H.L. Mencken (18801956). The American Language. 1921.
Certain usages of Gaelic, carried over into the English of Ireland, fell upon fertile soil in America. One was the employment of the definite article before nouns, as in French and German. An Irishman does not say I am good at Latin, but I am good at the Latin. In the same way an American does not say I had measles, but I had the measles. There is, again, the use of the prefix a before various adjectives and gerunds, as in a-going and a-riding. This usage, of course, is native to English, as aboard and afoot demonstrate, but it is much more common in the Irish dialect, on account of the influence of the parallel Gaelic form, as in a-n-aice=a-near, and it is also much more common in American. There is, yet again, a use of intensifying suffixes, often set down as characteristically American, which was probably borrowed from the Irish. Examples are no-siree and yes-indeedy, and the later kiddo and skiddoo. As Joyce shows, such suffixes, in Irish-English, tend to become whole phrases. The Irishman is almost incapable of saying plain yes or no; he must always add some extra and gratuitous asseveration.47 The American is in like case. His speech bristles with intensives; bet your life, not on your life, well I guess, and no mistake, and so on. The Irish extravagance of speech struck a responsive chord in the American heart. The American borrowed, not only occasional words, but whole phrases, and some of them have become thoroughly naturalized. Joyce, indeed, shows the Irish origin of scores of locutions that are now often mistaken for native Americanisms, for example, great shakes, dead (as an intensive), thank you kindly, to split ones sides (i. e., laughing), and the tune the old cow died of, mot to mention many familiar similes and proverbs. Certain Irish pronunciations, Gaelic rather than archaic English, got into American during the nineteenth century. Among them, one recalls bhoy, which entered our political slang in the middle 40s and survived into our own time. Again, there is the very characteristic American word ballyhoo, signifying the harangue of a ballyhoo-man, or
Note 47. Amusing examples are to be found in Donlevys Irish Catechism. To the question, Is the Son God? the answer is not simply Yes, but Yes, certainly He is. And to the question, Will God reward the good and punish the wicked? the answer is Certainly; there is no doubt He will. [back]