The Irish language is the national and first official language of
Ireland, the other official language being English. Irish is one of
the three 'Gaelic' languages, but referring to it as 'Gaelic',
'Gälisch','gaelique' etc. is generally considered derogatory, or
designed to emphasise its peripheral role in present-day Ireland,
by Irish speakers. Irish has been spoken in Ireland for over 2,500
years, and is the language from which most Irish placenames and
Dublin < Dubh-linn, meaning 'black pool' (the city's name in
modern Irish is Baile Átha Cliath, 'the town of the ford of the
Belfast < Béal Feirste, ' sea-inlet of the sandbanks';
Derry < Doire Cholm Cille, 'the oak-grove of St. Colm
Kennedy < Ó Cinnéide, 'ugly head'; or
MacDonald < Mac Dónaill, 'son of Dónall', etc..
Irish is the ancestral language of the 70-million-strong Irish
diaspora, and of most Scots, throughout the world.
As regards Northern Ireland, the parties to the Belfast Agreement
of 10 April 1998 agreed that the British Government will 'take
resolute action to promote the language', both through recognising
its status and providing financial assistance, in areas ranging
from television and film to Irish-medium education. It became
official working language of the European Union on the 1st
January 2007. The Treaty of Amsterdam gave the right to Irish
speakers to write to the EU institutions in Irish and to receive a
reply in that language.
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Nature and Development of Irish
Irish and its offshoots, Scottish Gaelic and Manx, constitute the
Gaelic or Goidelic branch of the Celtic languages. Welsh, Cornish
and Breton and the now extinct Gaulish (the language spoken in
France, then called Gaul, before the country was invaded by
Caesar's Roman legions) form the Brythonic or Brittonic group, and
all Celtic languages form part of the Indo-European family of
languages. Related Celtic languages were spoken by the Galatians in
Anatolia (modern Turkey) to whom St. Paul wrote his letters; and in
the Polish Galicja and Spanish Galicia, giving some idea of the
vast area peopled by the Celts in the pre-Christian era.
Our earliest evidence for Irish is to be found in ogham
inscriptions (a system of writing used mainly on stone or wood,
based on vertical and slanted strokes corresponding to the Latin
letters, and in the words of Professor David Greene dating from 'a
time not much before the fourth century A.D.'. The language is
usually divided into the following periods: Old Irish AD c.
650-900, Middle Irish c. 900-c.1200, Early Modern Irish c. 1200 -
c. 1600, Late Modern Irish c. 1600 -.
From the Old Irish period until the 13th century the language
underwent a prolonged period of regularization and simplification.
Although they had existed in the language since earliest times,
dialects do not come into view to any degree until the 17th
century. This is because the literary standard language was common
to the entire Gaelic-speaking area, which for over a thousand years
consisted of all of Ireland, most of Scotland, and the Isle of Man.
Irish migration to northern Britain had begun even before the Roman
withdrawal in 410 A.D., but the process of Irish expansion gathered
momentum after the establishment of the kingdom of Dál Riata around
500 A.D. In 843 A.D. Cineadh Mac Ailpin, king of the Irish-speaking
people in northern Britain, gained accession to the kingship of the
Picts, effectively becoming king of what we now call Scotland.
Indeed the medieval Latin word 'Scotus' meant simply an Irish
speaker, as evidenced by the name of the 9th century philosopher at
the court of Charles the Bald, Johannes Scotus Eriugena (Latin
'born in Ireland').
