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Scéal Grinn? Jokes, Puns, and the Shaping of Bilingualism in Nineteenth-Century Ireland

  • Nicholas Wolf


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1 Hindley, Reg, The Death of the Irish Language: A Qualified Obituary (London, 1990), 1519.

2 See, limiting the list of relevant works to full-length publications only, Ó Buachalla, Breandán, I mBéal Feirste Cois Cuain (Baile Átha Cliath/Dublin, 1968); Ó Madagáin, Breandán, An Ghaeilge i Luimneach, 1700–1900 (Baile Átha Cliath/Dublin, 1974); Durkacz, Victor E., The Decline of the Celtic Languages: A Study of Linguistic and Cultural Conflict in Scotland, Wales, and Ireland (Edinburgh, 1983); Hutchinson, John, The Dynamics of Cultural Nationalism: The Gaelic Revival and the Creation of the Irish Nation State (London, 1987); Grillo, Ralph D., Dominant Languages: Language and Hierarchy in Britain and France (Cambridge, 1989); Craith, Mairéad Nic, Malartú Teanga: An Ghaeilge i gCorcaigh sa Naoú hAois Déag (Bremen, 1994); Ó Snodaigh, Pádraig, Hidden Ulster: Protestants and the Irish Language (Belfast, 1995); Brighid Ní Mhóráin, Thiar sa Mhainistir Atá an Ghaolainn Bhreá: Meath na Gaeilge in Uíbh Ráthach (An Daingean/Dingle, 1997); Crowley, Tony, Wars of Words: The Politics of Language in Ireland, 1534–2004 (Oxford, 2005). The most sustained discussion of the relationship between language change and culture remains de Fréine, Seán, The Great Silence (Dublin, 1965), now in its fourth decade.

3 See, e.g., Lehning, James, Peasant and French: Cultural Contact in Rural France during the Nineteenth Century (Cambridge, 1995), 15.

4 See Ó Tuathail, Éamonn, “Meath Anecdotes,” Éigse 4, no. 1 (November 1943): 1011.

5 The manuscript is believed to have been written by Patrick Lyden (1832–1926) of Faulkerraugh, county Galway, sometime after his emigration to the United States in 1872. It is almost certain that Lyden acquired the stories in Galway before he emigrated; see Stenson, Nancy, ed., An Haicléara Mánas (Dublin, 2003).

6 Séamas Ó Catháin, “‘Butter, Sir … ’: AT 1698 and 1699—a Typological Sandwich,” Béaloideas 45–47 (1977–79): 84–85; Shamrock (Dublin), 26 June 1880, National Library of Ireland, Dublin, Comyn Papers, MS 4154.

7 Seán Ó Súilleabháin and Christiansen, Reidar Th., The Types of the Irish Folktale (Helsinki, 1963), 302. References to the Irish language are cataloged under Section K in the National Folklore Collection (works from the National Folklore Collection hereafter cited as NFC, by volume and page number), Delargy Centre for Irish Folklore, University College Dublin. The content of this card index was consulted, and 219 overall references to the Irish language from oral sources were counted and examined. An additional 250 stories were classified as AT 1699 by Ó Súilleabháin and Christiansen. Allowing for some overlap of stories cataloged in both places, that would indicate 250 instances of jokes out of approximately 450 total references to Irish.

8 NFC 913:233; all Irish spellings are presented here as originally written rather than updated to conform to the modern Caighdheán Oifigiúil (Official standard). Because these anecdotes are bilingual and often rely on dialogue in Irish and English for the joke, I include the full Irish version in addition to my own English translation where appropriate as a means to show the instances in which language switching takes place.

9 Séamas Ó Catháin, “Dáileadh Roinnt Scéalta de Chuid AT 1699: Misunderstanding because of Ignorance of a Foreign Language,” Béaloideas 42–44 (1974–76): 120–35, and “Butter, Sir,” 84–117; James Stewart, “The Game of ‘An Bhfuil Agat?—Tá’; or, the Uses of Bilingualism,” Béaloideas 45–47 (1977–79): 244–58.

