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Manchán Magan: 'Our perception of the world can change when we see things through the Irish language'

The author and broadcaster writes about researching his latest book on the Irish language and the many colourful words in it.

Manchán Magan

THERE’S A WORD in Irish to describe the luminous track of a boat through phosphorescence, tine ghealáin.

It can also refer to flashes of lightning and the mysterious light that is emitted from putrid fish or rotten wood.

It’s a good example of how old languages can have a certain luminance to them that can help shine light on the past, illuminating fading customs and beliefs.

I had explored a lot of these words in the book Thirty-Two Words For Field, but I hadn’t done justice to the sheer wealth of words that describe the natural world, and so I spent the second half of lockdown gathering the most insightful, cheeky and evocative words that describe the natural world and compiling them into a book with illustrations by Steve Doogan.

The result is a celebration of the wonderful linguistic legacy that we’ve inherited from our ancestors on this island. It’s called Tree Dogs, Banshee Fingers and other Irish Words for Nature.

We are the descendants of Bronze Age settlers who arrived on these rocky green shores over four thousand years ago, and ever since then we’ve survived almost exclusively by foraging from and tending to the land and harvesting the bounty of the sea and shore.

For the past two thousand, and possibly up to three thousand years, we have been speaking different forms of the Irish language, and so it’s no wonder that we’ve amassed a rich trove of words to describe every aspect of nature.

As you’d expect, there are many different words to describe bad weather. A cold blast of wind is fuarghaoth, while a sudden gust of wind is cuaifeach or saighneán or rua-ghaoth. Fleá means the same but often with rain in the gust. Those rare moments when a lull appears during a rainstorm are known as sámhnais, while a general easing of the wind is snag.

I was keen to capture incidents of words that make us see the world in different ways. Neuroscience tells us that a language can’t change our reality, but it can help us perceive things differently. This is clear from the distinction that Irish makes between colours, such as dearg and rua. Dearg is the word for a dark or vibrant red, as in red ink, blood, gore, fire, embers, hot iron or the lower layers of soil, while rua is a more brownish-red, like a fox pelt. This is why the Irish for fox is madra rua, not madra dearg.

It’s not a major difference, but your brain needs to adjust its optical sensitivity a little to take account of this and to differentiate between the different shades of red. It’s even more apparent with the words for green, glas and uaine. Glas refers to the green of grass, leaves, young plants and other natural things, while uaine is usually reserved for manufactured green things.

But glas can also mean the greeny-grey colour of the sea, and in this way has become a word to describe a horse or cow of a particular shade of muted grey. Other varieties of grey in horses and cattle are described as liath, which is the principal word for grey. But a grey squirrel is not an iora liath, but an iora glas.

Yet, in general, most shades of grey can be referred to as liath, just not the grey tints associated with a cold winter sky, or undyed wool, or iron. These are all referred to as being glas in colour. This does seem to suggest that our perception of the world does indeed change a little when we begin seeing things through the altered colour spectrum of the Irish language.

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It’s only natural that over the course of such an extensive timespan we’ve developed detailed and idiosyncratic ways of describing the specifics of our surroundings, of our psychology, and of our hopes and fears, and also of the incredible complexity of the ecological biosphere that has sustained us almost exclusively for the majority of these past four or five millennia.

In the book I explore the six different words Irish has to delineate the stages of dawn, and the many words for mammals that seem to describe them in the same way that a child might upon seeing them for the first time ever, rather than the analytical description of a biologist. Words such as, sciathán leathair for a bat, which translates as ‘leather wings’, or máthair shúigh, a squid which literally means ‘sucking mother’, or gealóg bhuachair for a corn bunting, ‘little bright one of the cowpat’.

The principle aim of the book is to highlight the poetry, wisdom, divilment, and insight contained within our glorious old tongue. An teanga Gaeilge is our birth-right – something we should be immensely proud of, not only for its cultural wealth and its social and psychological subtlety, but also for the insights it offers into the flora and fauna, the climate patterns, the moon cycles, the ocean currents and the otherworldly dimensions of this, our island home. Whether we pass it on as a precious heirloom or let it dissipate and die is up to us. Is í ár dteanga í, agus beatha teanga í a labhairt.

Tree Dogs, Banshee Fingers and other Irish Words for Nature by Manchán Magan, with illustrations by Steve Doogan is published by Gill Books. It’s nominated in The Journal’s category of Best Irish Published Book in this year’s An Post Irish Book Awards. The awards will take place virtually on 23 November – to find out more and see all the nominees, visit the awards website.

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Manchán Magan

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