10 reasons why Irish is an absolutely awesome language

Health warning! Learning Irish will open your mind, win you interesting friends and make you attractive to the opposite sex.I have devoted a large chunk of my career to learning Irish, working with Irish and making a living out of Irish. So I thought it would be fair to put together a list of reasons why I think the language is worth it. Mine are proper linguistic reasons though – none of that starry-eyed sentimental nonsense about the language being ‘beautiful’ or ‘romantic’! So, put your language geek hats on, here we go!

(Many of the features mentioned here are actually common to all Celtic languages, including Scottish Gaelic and Welsh, but let’s not be splitting hairs now.)

1. Irish has no words for yes and no

This tends to be the first thing newcomers are told about the language, so let’s start here. You will find no equivalents for yes and no in an English–Irish dictionary because Irish has no such words. But that does not mean that yes/no questions cannot be answered in Irish. They can, of course, only you must do it by recycling the verb that came with the question. If somebody asks you an léann tú nuachtáin? do you read newspapers? you can answer léim I read for yes or ní léim I don’t read for no.

Surprisingly, in spite of centuries of language contact with English, Irish has held on to this way of speaking and hasn’t evolved or borrowed simple one-word expressions for agreeing and disagreeing. True, people sometimes say things like yeah and nah in informal speech, but these seem more like brief code-switches to English than a feature of Irish, and are strictly limited to the informal register. Written Irish, even informal written Irish, almost never avails of these tricks and sticks to its traditional device of recycling the verb.

What this means in practical terms is that Irish speakers cannot easily dismiss a question or offer without giving it some consideration. Unlike English or German or French where you can say no or nein or non to pretty much anything without giving it any thought, an Irish question needs to be processed more deeply.

2. Irish has inflected prepositions

Prepositions are words like with and for and on. In most languages they’re pretty boring and never change, but in Irish they inflect for person and number. Yes, prepositions inflect! From le with we have liom with me, leat with you, leis with it and so on. From ar on we have orm on me, ort on you, air on it and son on. You get the idea. It’s a pretty simple concept to get your head around in theory, but if you’re a learner of Irish as a second language, it’s easy to get confused and start saying things like *le mé instead of liom with me, *ar tú instead of ort on you. Learner beware!

3. Irish words change their beginnings (and not just their endings)

Words in most languages inflect, which is a fancy way of saying that their endings change depending on the role they play in the sentence. Irish words do that too. But Irish words also change their beginnings! These changes are called initial mutations and they are usually caused by something that precedes the word, such as prepositions or determiners. So from teach house we have mo theach my house and i dteach in a house, from bord table we have do bhord your table and ar an mbord on the table, from athair father we have an t-athair the father, a hathair her father and ár n-athair our father. Note that the initial mutations are not just orthographical, the pronunciation changes too: teach starts with a /t/ sound, theach with /h/ and dteach with /d/.

The fact that words change their pronunciation a little on account of other words around them is not unusual in the world’s languages. French has liaison, for example. But in Irish (and other Celtic languages), these changes have evolved from a purely phonological phenomenon into an omnipresent feature of the syntax. Irish initial mutations are used for things like gender and number agreement, and they are not merely an artefact of the linear ordering of words next to each other.

For a language learner, initial mutations bring some surprising complications. It can be difficult to look up an unknown word in a dictionary if you’re not sure whether it’s mutated or not. Fortunately, the typical character sequences produced by initial mutations are easy to spot once you’ve been around the block a few times.

Also, initial mutations produce some orthographical oddities that may appear as typos to the uninitiated. Some initial mutations work by prefixing a character to the beginning of a word. When the word needs to be capitalized, the prefixed letter must remain in lowercase. For example, for the placename Gaillimh Galway we have i nGaillimh in Galway. That’s right, the word now has a lowercase ‘n’ followed by an uppercase ‘G’. This is not a typo, it’s just how Irish orthography works!

4. Irish sentences start with the verb

Practically all languages on Earth have a default word order for their sentences. In English and most other European languages it is subject → verb → object, for example: the woman (= subject) kissed (= verb) the man (= object). In some languages it is subject → object → verb, like in Latin. But you rarely see a language where the basic ordering is verb → subject → object and each sentence begins with a verb. And you’ve guessed it, Irish is one such language (and so are the other Celtic languages). We have phóg an bhean an fear, literally kissed the woman the man, and tá an fear sásta, literally is the man happy. But in case you’re wondering, these are not questions! Unlike English, where you only use this order for questions, Irish sentences are always like this.

The verb-initial word order has some interesting implications that you need to bear in mind when constructing sentences in Irish. Because the subject and the object are now right next to each other with no verb in between, it can sometimes be difficult to tell where the one stops and the other begins. In the sentence tá an fear sásta we do not know straight away whether this is a complete sentence meaning the man is happy or whether it’s just the beginning of a larger sentence starting with the happy mean is… Also, you need to keep your subjects short in Irish. The longer the subject is, the harder it is for the reader or listener to recognize when it has ended. In English, a sentence like the man who has been kissed by the woman who had previously rejected him is happy now is OK in English – at least sort of, it’s legible. But its literal Irish translation would be pretty difficult to parse mentally because there’d be no verb to give the reader a clue that the subject has ended: the reader would probably feel compelled to stop and do a double take.

5. Irish words inflect for contrast

In addition to inflecting nouns for number and case like practically every language on Earth, Irish also inflects its nouns for something we can call contrast or emphasis. Basically, a noun can come in two forms, a default ‘normal’ form and a derived ‘contrasted’ or ‘emphasized’ form created by adding a suffix, usually -sa or -se. This can usefully produce contrasted pairs such as mo theach my house versus mo theachsa my house and not someone else’s. Pronouns inflect for contrast too, so for every me we have mise myself and no-one else, for every you we have tusa yourself and no-one else.

