Saturday, 15 December 2012

I feel a sadness on me

This is from The Invisibles volume 1 issue 4:



"I feel a sadness on me," says Tom. "That's how the Irish people say it. In their language, you can't say, 'I am sad,' or 'I am happy'. They understood what we English have long forgot. We're not our sadness. We're not our happiness or our pain but our language hypnotizes us and traps us in little labelled boxes."

I'm reminded of Geoffrey Pullum's awesome response to a piece about how the Gaelic word sgrìob, apparently meaning "the tingle of anticipation felt in the upper lip before drinking whisky" says something profound about Gaelic ways and priorities.

In Irish Gaelic, tá gruaim orm translates word-for-word as "sadness is on me" (I think). Scots Gaelic does something similar: Tha an t-acras orm translates word-for-word as "hunger is on me", that is "I'm hungry". Dè an t-ainm a th'oirt translates word-for-word as "What (is) the name that is on you", that is, "What's your name?"

Pity us English speakers, having long forgotten something the Irish understood… except that we haven't forgotten. It's easy enough to say "I feel a sadness on me", in fact Tom himself said it! It's not hard to figure out what it means. And it's possible to find other examples:

Sadness on the soul of Ida fell. - Tennyson, The princess
sorrow and sadness sat upon every face - Defoe, A Journal of the Plague Year
A search for "sadness fell on me" in google books gets a number of results.

If our language traps us in little boxes, they're boxes made of tissue paper, easy to break out of.

Tom's claim that Gaelic speakers can't say "I am sad" just doesn't hold up. If it was true, it would mean that Gaelic speakers think in English, and just translate their English thoughts word-for-word into Gaelic when they talk. tá gruaim orm translates word-for-word as "sadness is on me", but its meaning is "I am sad".

4 comments :

Jonathon Owen said...

As soon as I saw the title, I wondered if it was a Celtic language. I only took one semester of Welsh and don't remember much, but I remember that "I'm sorry" is "Mae'n ddrwg gen i" (literally 'there is badness with me').

The Celtic tendency for periphrasis is interesting, not because it gives us insight into their psychology, but because it's so surprisingly different from other Western Indo-European languages.

goofy said...

There are other interesting differences as well, like the initial mutations, and the development of absolute and conjunct verb forms.

I recognize the word "drwg" from Doctor Who.

Mwncïod said...

In modern Welsh you say: "dw i'n drist" for "I am sad" (sad = trist) but generally in Welsh it's temporary physical, illness and mental states that are expressed this way using the preposition "v. to be + ar + person" which are also declinable, having personal forms:

ar - on
arna i - on me
arnat ti - on you (sing.)
arno fe - on him
arni hi - on her
arnon ni - on us
arnoch chi - on you (pl.)
arnyn nhw - on them

eg. mae syched arna i - is thirst on me = "I'm thirsty"
oes syched arnat ti? - there is thirst on you? "are you thirsty?"
mae ofn arna i - is fear on me = "I'm afraid"
Irish: tá eagla orm
Manx: ta aggle orrym

mae annwyd arni fe - is (a) cold on him = "he is has a cold"
Irish: tá slaghdán air

Brett Hetherington said...

This phrase reminds me of how depression can feel. Like a great weight on you that is not easily shaken off.

I like the connotation it has of sadness arriving and landing on us rather than being somehow internally generated, which is something some people who have had depression have said.

The great richness of te world's languages!

Where I live (in Catalonia) the rightist Spanish government is doing all it can to diminish the Catalan language.

http://bretthetherington.blogspot.com.es/