10 NFC 181:365–67; “Béarla ‘Liam a’ tSléibhe,’” An Claidheamh Soluis (Dublin), 1 August 1903.

11 De Fréine, , Great Silence, 5; see also de Fréine, Seán, “The Dominance of the English Language in the Nineteenth Century,” in The English Language in Ireland, ed. Ó Muirithe, Diarmaid (Cork, 1977), 84.

12 This sample consists of all tales cataloged via the Aarne-Thompson international folktale index under Type 1699 (hereafter cited as AT 1699) in the main manuscript collection from counties Clare, Cork, Donegal, Galway, Kerry, and Mayo and of three-fourths of the AT 1699 tales from the same counties in the National Folklore Collection's Schools Manuscripts Collection (hereafter cited as NFCSM, by volume and page number). These locations were selected because of their more complete representation in the folk material—far fewer jokes were collected by the commission outside these counties. Only a portion of the tales from the Schools Manuscripts Collection were sampled, since most consisted of shorter and less detailed versions of the same tales in the main collection. Finally, three additional tales (NFC 407:39–40; NFC 700:171–73; NFC 700:258–59) from counties Tipperary and Carlow were included, as these had been found separately in the course of examining material identified elsewhere in the commission's index.

13 Several examples of this story have been found by Stewart, James, including a version entitled “Bhfuil agat? Tá,” published in An Claidheamh Soluis in 1901; see Stewart, “Game,” 250–51. A version also appears in the writings of Donnchadh Rua Mac Con Mara; see Standish Hayes O’Grady, Adventures of Donnchadh Ruadh Mac Con-Mara: A Slave of Adversity (Dublin, 1853), 12.

14 NFC 45:86–87.

15 Davies, Christie, The Mirth of Nations (New Brunswick, NJ, 2002), 511, and Ethnic Humor around the World: A Comparative Analysis (Bloomington, IN, 1990), 8–9.

16 Wladyslaw Chlopicki, “Review Article: The Mirth of Nations,” Humor 16, no. 4 (2003): 415–24.

17 Clifford, James, The Predicament of Culture: Twentieth-Century Ethnography, Literature, and Art (Cambridge, MA, 1988), 16.

18 de Certeau, Michel, The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. Rendall, Steven (Berkeley, 1984), xiixvi. Moreover, this resistance to domination need not confine itself to direct opposition to the legal-political realm of the state (as in the classic example of peasant rebellions) and may be found in aspects of everyday life extraneous to both nationalist and colonial forms of political organization; see Chatterjee, Partha, The Nation and Its Fragments: Colonial and Postcolonial Histories (Princeton, NJ, 1993), 158–72; and Scott, James, Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance (New Haven, CT, 1985), 26, 39–40, 308–9, 317, 320–21. Chatterjee proposes this concept of peasant resistance as a distinct South Asian anticolonialism, but its analytic strength makes it insightful in the Irish context as well.

19 Deane, Seamus, “Dumbness and Eloquence: A Note on English as We Write It in Ireland,” in Ireland and Postcolonial Theory, ed. Carroll, Clare and King, Patricia (Notre Dame, IN, 2003), 109–13.

20 Neville, Grace, “‘He Spoke to Me in English, I Answered Him in Irish’: Language Shift in the Folklore Archives,” in L’Irlande et ses langues: Actes du colloque 1992 de la Sociéte Française d’Études Irlandaises, ed. Brihault, Jean (Rennes, 1993), 30.

21 NFC 538:13–14.

22 NFC 1235:290–91.

23 Stenson, An Haicléara Mánas, 63, 154–56, 161, 168; Stenson's translation.

24 Séamus Ó Duilearga, “Cnuasach Andeas: Scéalta agus Seanchas Sheáin Í Shé ó Íbh Ráthach; Sean-Scéalta,” Béaloideas 29 (1961): 38.