It is practically obligatory in Irish grammar to use these contrastive forms when some kind of semantic contrast or juxtaposition occurs, for example: feicim mo theach, ach cá bhfuil do theachsa? I see my house but where is your house? tá mé go maith, conas atá tusa? I am fine, how are you?

You will probably agree that inflection is an unusual way to achieve semantic contrast. Mainstream European languages normally use nothing more than prosodic stress for these purposes, while some languages also use word order. But only Irish plus its Celtic cousins have evolved a contrastive device that functions at the level of inflectional morphology. Not that prosodic stress and word order cannot be used for this purpose in Irish too, but it is optional. It tends to be used a lot less than in English and must always be accompanied by contrastive inflection, which is never optional.

6. Irish has several verbs to be

It seems simple to use the verb to be in English, as in the house is small or my mother is a singer or that woman is our teacher. It’s always some form of the same verb, to be. But Irish has different ways for saying these things, depending on the meaning.

The basic verb to be is in Irish or, in the present tense, is. It can be used for situations when you’re simply attributing a property to an entity, such as the property beag small to the entity an teach the house. This is easy and it takes care of our first sentence: tá an teach beag, the house is small.

The remaining two sentences cannot be translated with this verb because they imply a different kind of ‘being’. Let’s tackle sentence number two first: my mother is a singer. The sentence expresses class membership: a relation between an entity (mo mháthair my mother) and a class the entity belongs to (amhránaí a singer). You cannot use the verb here: *tá mo mháthair amhránaí is wrong, hand-wringingly wrong. To express the class membership relation in Irish, you must use a construction called the classifying copula: is amhránaí í mo mháthair. It uses the defective verb is (whose similarity to the English is is probably purely coincidental) and can be translated literally as: is a singer, she, my mother.

The third one, that woman is our teacher, is different again. It expresses a relation between two linguistic labels (an bhean sin that woman and ár múinteoir our teacher) and tells you that they both refer to one and the same entity, that they are one and the same person. For this you must use a construction called the identity copula: is í ár múinteoir í an bhean sin, literally: is she our teacher, she, that woman. This again uses the defective verb is, but in a different pattern.

So here we have the three basic ways of saying that something ‘is’ something in Irish. There are more twists and turns to the story but we won’t go into the details here. As you can see from this extremely basic introduction, it’s more complicated than English or most other European languages because you must pay close attention to the nature of the relation that your ‘is’ expresses. As you can imagine, this poses great difficulty for second-language learners of Irish who keep wanting to use the basic verb everywhere. But if you’re like me and if you have experience in object-oriented computer programming, you won’t find it so difficult. Think about it like this: the classifying copula is basically a relation between a class and an instance, while the identifying copula is like two variables referring to the same object. See? Speaking Irish is like programming in an object-oriented programming language!

7. Irish numerals are delightfully and/or hideously complicated

Irish has two sets of numerals, one for counting humans and another for counting animals and non-living things (house pets are a borderline case, they can go either way). The human numerals are actually nouns whose literal meanings are a two-person group (beirt), a three-person group (triúr), a four-person group (ceathrar) and son on. You can combine them with another noun (in the genitive plural) to say things like four women: ceathrar ban, literally a four-person group of women; three drivers: triúr tiománaithe, literally a three-person group of drivers; two parents: beirt thuismitheoirí, literally a two-person group of parents. You are not supposed to combine these numerals with the word daoine people though, because they already have the meaning of people sort of ‘baked’ into them. A phrase like *triúr daoine three people sounds a bit wrong because it literally says a three-person group of persons. To say three people, just say triúr on its own.

The numerals used for counting animals and non-living things have quirks of their own too. First of all, they can be subdivided into two further subsets, one for just saying numbers on their own (one, two, three…) and another for combining a numeral with a noun phrase (one house, two fast cars, three very large eggs…). And combining numerals with noun phrases is surprisingly complex in Irish: different numbers cause different mutations on the noun, the noun is in most cases supposed to be in the singular (yes, singular! – you say things like trí ubh, literally three egg in Irish) but any adjectives are supposed to be in the plural and mutated. The rules are so curiously complex you could spend half your career just trying to figure them out. I have written a 40-page monograph on Irish numerals and still I don’t think we’re friends.

And that’s only the express-train overview. There are several complicating details, including lots of exceptions, lots of dialectal differences and the inconvenient fact that Irish isn’t actually used much in the higher echelons of mathematics and statistics. And then there is the competing vigesimal system, based on multiples of 20, which overlaps and intertwines with the 10-based decimal system. The whole thing is a can of worms waiting to explode in your face if you as much as tap on it. In fact, I’m not so sure any more whether Irish numerals make the language absolutely awesome or hideously ingrown. I know that numerals can sometimes be very complex in human languages, so this is not completely unexpected. But what I’ve seen in Irish, I haven’t seen anywhere else.

8. Irish is strongly periphrastic

Many of the concepts that other European languages have a single word for, Irish expresses them with a multi-word expression. Such constructions are called periphrastic and they are everywhere in Irish! To be ill is to ‘have an illness on you’ (tá tinneas ort). To like something is ‘it is good with me’ (is maith liom é). To prefer something is ‘it is better with me’ (is fearr liom é). To interview someone is to ‘put an interview on them’ (agallamh a chur orthu). To try something is to ‘extract an attempt from it’ (bain triail as). To bleed is to ‘be putting blood’ (ag cur fola). To visit somebody is to ‘give a visit upon them’ (cuairt a thabhairt orthu). To sleep is to ‘be in your sleep’ (bí i do chodladh). To live somewhere is to ‘be in your residence’ there (bí i do chónaí). To press something is to ‘put pressure on it’ (cuir brú air). To love somebody is to ‘be in love’ with them (tá mé i ngrá leat).

