You dig it? The English language of concepts and the mind is peppered with Hiberno English. Photo by: Flickr

The Irish language's influence on our concepts of thought and imagination


You dig it? The English language of concepts and the mind is peppered with Hiberno English. Photo by: Flickr

The life of the mind puzzles poets and neuroscientists who go about mapping it and labeling it, and in my case trying to find it.  
Thought itself is something to ponder in the Irish tradition and, so, there are lots of conceptions in the Gaelic languages for mind, dreaming and imagination.
I'm only a student myself, so the nuances will be lost on me, but language is about conversation. I would love to hear native speakers offer more sophisticated thoughts on the vocabulary of Irish thought.
A long-standing motif in the literature is of the poet drifting into inspiration, with his head nuzzling a tree. He goes into a dream-state, to a place or a poem or a dream called aisling (i-zhling).
I would miss something if I called that just a dream. That's why there are so many Irish words for dreams: brionglóid (bringlowjuh) or taibhreamh (tavriv).

To be in a dream-like state is to be on a néal eile (nale elluh), another cloud, which implies something about the cloud you’re already coming from. That’s why we say you’re given dhá súile (gaw sooleh) or your súil eile (sool elluh) when you experience clarity of conception: your other eye.

But maybe the experience is closer to speabhraídí (spavreejee), the closest translation I can find being hallucinations. If it’s a nightmare, that’s tromluí (trumlwee) which feels like weight, the opposite of a cloud.

You dig? That’s an Irish word: dig – it means understand. An dtuigeann tú? (on digan too?). Most of the Irish people that flooded into New York spoke Irish, and our slang is peppered with Gaelic remnants.

“Dig it” is from the era when step dance morphed into tap. Jazz is another one – an Irish word that means heat or teas (jass, chass). Spike Slattery made the word common in San Francisco newspapers. You can read about this and other words like pizazz, razzmatazz, sucker and poker from Gaelic slang here.

Back to some Irish ideas about thinking: how about the head itself?

As temple of the soul, the head or ceann (kyahn) is both “front” and “end,” it is both “one” and “sake.” If this seems confusing you can say it’s trí mo cheann (tree muh kyahn), “through my head,” because it doesn’t seem to have taken root yet.

Thoughts are like that. It's why someone might try to catch them with a thinking cap. Consider that the phrase itself comes from the Irish ceap (kyap) which means "think."

Other Irish words for “thought” or “mind” are too many to review in detail here, so I’ll make an incomplete list: smaoineamh (smweeniv); machnamh (mahknuv); cuimhneamh (kwivnev); intinn (inchin); meabhair (meeowur); meon (myoan).

If you have a deeper thought, in Irish you don’t just have it, you make it, or you go on it: marana a dhéanamh (marana a yayniv).

Irish draws on Latin words too, of course, but few European languages have as many native words for the mind as our own. Some of us may have forgotten, but in Irish that’s an active thing: you have to “make forgetting,” rinne dearmad (rinneh jyarmud), because it takes effort to neglect the riches of nuance.

Read more - Irish words litter New York City slang

*Originally published February 2014. 

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