25 Hassell, James Woodrow Jr., Sources and Analogues of the “Nouvelles récreations et joyeux devis” of Bonaventure des Périers (Chapel Hill, NC, 1957), 104–8; Bonaventure des Périers, Nouvelles récréations et joyeux devis, I–XC, ed. Krystyna Kasprzyk (Paris, 1980), 99–101.

26 See Hazlitt, W. Carew, ed., Shakespeare Jest-Books: Reprints of the Early and Very Rare Jest-Books Supposed to Have Been Used by Shakespeare, 3 vols. (1864; repr., New York, 1964), 2:65–68.

27 Bede, Cuthbert, “The White Wife” with Other Stories, Supernatural, Romantic, and Legendary (London, 1865), 92–93, 100–103.

28 Dorson, Richard M., Negro Folktales in Michigan (Cambridge, MA, 1956), 79, 175–76, 183–84; Brewster, Paul G., “Folk-Tales from Indiana and Missouri,” Folk-Lore 50, no. 3 (September 1939): 297.

29 Hejaiej, Monia, Behind Closed Doors: Women's Oral Narratives in Tunis (London, 1996), 166–67; Barker, William H. and Sinclair, Cecilia, West African Folk-Tales (Northbrook, IL, 1972), 9596; Ting, Nai-Tung, A Type Index of Chinese Folktales in the Oral Tradition and Major Works of Non-Religious Classical Literature (Helsinki, 1978), 228–30; Parker, Henry, Village Folk-Tales of Ceylon, 3 vols. (London, 1914), 2:76–79; Thompson, Stith, Motif Index of Folk-Literature, rev. ed., 5 vols. (Bloomington, IN, 1957), 5:504; El-Shamy, Hasan M., Types of the Folktale in the Arab World: A Demographically-Oriented Tale-Type Index (Bloomington, IN, 2004), 916–18; Noy, Dov, ed., Folktales of Israel, trans. Bahara, Gene (London, 1963), 9798; Aarne, Antti and Thompson, Stith, The Types of the Folktale: A Classification and Bibliography, 2nd ed. (Helsinki, 1961), 482–84; Carpenter, Inta Gale, A Latvian Storyteller (New York, 1980), 194–96; Haboucha, Reginetta, Types and Motifs of the Judeo-Spanish Folktales (New York, 1992), 672–73; Briggs, Katharine M., A Dictionary of British Folk-Tales in the English Language, pt. A, Folk Narratives, 2 vols. (London, 1970), 2:69.

30 See, e.g., Rael, Juan B., Cuentos Españoles de Colorado y Nuevo Méjico, 2 vols. (Stanford, CA, 1957), 2:119–20. This story involves a Spanish-speaking man who is sent to purchase gloves from a shop owned by an American: “Los cajeros eran americanos y le dice el cajero: / ‘What you want?' / ‘Sí, guante,' le dice él. / ‘What you say?' le dice. / ‘Sí, pa José.' / ‘Oh, you fool!' / ‘Sí de ésos de la correita azul.' / ‘Oh, you go to hell!' le dice. / ‘Sí, de esos me mandó él.'” As Ó Catháin notes, many of the international tales, including some of the Irish examples, employ rhyming in a fashion similar to that found in the final words of each “spoken” line of this Spanish-language tale: want/guante, say/José, fool/azul, hell/él; see Ó Catháin, “Butter, Sir,” 107.

31 NFC 1101:428–29.

32 Shyama-Shankar, Pandit, Wit and Wisdom of India: A Collection of Humorous Folk-Tales of the Court and Country-Side Current in India (London, 1924), 187–88. Shankar notes that “Benares is called Kashi by all Hindus, and Kashi in Bengal means cough. So Kala Babu translated coughing with the word Benaresing” (187).

33 NFCSM 309:185–86. This “hidden insult” motif can also be compared to a Sephardic Jewish example in which the visitor is deaf and the two men are cousins. Coached with stock phrases, the visitor asks, “How are you?” The sick man answers, “I am dying.” Unaware, the deaf visitor responds, “That will happen slowly. Who is your doctor?”—to which the patient replies, “The devil.” The visitor in turn replies, “Oh, he is a great doctor” (Haboucha, Judeo-Spanish Folktales, 670–71).