Even though some of these concepts do have verbal equivalents (brúigh press, gráigh love), they are pretty much only theoretical and are almost never used in natural free-flowing conversation. In general, Irish is a language with very few verbs, compared to other European languages – and the few verbs it has, it uses them mostly as semantically void auxiliaries (cuir put, tabhair give, déan do) where the main semantic content rests in the accompanying nouns and adjectives.

9. Irish explains (much of) Irish English

If you’ve ever wondered why Irish people say things like I’m after breaking a cup and I do be coming here often, it’s because these constructions have been carried over from Irish into Irish English. They are more or less literal translations of how the meanings are expressed in Irish. The first one is an example of how the perfect past tense of a verb is constructed in Irish using the preposition tar éis after: tá mé tar éis cupán a bhriseadh, literally I am after breaking a cup, more idiomatically I have broken a cup. The second one is an example of how Irish verbs are used in the progressive habitual tense to express occurrences that happen often or regularly: bím ag teacht anseo go minic, literally I do be coming here often, more idiomatically I come here often.

The history of language contact between Irish and English on the island of Ireland is long and not always without trouble. You could summarize it in two phases. At first, Irish had the upper hand and it influenced the local variety of English a lot, giving it features that survive in the English spoken by Irish people today, even those who don’t have a word of Irish themselves. Then the balance of power changed and English has become the dominant language for most inhabitants of Ireland. All who speak Irish also speak English, but not the other way around. What’s more, those who speak both languages often have English as their stronger, more fluent, more expressive language. This brings a lot of anglicisms into Irish, even to such an extent that some people’s speech would be incomprehensible if you didn’t also know English.

Irish and English are not easy bedfellows because they are typologically so different. But, by the coincidence of history, they have been pushed together and have been exchanging features for centuries. So the story of Irish is also the story of Irish English, and vice versa.

10. Irish is a stage door to Ireland

Even though Irish is very much playing second fiddle to English in Ireland now and even though you can spend a full life here in happy ignorance of the language, it still pays to know Irish. If you know Irish, you’ll know how to pronounce Irish-language placenames like Baile Átha Cliath and Dún na nGall on bilingual roadsigns and you’ll be able to decipher what they mean (on the other hand, English-language placenames in Ireland are usually meaningless gobbledygook converted from the Irish by a method of ‘jot down how it sounds to an English person’). You’ll know how to pronounce people’s names, especially first names like Séamus and Aonghus and Siobhán and Aisling, as these are very popular among Irish people, even those who don’t actually speak any Irish. More importantly, you’ll know which ones are male and which female! You’ll know your way with people’s surnames too: for example, you’ll know that the surname Ó Séaghdha seems like it contains a lot of graphemes but the pronunciation is only three phonemes. Many institutions and functions in Irish public life have Irish-language names including Dáil (the lower chamber of parliament), Taoiseach (the prime minister) and Bus-Áras (the central bus station in Dublin); if you know Irish you’ll know how to pronounce them properly (unlike the newsreaders in RTÉ who are often disappointingly off-target) and you’ll understand what they mean literally.

In other words, Irish will give you a more direct line to Ireland than English ever could. This is a particularly attractive proposition if you’re a newcomer to Ireland like I once was. Through Irish, I have been able to bypass the tourist-board clichéd image of Ireland and look at the real thing behind the curtains. I have been able to meet interesting people I wouldn’t have met otherwise, to become involved in interesting projects I wouldn’t have become involved in otherwise, and made feel welcome like someone who belongs here rather than a stranger who’s just tolerated here. And perhaps that, more than anything, is the reason why Irish is an absolutely awesome language.

Over to you!

OK, back to Earth now. I’ve given my ten reasons why Irish is an absolutely awesome language, ranging from purely linguistic ones to ones that are more social and personal. It’s over to you now! In ten points or less, what is your favourite language and why is it absolutely awesome?

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84 thoughts on “10 reasons why Irish is an absolutely awesome language

  1. Ní raibh fhios agam go raibh Béarla chomh galánta sin agat!

    Níl freagra agam ar do cheist, mar is beag anailís a dhéanaim ar theangacha. Seachas teangacha ríomhaireachta, ach is ainmhithe eile iad sin.

  2. Michal,

    1. You claim you learned the real language, as an avenue into the real Ireland. Your blogpost shows that to be a lie. Which Gaeltacht area did you hear “conas atá tusa?” in? You learned the conlang, which is not an avenue into any part of real Ireland. There is no dialect that says “conas atá tusa?” After conas, cad, cé, etc, the relative particle is not heard. “Conas ‘tánn tú/tusa?” and “conas ‘taíonn tú/tusa?” are found. There is also “conas ‘taoi(se)?” “Conas atá tusa?” doesn’t mean anything in Irish – or any other human language.

    2. I don’t have an encyclopaedic knowledge of the dialects, and there may (or may not??) be villages that say “is amhránaí í mo mháthair”, but there is no requirement in Irish grammar for a pronoun í before the subject. See “b’é Maolshuathain anamchara Bhriain” in Peadar Ua Laoghaire’s novel, Niamh. A subpredicate is required before a definite predicate – and it seems to result from confusion to claim that í is needed before mo mháthair, which is not the predicate. Amhránaí mo mháthair is correct – and “is” may be dropped. ‘Sí ár múinteóir an bhean san = is also correct. There is no need for í.

