Random Reads · Reviews from the Nook

Book Review: Thirty-Two Words for Field

Erica’s Experience

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Title: Thirty-Two Words for Field: Lost words of the Irish landscape

Author: Manchán Magan

Genre: Sociological History/Etymology

Page Count: 368

Publication Date: August 28, 2020


Last year, my husband surprised me with a date night to Forever Green, a yearly St. Patrick’s Day celebration and fundraiser thrown by the Young Irish Fellowship of Chicago. The event included a silent auction which featured a beautiful basket filled with Irish literature. By some kind of luck, we ended up winning the collection of books, which included a signed edition of Manchán Magan’s Thirty-Two Words for Field.

In Magan’s title, he historically analyzes the Irish language — diving into the ways nature and the mystic are woven throughout the etymological roots of so many Irish words. Words that, thanks to the colonization and influences of English, have been buried and all but forgotten — even by most speakers of modern-day Irish. Magan writes with a stream of consciousness, recounting words through memories of his grandmother, the woman who made sure Magan and his siblings were fluent Irish speakers. He reflects on simple moments that, for some, may have been overlooked as significant, but are quintessential to understanding the people who created the language in the first place.

The depth of Magan’s research shows how ancient societies around the world are tied together through their words. He has chapters highlighting how Irish, Arabic, and Indian tongues are nearly orthographically (spelled) and phonetically (pronounced) identical. The human connection found within these sections are absolutely breathtaking and something everyone should read. We often see different languages as dividers. When we look back far enough into the oldest languages that still exist, it’s clear that our linguistic roots — and societal roots around the world — are more similar than we often believe.

There’s a bittersweetness to the book as well, discussing how Irish words have been completely lost in time. The portion in particular that struck me the most are the words Mangan doesn’t even know — words that were only spoken by women and never recorded because of that fact. Ireland, unlike England, is historically a matriarchal society that worshipped Celtic goddesses, believed in fairy words, and turned to female healers in times of need. As Catholicism and English colonizers took over the island, these influences — while not completely lost in the country’s culture — were hidden and essentially erased from the language.

If you’ve ever visited Ireland, there’s a feeling in the air — a sense that the land and the metaphysical world are still one-in-the-same on this tiny island. A magical force that cannot be overlooked even if you don’t believe in the possibility of magic. After reading Magan’s analysis, it’s clear that the importance of the land and the metaphysical — that environmental link — has existed for millennia.

If you want to dive deeper into Magan’s study of Irish, you can find a copy here.

Next week, instead of my typical florilegium, look out for a feature of my favorite words and phrases from Thirty-Two Words for Field. Happy reading!


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