34 Mercier, Vivien, The Irish Comic Tradition (Oxford, 1962), 8788.

35 Leerssen, Joep, Mere Irish and Fíor-Ghael: Studies in the Idea of Irish Nationality, Its Development and Literary Expression prior to the Nineteenth Century (Notre Dame, IN, 1997), 197–99, 241–42; Mercier, Irish Comic Tradition, 159–60, 170–71; Ó Catháin, “Dáileadh Roinnt Scéalta,” 122; Crowley, Wars of Words, 76–78.

36 Delabastita, Dirk, “Cross-Language Comedy in Shakespeare,” Humor 18, no. 2 (2005): 161–84; Cronin, Michael, “Rug-Headed Kerns Speaking Tongues: Shakespeare, Translation, and the Irish Language,” in Shakespeare and Ireland: History, Politics, Culture, ed. Burnett, Mark Thornton and Wray, Ramona (London, 1997), 200202.

37 Clark, William Smith, The Irish Stage in the County Towns, 1720–1800 (Oxford, 1965), 286–91.

38 Raskin, Victor, Semantic Mechanisms of Humor (Dordrecht, 1985), 8099; Hockett, Charles F., The View from Language (Athens, GA, 1977), 259–68; Koestler, Arthur, The Act of Creation (New York, 1964), 3251; Oring, Elliott, Engaging Humor (Urbana, IL, 2003), 12.

39 NFC 41:250–51.

40 Ferguson, Charles, “Diglossia,” Word 15, no. 2 (August 1959): 325–40; Gumperz, John J., “Speech Variation and the Study of Indian Civilization,” American Anthropologist 63, no. 5(October 1961): 976–88, and “Types of Linguistic Communities,” Anthropological Linguistics 4, no. 1 (January 1962): 28–40; Fishman, Joshua, “Bilingualism with and without Diglossia; Diglossia with and without Bilingualism,” Journal of Social Issues 23, no. 2 (April 1967): 2938. In addition to the problems in applying the term “diglossia,” the presence of diglossia depends on how one defines the speech community at any given time period, the ability of its members to speak all the languages concerned, and the access of individuals to the domains in which different languages are spoken. Note the distinctions Fishman makes in “Bilingualism,” 32–34.

41 For instance, as late as the 1870s and 1880s, one-third to one-half of the children in some parishes in county Cork were still being presented for catechism in Irish, and the recitation of the rosary in Irish at that time has been well-attested in county Donegal. See Nic Craith, Malartú Teanga, 38-40; and Lysaght, Patricia, “Attitudes to the Rosary and Its Performance in Donegal in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries,” Béaloideas 66 (1998): 3139.

42 MacDonagh, Oliver, “Ideas and Institutions, 1830–1845,” in A New History of Ireland, vol. 5, Ireland under the Union I, 1801–1870, ed. Vaughan, William E. (Oxford, 1989), 209–10.

43 NFC 977:221.

44 NFCSM 317:158–59.

45 NFC 928:38–39.

46 NFCSM 1123:132–33.

47 NFC 627:292–94. Like many stories identified by Ó Catháin, this joke depends on both Hiberno-English and Irish for homophony. A dialectical pronunciation of the English word “boy” (bō-ēē) sounds like the diminutive form of cow (bóín [bō-ēēn]) in Irish with the final consonant dropped.

48 NFC 861:1066–67; NFC 197:14–15.

49 Desmond MacCabe, “Magistrates, Peasants, and the Petty Sessions Courts: Mayo, 1823–1850,” Cathair na Mart 5, no. 1 (1985): 45–53.

50 NFC 862:427–28.

51 NFC 700:258–59. That the Irish-speaker is making reference to the judge is indicated by the translator's answer: “That's the old boy that's going to hang you.”

52 NFCSM 472:55–56.

53 Hoppen, K. Theodore, Ireland since 1800: Conflict and Conformity, 2nd ed. (New York, 1999), 46.

54 Ó Gráda, Cormac, Ireland: A New Economic History, 1780–1939 (Oxford, 1994), 239–42, 265–66; R. V. Comerford, “Ireland, 1850–1870: Post-Famine and Mid-Victorian,” in Vaughan, Ireland under the Union, 378–79.

