Linguistics of the Gaelic Languages 2013: a conference report

Oh, the things I do for fun at weekends! For example last weekend, I attended the Linguistics of the Gaelic Languages conference in University College Dublin (19 – 20 April 2013). This was a small but focused event, with 20 to 30 people attending to discuss latest research on Irish, Scottish Gaelic and Manx. Here is my report.

The papers that people present at conferences like this can be roughly divided into three groups: (1) papers about the sociolinguistic state of the language, (2) papers about phonology and phonetics and (3) papers about grammar (which can include syntax, semantics, pragmatics, lexicology and other topics). I have nothing to report about papers from the first group because, frankly, sociolinguistics depresses me: it never has anything positive to say about minority languages like Irish. I have nothing much to say about “phono” stuff either, these topics just don’t capture my imagination: probably because the whole thing is too fuzzy, too close to biology. But I was in my element listening to the papers on grammar, and I will report on some of them here.

Tag questions

Tag questions are things like isn’t it and aren’t you at the end of a sentence. Every language I know of has them but every language does them differently. In Irish, the standard pattern is quite similar to English: you simply take the verb and put it in the “opposite” form, for example:

Tá tú sásta, nach bhfuil?
You are happy, aren’t [you]?

However, Séamas Ó Fearghail from Dublin City University presented another pattern which, according to him, can be found in the dialect spoken in the north-west corner of Ireland, in an area centred on a place called Cloch Chionnaola. This pattern works by simply taking the verb as is and preceding it with the negative particle , which suprisingly causes no mutation here:

Tá tú sásta, ní tá?
You are happy, not are?

This will seem bizarre to Irish speakers who haven’t come across it before, as it did to me. From the Standard-Irish point of view, it breaks all the rules, combining the wrong words in ungrammatical ways. But it is reportedly very common among native speakers in the area and Séamas listed off an impressive range of examples he had collected from the local people. A good lesson in how large the gap between a standard and a dialect can be sometimes!

Flying subjects

Aidan Doyle from University College Cork presented a phenomenon he calls ‘the flying subject’. In non-finite subclauses that are introduced with prepositions like during, before and after, the subject is often realized as a prepositional phrase headed by the preposition do meaning (roughly) for. Example:

Roimh di an litir a scríobh chuig Tomás…
Literally: Before, for her, writing the letter to Thomas…
Idiomatically: Before she wrote the letter to Thomas…

The interesting thing is that the subject can “fly”: it can appear in a number of positions, including:

Roimh an litir a scríobh di chuig Tomás…
Literally: Before writing the letter, for her, to Thomas…
Idiomatically: Before she wrote the letter to Thomas…

Roimh an litir a scríobh chuig Tomás di
Literally: Before writing the letter to Thomas, for her, …
Idiomatically: Before she wrote the letter to Thomas…

This brings us to the topic of word order. Some languages have strict word-order rules (such as English) while others are super-flexible in this regard (such as Slavic languages). Irish is somewhat less restricted than English and clause elements are allowed to “fly” sometimes, giving the speaker a device for pragmatic contrasts that a fixed-order language like English only imitates with difficulty.

Relative clauses

Staying with the topic of subclauses and things that fly, another thing that can fly in Irish syntax is the preposition that introduces a relative subclause. Like English, Irish has two patterns for doing this, namely a resumptive pattern (where the preposition is at the end):

an áit a bhfuil an bhó ann
the place which the cow is in it

and a “pied-piped” pattern (where the preposition is at the start – why this is called “pied-piped” I have no idea):

an áit ina bhfuil an bhó
the place in which the cow is

Peadar Ó Muircheartagh of the University of Edinburgh gave an account of how these patterns developed in the language historically. What is interesting is that in spontaneous speech, the two patterns sometimes blend, giving rise to fragments like this:

an áit ina bhfuil an bhó ann
the place in which the cow is in it

This is a production error, strictly speaking, but it is far from uncommon – especially when the subclause is quite long and the speaker runs out of short-term memory.

Mutations

Colm Mag Uiginn of Queen’s University Belfast presented an eye-opening statistical study of initial mutations. Initial mutations are a particular feature of Celtic languages whereby the initial consonant of a word “mutates” into a completely different consonant on account of some ‘trigger’ such as a preposition, a definite article and so on. The thing about mutations is that they are much more variable in reality than the grammar books would have it. Not only are there large differences between dialects; even within a single dialect, speakers sometimes “skip” a mutation in situations when the scholars would predict it should be there.

