Scotch-Irish-L ArchivesArchiver > Scotch-Irish > 1997-12 > 0881297795
From: Suzanne B Sommerville <>
Subject: Speaking in Tongues
Date: Thu, 4 Dec 1997 23:56:35 -0500
All: It's a long one, so delete now, if you want.
I have been mainly a lurker for the last several months. I have little
emotional connection to the Scots, the Irish, the Scotch-Irish, or even
Americans with generations of ancestors in the USA. Perhaps I can offer
some perspective re: the latest controversy, even at the risk of exposing
my own biases.
I am first generation USA. My roots are French-Canadian, deep in the
seventeenth century. Oh, there is one possible Scot, a Melanson, but that
is debatable. There is one Irish who left in the seventeenth century after
Cromwell. He was a Casey rechristened Quessy in French-Canada. ("Qu" in
French is the K sound). And two great-aunts in Québec married the same
Irishman, an O'Nary, in the nineteenth century, but I never met them. I
did grow up with the Furlongs, the O'Donnells, the O'Neills, and the Dalys,
though, and had to assume the name O'Boivin to survive!
My husband's family left Scotland for the States early in the century. His
maternal grandparents were Montgomerys from Fermanagh who resettled in
Lanark County, Scotland, during the Famine, and as far as I now know never
left Scotland. My husband felt strongly about the word "Scotch" and I
learned not to use it in deference to his feelings. Surely, we in the
States can understand the strong feelings about the "n" word and the "j"
At what point does a word become so offensive it should be avoided?
Language can be both our salvation and our curse. When one linguistic /
cultural group meets another, the dominant group "translates" as best it
can, sometimes arrogantly, sometimes willy-nilly. It is. after all, in
charge of the records and standards. Many of you have met a simple example
of this phenomenon in the frustration of trying to locate an ancestor whose
name was massacred by a bureaucrat, who was, nevertheless, only doing his
job the best he could. Anselme Albert, in French, sounds like "Handsome
All Bear," and I have read that this is the name his descendants carried.
My own maiden name, Boivin, has descendants in the USA whose name is now
Drinkwine (that's what it means), though I have no personal knowledge of
any Drinkwines. I just endured the inability of Anglophones to pronounce
my name. I was grateful Leo Boivin was a well-known hockey player during
my growing-up years, because the anglicized version of his name became the
one by which I was known. (Far less lovely than the French, though. >g< )
Back to my opening. I am not emotionally connected to the discussions on
the list except through my husband's ancestry and my own biases. So I may
be able to see in ways you may not that many of you are defending your
linguistic turf, so to speak. A few examples that do not deal with the
controversial list topics might illustrate:
One question I was able to answer was the request for the pronunciation of
Québec. I received an e-mail from someone insisting that _his_
"dictionary" (read linguistic policeperson) says "Qwi-bec" and not
"Qay-bec". He also cited "Paris" versus "Pah-ree". I understand that an
anglophone seeing "que" almost always automatically says "qwi" or "qwee",
and, never having heard native speakers, assumes this is correct. It
_must_ be. It is _written_ in the dictionary. (Didn't Queen Elisabeth I
and Boswell use "Scotch"? Thank you, Andrew, you had the perfect reply to
the Boswell comment!)
But a Francophone seeing "Qu" reads K, and the accented "e" as English
long "a", thus "Kay-bec. It was probably a native American word,
originally, so it too was a linguistically dominant culture's interpretaion
of a foreign tongue.
(By the way, my "dictionary" of very recent vintage accepts both "Qwi-bec"
and "Kay-bec". Québec has made its presence known in the world in recent
years! Multiple >g< s! )
An authority in one field is not necessarily an authority in another. And
the language keeps shifting, something apparently difficult for the USA to
accept, with its apparent "one" language. (Anyone want to debate whether
we have multiple languages in the USA and all of them English?)
Two stories from my teaching days: In my last years of teaching, I
encountered real problems when the word "gay" appeared in pre-modern
literature. Students made automatic assumptions about its "meaning," thus
slanting their interpretation with inaccurate and disastrous consequences.
They were, of course, speaking from the only context they knew to that
Early in my career in a district with which I was unfamiliar (even though
it was just twenty miles away), I was introducing the German author Goethe,
pronouncing the name in German as my teachers had taught me. A bright-eyed
eleventh-grader interrupted me to proclaim loudly that I was wrong. It was
"Go-thee", using the "th" sound in thin. Didn't I know there was a street
by that name just a mile or so away?
Now, I recall feeling angry at this interruption and challenge. After all,
I was the one who had been to college, wasn't I? >g< But I managed to turn
the discussion to several other foreign-origin street names in the area and
the reasons for their being there as well as the changes in pronunciation.
We eventually got back to Goethe, but I dare to believe the students
recalled the diversion far more than the main topic.
Was the student "right" and I "wrong"? Yes, in terms of local custom. Was
I "right" and the student "wrong"? Certainly, from a cultural perspective.
Can both pronunciations co-exist? That's the important question.
If everyone could only remember that "meaning" is not static; it does not
remain the same for all time and all places, especially emotional meanings.
We all speak in foreign tongues. Blame the Tower of Babel, if you need a
religious slant, but please do not alienate the translators among us
through defensiveness, name-calling, or dogmatism. Our identity does not
lie in what others call us but in what _we_ call others. I'll say that
again: Our identity does not lie in what others call us but in what we
call others. Think about it. We all need to become more sensitive to the
nuances of language.
Thank you to those of you who have sensitized me.
Suzanne Boivin Sommerville