The Secret Language of the Crossroad – The Irish Language in America

Feb 06, 2017

In a previous blog, I looked at the extent of the movement of Irish people to the US and how many people in America today are of Irish descent.  When I visited the US last week, to attend the amazing Summer Camp fairs, a thought struck me.

America is a nation made up of so many people with Irish parentage, whose ancestors arrived on its shores speaking only Irish.  How then can so few of the Irish descendants speak the language?  How can so many people have left no trace of their tongue in the land they now called home?

The famine in Ireland hit rural areas the worst and it was in these areas that Irish was at its strongest.  The language had been under threat even before this exodus, with the English Government viewing it as a backwards language that kept the Irish uncivilised and in ignorance of the better English ways and customs.  Killing the language would also allow them to truly conquer the people.  Many methods were introduced to try to eradicate the language – the bata scóir being perhaps the most infamous, whereby each time a child spoke a word of Irish a mark would be made on the piece of slate that hung around his/her neck.  At the end of the day, each child would receive a number of lashes, depending on how many marks were on the slate.  And yet, in spite of all of this, the language continued to survive with the majority of Irish people who made the treacherous journey to America, disembarking on the other side with only Irish at their command.

51QkE7vkAEL._SX311_BO1,204,203,200_I began to look into this (thank God for Google and my local library) and as I write this piece today I am reading an intriguing book called ‘How the Irish Invented Slang:  The Secret Language of the Crossroad’ by Prof David Cassidy (Counterpunch & AK Press 2007).  The book is essentially a dictionary, but it is by far the most interesting dictionary I have ever read.  In this book, Cassidy reveals the extent to which the Irish language and Irish speakers did, in fact, make a huge impression on the English language and how significant parts of the American vernacular have their origins in Irish.  The language, in truth, never died out, but was just supplanted into American slang.

The book is a lesson in the unwavering link between our two countries.  It covers our intertwined histories and shows clearly the traces the tongue of our ancestors left in the spoken word today.  Cassidy gives many examples of this and I have to admit, that even though I am a fluent Irish speaker, I was stunned by the extent of this.


Let me give you a few examples:

crony – comh-roghna meaning fellow favourites

snazzy  – snasta meaning highly polished

slum – Is lom é meaning there’s nothing there, it’s desolate

shanty – sean tigh meaning old house

galore – go leor meaning plenty

shindig – seinnt teach meaning music house

Dig (as in ‘You dig what I’m saying) – Tuig meaning to understand

slugger – slacaire meaning beater

Mutt – madra meaning dog

holler – ollmhór meaning huge / immense

braggart – bréagadóir meaning lier

buddy – bodach meaning strong lusty youth

baloney – béal ónna meaning foolish mouth

I could go on all day.  Each page turned is a new revelation, a new ‘Ah‘ moment, too many to mention, but I highly recommend you check it out for yourselves.

Reading this book and seeing how much of an influence the Irish language still has on the talk of the people in the US has given me a greater understanding of the strong bond between our lands, and the fierce interest and love that Americans have for the Emerald Isle.

Irish is taught in so many places in the States now.  Universities like Notre Dame, NYU, University of California, Fordham, University of Connecticut, to name but a few, offer courses in Irish.  But the interest in the language is not just at University level.  Online courses are huge in the US, with companies such as Bitesize offering online Irish language learning programmes.  This particular company listed the top five states for participants as:  California, Washington, Florida, Texas, Massachusetts.  These are only the top five, but the interest in learning Irish is much more expansive with Arts and Civic centres all over the country conducting classes.

In an article on Irish Central in January, Maitiú Ó Coimín asked a cross section of American Irish language learners why they were learning the language, and often travelling to Ireland, to live in the Gaeltacht and attend intensive language courses there. Many spoke about the love of the culture which goes hand in hand with the language.  Others talked of language options in their University.  But nearly all of them referred to the strong familial and historical connection that exists between our two countries.

Here at The Irish Education Academy, one of our objectives through the Irish Cultural & Enrichment Summer Camps, is to expose the children that stay with us to the richness and deepness of the Irish language.  Donegal is a place where the language is still alive, and for children to see a small language, living and breathing against all the odds, can be very powerful.

Whatever it is that has kept the spark lit, whatever reason lives in the heart and souls of  Americans to speak the old tongue, long may it last.  And long may we preserve our mutual link to the past and to where we have come from.


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