The Eskimos, it is said, have thirty-nine words for "snow." Or is it twenty-nine? Or forty-nine? For all I know, it is an academic myth, one of those apocryphal anecdotes that we count as philosophically profound.
I'm thinking about the Eskimos because I'm reading about George Thompson, an English scholar who early in the last century came to the wild and remote Blasket Island, here, three miles off the end of the Dingle Peninsula in Ireland. He was one of the outside scholars and native islanders who ignited one of the most remarkable flowerings of literature the world has ever seen.
More on that flowering later, perhaps. For now, I read that Thompson wrote home to his wife that the Irish Gaelic has thirty-nine words for "darling," of which he wished to bestow on her a bountiful sampling.
First of all, it's hard to imagine the people of the island's one tiny village, buffeted by wave and lashing rain, a smoldering peat fire in the hearth, rats in the thatch, weak tea and a boiled potato for dinner, having many thoughts of billing and cooing. Who's going to whisper sweet nothings when the wind is raging through the cracks?
On the other hand, the island seems to have been well supplied with children, so maybe there was more canoodling going on than I give the Blasketers credit for.
But anyway, what's the big deal? I'm sure English, too, has thirty-nine words for "darling." Honey, sweetie, sugar, snookums, cutie pie, baby doll, angel, dearie, lover, minx, rosebud, heartthrob, tootsie, turtledove, duckie, pet, precious, and so on. I dare say any language on earth is rich in synonyms for love.
In one of the native books to come out of the Blasket, Peig Sayer's An Old Woman's Reflections, young Margaret is trying to convince her father to let her marry Tommy: "Sun nor stars ever shone down on a better man, Dad," she says, "and every knuckle of his feet and hands is worth a budgetful of yellow gold." This in an English translation, of course, but love is love in any language.