May 22nd, 2010


May Books 13-14) two Nebula winners

It's the time of year when I am working my way through the Hugo nominees, and occasionally find myself looking at the bookstack (or, in these enlightened days, the folder of PDFs) and wondering which to read next. Last weekend's Nebula awards saw two wins for books also nominated for this year's Hugos, so I worked through them in the course of this week. One is a cyberpunk novel, one is a steampunk novella, and both feature women in the sex trade as title characters.

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May Books 15) Teach Yourself Irish, by Diarmuid Ó Sé and Joseph Shiels

I was brought up as a middle-class Belfast Catholic, and though trainee teachers would occasionally bring in a few Irish phrases as their special project in primary schools (a h-aon, a dó, a trí), by the time I had the chance at grammar school I picked German with no regret (and considerable subsequent benefit). Later in my career I briefly became an Irish historian and probed the relationship of a hundred years ago between the Gaelic revival and scientific research (and found them to have been less mutually antagonistic than the received wisdom had it). More recently I've developed an interest in the 16th century, an era when Irish was more widely spoken than now. Plus, it seemed increasingly silly that as a person with an interest in languages I didn't know much about the one closest to my own identity. So, despite my occasional scepticism (as recorded in earlier entries tagged language: irish) and armed with your advice I invested in the Teach Yourself Irish coursebook and CD, and have thus been seen on commuter trains muttering to myself in an arcane tongue and scribbling incomprehensibly in notebooks.

Although some things about Irish came naturally enough, the language had a number of surprises for me. Sometimes this was a question of false friends - "sa" means "in the" in Irish, but I'm used to it meaning "with" in Serbian/Croatian/Bosnian, so have to mentally readjust every time I see the word (which is often). Likewise "mar", which means "because" in Irish, but which I keep reading as the Dutch "maar" meaning "but". The fact that "mé" means "me" is helpful; but that it also means "I", since personal pronouns don't decline, is somehow confusing. It is neat that "sí" means "she" and is pronounced the same, but I never quite worked out when one drops the initial "s". And I will not quickly forgive the letter "f". But as I worked through the final exercise on the use of the past habitual (bhíonn, bhíteá, bhíodh, bhímis, bhíodh, bhídís), I felt a certin sense of triumph.

Not knowing much else about Irish, it's difficult for me to judge how well Ó Sé and Sheils cover the subject. I thought it was a decent and mostly engaging course of 21 lessons, and can only blame myself for the long time it took me to get through the final two, on the conditional and past habitual. (I turned to the BBC to keep my momentum going.) It is a bit irritatingly scrappy in places - answers which don't match the exercises, illustrations which are too blurry or small to read, glossary which isn't enough to match the lesson (you need to buy a separate dictionary as well). I could have done with more drilling on the basics (though outside a classroom environment I suppose again I have only myself to blame) and still feel very shaky indeed on the personal forms of prepositions (which should have been indexed or consolidated in one of the appendices) or on the questions of eclipsis and lenition (the modification of the first letter of the word, if it is b, c, d, f, g, m, p, s or t, depending on context). But at least I know the issues and have a place to look them up.

Based on other people's recommendations I may now invest in Turas Teanga to take me a bit further, though I have a couple of DIY courses in other languages (mainly Asian) sitting on the shelves, which are a higher priority.