Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Sinn Féin

For several years following my acquisition of an advanced degree in Fine Art, I followed a career path common to painters and artists of all kinds. I tended bar. I worked at an Irish bar in Westport, Connecticut and sometimes on St. Patrick's Day a group of customers would bring a small bottle of food coloring in with them in order to dye their beer green. Doubtless, they thought this would endear them to the Irish regulars. On the contrary, this marked them as helpless amateurs. If they continued with that kind of silly behavior, we sometimes had to take our shillelagh from under the bar and rain blows on them, driving them out into the parking lot.

No, we, ourselves, those of Irish ancestry, are not known for our delicacy or formal manners. It was one of the things that drew the American painter, Robert Henri, to the island. Henri, author of The Art Spirit, was an important figure in American Realism and a leader of the so-called Ashcan School of American painting. Critic Robert Hughes referred to Henri as "vulgar" and he meant it as a compliment. To the best of my knowledge, Henri had no Irish heritage himself, but traveled often to Ireland. One of Henri's more famous paintings is a portrait of Johnny Commins, an older resident of Achill, Ireland, who sat for Henri during one of his many visits. The painting is titled Himself and is a good example of a distinct use of reflexive pronouns by the Irish. You could also hear the construction coming from Barry Fitzgerald in a film such as, Going My Way. I don't speak any Irish myself, but I believe this use of the reflexive is intended for emphasis. We use reflexive pronouns the same way in American English today and you sometimes even hear them referred to as "intensive" pronouns.

Himself, by Robert Henri

Not so with the reflexive pronoun in German. The language is simply chock full of verbs that require reflexive pronouns and it's a minefield for English speakers learning the language. In English, reflexive pronouns are usually optional. You can say "I'm shaving myself'" but why bother? Is it really likely that you're shaving someone else? In German however, the verb to shave is sich razieren, with the sich part being the reflexive pronoun. Forgetting to include the reflexive pronoun often changes the meaning of the verb dramatically and in the case of the verb for shaving, it simply doesn't exist without the reflexive part. Americans learning to speak German can have some cheap laughs by translating German reflexive constructions literally into English. When leaving a German I class for example, a student of German could bring down the house with a translation of a common German parting salutation: "We'll be seeing us!" Or how about a direct translation of the German expression ich freue mich! (=I happy myself?)

Yes, we Americans can laugh, but if we thought about it, we might realize that there is an important truth revealed here: a reflexive construction is one in which the subject and object of the verb are the same thing. It follows, therefore, that one only uses reflexive pronouns (myself, ourselves, etc.) when there is a matching subject for them. Right now in American English, we're experiencing a flood of reflexive usage that I can only imagine some people must feel sounds more refined. I hear it on the radio, around town and on campus, from faculty as well as students. A typical example would be something like, "The nachos were brought by, like, Bobby and myself." Ugh! Combined (as it often is) with the passive voice, it's like scratching your fingernails across a particularly nasty grammar chalkboard.

How did this usage become so popular? Did Seinfeld start it? Was it politicians, that group which popularized such classic expressions as "At this point in time...?" Or maybe this construction was encouraged by those adults who were always correcting grammar by saying, "Bobby and I!" when their children proudly announced "Bobby and me went swimming!" I don't know. And ultimately, I don't care, but my feelings about this stilted use of the reflexive pronoun are about the same as my feelings about yahoos who drink green beer on St. Patrick's Day. One should always keep a shillelagh close at hand.

1 comment:

Shawn B. said...

Emily and I for date night drove to our favorite high class restaurant last night (Arby's) and at one point a young man wearing a an over-sized shiny green plastic medallion and beads walked in front of our car. I'm always a bit disgusted by people who believe that Saint Patrick's day is only a binge drinking day. It is people like that who could use a good shmack on their arses from a loaded shillelagh.

(I looked up shillelagh on Wikipedia - interesting weapon)