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Debating languages can be great craic, or is that crack?

By Paul Connolly

Published 26/02/2016

Nelson McCausland
Nelson McCausland

You can always rely on a good old provocative piece about 'Norn Iron' culture to get Tele readers' juices flowing. Nelson McCausland did precisely that with an invective about the use of the word 'craic', not just north and south of the border, but across the water as well.

Nelson came out swinging right away, deploying his southern legions for the initial skirmish.

He wrote: "What's the crack about 'craic'? The constant Gaelicisation of the good old English/Scottish dialect word 'crack' as 'craic' sets my teeth on edge. It seems, indeed, that many people think that the word is an Irish one."

"That was the opinion of the late Professor Diarmaid O Muirithe, a lecturer in Irish at University College Dublin, and I agree with him wholeheartedly.

"He wrote that in The Irish Times and, in a follow-up article, he described craic as 'a hideous neologism'.

"Another linguist described it as 'fake Irish', Kevin Myers criticised it as 'pseudo-Gaelic' and a 'bogus neologism', and the Irish journalist Donald Clarke called it 'a linguistic lie'."

Round one to Nelson then, well ahead on points.

He went on to chart the use of 'crack' in Scotland, the north of England and Ulster centuries ago.

He then dissected how the word was "borrowed" into Irish: "The reason for the new spelling is probably that the basic Irish alphabet has just 18 letters, while the English alphabet has 26.

"One of the letters missing in the Irish alphabet is 'k', which is the final letter in 'crack', and, as a result it was Gaelicised as 'craic'."

Clever Irish pub marketers, he reckons, probably with significant justification, were the culprits who hijacked crack and transformed it, in their perfidious language laboratory, into the word craic.

The point of Nelson's entertaining and provocative piece was to a) regain what is in his view some lost Ulster heritage, and b) have a swipe at a local political rival, Sinn Fein's Caral Ni Chuilin.

Caral happens to be Culture Minister at Stormont, and Nelson is chair of the Assembly's culture, arts and leisure committee.

In Nelson's eyes Caral sinned in a series of television advertisements as part of her Irish language Liofa project by claiming that when you say "craic", you are speaking Irish.

Readers rallied to support Nelson, or fume about his alleged blinkered nationalism, in equal measure.

The discussion became rather barbed online, as these things often do, attracting scores of comments and much reminding of common English words borrowed from Gaelic.

As usual, readers' natural wit shone through the rather weary point-scoring.

"We will have to use the expression crack/craic from now on..." wrote one wag. "Nelson must be on crack if he thinks this is worth his time," wailed another.

Amid the noise, there was some impressive linguistic knowledge, with one claiming the word is actually Germanic, being introduced into the English vocabulary by Saxon/Frisian invaders. So there.

Everything Nelson says it probably right to a degree. But for me the point is - as this column has regularly stated - language is a complex, living entity that changes with the wind and which is fashioned, magpie-like, by a myriad of forces.

If someone else beats us to the draw and makes their version of 'our' word mainstream, then fair play to them.

Even if it was just for marketing pubs.

Belfast Telegraph

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