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Some Linguistic Properties of Irish,
Compared with Other Languages
Irish and indeed the Celtic languages in general are very unlike
other European languages in syntax and idiom. Irish lacks any
single words for 'yes' or 'no', the question being repeated
instead. Thus the answer to 'Did you see him'? is either Chonaic
('I saw') or Ní fhaca ('I did not see'). Irish does not emphasize
by use of intonation, as in English, but by bringing the item to be
emphasized to the head of its clause after the copula (one of the
verbs 'to be): 'I don't live in Belfast any more' is rendered Ní i
mBéal Feirste atá cónaí orm a thuilleadh (lit. 'It is not in
Belfast that dwelling is on-me any more'). Similarly 'Do you want a
stamp'? is An stampa atá uait?, literally 'Is it a stamp that is
from-you'? Irish is a noun-centred language where English tends to
be verb-centred: 'she slept' is expressed in Irish by bhí sí ina
codladh, 'she was in her sleeping'; 'I am very hungry' is tá ocras
mór orm , 'there is a great hunger on me'; 'you owe me a pound' is
tá punt agat orm, 'there is a pound at you on me' or 'you have a
pound on me'.
The distinction in Polish between ona jest and ona bywa ('she is'
and 'she habitually is' or 'she is in the habit of being'), i.e.
between the present and present habitual tenses, corresponds
exactly to the Irish tá sí and bíonn sí. This distinction is not
found verbally in English, French, German, Spanish or Italian, but
is present in other Celtic languages such as Welsh, Breton,
Scottish Gaelic, and in other Slavic languages. There are
effectively 3 forms of the verb 'to be', for example:
I am Irish: Is Gael mé.
I am tired: Tá tuirse orm (lit. 'is tiredness on me')
I am here every day: Bím anseo gach lá.
The is/tá distinction corresponds almost exactly to the difference
between the Spanish verbs ser/estar.
Both Slavic languages and Irish have a fondness for palatalisation:
the palatal quality of the consonant 'n' in the Polish word nie
corresponds to the 'n' of the Irish word níl, 'there is not', and
the palatalised initial consonant of the Russian d'ec-yat' (ten) is
the same as the initial consonant of the Irish deich. Irish has no
verb 'to have', and Russian avoids the use of this verb, e.g.
English: I have a book.
Irish: Tá leabhar agam, lit. 'is book with-me'
Russian: U m'enyá knyíga. 'with me book'.
In addition, the Russian equivalents for the words 'push' and
'pull' on doors are exact equivalents, both avoid the use of verbs,
Irish: push= 'uait', lit. 'from you'; pull='chugat', lit. 'to
Russian: push= 'at cyibyá', lit. 'from you'; pull= 'kcyi-byé', lit.
Finally a number of verbal endings, such as the first person
singular, present tense, and the second person singular, past
tense, are pronounced similarly in both Irish and Polish:
Polish: jestem (I am now) bywam (I am usually) bylas' (you
Irish: táim (I am now) bím (I am usually) bhís (you were)
Irish, like Greek, Hebrew, and Esperanto, has only one article, the
definite, singular an and plural na. Initial mutations in Irish are
quite complex and the following is merely one example to illustrate
the phenomenon. The singular article changes the initial consonant
of feminine nouns: bean, pronounced /ban/, 'a woman', an bhean,
pronounced /on van/, the woman'; it prefixes a 't' to masculine
nouns beginning with a vowel: asal, 'donkey', an t-asal. The
changes which occur at the beginning of Irish words are as complex
as Polish 'koncówki'!
A further feature which distinguishes Irish and the other Celtic
languages from all other Indo-European languages (although it is a
feature shared with Arabic and Hebrew) is the existence of what are
called prepositional pronouns. Prepositions combine with personal
pronouns, e.g. ar, 'on' + mé = orm, 'on me'; le, 'with' + sí, 'she'
= léi, 'with her'; ó, 'from' + sé, 'he' = uaidh, 'from him'.
Although Irish was not much cultivated during the 19th century, its
status as an official language since 1922 has helped to modernize
it. All writers now employ the Caighdeán Oifigiúil or Official
Standard, a regularized spelling and grammar developed by the
translation staff or the Oireachtas, the Irish Parliament. The
terminological committees of the Department of Education have over
the years provided speakers of Irish with technical vocabulary in a
wide range of subjects. The Gaeltacht radio service, Raidió na
Gaeltachta, and since 1996 the Irish language television service
TG4, have disseminated much modern terminology as well as
familiarizing native speakers with dialects other than their
The first decision of the first government of the Irish Free State
in 1922 was that all elementary and second-level schools should
teach Irish to all pupils for at least one hour per day.
