Friday, June 1, 2007

Beginning to learn Old Irish

"In the Good Old Irish Way..."
Here I type away a beginner, a foghlameoir fasta, an adult learner of modern Irish and already I find myself, thanks to looking up tidbits (or my fellow indie scholar in more ways than one, Lee from Come Back Horslips-dot-com and her sister site "HorsLit: Literary Sources for Horslips' lyrics" would call them Saturday's smut) in the Old Irish sagas in their own Tolkienishly truncated, pleasingly warped, and linguistically clipped, bog latinate, and Indo-Europeanishly decaying style. I woke up in the middle of last night saying "Blasaim" as if to imperatively command a dreamtime blessing. My Irish is off-kilter, the usage well-intended but inaccurate. Still, the sentiment of my subconscious becomes the motivator of my waking hours. So, this the first of a review (tarted up here, however-- posted to Amazon US today) of a learner's "vademecum" for Old Irish. (Yerra, my image isn't "Celtic," but a sprightly cover, no? P.S. Since two O Murchu brothers made a "Briathra na Gaeilge" 50-page booklet for the modern Irish verbs, no other has appeared. If we have 501 Arabic Verbs and Lithuanian is now on the Leaving Cert in Ireland, why not a comprehensive book for modern Irish verbal conjugations?)

Antony Green's "Old Irish Verbs & Vocabulary"

Lately some fresh titles invigorate the standard and small shelf of works assisting newcomers to early forms of Irish. The shelf already has been long filled by Rudolf Thurneysen's Old Irish Reader, Osborn Bergin's Old Irish Paradigms, John Strachan's selections from the Tain, and E. G. Quin's Old Irish Workbook. These venerable works, published in English around the postwar period in Ireland, favor examples from OI glosses to medieval Latin texts and assemble graded (but not with answer key) exercises building upon and often cross-referenced with the enormous Grammar of Old Irish of Thurneysen that originally appeared in German earlier in the 20c.

Since then, students like myself come to Old Irish expecting livelier excerpts from the sagas and commentaries, and with unfortunately less years of Latin given its decline at the university level of teaching-- not to mention prior to college. Many of us need to catch up and if we are not professional linguists or blessed with the talents of born philologists, we may find the standard works for OI too daunting at first. This is my case, and may be so for many students and independent scholars or similarly motivated learners outside the classroom.

The books listed above tend towards the advanced linguistics postgraduate, and like the Ruth (R.P.M.) & W.P. Lehmann "An Introduction to Old Irish" (1975; updated 1992), they expect too erudite a patience from absolute beginners to Old Irish today. For better or worse, given the reality of current preparation, that's where coaches like Wim Tigges' handsome clothbound (but scarce outside Holland) "Old Irish Primer," David Stifter's hefty but fairly priced (at least for a scholarly book from Syracuse UP) "Sengoidelc," and noted professor Kim McCone's expensive Maynooth monograph "A First Old Irish Grammar and Reader" (and some Middle or Medieval Irish) come in to urge on us rookies. Antony Green's own reference work aligns with the 21st-century paradigm for OI newcomers. Tigges, Stifter, and McCone try to integrate more cultural context into the presentation of grammatical data and linguistic terminology that often overwhelms learners of OI. (Or Latin nowadays, come to think of my own encounter. I only understood English grammar after having studied Latin.)

Green's simply organized. Lists of verbs akin to those found in a 201 Spanish Verbs or 501 German Verbs text are given, followed by a glossary of common words, with the grammatical data included briefly but clearly. This improves on the older standbys in at least two ways.

1) It is easy to read, in a handsome typeface and wide margins. The older volumes from Strachan, Bergin & Quin are now often found paperbound in a difficult to keep open format (unless you break the fragile binding and risk losing the smallish, closely printed, and darkish pages). Thurneysen's Grammar is enormous and intricate; his thin OI Reader's more of a Teutonic monolithic mode of instruction. Green's attractive book gives you no frills, but the lists of verbs and the glossary are easy to use and easy to scan in a hurry, which is what a reference book should be for at this stage for those readers eager to consult OI patterns and lists without getting bogged down in linguistic minutiae at the early stage. As a medievalist and one familiar with Modern Irish, I may add that readers coming to OI after recent Irish will find these contents also intriguing.

2) This book is a good value compared to the earlier volumes. Attractively produced, and easy to hold in the hand or prop to a page. Durable, yet affordable. It also takes account of recent scholarship after the mid-century pioneers who produced those first small volumes for the Royal Irish Academy and the Dublin Institute of Advanced Studies. Thurneysen & co., after all, write for a generation schooled from infancy in the classics plus at least two or three contemporary European languages, the norm once, and we must admit that nowadays students will almost certainly lack this rigorous preparation and sustained training. Therefore, a handy source such as Green should supplement too those learners entering OI with more recent materials for beginners such as from Tigges, McCone, or the more widely distributed David Stifter's "Sengoidelc." Stifter himself was a quick learner; he started about '95 and within a few years he was teaching others in his German university. That gymnasium training.

Back to me off Amazon. We do have, as with modern Irish, Internet resources. CELT from UCC, now NUI Cork, provides the textual corpus. But, as with later Irish language forms, where to plow through the off-line options challenges the curious. I do wish, as with Mark Nodens' Welsh course, we had a full-fledged online course in not only contemporary but medieval forms of Gaeilge. The foundations begin to take shape. Begun by David Webb who also started the Cois Fharraige "Beginning Irish" Michael O Siadhail textbook group, a Sengoidelc OI exists on Yahoo Groups, but it seems (as with the CF after his departure) dormant now.

We await the messianic era of free classes and boundless enthusiasm provided us free of charge! An Gaeilge gan deora. Gradus ad Parnassum. Maranatha. Tiocfaidh ar la? A few of us acolytes in our own stumbling rituals make our rounds in the hours before dawn.

Apropos, I acknowledge a former classmate of mine, (at least semi-indie scholar?) Lisa Spangenberg, who studied medieval lit concurrently with me at UCLA. She doubtless has no idea who I am or was; she evidently wandered off where I wished I could have gone, into Patrick K. Ford's Old Irish courses (before he upgraded to Harvard to teach and run Ford & Baillie that morphed into Celtic Studies Publications). With devotion to recondite lore & dedication to VSO P + Q Celtic languages, her well-titled site introduces how to study OI. It features Celticry's resonances in pop fiction, literary arcana, and/or dryasdust academica. (We each got a head start I suppose; I unearth OI a dozen years after my PhD was earned; she now revives I am pleased to read from a recent visit to the site her dissertation!)

1 comment:

Bo said...

Thanks for a very interesting review, Fionnchu. I thought you were spot-on about these newish resources. I learned from Strachan, Thurneysen etc, and Tigges, McCone and Stifter are in many ways a vast improvement.