Release notes: Come an’ hev a skeet at the Manx Dialect, Yessir!

Release notes: Come an’ hev a skeet at the Manx Dialect, Yessir!

Set almost half way between Ireland and England in the Irish Sea, the Isle of Man is perhaps more widely known for the TT, its annual festival of motorbike racing, than for its cultural heritage.  Nevertheless, it’s not unusual for visitors to the Island to remark that the Island seems to possess an identity all of its own, distinct from those of its larger neighbours.  While such remarks often focus on the slower pace of life on the Island, distinctive place names like Cregneash, Niarbyl, and Tholt-e-will, or unusual surnames such as Karran, Kerruish, Mylchreest, and Quaggin, one of the clearest expressions of this identity is found in the variety of English spoken (and sometimes written) on the Island, a small sample of which we’ve included in the latest OED update.

The Gaelic Connection

English has been the dominant language on the Island since the 19th century, but for much of its history its inhabitants mostly spoke a form of Gaelic related to that of Scotland and North Eastern Ireland.  This, together with an extended period of Norse rule during the middle ages,  produced a variety of English sometimes influenced by Gaelic grammar and peppered with Gaelic and Scandinavian loanwords such as Tynwald, jough, and cushag, along with almost unique variants, such as deemster and sheading, of (often archaic) English words.

Thanks largely to a handful of Manx poets, playwrights, and authors writing in the 19th and early-to-mid 20th century, there are plenty of literary examples of Manx English demonstrating the various features of the dialect.  The following excerpt is from the poem Traa dy liooar by Josephine Kermode, who wrote in the early 20th century under the pen name ‘Cushag’:

The house is all through others, the childher’s late for school,
The man is spendin’ all his time in lookin’ for a tool,
The wumman’s tired thremendjus with clearin’ up the flure,
An’ the wan that’s doin’ all the jeel is wickad Traa-dy-Liooar.

Apart from the use of the word jeel (damage, mischief) and the phrase traa dy liooar (‘time enough’, often used with reference to a perceived tendency of the Manx towards procrastination), one of the most conspicuous details setting the language of Kermode’s poem apart from Standard English is the adverbial use of thremendjus (tremendous) as a post modifier of ‘tired’.  A similar formulation appears in the short story The Fairies’ Victim by ‘Bill Billy’, published in 1899:

I’m oftin puttin’ a sight on oul’ Phil Juan Pherick, for he’s good morthal for a cooish [chat].

Such constructions were once relatively common and are a result of the grammatical rules of Manx Gaelic, in which adjectives and adverbs typically follow the word they modify, being applied to English, the statement va mee çhing agglagh (literally, ‘I was sick awful’, meaning ‘I was awfully sick’) being an example of an analogous and grammatically uncontroversial construction in Manx.

Although this feature of Manx English has largely died out, others resulting from the influence of Manx Gaelic have proved longer lived, if now relatively rare in daily use.  One such feature is the use of direct calques of Gaelic verbal phrases when a single verb would typically be used in most other varieties of English, as in the two quotations below:

He was determined to pay a visit—his first—to the Island of his ancestors and put a sight on as many relatives and friends as possible.

He said he was feeling something doing on him [bothering or ailing him], and he could not tell what it was.

Another results from the fact that Gaelic lacks a verb like ‘have’ which can be used to indicate possession of something.  Instead, possession is expressed using the Manx form of the preposition ‘at’:  where an English speaker would say John has the book, a Manx speaker would say ta yn lioar ec Juan—literally, ‘the book is at John’.  As shown in the following quotation, taken from a 1930 issue of the Isle of Man Examiner, this practice was carried over into Manx English:

He knew there was plenty of money at him and that the matter would be settled properly by his sister.

Like many dialects in the British Isles, Manx English has become much closer to Standard English in recent decades, with many of the words recorded in A. W. Moore’s A Vocabulary of the Anglo-Manx Dialect (published in 1924 by Oxford University Press) and qualities such as those described above falling into disuse or becoming much rarer in use. Even so, with words like buggane and phynnodderee, tholtan, gobbag, and loaghtan, and the archetypical Manx greeting of ‘alright, yessir?’ still common, the Manx dialect continues to represent a unique strand of English.

Kuse dy ‘ocklyn mychione y Ghaelg (a few Words concerning Manx Gaelic)

Since Manx Gaelic has played such a prominent role in the formation of the English spoken on the Isle of Man, it’s worth mentioning that there are important differences between Manx Gaelic and the various forms of Gaelic spoken and written in Ireland and Scotland.

The most noticeable difference is perhaps the way Manx is written, which is often said to resemble the orthography of English more closely than it does other varieties of Gaelicfor example, whereas the Manx for ‘Halloween’ (more usually called Hop tu naa in Manx English) is written Oie Houney, Scottish Gaelic and Irish use Oidhche Shamhna and Oíche Shamhna respectively.  In fact, the orthography used in Manx is so different that other Gaelic speakers often find the written form of Manx confusing and sometimes even a little objectionable!

A less remarked on, though no less important fact is that the grammar of Manx also differs in some respects to that of Irish and Scottish Gaelic, often resulting in the different languages using very different constructions to express the same thing. For instance, the question ‘where are you going?’ would typically be phrased ‘c’raad t’ou goll?’  in Manx, while Scottish Gaelic would use ‘cait a bheil sibh a’ dol?’.

But what of the language today? Although the last native speaker of the Manx language, Ned Maddrell, died in the 1970s, a revival of the language was by that time already well underway and has continued since.  One of the most significant recent achievements of this revival was the establishment of a Manx language primary school, the Bunscoill Ghaelgagh, in 1999, along with a playgroup and two nurseries in which the language is spoken and promoted.  It is still much too early to predict what the future of the Manx language is, but, if its use continues to grow as it has, perhaps we might once more see its influence on Manx English increase.

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