Additionally all work for the first two years of primary school was
to be in Irish only. The number of individuals and families who
speak Irish, particularly in Dublin and Belfast, is slowly but
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Literature in Irish
The Irish language produced the oldest written literature north of
the Alps, and has an unbroken literary tradition of over 14
centuries: the oldest text which can be dated with certainty, the
Amra Choluim Cille, the life of St. Colm Cille, was written in 597
A.D. Ireland thus has the oldest vernacular literature in western
Europe. The earliest writings in Irish, consisting of glosses or
explanations of the Latin gospels, and sometimes amusing poems
written in their margins, may be seen at the University Library in
The present state of Irish literature is anomalous since the
reading public for Irish is small, but the output in both verse and
prose is relatively large (around 130 new titles appear each year).
The contemporary literature is varied in content and much of it
compares favourably with writing in English in Ireland. The
12-volume French language 'Patrimoine littéraire européen'
(Europe's Literary Heritage), edited in 1992 by Prof. Jean-Claude
Polet of l'Université Catholique de Louvain, Belgium, an anthology
of European literature from the Atlantic to the Urals and from the
beginning of written literature to the 20th Century, devotes 4.89%
of its content to literature in the Irish language.
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The use of Irish Today
The first decision of the first government of the Irish Free State
in 1922 was that each primary and secondary school should teach
Irish for at least one hour per day to all pupils. In addition, all
of the work of the first two years at primary schools was to be
conducted in Irish. Today the number of habitual Irish speakers is
a small fraction of the total population, and in its Gaeltacht
heartland is under unremitting pressure from English.
Yet, as Prof. Joe Lee wrote, 'the seemingly inevitable victory of
the big battalions continues to be postponed', for centuries, one
might add. Asked if the Irish language was dying, the greatest
Irish language prose writer in the 20th Century, the late Máirtín Ó
Cadhain replied: 'Yes, it has been dying for over 400 years.' An
important factor in maintaining Irish as the everyday language of
the Gaeltacht is the negative influence of incoming
English-speaking families. Recent planning law has shown an
increasing awareness by the State of its responsibility for the
linguistic as well as the physical environment, and the need to
protect the Gaeltacht from the uncontrolled influx of
English-speakers. Through the Gaeltacht, or English-speaking part
of the country, both the prestige of Irish, and the number who
habitually speak it, particularly in Dublin and Belfast, continues
Since the achievement of independent Irish statehood the State has
made various provisions for the maintenance and promotion of the
language. Efforts to revive the language as the first spoken
language were not successful. They faced the difficulties that by
the time independence was achieved Irish was very much a minority
language, nearly all of the speakers of which were competent in
English, and that the Gaeltacht areas in which it was still spoken
as the preferred community language (mainly on the western
seaboard) were quite small. However, all surveys show that a large
majority of the population today values the Irish language as
Ireland's only national language and as an important part of the
In a national sample survey conducted by the Linguistics Institute
of Ireland in 1993, 9% said that they had used Irish in a
conversation in the past week; 13% spoke Irish at home at least
occasionally, while 71% never did; 5% spoke Irish at work (2% at
least weekly and 3% less than weekly; 12% watched programmes in
Irish on TV daily or a few times weekly while 28% watched them less
often and 60% never watched TV programmes in Irish. Some 15%
listened to Raidió na Gaeltachta (4% daily or a few times weekly
and 11% less often); 15% listened to other radio programmes in
Irish; 16% read Irish language columns in daily newspapers (5%
daily or a few times weekly and 11% less often); 7% read books in
Irish (1% daily or a few times weekly and 6% less often).