    It is quite deceitful of you to say you have bypassed the clichéd Ireland and gone to the real thing behind the curtains. In fact, you have attempted to keep the real Irish behind the curtains!!!!! Get out of the clichéd Ireland for once and start learning the real thing!

    • Regarding 1, I’m aware that ‘conas atá’ is normally pronounced without the relative particle. I pronounce it without it too, but I prefer to write it with it (and so do many other people, I’m not being quirky here).

      Regarding 2, I’m aware that the echoing pronoun ‘í’ doesn’t need to be there, but it can and I felt like putting it there. (I’m not claiming that my examples are the only possible ones.)

    • djwebb2010, a note on your 2. Your quote from Peadar Ua Laoghaire’s novel is exactly an example of a pronoun before a definite noun in subject position, in this case “é” before Maolshuathain. This requirement is characteristis of the western and southern dialects. So “amhránaí í mo mháthair” would be preferred there.

      • VB, Father Peter wrote somewhere that it was incorrect – grammatically incorrect – to put a pronoun before the subject in copula sentences. I can try to locate the reference if anyone is interested – he implied this sort of “Irish” resulted from learners’ confusion (possibly then reinfluencing the Irish of native speakers, but Father Peter may not have conducted a comprehensive survey of other dialects before writing that).

        B’é Maolshuathain anamchara Bhriain – is not an example of a pronoun before the subject because – duh! – the subject is “anamchara Bhriain”. The point is that Father Peter did NOT write: b’é Maolshuathain É anamchara Bhriain.

        A pronoun intervenes between THE COPULA and the PREDICATE.

        I just think – just maybe – teensy weensy bit maybe? – Peadar Ua Laoghaire understood Irish grammar better than VG and Michal Mechura. Just, like, maybe? Or for bloody definite!!!!

    • I’ve found the reference. Father Peter’s Notes on Irish Words and Usages p47:

      “On the other hand é is sometimes inserted when it ought not. Is maith an fear é Tadhg, for instance, is not said. The correct form is is maith an fear Tadhg.
      But if the thing represented by é were in the shape of a clause, then the é should be always inserted, e.g. ba dhian mhaith an rud é dá mbeadh an lá chun féir.”

      Of course, we now have a Czech man quoting some book (Graiméar Gaeilge),which is the reference grammar of a made up conlang, tellling us that Father Peter knew nothing… I should start telling Michal he knows no Czech…

      • I’m sure an tAthair Peadar wasn’t infallible and, as for Michal, is Éireannach é anois – níos Éireannaí ná a lán de na hÉireannaigh féin. Beir bua.

      • No, Michal is and always will be Czech – just as I am and always will be English. I don’t know if he has taken out Irish citizenship – but clearly being an Irish citizen and actually being Irish are two different things, easily confused by governments seeking to dispossess their nations by immigration!

      • “[…] we now have a Czech man […] tellling us that Father Peter knew nothing.”

        Careful now. I never said any of that.

      • “No, Michal is and always will be Czech […]”

        I wish I didn’t have to, but I must defend myself. I don’t claim to be “Irish” in any sense. I don’t know how anybody got that idea.

      • Thank you Michal for clearing up the fact that you don’t claim to be Irish – it was smagl who came up with that absurd gem.

      • Ní lia duine ná barúil.

      • According to Ó Siadhail, the pronoun ‘insertion rule’ is used in Connacht and Munster dialects, in regards to classificatory copula sentences:

        Copula + classificatory indefinite noun + pronoun

        Is múinteoir í Cáit.
        Is scoláirí na fir sin.
        Is sagart é m’uncail.

        Emphasis on the adjective that qualifies the noun results with possibilities like:

        Generally speaking:
        Is duine deas é. ‘He’s a nice person.’

        Emphasis on ‘his being nice’:
        Is deas an duine é. ‘He’s a nice person.’

        Gnás na Gaedhilge gives us:

        Ciaca de sna fearaibh seo Seán Ó Néill?
        Is é seo Seán Ó Néill.

        Cé hé seo?
        Is é Seán Ó Néill. / Is é seo Seán Ó Néill.

        Is é Seán Ó Néill é seo.
        Is é duine é seo ‘ná Seán Ó Néill / Seán Ó Néill úd a mbíonn gach aoinne ag trácht air.

        Srl.

      • *Is scoláirí iad na fir sin.

      • Fear a’ Bháta,

        You’ve mixed things up. We’re not talking about a general “pronoun insertion rule”. I’m talking about ***whether to insert it before the subject*** (as a totally separate issue to inserting it between the copula and a definite predicate). Your post started off well talking about classificatory sentences with an indefinite predicate, and the examples you gave of “is múinteóir í Cáit” and “is sagart é m’uncail” seem relevant – but none of the other examples had anything to do with the subject at hand.

        You claim you’re talking about Southern dialects, but then you fail to address the fact that Southern dialects prefer the “is ea” construction in the classificatory sentences…. which contradict the only two relevant examples.

        Father Peter had “Bean is eadh an duine sin a bhí ar an gcarraig” in his Guaire. Classificatory, indefinite predicate.

        I left open the possibility that Father Peter didn’t do a comprehensive survey of all spoken dialects of his day and may have presumed that some things were wrong – may have – I don’t know whether he did or didn’t.

        As far as I can tell “is múinteóir í Cáit” is a construction that has spread from the weak learners who FAILED TO UNDERSTAND that the subpredicate was put in to separate the copula from a definite predicate, and thought it was a “general pronoun insertion rule” – as indeed Fear a’ Bháta implied it was!!!!

        I’ve leafed through the section on the copula in Gaeilge Chorca Dhuibhne and can’t find one example of this type of sentence. Could it be from the Western dialects?

