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In love with language


Sun, Nov 12th, 2000
Posted in

Monday, November 6, 2000

One of the first things I notice when I travel is the sound of other languages being spoken - Asian, European, Middle Eastern...

I recently travelled internationally and realized how much I missed these sounds. I was standing in a bookstore in Amsterdam’s airport looking at book titles, and listening to Dutch being spoken on one side of me and Arabic on the other.

I get an excitement at airports just hearing the gift of tongues playing out in normal discourse. It reminds me of how diverse the world is and what a great role language plays in it. There is no question that English is already the language of international business, and is becoming the most prominent second language in the world, a universal lingua franca if you will.

English is a relatively atonal, linear sounding tongue, but in some hands has all the earmarks of a different language.

In the Hebrides - England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland - word usage plays a big part in how the language is delivered.

“So your going to be driving to the south, are you then? Grand, grand. That’ll be a grand trip,” an Irish taxi driver said in response to the news that my son and I would be leaving Dublin for the south the next day.

The Irish are in love with language. You’ll find it in their music and literature. Their music is full of songs about lost love and the memory of the ancestral home. And the Irish take great pride in their literary giants - poet William Butler Yeats, playwrights George Bernard Shaw and Samuel Becket, and poet Seamus Heaney all received the Nobel Prize for Literature. Throw in, James Joyce, Sean O’Casey, Frank O’Connor - the list goes on and on - and you can see that the Irish have played a significant role in English literature.

The Irish are a warm people, who wouldn’t think of giving a simple “Yes or No” answer when something longer will do.

An older Irish man gave me directions to Glendalough, a 12th century monastic site in the Wicklow Mountains, one day. I had just come off the four lane M-50 turnpike and was confused with all the road construction.

“Could you show me how to get to highway N-18,” I asked. “I want to go to Glendalough.”

“N-18,” he said puzzled. I don’t know where that is, but I can get you to Glendalough.”

“Great,” I responded.

“ Now, do you see that roundabout?” the man asked as he pointed. A roundabout is a circular intersection, like a hub of a wheel with various roads exiting off of it like spokes.

I nodded in the affirmative.

“Now you go back to that roundabout, and you’ll want to drive straight through it. Don’t be turning off it now. This will take you to Killakee Road, and you’ll be taking that into the Wicklow Mountains.”

“Now listen carefully,” he continued.

I could see that the man was warming to his task, and that getting the Yank on the correct path was becoming an important mission for him.

“You’ll want to stay on Killakee Road for a spell. You’ll be going up hill, now, mind you. When you see O’Kelly’s and Killakee House you’ll know you’re on the right track.”

“Are you with me, lad?” he asked, checking for understanding.

“O’Kelly’s and Killakee House,” I muttered.

“Soon after Killakee House, you’ll come to a junction. Take a left there and go until you see another junction. Turn right at the second junction and you’ll find an overlook on the top of the hill that gives a view of Dublin. Now, you’re ready to go into the Wicklow Mountains.”

I was ready to thank him and be on my way, when he touched my shoulder and said, “Now the scenic part of your trip begins,” he said, taking a deep breath before beginning again.

“You’ll be climbing into our lovely Wicklow Mountains. It’ll take your breath away, it surely will,” he said in a voice as thick as clotted cream.

“Now, the road gets narrow mind you and you won’t see a house for the next thirty miles. You won’t come across a soul.”

Thirty came out like “tirty” and soul was a multi-syllable word that started out in a higher octave and soon fell into the base range, the sound of the L curling down at the edges.

“Don’t be put off by the lack of houses,” he warned. “Keep going ahead and stay on the main track till Sally’s Gap. At Sally’s Gap you take the Military Road to Laragh. Glendalough is just a few miles from there.”

“The Military Road,” I repeated.

“The Military Road. It isn’t much mind you, but it’ll get you there,” he said. “Remember, Killakee Road, Sally’s Gap, Laragh, Glendalough.”.

I shook the man’s hand and thanked him profusely even though I wasn’t sure I would be able to follow a word of his directions.

“You and the boy be enjoying your trip now,” he said in parting.

We found everything. The hill overlooking Dublin, Sally’s Gap, the Military Road. We drove through herds of sheep amidst a tree-less landscape of heather and gorse on a narrow track cut through the granite hills. For thirty miles we drove, every foot of it breathtaking, until we exited in a beautiful valley at a crossroads called Laragh. It took us over an hour.

Lost, and seeking directions, we somehow stumbled on adventure. For the next few days, driving in the southeast of Ireland, I welcomed the chance to get lost and ask for help. The English language never sounded so wonderful.

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