This page serves as both an explanation of the Irish language as well as a place where articles about Irish are compiled for easy viewing, if you wish to access those, please click here :)
Irish (Gaeilge; /ˈɡeːlʲɟə/), Irish Gaelic or simply just Gaelic, is a Goidelic language spoken on the island of Ireland by about 70,000 daily speakers, of which about 20,000 live in areas, known as Gaeltachtaí (singular; Gaeltacht), where Irish is officially recognised as the language of a significant plurality of inhabitants (officially 25% but some areas, such as the Iveragh peninsula (Uíbh Ráthaigh; /ˈiːvʲ ˈɾˠɒːhɪɟ/) can drop to figures as low as 9% native speakers).
The Irish language consists more broadly of 3 dialect groupings, northern (Ulster), central (Connacht-Leinster) and southern (Munster), for the most part these dialects share very similar grammatical structures with minor vocabulary differences, however, where they differ the most is matters of pronunciation. The same word can also be pronounced wildly differently between dialect groups to the point where spoken intelligibility can be quite difficult and frustrating, even for native speakers although with time you can learn to understand and parse differences in speech between dialects. Irish is also a mandatory subject until the leaving-cert in Ireland, however most students in this system do not attain any appreciable understanding of or ability in the language.
The Irish language is believed to have arrived in Ireland during the 1st millennium BC with the arrival of Celtic culture and language, likely from Britain (where it was brought earlier from the continent), the language they spoke can only be inferred through comparison with the various other Celtic languages but at that point it was likely very similar to other Celtic languages of the ancient world. This period onward is called the Primitive Irish period and lasts until the 6th century, in the 4th century an alphabet was created for the language called ogham and used letter names taken from the Irish names of various trees.
By the 6th century Irish had changed drastically, it had undergone syncope (cutting out unstressed vowel sounds in the middle of words. See modern "imir" + "íonn"; imríonn) and apocope (loss of the final syllable) and the first traces of grammatical initial mutations appeared (otherwise known as séimhiú and urú to veterans of the Irish school system, as well as a third mutation type called gemination in English) and inflected prepositions (le; liom, leat, leis etc) appear in the language. This period marks the switch over to a Latin alphabet spelling system based on British Latin, as such it has quite a different, but also familiar character, compared to the modern spellings of words in the Gaelic languages. This form of the language, Old Irish, was spoken across Ireland, the Isle of Mann, Galloway and the Scottish Highlands and short-lived colonies on the Welsh coast, particularly the North without much dialectal diversity.
Between the 9th and 10th centuries the verbal system underwent significant changes, and this stage of the language between the 9th and 12th centuries is called Middle Irish. During this time the language was brought to most of Scotland and also during this stage the first dialectal differences between Ireland and Scotland become noticeable. But the written language generally is kept conservative, a lot of Old Irish manuscripts are copied with just slight changes applied to them – most of the Old Irish texts that survived to this day are copies from that period.
The 12th century is the start of Early Modern Irish – the orthography changes to a more recognizable one to modern readers, the grammar changes enough that many Old Irish forms fell completely out of use even in written language, the neuter gender is lost. This stage is sometimes also called Classical Gaelic – but this term is typically applied to a very strictly formalized language used in poetry in the next few centuries, the common literary language of Ireland and Scotland of that time while Early Modern Irish is applied more broadly also to the spoken language.
During this stage, at the turn of the renaissance, Irish was beginning to evolve into a more modern form, the verbal system gets redone again – differently in Irish and in Scottish Gaelic and Manx, it was also during this period that the dominance of English began to take hold in Ireland as the language of the people, however it should be noted that despite the long period of coexistence with English there is a relatively low amount of influence from the language in general, contrary to popular belief among the Irish people of today, with languages like French (see terms; gasúr, páiste, seomra) and Latin (see terms; múr, saighead, póg, eaglais) taking centre stage as the main sources of historical influence.
This brings us to the contemporary period where the language shift to English has largely been completed in most localities, aside from those pockets of Gaeltacht on the Western seaboard, however within these communities the language can often be quite vibrant and alive in its use among all generations and while the number of daily speakers by and large has declined over the years this is not a consistent trend, with some years (eg. 2011) registering an increase in daily use. At least there is the potential for optimism towards the future, although it will by and large stay a minority language.