      • Ok, there’s the copula+pronoun/definite noun+pronoun/definite noun ‘identificatory’ structure in Connacht and Ulster:

        Is mé an múinteoir.

        Using the emphatic, structures like these are possible:

        (Is) eisean an sagart.
        (Is) ise an múinteoir.
        (Is) iadsan na scoláirí.

      • If the predicate is indefinite it comes first, before the subject. If the predicate is definite it comes after the subject.
        Is feirmeoir é Brian.
        Is é Brian an feirmeoir ar leis an talamh seo.
        Brian is the subject in both sentences and is preceded by a pronoun because it’s a definite noun.
        What is the subject is better seen in English as in English the subject must come first:
        Brian is a farmer.
        Brian is the farmer whose land this is.

        b’é Maolshuathain anamchara Bhriain
        translation:
        Maolshuathain was Brian’s soul friend.
        not “Brian’s soul friend was Maolshuathain”.
        Maolshuathain is the subject and it has a pronoun before it because it’s a definite noun.

        But I like your agitation.

      • VB, you wrote, “If the predicate is indefinite it comes first, before the subject. If the predicate is definite it comes after the subject”. Unfortunately, you are wrong, and you have helpfully provided an illustration of the learners’ difficulties with copula and their attempts to impose English syntax on it. ***It is the native speakers’ understanding of the copula that counts.***

        As Peadar Ua Laoghaire wrote, the copula points to the predicate. You will note that even Graiméar Gaeilge does not state that where the predicate is definite it comes last (which would make the copula sentence VSP).

        The issue is complicated by debates over whether the grammatical predicate in Irish is sometimes different from the logical predicate – and in my PDF I linked to I discussed this point, together with examples of where the logical predicate varied from the grammatical predicate in English too. In b’é Maolshuathain anamchara Bhriain – Maolshuathain is the grammatical predicate. Whether it is the logical predicate is partly a matter of interpretation, and partly a matter of squeezing Irish into English grammatical categories. You are probably write that personal names tend to go in the grammatical predicate in Irish. But in any case – the issue at hand – it is NOT b’é Maolshuathain é anamchara Bhriain. Anamchara does not mean “soul friend”!!!!!!!!!! It means “confessor, chaplain”.

      • Probably “right” – not probably “write”…

      • He knows way more than you’ll ever know about the language, you ignorant racist git.

      • Who the F*** is this A**hole djwebb2010?
        Faigh cúnamh, djwebb. Tóg do leigheas.

      • Ar fheabhas!

        Maith an fear tú féin, a Tadhg.
        Tá sé go deas castáil leat!

        BB7B

    • “you have attempted to keep the real Irish behind the curtains” – No. He hasn’t learned the language of the Gaeltacht, but he has learned the core of the language (albeit a standardised version of it) in a way which allows him to interact with place names/ names of national institutions etc more organically. Phrases like ‘conas atá tusa?’ are clunky and betoken an artificial language form that I dislike as much as the next Irish speaker. But your type of linguistic purism, although totally understandable, really only serves to discourage people from trying take the language out of the grammar books and into the real world. Cleachtadh a dhineann máistreacht.

      • Jody, the Caighdeán Oifigiúil is not “the core of the language” – it is not the correct language at all! I would argue that Muskerry Irish was the real core of the language, as exemplified by the works of Peadar Ua Laoghaire. The CO should be retired – and any attempt to teach a fake form of Irish ought to be a criminal offence, as it is just a fraud on Irish children. We could organise a big bonfire and burn all the books pumped out in the fake CO!!

    • Thank God, buiochas le Dia nach bhfuil comh many grumps like you around. Go n-eirigh bothar an Gaeilge leis an fear from Eastern Europe. At least I guess somewhere thereabouts.

  3. Ceapaim go Bhfuil Polainnis ‘awesome’, agus go bhfuil sí cosúil le Gaeilge ar bhealach.
    I need to study quite a bit to write my ten reasons but I know I could steal some of the points you make about Irish.

    The reason for my enthusiasm is 17 months old now and has words in three languages, Irish, English and Polish and an awesome language that is all his own and very much effective.

  4. Overall I thought the piece was a brilliant introduction in English to the vagaries of Irish and am disappointed at the carping critical note struck by the second commentator above. Thug mé cúpla botún (typos) faoi deara ach bhí siad go léir sa Bhéarla. I agree with Michal’s basic point that learning Irish is a key like no other into the real Ireland.

  5. “Speaking Irish is like programming in an object-oriented programming language!” 🙂 Iontach ar fad, maith thú!

  6. Excellent piece, but I would like to take issue with one thing. You say that your reasons “are proper linguistic reasons though – none of that starry-eyed sentimental nonsense about the language being ‘beautiful’ or ‘romantic’!” Well, it was this very starry-eyed sentimental nonsense that brought be back to the language more than three decades after I left school. It *is* a beautiful language, and it’s wonderful to see it being used more and more by young people. My English husband is learning it too. We got married in June, and did our exchange of rings in Irish. Our rings are embossed with Mo Anam Cara. It doesn’t matter why people decide to learn a language. The important thing is that they do. It’s never nonsense. 🙂

    • Great sentiment, Angie. I arrived in Ireland April, and my first bit of professional development was taking a Gaelchultur class so I don’t mangle my students’ names, and can at least greet people appropriately. But I did enjoy Michal’s article. It reminded me of a lot I learned at Gaelchultur and hope to keep in mind.

  7. Reblogged this on ancroiait and commented:
    Seo alt iontach ag míniú céard atá spéisiúil faoin nGaeilge do dhaoine atá ag tosnú a daturas sa teanga. Is fiú go mór é a léamh.

