Wednesday, October 1, 2008


This piece first appeared in The Boston Irish Reporter, Volume 17, Number 8 (August 2006), p. 21.

Writing in this space a couple of months ago about Seamus Heaney’s poem “Broagh,” I was tempted to pause and muse at some length on a single word in the first stanza of that poem. The word was “pad,” and as I mentioned in my general commentary on the poem, it represents Heaney’s attempt to record the local pronunciation of the word “path.” Thus, his phrase “a canopied pad” refers to a path leading, through overarching trees, down to the riverbank (in Irish bruach abhana) which gives the place, Broagh, its name and the poem its title.

But there is a bit more to Heaney’s choice of that spelling than literally meets the eye, and this time I am not going resist the temptation to reflect a bit more deeply on it. Heaney himself actually provides a clue—or a cue—for how readers might recognize that, in spelling “path” the way that he does, he is grappling with the difficulty of using standard orthography (the 26 letters of the English alphabet) to record nonstandard pronunciation: in this case the not-quite-th sound that many Irish people produce where a speaker of the so-called Queen’s English would naturally hit the mark. That clue/cue appears in “Fodder,” the first poem of the volume Wintering Out, which begins: “Or, as we said, / fother . . .” The explanation for why, in certain communities of Ireland, the d sound in “fodder” would be pronounced almost like a th and why the th sound in “path” would be pronounced almost like d (or perhaps almost like t) is somewhat technical, involving using the term “phoneme” where we might want to use the simpler word “sound.” But it is relatively easy to understand when you stop and think about it—and even moreso when you try out the variant pronunciations yourself.

So here goes. The phonemes /t/ and /d/—as in the words matter and madder—are referred to by linguists (scholars devoted to the scientific study of language) as “alveolar stops.” They are produced when you stop the air flow from your lungs by holding your tongue against the alveolar ridge with the velum closed. (The alveolar ridge is the hard ridge at the front of your mouth, above your teeth; the velum is the soft curtain of flesh at the back of your mouth.) A sudden removal of the tongue will produce a /t/, a voiceless alveolar stop. If the vocal chords vibrate during the process, you will produce a /d/, a voiced alveolar stop. Try pronouncing matter and madder while holding your fingers lightly against your throat: you will feel the vibration on madder but not on matter.

In contrast, the two “th” phonemes, /y/ and /ð/—as in the words ether and either—are referred to by linguists as “interdental fricatives.” They are produced by the tongue obstructing the air stream between the upper and the lower teeth, or at the bottom of the upper teeth. The /y/ is a voiceless interdental fricative, the /ð/ is a voiced interdental fricative. Try pronouncing ether and either, making sure (even in an exaggerated way) that your tongue is decidedly between your teeth: again, you should be able to distinguish between the voiced and the voiceless phonemes.

Now here is the catch in Ireland. The Irish language—the language spoken by the majority of Irish people until the middle of the 19th century—does not include the phonemes /y/ and /ð/. So, just as “Hiberno-English,” the English language as spoken in Ireland today, still owes obvious debts to the Irish language through adoption or adaptation of both vocabulary (loanwords) and syntax (certain grammatical structures), it also owes a debt of pronunciation to the Irish language in that many Irish people produce an “allophone,” conditioned by their ancestral language’s system of phonemes, which simply approximates the target phoneme when attempting to produce either /y/ and /ð/ or /t/ or /d/. (Though more common involving the attempt to produce /y/ and /ð/, the “error” can occur going either way). What happens is that they place their tongue on the back of the upper teeth—below the alveolar ridge which would produce an alveolar stop, yet not between the teeth which would produce an interdental fricative. The result, not found in “standard English” pronunciation, is what linguists call a “dental stop.” Thus the word “fodder” gets pronounced fother (more or less) and “pad” appears for the word “path” in Heaney’s poem “Broagh.”

Or so Heaney intends. Strictly speaking, the voiced alveolar stop /d/ at the end of “pad” does not accurately register the voiceless dental stop, the not-quite-/y/ that Heaney is really aiming for at the end of “path”: probably the voiceless alveolar stop /t/ would be a closer approximation of the “not-quite-th” sound that many Irish people would produce. But that inexactness reflects some of the imprecision inherent in attempting to represent nonstandard pronunciations with standard orthography—to say nothing of how the appearance of “pat” on the page might have caused undue confusion for readers not tuned in to Heaney’s intention here.

As it turns out, Heaney’s intention—or his reach in attempting to register that dental stop—dovetails with a “language question” that was made conspicuously manifest in several ways in the decade or so following the publication of “Broagh” and “Fodder” in Wintering Out in 1972. Perhaps achieving its highest profile in Brian Friel’s marvelous play Translations, first staged by the Field Day Theatre Company in Derry in 1980, this “question” has many prismatic facets involving Ireland’s linguistic heritage. Friel explores in particular the legacy of the politics of naming associated with the Ordnance Survey mapping of Ireland in the 1830s. The play’s most dramatic moment occurs when the British sapper Yolland tries to persuade his Irish translator Owen that they should retain the local Irish placename “Tobair Vree” instead of substituting some relatively random Anglicized name. “Something is being eroded,” Yolland declares, and Owen begrudgingly concedes the point.

More to the point of Heaney’s spelling of “path,” though, is Tom Paulin’s pamphlet, published by Field Day in 1983, titled “A New Look at the Language Question.” Observing that the English language as spoken in Ireland “lives freely and spontaneously as speech, but . . . lacks any institutional existence and so is impoverished as a literary medium,” Paulin argues that “A language that lives lithely on the tongue ought to be capable of becoming the flexible written instrument of a complete cultural idea.” While Paulin focuses more on “discursive prose” and more on vocabulary—“a word like ‘geg’ or ‘gulder’ or Kavanagh’s lovely ‘gobshite’”—the principles are essentially the same regarding poetry and regarding pronunciation. No less than his inclusion of words like “rigs,” “docken,” “ford,” and “boortrees” in “Broagh,” Heaney’s representation of the local pronunciation of “path” brings his readers that much closer to that place along the riverbank, that place with its “black O” in the first syllable and its “last / gh the strangers found / difficult to manage.”

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