Possession and Culture in the Goidelic Languages

Possession in English Language

Ny Ta Lhiams, S'lhiats as Ny Ta Lhiats, Ta S'lhiams.

What's with Me is with You and What's with You is with Me.

Possession forms an important part of modern life in many cultures. We are, on a daily basis, reminded to buy things for ourselves. Upon purchase, in the English speaking world, we say that we "have" those things, that they are "ours". However, possessive expressions differ across languages and may reflect differing aspects of cultural attitudes and practices. To take a specific example, by looking at how our Celtic ancestors in the Goidelic speaking regions expressed possession we may be able to understand how their philosophy differed to the philosophy of the modern English speaking world. What seems to emerge is a difference of permanence vs transience, of seizing vs approaching.

The use of possessive pronouns such as "mine" or "yours" in English presents a deep attachment to objects such that they become part of the person. The merging of self and object is apparent in the permanence implied by the word "mine", for example, "that's mine!" Here an object acts a bit like a personality, since your personality is arguably yours alone and, according to some, largely unchanging. What's more, possessions are in fact used by people to build and sustain identities, whether that be the identity of a musician, sports fan, traveller, sophisticated socialite, or any of the other "off the shelf" personalities that are available through consumerism today (you need look no further than your nearest advert to see that they are selling you a lifestyle). Looking at the link between personality and language, we are able to invoke the notion of culture within language, and what we end up with is an English culture of ownership with apt linguistic tools to express that ownership. But this culture and language is not native to the Celts. How, then, do the Celts differ?

Money and Celtic Languages

As the title to this article hints towards, the Goidelic Celtic languages - in the present case Manx - differ from English in that possession is represented in an alternative form. Rather than possessions forming part of the identity, they have a more transient state that puts them "with" or "at" somebody. A car, for example, may be "with you" ("lhiats"), but it's never "yours". Whilst it's true that there are words that represent "my", "your", "his", "her" and so on, these expressions fail to take precedence over the "at" and "with" forms, sayings that have stayed in use in the Manx-English dialect for generations after English displaced Manx Gaelic. The Manx, then, knew a different way of thinking about possession.  To compare English and Gaelic further, let's take the English possessive word "have" - for example, "I have a car" - and contrast its origins and meaning with that of the Goidelic form "at". The word "have" comes from the Old English "habba", which in turn comes from the Proto-Germanic "habjaną", which itself comes from the Proto-Indo-European word "keh₂p-" meaning "take" or "seize". Think about the difference for a minute: the Goidelic form suggests something being in a temporary state near to something else, whereas the English form derives from an aggressive act of grasping and holding. The English form strives for permanence in possession, whereas the Goidelic form acknowledges a fleeting state of proximity.

So, to what extent can the differences in language be seen in culture? It is my opinion that modern society reflects the nature of the words used to describe possession. Although obviously not exclusively, the developed English speaking countries have an emphasis on individual ownership. We are locked into efforts to seize the material world and to prevent it moving away from us. We are reminded of the importance of "having" wealth to "have" happiness to the point where people will often be seized by huge debts, at which point they will say that they've been "had" by the system. Conversely, before the effects of globalisation - or more specifically cultural dilution - swept their way across the world the Goidelic speakers were practitioners of community spirit. They had an interest in others and in the sharing of the resources that were "at" or "with" them, but that could just as easily be "at" or "with" others. The Manx were, for instance, once famed for and proud of their charity towards the less fortunate. Additionally, the Manxman's motto was "traa dy liooar", or "time enough", not a sentiment of laziness, but a de-emphasising of the importance of money and possessions in favour of a focus on achieving happiness through non-materialistic means.

The lesson then, as I see it, is to think like our forefathers. Their understanding of possession was preserved and passed to us in the form of language. Their understanding was not one of seizing and holding for the self, but a humble acknowledgement of ubiquitous transience shared by all.

About the Author

Peddyr Mac Niallan was born and grew up in the Isle of Man and has ancestory not only there, but also family from County Monaghan in Ireland. Mac Niallan - or "Crellin" in English - is itself an old Manx name of Irish origin meaning Son of Niallin, being historically linked to the Uí Néill dynasty of Ireland.

Peddyr has a keen interest in the languages, music, and folklore of the Celtic nations, particularly the art of storytelling and its importance as a social tool in understanding, teaching, and preserving Celtic culture.