55 NFC 512:26.

56 NFCSM 476:27; NFCSM 474:245; NFCSM 477:499–502.

57 Cullen, Louis M., The Emergence of Modern Ireland, 1600–1900 (New York, 1981), 174–76, 186–87.

58 Shand, Alexander, Letters from the West of Ireland, 1884 (London, 1885), 3536.

59 Ó Crohan, Tomás, The Islandman, trans. Robin Flower (Dublin, 1934), 25, 42.

60 O’Sullivan, Maurice, Twenty Years A-Growing, trans. Moya Llewelyn Davies and George Thomson (London, 1953), 29.

61 NFC 463:140.

62 Briain, S. G. Ua, “Sgéilíní Ó Chill Choca,” Irisleabhar na Gaedhilge 11, no. 130 (July 1901): 115–16.

63 Mary Julia MacCulloch, “Folklore of the Isle of Skye,” Folk-Lore 33, no. 4 (December 1922): 384.

64 NFC 438:56–60.

65 NFC 1010:115.

66 NFC 1010:179–81; NFC 227:538–40; NFCSM 476:430–31.

67 An Claidheamh Soluis (Dublin), 12 September 1903, 1. Variant versions also circulated in county Clare (NFC 38:28) and in county Carlow (NFC 407:39–40).

68 Norrick, Neal R., Conversational Joking: Humor in Everyday Talk (Bloomington, IN, 1993), 20–42; Oring, Engaging Humor, 85–96.

69 NFC 799:243.

70 Douglas, Mary, Implicit Meanings: Essays in Anthropology (London, 1975), 98, 107.

71 Robert Lew, “Exploitation of Linguistic Ambiguity in Polish and English Jokes,” Papers and Studies in Contrastive Linguistics 31 (1996): 127–33. Lew's categories and examples are based on linguistic humor relying on one language and their translatability into another, but his analysis is equally applicable in the case of two languages used together. See also Christie Davies, “European Ethnic Scripts and the Translation and Switching of Jokes,” Humor 18, no. 2 (2005): 151–52.

72 NFC 1592:120–26.

73 Francis Keane, “Report on the Present State of the Irish Language and Literature in the Province of Munster,” and “Report on the Present State of the Irish Language and Literature in the Province of Ulster” [1874–75], Royal Irish Academy, Dublin, MS 12 Q 13, pp. 98, 128–31.

74 Ben-Amos, Dan, “The Myth of Jewish Humor,” Western Folklore 32, no. 2 (April 1973): 112–31; Wilson, Christopher P., Jokes: Form, Content, Use and Function (London, 1979), 217–18; Davies, Mirth of Nations, 18–48.

75 NFC 913:233.

76 NFC 588:533–34.

77 NFC 1125:2–3.

78 NFC 869:472–73.

79 NFC 203:10. On this motif, there are also variant tales in which it is Daniel O’Connell himself in the role of the bilingual who tricks the English-speaker; see Ríonach Uí Ógáin, Immortal Dan: Daniel O’Connell in Irish Folk Tradition (Dublin, 1995), 144–45.

80 NFC 474:582.

81 NFC 1035:496.

82 de Caro, Rosan Jordan, “Language Loyalty and Folklore Studies: The Mexican-American,” Western Folklore 31, no. 2 (April 1972): 7786, quote on 84. See also José E. Limón, “Agringado Joking in Texas Mexican Society,” New Scholar 6 (1977): 33–50.

83 An exception to this grand narrative can be found in Hugh Shields, “Singing Traditions of a Bilingual Parish in North-West Ireland,” Yearbook of the International Folk Music Council 3 (1971): 109–19.

84 NFC 1219:123–24.

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Scéal Grinn? Jokes, Puns, and the Shaping of Bilingualism in Nineteenth-Century Ireland

  • Nicholas Wolf


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