The 2002 Census showed 1.54 million people, or 43%, claiming a
knowledge of Irish, but only 73,000, or 2.6% of the population
(apart from schoolchildren who use it in school), speaking it
daily. A hopeful sign is that among pre-school children, aged 3-4,
i.e. those not yet attending school, the percentage speaking Irish
daily is 5.4%. It is very significant that among children aged 3-4,
the percentage speaking Irish daily increased from 4.6% in 1996 to
5.4% in 2002.
The Official Languages Act, 2003 guarantees the right of all Irish
citizens to communicate with the State in either Irish or English,
and provides mechanisms to ensure that this right is respected by
public officials. It also provided for the simultaneous publication
of important official documents such as annual reports or policy
statement in both languages. A new development is provision for a
complaints mechanism for citizens who believe their right to use
Irish has been ignored, and penalties for state and semi-state
bodies and individual officials who are found not to have shown due
respect for the national language.
There are 235 primary schools and 37 secondary schools in Ireland
which teach the national curriculum through Irish only. The primary
schools are attended by around 29,000 pupils and the secondary
schools are attended by around 9,000 pupils. In Northern Ireland
around 2,500 pupils receive their education through Irish in 2
secondary schools, 18 primary schools and 39 pre-schools.
According to Nielsen, the organisation which researches television
viewership in Ireland, the Irish language television service TG4
has a reach of over 800,000 viewers on average each night and a
share of over 3.5% of television viewers during peak viewing hours.
Raidió na Gaeltachta broadcasts nationally from Gaeltacht areas,
and Raidió na Life is Dublin's Irish language radio service.
Some 130 new titles annually, 1 daily newspaper (published in
Belfast, Northern Ireland!), one weekly newspaper and a number of
monthly magazines are published in Irish, and Irish language
columns appear regularly in the English-language press.
Further information about the Irish language today can be found on
the websites of the Irish language promotion body Foras na
Gaeilge and the Irish language television station TG4.
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The influence of Irish on Hiberno-English, the English spoken in
Ireland, is considerable, whether we are dealing with
pronunciation, syntax or morphology. Hiberno-English tends to have
pure vowel sounds, as in Irish, Polish and most Continental
languages, making it easier to pronounce, and clearer, for foreign
learners of English. It avoids the diphthongisation of RP English.
For example, the three words 'cap, cup, carp'are pronounced quite
distinctly in Hiberno-English, whereas to the Continental ear they
tend to sound the same in the RP (Received Pronunciation) which is
the prestige variety of spoken English in England (used by about 2
% of the population of England, according to Professor David
Crystal's Cambridge Encyclopaedia of the English Language).
In syntax the more flexible Irish word order is reflected in
Hiberno-English in such phrases as 'is it to Cork you are going
tomorrow?' or 'is it tomorrow you are going to Cork?', depending on
the element it is desired to stress. Standard English tends to have
a more rigid word order, using only voice inflection to stress
particular elements of a sentence. Incidentally, the Irish, or more
generally Celtic, flexibility in word order is reflected in French
'C'est demain que tu vas à Cork?', and it is now increasingly
recognised that French word order has been far more influenced by
its Gaulish predecessor than had hitherto been supposed.
The range of verbal possibilities in Hiberno-English is also
increased by its adoption of non-standard patterns, deriving from
Irish, in its verbal system (e.g. 'I do be', to compensate for the
absence of a habitual present tense in English (see below) or 'I
was after getting married', influenced by the Irish bhíos tar éis
pósadh, 'I was after marrying'.
Many Irish idioms survive in Hiberno-English: 'Tis true for you'
(is fíor duit); 'Not a bother on me' (ní gearánta dom), 'he was
putting in on me' (bhí sé ag cur isteach orm) for 'he was
interfering with me'; 'he's very near himself' (gar dó féin) for
'he's very selfish'; 'who is the bike with?' (cé leis an rothar?)
for 'who owns the bike?', 'is it yourself that's in it?' (an tú
féin atá ann?) for 'is it you?', etc.
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