  8. I must agree with Angie Steele, I like the piece and I think the fervor in which was written was lost by a few people, but you always have to have someone piss on whatever. (excuse the language but it was to make a point).

  9. Go hiontach!! Go raibh míle míle maith agat! =]

    • I love that in Irish, we are ourselves, the same being that is affected by moods passing above us rather than convincing ourselves that we have actually changed our being. So instead of changing (in English), from “I am happy”, to “I am sad”, in Irish we have happiness above us, “Tá áthas orm”, which changes to I have sadness above me as in “Tá brón orm” largely due to the fact that I am tired of reading pedantic posts by that twit djwebb2010″,

    • I love that in Irish, we are ourselves, the same being that is affected by moods passing above us rather than convincing ourselves that we have actually changed our being. So instead of changing (in English), from “I am happy”, to “I am sad”, in Irish I had happiness above me “Bhí áthas orm”, which changes to I have sadness above me as in “Tá brón orm”. So thinking in Irish gives me a greater sense of confidence in my self. I am who I am and moods pass rather than change me.
      I wonder if our expert party pooper Mr djwebb2010 could let us know is there an Irish word for ‘pedantic’?

  10. jesus. The article shows why Irish is an awesome language. But the comments, particularly the arrogant ones from DJ Webb, show why it’s often shunned by so many. Let the language live, don’t strangle it.

    • Glad to hear this comment! Why nag about details. It will only keep you far away from te thrill of getting to know this beautiful, old language. Every village has its own way of saying things. I’m certain I’ll never be able to know all. But I’m just happy withe the rogress I make everyday. So I say Ta me ag foghlaim Gaeilge. Le beagan gach la. (i know its not spelled completely right)

      • Er Michal is not interested in any “beautiful, old language” and is in fact seeking to repress the real language. He is engaged in making a conlang. The various sites he works on including focal.ie contain many tens of thousands of fake words not found in any village in the Gaeltacht. I explore this topic in detail at http://corkirish.wordpress.com/making-the-language-up/ Of course I would praise Michal if he were engaged in promoting the Irish language (you know, the real language).

      • You are mistaking the website builder Michal, with the content providers. Michal does not choose the content and it cannot be taken as reflecting his opinion. In any case, see duchas.ie which is also his work.

      • Well, duchas.ie seems more worthwhile, so you are right there, Aonghus.

      • What you’re talking about is displaying contempt towards the language of the Gaeltacht, and insisting any old inferior, poorly learned stuff in the Galltacht is actually better.

  11. Hi, Michal! Interesting blog! I like the more personal reasons for learning Irish such as knowing how to pronounce people’s names! Also, I still remember the time a woman walked up to me in Cafe Fixx and said, “Thank you for learning Irish!” On the other hand, maybe you shouldn’t have got so technical about the difference between “bi” and “is.” I think most learners just listen to good speakers and learn it by ear that way! Actually, the most interesting part for me was the part about how in English we’d say “visit them” and in Irish it’s “cuairt a thabairt orthu.” I’d noticed that thing you call periphrastic, but I didn’t know how to explain it. Tabhair aire, B

  12. Great essay, and great to see Irish being discussed by people with a sense of languages that extends beyond Irish and English. In school we learnt Irish through Irish, and in isolation from all other languages. I was a about 17 years old before I twigged that the mysterious módh fo-shuíteach was simply the subjunctive, already familiar to me in four other languages (but not English!).

    • Well, Roger, English does have the subjunctive, although admittedly it is clearer with the verb “to be”. I believe foshuiteach has a short i, both in spelling and in pronunciation.

  13. Reblogged this on macgeoffster and commented:
    This is mostly the same for Scottish Gaelic, too!

  14. Reblogged this on Sheffield Gaelach and commented:
    For those of you who need more reasons to love learning Irish!

  15. Pingback: Speaking Irish is like Programming in an Object-Oriented Language

  16. Go raibh maith agat as sin a Mhichal – an-alt! Suimiúil go maith bhí na focail “tó/náthó” againn do “yes/no” tráth dá raibh – ach ar chúis éigin chailleamar iad…

    Tá súil agam nach gcuireann drochbhéasanna na dtroll lagmhisneach ort – le do thoil lean ar aghaidh leis an scríbhneoireacht. Dá mbeadh cead a gcinn ag daoine áirithe maidir leis an teanga, ‘sé a bheadh againn ná “The operation was successful, but the patient died.”

  17. Pingback: What's best, and worst, with the Irish language! - Saol Eile

  18. Great article – but there aren’t several verbs ‘to be’, there are two. And I hope you’re joking about Irish ‘is’ and English ‘is’ being a coincidence! An méid sin ráite maith thú as ucht tabhairt fén dteanga a dh’fhoghlaim, deas an rud san a dh’fheiscint i gcónaí 🙂

  19. I consulted djwebb2000’s blog http://corkirish.wordpress.com/making-the-language-up/

    I have to say I found it interesting and amusing. One has to admire the learning and commitment that is evident in it and it is intriguing to reflect that an tAthair Peadar still has at least one devoted fan all these years later.

    The author doesn’t pull any punches, and he is particularly scathing about the translation business. I thought some of his onslaughts were hilarious. See for example:

    “It seems that translated nonsense is being churned out in great quantities, using made-up terminology and with nary a peer review, by people whose main aim is to corner public spending for themselves.”

    “I regard Standardised Irish as a conspiracy to defraud the public purse and embezzle public funds for an arrogant bunch of learners.”

    Anyone who fails to see the compelling logic of an tUasal djwebb2000’s argument he refers to as low IQ or desperately low IQ. Tagann na focail díomasach agus sotalach chun cuimhne.

