in the knowledge that no matter how unfunny he was, the burden of humour would fall on those who didn’t enjoy his joke.

There is comic potential in cultural differences and comedians on both sides of the Irish Sea have had fun with how Irish names appear strange to English monoglots. However, the world has changed since Lee Mack’s routine on the subject, and the three years since Brexit (which non-resident Cleese has been openly in favour of) have cast a hard light on how little British people know or care about Ireland.

There’s no shortage of examples of this – threats of starvation, returning to the border arrangements of the Troubles and not knowing that unionists don’t vote for nationalists as are only three cases selected from actual government MPs. 

It is in this context that hundreds of Irish people took to Twitter to offer Cleese some constructive criticism. Unlike his original comment, many of these replies were very, very funny.

Hopefully, we will read them and learn something; nobody is saying that he can’t make a joke, we’ll just need it to be much, much, wittier next time.

Darach’s new book Craic Baby is the follow-up to his acclaimed Motherfoclóir and is out now under the Head of Zeus imprint.

He runs @theirishfor Twitter account and the @motherfocloir podcast.

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About the author:

Darach Ó Séaghdha  / Writer

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