Bás Tongue (Manchán Magan) directed by Willie White
@ Project Arts Centre, Sep 19th – 24th 2011 (ABSOLUT Fringe)
I’ve always been interested in languages, of almost any kind, but my self-discipline lacks the force of my enthusiasms, so I’m fluent in almost none of them. Sign Language, mathematics, !337$|)34\< (leetspeak), musical notation… all have known the ephemeral caress of my interest, but I can never seem to stick with anything. If you’re reading this, you probably have the same fascination. The arts are all about communication, about manipulating different forms of language to express an idea. If you care about the arts, you care about language. If you’ve ever come across some esoteric little nugget of text-speak or internet jargon – “ymmv” or “afaik” – and gathered it eagerly like a pearl, or if you’ve ever laughed with someone over bizarre local slang – like “tome” or “sips” or “bushing”* – then you know how magical language can be.
I really do not know why or how the magic got sucked out of the Irish language for most of us, but it happened. I don’t know what it is about our school system or the culture at large that is so hostile to it, but this play goes some way to undoing it.
Bás Tongue is written by Manchán Magan and directed by Willie White (until recently, Project Arts Centre’s artistic director, and now director & CEO of Ulster Bank Dublin Theatre Festival).
A jaded scholar (Magan) attempts to deliver a lecture on Irish poetry, but he’s losing patience. The language he uses and describes seems dead in the water, its demise has long been foretold and few in the audience seems to understand a word he’s saying. He gets into a long, wide-ranging debate with a surtitle-operator (Roxanna Nic Liam) bubbling with a newfound love of the language, who rejects his pessimism and snobbery and insists that the language can and must be saved. As they argue back and forth, the most interesting dynamic that emerges is his ambivalence: he clearly loves the language, harbours a reverential awe of its history and idiosyncrasies, but he is protective of it to a fault, resisting those changes which offer its only hope for survival. He considers neologisms and Anglicisms as polluting toxins and the mangled Gaenglish occasionally used by young people as a weak substitute, an embarrassing desecration of the Mother tongue.
There’s a part of him that wants to let go of the language, give it a sort of Viking funeral and let it drift away, instead of allowing it to suffer what he regards as an undignified diminishing at the hands and clumsy tongues of young Anglophones like this girl, who has nothing like his fluency despite all her ardour. He questions her motives, sneers at her naïveté and mocks her idealism. She does rather have the wide-eyed, breathless enthusiasm of an 8-year-old who has found an injured rabbit on the side of the road and imagines she can nurse it back to health. When she talks about the bewildering richness of the Irish language, its monstrous vocabulary that has never yet come close to being fully recorded, the effect might perhaps be more depressing than inspiring: what hope is there that it can be saved? There’s simply too much. And so much has been lost already.
The play is written with wit and eloquence and has moments of profound sadness, particularly when it deals with the feeling of isolation that comes from linguistic barriers: from having not enough words, or the wrong ones. The writing pulls you in all directions, making persuasive arguments on both sides about the stakes and the challenges involved in reviving the Irish language.
Personally, I’ve come to the realisation that all we need to reclaim and re-energise the language is ourselves. We still have a collective identity as Irish people and we’ve stamped it all over the English language. No one speaks English the way the Irish do.
Take our innate sense of drama. Something is not merely “very”, it’s “fierce.” I’m fierce happy about this. Something is not merely bad, it’s “brutal.” If it’s good, it’s “deadly”, or it might even be “savage”. If it’s excellent, it’s “savage cabbage”. My little brother and I express this in Irish as “sabháiste cabáiste”, but unfortunately “sabháiste” is not a real Irish word – at least, not according to his school fóclóir. We tried translating it directly but the best we could do was “cabáiste bhrúidiúil” – brutal cabbage – which of course is not the same thing at all.
The point is, as long as we retain our sense of ourselves, the connection we have with our ancestors who spoke our strange bockety national tongue remains unbroken, despite the fact that we’re soaked in Béarla up to the eyeballs. At the moment we’re still predominantly using someone else’s language – which the play likens to wearing someone else’s knickers. But we still have our own voice.
This isn’t a proper review. I don’t think I could write one. I loved the show. I saw it twice. The second time, I brought my mother, a schoolteacher, in the hope of thereby infecting a classroom of kids with a newfound appreciation for the teanga. At the end of each performance, each member of the audience for Bás Tongue was handed an Irish word on a card, to keep and to treasure and to nurse as you would a seedling, to keep it alive and help it grow by sharing it with others. I went twice so I got two words. I gave one to my little brother. I hope he finds a way to connect with his national language. And I hope you do too.
* “tome” means “cool”, “sips” means “ugh, I am not in favour of this” and “bushing” means drinking outside, generally illegally, and possibly in a field or a graveyard somewhere.