    Despite these arrogant views the blog is well worth reading and there’s a wealth of material on the site. But the basic flaw in its world view is that it’s stuck in a time-warp and fails to acknowledge the real world in which Irish struggles to exist – ie, faoi scáth an Bhéarla, the linguistic juggernaut of the contemporary world. It’s a David and Goliath struggle and the miracle is that Irish has survived even to the extent that it has.

    The balance in the Irish language community has shifted from rural based native speakers to urban based native or semi-native speakers and learners. What the spoken language has lost in historic richness and fluency has been compensated for by a wider access to the language through modern media and in its written form. A greater number of people can read and write Irish now than was ever the case before. A large part of the credit for this has to go to the modernisers, including the standardisers and translators for whom an tUasal djwebb2000 seems to reserve a particular disdain.

    It’s not a case of the bloggers versus the boggers, but rather that many of the boggers have now become bloggers.

    Ní mhaireann an tAthair Peadar ach tá an Ghaeilge beo fós más ar éigean é. Is léir domsa nach mairfidh an teanga gan nua-aoisiú agus beidh ról lárnach cinniúnach ag lucht an aistriúcháin san nua-aoisiú seo. Thug mé cuairt ar ionad Cuairteoirí Pharlaimint na hEorpa sa Bhruiséil i mí na Samhna seo caite agus bhí chuile rud ann ar fáil trí Ghaeilge (i bhfoirm labhartha agus scríofa). Bhí an cur i láthair ann ar fheabhas. Ba chúis mhórtais agus gliondar croí dom é go raibh an Ghaeilge suas ansin leis na teangacha Eorpacha eile. Agus chomh maith leis sin ba theistiméiracht é ar cé chomh éifeachtach is atá an fhoireann bheag aistritheoirí s’againne thall ansin.

    Táimse den tuairim go gcuireann an obair sa Bhruiséil go mór le hinfreastruchtúr na Gaeilge. Is obair cheannródaíoch í an obair atá ar siúl ag an bhfoireann ansin. Tá siad ar thús cadhnaíochta i bhforbairt na teanga, á leathnú agus á haclú le haghaidh réimsí nua. Agus dála an scéil, tá siad i bhfad chun tosaigh sna cúrsaí seo ar a gcomhghleacaithe i státseirbhís na hÉireann anseo sa bhaile.

  20. Alt iontach, Michal. Is breá liom an comparáid a dheinis le Object Oriented Language Programming.

    Maidir le ord na bhfocal in abairtí agus go speisialta áit an bhriathair, measaim go bhfuil Gearmáinis i bhfad níos casta do fhoghlaimeoirí. Mar shampla simplí: Ich habe auf mein Frühstück verzichten müssen = I was from my breakfast to forego obliged. Nuair a bhíonn fochlásail i gceist is féidir samplai i bhfad níos deacra a fháil. Ach bíonn rialacha i gceist agus is féidir sásamh intleachtúil a bhaint as an iarracht – faoi mar a bheadh in Object Oriented Language Programming!

    Maidir le pointe 5, tá a leithéid san Iodáilis agus is suimiúil an cosúlacht idir “tusa” na Gaeilge agus “tustessa” na hIodáilis.

    Maidir le pointe 6, tá a leithéid de dhifríocht freisin sa Spáinnis idir na briathra “ser” (“Miguel es un hombre sincero”) agus “estar” (“Miguel está en casa”), cé go bhfuil an chopail sa Ghaeilge níos casta.

    Thaitin go mór liom freisin gur úsáid tú mo shloinne i measc do chuid samplaí! B’fhéidir gur chuimhin leat go rabhas i rang agat tamall de bhlianta ó shin in OCBAC 🙂

    Beir bua!

  21. You forgot to mention that Irish has no word for “have.’ Maybe this is why Ireland has had such a problematic relationship with capitalism! (Erich Fromm talks about such languages in his book To Have or To Be, though he doesn’t mention Irish as far as I recall.) I spent 14 years learning Irish and I still haven’t got my head around lenition. It should be abolished imho (not Irish, lenition). English is a much more logical and straightforward language, which is why it’s becoming the universal lingua franca. The difficult in learning Irish is at least on a par with German. The problem is, it’s much less useful than German, which you can use not only in the German-speaking countries but as a common language in much of eastern Europe, and makes it easier to get the gist of the Scandinavian languages and Dutch. I fear for Irish. Perhaps we should have something like the Academie Francaise, which would go through it and remove all the useless complexities. Oh, and bring back the beautiful old alphabet and get red of all those stupid “h”s!

    • “Perhaps we should have something like the Academie Francaise, which would go through it and remove all the useless complexities.” Er.. there is such a body – the Coiste Téarmaíochta – and yes, abolition of lenition was considered for the recent review of the Official Standard. What you are calling for is the turning of Irish into a conlang, which is already underway and is called the Caighdeán Oifigiúil and Michal Mechura works for the people doing it, although I’m now told he’s only responsible for the database design side.

      • I had to look up “conlang” 🙂 Wikipedia tells me that it “is a language whose phonology, grammar, and vocabulary has been consciously devised for human or human-like communication, instead of having developed naturally. It is also referred to as an artificial or invented language.” The most prominent examples given in the initial paragraphs of the article are Esperanto, Interlingua and Klingon!

        It seems a gross exaggeration to put the standardisation of Irish spelling and grammar and the keeping up-to-date with modern terminology into that category.

        Below are some extracts (my translation) from the introduction to the 1958 edition of “Gramadach na Gaeilge agus Litriú na Gaeilge – An Caighdeán Oifigiúil”.

        “It was alway obvious that a standard of some kind was required for official matters, and most Irish speakers are agreed by now that the desired growth of drama, journalism, writing, and development of Irish for radio and film, is impossible without some reorganisation of the grammar and vocabulary of Irish to render it capable of competing with English and to put it on an equal footing with the languages of other cultured people.”

