Sadness is on me
May 11, 2024 12:45 PM   Subscribe

Does the Irish language / culture have a particularly philosophy of viewing emotions as fleeting? Or is it just the way its grammar works?

I have seen it shared a few times now that the Irish for I am sad is literally translated as "sadness is on me" and that this reflects a philosophy of not identifying with emotions.

While I am a fan of the analogy and think there's a beautiful lesson to be learned:

Does the Irish language / culture really have a philosophy of seeing emotions as fleeting? Or is it more just a case of: that's how Irish grammar works and there's no particular deeper meaning to it?
posted by iamsuper to Society & Culture (3 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I’ve been studying Irish for a few years now, and I take classes online (zoom) with native speakers in Ireland and the North. The answer, like everything, is “kinda.” It’s actually more like a lot of things that you do or that happen to you are described as relationships of greater or lesser temporality.

First of all, you mostly use common verbs (like do, go, put, come, stay, etc get more of a workout than you might expect) with the addition of a preposition to show a relationship. Prepositions have number and person like nouns, so you know who is doing or receiving the action. It’s a lot different from English or Spanish or French, which were the languages I was most familiar with before starting to learn Irish.

So, to tell someone you’re sad, you do say “Tá brón orm” (sadness is on me), and you would also say Tá tinneas fiacail orm” (I have a toothache/a toothache is on me). The proposition “orm” (on me) is the connection here.

But these kinds of relationships describe other things you do or experience. If you want to ask someone a question, you would say “Tá ceist agam a chur ort” (I have a question to put on you). This sentence actually has two propositions and a verb: “Tá” is the conjugated verb of being (but I think of it as saying “This statement is true”), “agam” is a proposition that means “At me” and is used to indicate possession (I have) and “ort” is the second person of the preposition we’ve been using (orm = on me; ort = on you). So, a literal translation of that sentence might be like “True, a question at me to put on you.”

Exceptions apply. If you’re ill, you say “Tá mé tinn” (I am ill), but to describe your particular illness, it’s back to a condition that’s on you, like “tinneas cinn” (headache or illness of the head) or “tinneas cluaise” (earache/ear infection).

That’s a lot and I hope any of it was helpful
posted by toodleydoodley at 6:19 PM on May 11 [11 favorites]

I just want to add, as a linguist, that "that's just the case of how the grammar works and there's no deeper menaing to it" is the null position in linguistics. Most claims about links between grammatical structures and cultures are bunk; most are cherry-picked to support previously held beliefs about this-or-that culture. I'm not saying it's always intentional, it's just that things that confirm our biases stand out to us and unless you're a linguist you're probably not doing some sort of comparative evaluation or study to take into account all of the contradictory evidence, such as other cultures that have similar grammatical structures but don't have this-or-that stereotypical trait. Even when there is plausibility it can be very hard or impossible to demonstrate just because of the nature of the claim.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 6:59 AM on May 12 [10 favorites]

Agree with Kutsuwamushi — language instructors have a lot of cool chauvinistic things to say about their language (“úrscéal is a better word than novel,” according to my pal) but Ireland, forex, had the language largely beaten out of it over the last couple hundred years, and yet culture went on fulfilling people’s needs for identity and so forth. Let’s just say Irish is a rich language, a great language, and the murdering thieves that took it from us while borrowing extensively from it owe us all a great debt.
posted by toodleydoodley at 3:34 PM on May 12 [1 favorite]

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