Colm showed us some statistics he had collected from native speakers in the Donegal Gaeltacht and non-native (but proficient) speakers in Belfast. The statistics show how often people use or skip mutations in certain situations that grammar books and scholars normally consider mutation-triggering. As one would expect, non-native speakers skip mutations more often than native ones. But native speakers skip mutations a lot too, in some cases as often as 40% of the time.

It would seem that the rules that govern the application of mutations are probabilistic rather than hard-and-fast. When a particular trigger is present, the speaker will decide randomly whether to apply a mutation or not, but his or her decision will be skewed by some percentage of likelihood. This is where many grammar book writers will become suspicious, though. Many theoreticians believe that language is never ever random. If they are right, then these percentages and likelihoods are just symptoms of a cause we have not discovered yet: for all we know, we may be witnessing language change in progress, or there may be some semantic or pragmatic factors at play that have not registered on the researchers’ radars yet. In other words, the jury is still out on how to account for the variability in initial mutations – but at least now we have data that describes that variability.

Teaching kids grammar

Finally, Pádraig Ó Duibhir of Saint Patrick’s College presented his research on grammatical errors made in Irish by schoolchildren from English-speaking backgrounds attending Irish-medium schools. He has come to the unsurprising conclusion that these children display signs of inaccurate language acquisition and never really “get” certain grammatical patterns.

But that is not the interesting bit. Being a former teacher himself, Pádraig has devised an inductive learning method to fix the problem. It consists of the teacher confronting the pupils with carefully chosen example sentences and asking them to figure out for themselves what the underlying rules are. The pupils are expected to keep a reflective journal, effectively writing their own grammar book as they go along. The scheme has been piloted in several schools and Pádraig reports the results are encouraging.

Inductive learning is a process based on noticing things in the language as you see and hear it around you and attempting to induce the rules from that. If you are a language geek, you probably do this all the time instinctively. If not, you may need a little encouragement and that is what Pádraig’s method provides. This quote from Pádraig’s talk summarizes it nicely: “If the rules are explained to you by a teacher, you will forget them sooner or later. If you discover them by yourself, you will remember them for ever.” Amen to that.

Conclusion

Anybody whose paper has not been mentioned in this highly selective and highly personal review should not be offended because this is, after all, a highly selective and highly personal review. All papers were interesting and it is a shame this conference did not have a higher profile. There was no website and the event was not advertised anywhere (as far as I know) except by e-mail to the “usual suspects” (of which I am now one, it seems). I wonder if the numbers attending could have been higher if those things had been done. On the other hand, it may be the case that an event like this is so inherently specialized that there is no point. Either way, it was a weekend well spent for me because, as Abraham Lincoln is reported to have said once, people who like this sort of thing will find this the sort of thing they like.

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3 thoughts on “Linguistics of the Gaelic Languages 2013: a conference report

  1. Iontach suimiúil ar fad, a Mhichal. Go raibh maith agat as cur síos a dhéanamh ar an chomhdháil agus na páipéirí ar fad a cuireadh i láthair. Tá ceist agam maidir le cuid de na struchtúir seo a pléadh (agus a n-úsáid). Ar dúradh cá bhfuarthas na samplaí nó cé hiad na cainteoirí a sholáthraigh na nathanna seo? An cheist mhór atá agamsa ná an mbaineann cuid de struchtúir seo le glúin/glúnta áirithe? An samplaí comhaimseartha iad nó seanstrúchtúir? Sílim go mbeadh an cineál sin eolais úsáideach mar d’fhéadfadh sé léargas a thabhairt ar cé acu forbairt nó tanú na teanga atá i gceist (os rud é go bhfuil cuid acu neamhchoitianta). Is maith ann na struchtúir seo. Is minic a chuala mé rudaí (ar téip) ag ‘seanchainteoirí maithe’ mar a deirtear a chuir iontas orm, rudaí nach ndéarfadh mórán cainteoirí anois ar eagla go dtabharfaí ‘Béarlachas’ ar an chineál sin Gaeilge.

    • Dar ndóigh, sin iad an saghas ceisteanna a ritheadh le haon duine fiosrach. Ach b’fhearr duit na t-eolas a lorg ó na cainteoirí féin (a n-ainmneacha luaite san alt agam ach iad a ghoogláil). Níl agamsa ach breac-chuimhne ar an méid a dúradh.

  2. Tá meas mór agam ar an chomhdháil seo, Teangeolaíocht na Gaeilge, agus bhí brón orm nár éirigh bheith ann i mbliana, nó le beagán de bhlianta anuas. Go raibh maith agat as an tuairisc seo a thabhairt duinn.

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