The Irish language has a rich cultural history, and is as much an account of history as it is a language. However, the exact classifications of what qualifies the language are often misunderstood. The language of Irish itself is part of the larger Celtic family of languages, which is broken down into two branches: Gaelic and Welsh. Irish, Scottish Gaelic, and Manx are part of the Gaelic branch, and Welsh, Breton, and Cornish make up the Welsh branch. Irish is called Gaeilge (Gaelic) by native speakers, but the English word Gaelic refers to the Scottish Gaelic branch (ï¿½ Sï¿½, Sheils viii). Therefore, the language I am speaking of will either be referred to as Irish or Irish Gaelic, but not simply Gaelic, which is a different language altogether. All of these separate languages began as one, as the following history helps to illustrate.
The Irish language, along with Welsh and Breton, is one of the oldest languages in Europe, dating back in writing to the time when Latin was primarily written and spoken. The progression of the Irish language through history began in Central Europe in the 5th century B.C. when a tribe called the Celts came into Europe. Their original name was the Keltoi, meaning “secret people,” the Greek name for the group. Eventually the Celts conquered a large section of the continent of Europe, and at one time their empire reached from the Iberian Peninsula to the Scottish highlands, the Black Sea, and all the way into central Italy (Liaugminas 1). With such a large empire to control, the one singular group of Celts eventually divided into two smaller groups, adapting separate names, culture, and language for themselves. The Celts near the Iberian Peninsula were called Celtiberi and the ones who lived by the Black Sea were called Galtae (1). Over time, Celts from Ireland, Scotland, or Gaul were no longer able to understand each other, and this is where the distinctly Irish language and culture began to develop, as illustrated by this passage from “Ireland’s Eye: A History of the Irish Language:
Irish was first called ‘Gaelic’ or ‘Goidelic’ (‘Gaeilge’ is the Irish word for the language) by the Welsh. Gaelic mythology and folklore abounds in typically Celtic themes and motifs, such as ‘dicheannu’ (beheading one’s slain enemy) or the ‘curadhmhir’ (the champion’s portion at the feast), as
well as many others. Some months of the year are named after pagan Celtic deities ‘Lunasa’, the month of August, after the god Lugh, as is the town of Lyons in France. There are, of course, hundreds of Irish place-
names with Celtic/pagan origins. (1) Each group developed their own variation of the language, but their influence can still be seen around the world. The one particular group of people in Ireland is the one we will focus on.
The groups of Celts living in Ireland were called the Gaels, and they developed a language that is known today as “Old Irish.” They began to inscribe this language in notches on stone monuments and graves, and this written transcription is known as Ogham. This manner of writing continued until the 6th Century A.D., when influence from the Romans in manuscript writing led Ireland into a “literary renaissance” (Liaugminas 1). Following Ogham, and prior to the 20th century, the language was written in what is known as uncial script. Reading, writing, and learning were extremely important and this helped the Celtic culture expand and flourish. Another important event that happened at this time was the invasion of the Vikings, and with that the forcible insertion of Scandinavian words into the Irish language. This meant that the time period where the language was known as “Old Irish” was over, and the time of “Middle Irish” began. At this time a great deal of new vocabulary was adapted into the language. This period of “Middle Irish” continued until the Anglo-Norman Invasion of Ireland in 1169, when the “Modern Irish” period began. This also marks the beginning of the language known today in Ireland as Gaelic, or Classical Modern Irish. After a number of centuries with Irish Gaelic being the spoken language of Ireland, the downfall began in the 17th century (Liaugminas 1).
This downfall occurred primarily because of the influence of the British Empire on Ireland. English rapidly became the language of business, and the knowledge and speaking of English became necessary for success in monetary transactions and professional interactions. With the British in control of most of the business ventures of Ireland, the use of Irish Gaelic became obsolete in the professional world, which trickled down into day-to-day life. By the 18th century, the use of Irish Gaelic had been relegated to the poorer classes, and with the Irish Potato Famine in the 19th century, speaking English became necessary for survival. Linguists predicted that the Irish language would be completely eradicated by the 19th century, which did come very close to happening. In 1893, a group called Conradh Na Gaeilge (The Gaelic League) was formed to prevent the language from dying out, but the group was unable to prevent a lesser used form of Irish, Manx, from dying out completely in the 20th century. It wasn’t until the creation of the Irish Free State in 1920 that Ireland officially began to make an effort to revive Irish Gaelic (Liaugminas 1).
Today, the efforts to keep Irish Gaelic alive continue. It is a symbol of the culture and history of Ireland and by a referendum to the Constitution in 1937 was made the official language of the Republic of Ireland. Street signs, television, advertisements and books are all written or spoken in Irish as well as English. One radio station, Raidiï¿½ na Gaeltachta, broadcasts only in Irish. It is estimated that 100,000 people speak Irish on a regular basis, and that more than 1,000,000 people are able to speak it with near-fluency. Conradh na Gaeilge continues to give classes in Irish in many cities, and has encouraged and influenced the publication of short stories, magazines, and journals in Irish. One certain district of Ireland speaks Irish singularly to the exclusion of English, and this area is known as the Gaeltacht (ï¿½ Sï¿½, Sheils ix).