Difficulties for Learners
While the Irish language is not by any means a language that stands out in any appreciable capacity difficulty-wise, this is not to say it doesn't pose its fair share of challenges for those who wish to learn it.
The Irish language has about 11~12 distinct vowel sounds depending on the dialect and 19 consonant sounds, these can be categorised based on two axes, palatalised vs velarised and lenited vs unlenited.
A palatalised sound is a sound that's produced with your tongue also raised up to the front of your palate (as if to make a y sound) while you're also producing the main sound and a velarised sound is one that's made with your tongue raised to the back of your palate instead (to roughly the area the hard k and g sounds are made in English), every consonant in Irish except the sound /h/ (written th) has one palatalised and one velarised version, no sounds are pronounced without these extra features. Velarised, or broad, consonants are pronounced whenever there's an adjacent, written a, o, or u, these don't have to be pronounced as an a, o, or u sound for this to take effect; and palatalised, or slender sounds are pronounced whenever a consonant has an adjacent, written i or e, again this doesn't necessarily mean the vowel will be pronounced at all.
The next way of dividing sounds is between lenited and unlenited ones. In certain positions in a word (usually in the middle or end, or after a prefix) or a sentence (after prepositions, to indicate the genitive case, certain verb forms etc) the consonants b, c, d, f, g, m, p, s and t are verbally softened, ie made into fricatives, and a h is written after it to mark the difference. This is very unintuitive for those who don't have experience using the language, as the rules for when a word is lenited or not are not easily visible all the time, so if you're considering learning Irish this will be a big hurdle for you in all likelihood, along with the other kind of mutation, eclipsis
Vowels can also be pronounced long or short, long vowels are written with an acute accent and are á, í, é, ó and ú. These can be difficult to pronounce correctly when not stressed for speakers of languages that lack them, but with a bit of practice and listening to recordings they can be learned easily.
Irish grammar is quite strange in some ways for that of a European language, it uses VSO (verb, subject, object) word order, prepositions decline instead of having pronouns and initial mutations are used to show noun function and other things. However there are some similarities that can be used to your advantage, especially if you already speak a European language, such as the gender system between masculine and feminine, adjectives going after the nouns they describe, and a system of grammatical cases.
The main hurdle with Irish is its VSO structure which can be difficult for learners to adjust to at first, in fact a common mistake to see from learners, especially those with no prior knowledge of the language, is using VOS word order instead by accident. Needless to say this kind of error can cause a fair deal of confusion for the person listening but thankfully it can be set straight with a bit of steady practice.
Another thing worth elaborating on is the case system, in Irish there are 4 cases (vocative for calling on people, nominative to show the subject, genitive to show who owns something, and dative to show which word is being affected by a preposition), in the standard language only 3 are used productively with only traces remaining of the dative in certain fossilised phrases. These don't really have an equivalent in English or most Romance and Germanic languages (except German and Icelandic) as their job is fulfilled by prepositions and word order so they can be challenging at first for speakers of these languages to wrap their head around.
Lastly the only other thing of immediate concern is the gender system, every noun is either masculine or feminine in Irish (some nouns show traces of a third now defunct neuter gender, ie trian -> dhá dtrian, instead of dhá thrian), sometimes the gender can be predicted from the ending but this isn't guaranteed in any capacity, usually it is better to learn the gender with the word and then latter familiarise yourself with common patterns.
Here is a small set of words and phrases to give you a taster of Irish, these are all given in the standard, or Caighdeán Oifigiúil.
Mé - I, me
Tú - You (singular)
Sé - He, it
Sí - She, it
Muid - We, us
Sibh - You (plural)
Siad - They (plural)
Is mise... - My name is...
"Name" is ainm dom - My name is...
Is as Éirinn mé - I'm from Ireland (nom; Éire, dat; Éirinn)
Éire - Ireland
Ulaidh - Ulster
Connachta - Connacht
Laighin - Leinster
An Mhumhain - Munster
An Bhreatain - Britain
Go maith - Good
Go holc - Bad
Go deas - Nice
Mór - Big
Beag - Small
Teach - House
Bóthar - Road
Scoil - School
Fear - Man
Bean - Woman
Buachaill - Boy, shepard
Cailín - Girl
Madra - Dog
Cat - Cat
Nom - Nominative
Dat - Dative
Gen - Genitive
Voc - Vocative
Erthyglau yn y categori "Irish"
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