Certain political institutions and officers of the State are known by Irish titles, such as the lower house of Parliament, Dï¿½il ï¿½ireann, and the upper house, Seanad ï¿½ireann. The government has a specific division known as the Bord na Gaeilge (The Irish Language Board) concerned with promoting the language in the Gaeltacht and the rest of the country, and Irish is now a mandated subject in all primary and secondary schools. The written form of Irish recognized by the government is known as An Caighdeï¿½n Oifigiï¿½il (the Official Standard) and is comparable to Standard American English in that it is a compilation of differing dialects, and would not be spoken in its entirety in any singular area (ï¿½ Sï¿½, Sheils ix). There are three main dialects of Irish spoken in the country, and these are: “Ulster (now predominantly in County Donegal), Connacht (Counties Mayo and Galway), and Munster (Counties Kerry and Cork). None of these has the status of a standard pronunciation, and in schools pupils learn the pronunciation of whatever dialect is geographically closest, or else a mixture of all the dialects” (Wikipedia contributors 1) Irish is not a part of commerce, transport, or popular entertainment in general, though with the efforts of the government, more Irish is continuously assimilated into daily life.
This is a brief history of the Irish language, but it gives a fairly comprehensive account of the movement of the language through history, and of the role of the language in today’s society. Next we will consider the specifics of spoken and written Irish. The Irish alphabet only contains eighteen letters; these are a, b, c, d, e, f, g, h, i, l, m, n, o, p, r, s, t, and u. Occasionally v is used in some words taken from other languages, i.e. vï¿½ta from the English “vote” (ï¿½ Sï¿½, Sheils x). Doubling consonants is a distinctive feature of the language. Consonants that are doubled in certain words are r, l, and n. An example of this is the word fear (man) and fearr (better). Another distinctive feature is vowel length. A vowel is indicated as being a long vowel if it has an accent mark over it, for example solas means “light” and sï¿½lï¿½s means “consolation.” Vowel sounds are divided into two categories, short and long. Long vowels are pure sounds and do not end with /y/ or /w/ glides (xi). Short vowels are similar to those found in English. Consonants are also divided into two categories, slender and broad. In spoken Irish the difference between slender and broad letters is easy to hear, but it written Irish the difference would not be so easy to locate. To solve that problem, the definition of where these sounds occur is helpful: “A consonant is slender if it is preceded or followed by i or e (the slender vowels), and broad if it is preceded by a, o, or u (the broad vowels)” (xii). The only consonant not marked as slender or broad is h. Slender and broad consonants are phonemic in Irish, and therefore are distinctive features. One final rule is that a consonant in the middle of a word must be flanked by slender vowels, and a rule that corresponds to this is as follows: “Feic means ‘see’ and the ending -ï¿½il corresponds to English -ing; however ‘seeing’ is feiceï¿½il because feicï¿½il would break the rule” (xii). This helps to explain the often large groups of vowels found in most Irish words.
There are three other specific variations in Irish that are never seen in English. The first of these variations is the concept of the unwritten vowel. In certain words, an extra vowel is pronounced that is not present in the written form. The extra vowel a is added between certain consonant pairs. An example of this is the word gorm (blue), which would be pronounced “goram” (ï¿½ Sï¿½, Sheils xvii). Between slender consonants, the extra vowel that is added is i, as in the word ainm (name), which would be pronounced “anim” (xvii). Another variation is known as “initial mutations.” These refer to the process of the beginning of a word changing, in addition to the more common practice of the end of a word changing (for purposes of agreement). These mutations are generally caused by the preceding word, for agreement or to make pronunciation simpler. Not all consonants are mutated, but an example of this is the following: The word for “coat” is cï¿½ta. “Coats,” then, would be spelled Cï¿½tai (notice the different ending). Finally, the phrase “My coat” becomes Mo chï¿½ta (notice the beginning of the word has changed, due to the preceding pronoun mo) (xviii). The third variation is that every noun, pronoun, adjective, and article is assigned gender (Liaugminas 1). This concept of masculine and feminine words is not found in English, but is found in a great deal of other Romance languages.
The manners of articulation in Irish vary from the English manners of articulation categories. The categories are as follows, from top to bottom: Plosive, Nasal, Fricative, Approximant, Flap, and Lateral approximant (Wikipedia contributors 1). This is due to the fact that the phonemes and manners of pronunciation vary, and certain distinctive features present in Irish are not present in other languages.
Sentences in Irish are arranged first by verb, then subject, and then object (also known as VSO
order). An example of this would be if one wanted to say “My name is Thomas” in Irish. The translation in Irish is Is mise Tomï¿½s. Translated literally back to English, the sentence becomes “To be I Thomas” (Liaugminas 1). A more specific and detailed description of Irish sentence structure is as follows: “Preverbal particle, Verb, Subject, Direct object or predicate adjective, Indirect object, Location descriptor, Manner descriptor, and Time descriptor” (Wikipedia contributors 1). One final important point about Irish spoken language is that there are no words for “yes” or “no” in Irish; to answer a question requiring an affirmative or negative response, the verb and occasionally the subject is repeated back to the poser of the question, either with or without the negative article (1). Whether the verb alone or both the subject and verb are repeated back varies in relation to the nature of the question.
While this research only provides a very brief description of the history of the language and of the manner of spoken and written communication within the language, it is easy to see the many complexities and nuances of Irish. It is extremely important to keep the language alive today, as its existence provides many keys to the history of Ireland and of the people who remain there today.