        “This standard gives special recognition to particular forms and rules, but it does not invalidate other forms nor prohibit their usage”.

        “Anyone who sticks to the forms and rules shown in this booklet can be certain that the majority of these forms and rules are in accord with usage in the living language and that every single one of them (apart from a few items relating to the numbers) correspond to the usage of good Irish speakers in some area of the Gaeltacht.”

        So this is definitely not like Klingon or Esperanto!

      • Standardization and taking words directly from other languages (especially English) is destroying the language. Replacing “gluaisteán” with “carr” didn’t significantly aid learners it just replaced an older word with an English word and made Irish look stupid.

    • All languages can be difficult to learn, depending on one’s starting position and previous experience. Monoglot speakers of English, including most Irish people, have particular difficulty as they usually have little incentive or experience to go beyond their de facto “universal lingua franca”. But English is by no means easy to learn as a second language and is far less “logical and straightforward” than most other languages in spelling and pronunciation. Consider the pronunciation & spelling of the following sequence of words and try to find the rules!

      bow (& arrow), sow (seed), so, sew, grew, glue, true, through, though, tough, cough, bough, bow (& curtsy), sow (pig).

      By comparison German spelling is a doddle and Spanish even easier and more logical. Irish is probably about half way on the spectrum, at least since the spelling reforms of the 1950s that got rid of letters that are no longer pronounced, e.g. ‘walk’ went from ‘siughail’ to ‘siúil’. Likewise the modern version of my surname is ‘Ó Sé’ but my official documents have the old form, so I stick with it. 🙂

  22. Jesus Mary and Joseph! Is it any wonder people don’t want to learn Irish with some of above comments from the purists! Bíodh saol agaibh!

    • I “did a bit of Irish” at college years ago but I must say that I thought Michal’s presentation was quite awesome and his command of English isn’t lacking either. I never did learn what the Irish words were for “fucking begrudger.”

      • I should stress, I agree with Val L but the words for the others should have read, ““fucking begrudgers.”

  23. djwebb2010 , I suggest you should investigate how Norwegian was reintroduced. It has been much more successful than most reintroductions – it recognised the ineffective emphasis on a puritanical pursuit of a pure historic form. Rather, it used a more regularised standard form for non-native speakers which over time through a natural process integrated the two forms into a rich an effective fusion. This fusion eventually gave access to the historical forms to those who were children of those who used the fusion. As to the synthetic production of new words, for Irish to gain strength amongst its users it must be rich enough to sustain usage that user demand. for example the use of Irish in disciplines such as the sciences needs appropriate vocabulary that works well with the mechanisms of the language. As to using the native language as the determinant of what is the vocabulary of the language – this would put virtually all technical areas out of bounds.

    • “As to using the native language as the determinant of what is the vocabulary of the language – this would put virtually all technical areas out of bounds.” That is true, but doesn’t change the fact tht no technical work is done by anyone in Irish — so the technical vocabulary of those areas listed in dictionaries is fake.

  24. Pingback: Episode 196: Irish – Talk the Talk

  25. Pingback: Episode 188: The Language Myth (featuring Vyvyan Evans) – Talk the Talk

  26. A bit late off the mark but……RTE newsreaders’ pronunciation, indeed, pretty poor show that they get it wrong so often. Where is the quality control, the supervision & training related to professionalism?

    • Derry, the fact is that the Irish language is maintained as an artefact of cultural significance even to those who don’t speak it. It’s part of Ireland’s identity, so to speak, to have a language that someone speaks. For this reason, whether RTÉ newsreaders get the pronunciation right or not is not considered relevant — even if they make mistakes, the fact they are reading the news in Irish at all is the key thing. I think this is quite an insulting way of treating the language and its native speakers!

  27. Déarfainn féin ‘is múinteoir í an bhean sin’ nó ‘is í ár múinteoir an bhean sin’ ach ní déarfainn ‘is í ár múinteoir í an bhean sin’. Ní cuirtear an forainm ach ar ainmfhocal amháin.

    • Liam, the important thing is what Gaeltacht speakers say, not what a learner in the Galltacht chooses to say. This is because the choices of a learner don’t determine the standard of any language. If you say “is múinteoir í an bhean sin”, then that includes what older traditionalists would have regarded as a grammatical mistake. There is no such rule as “include a pronoun with any one noun in a copula sentence, whether the subject or the predicate”. I make mistakes in my poor Irish — I’m not criticising learners, but rather the attitude that it’s not even necessary to try to get things right.

  28. Christ! What a journey into the heart of darkness.-Firstly, thanks Michal for a great ten-point presentation. I liked it. I noted the dates on the comments and wondered why the topic was such a “slow burner” for two years.

    I am minded that the Greeks of old structured their debates as a triad: -Thesis => Antithesis => Synthesis. I believe that the teachers in the hedge schools taught that as part of the classical education they provided.

    In today’s Ireland public discourse and public house discourse share the Greek triad but with modifications which were illustrated in the fabric of this discourse.

    Pub triad:

    #1 TOPIC:Come here lads till I tell ye what I think about it

    #2 ANTITOPIC: What a load o’ bullshit. Ye don’t know what yer **** [ = expletive(s) deleted] talking about. This may be punctuated with appeals for fairness.

    [INTERLOO-D: I’ll be back in a jiffy, lads. Mine’s a pint]

    #3 DYSTOPIC: Three-part chorus comprising a) REPRISE echoing themes from TOPIC, b) COUNTERPINT for everyone with discordant echoes from ANTITOPIC rippling under, and c) PLÁMÀS from those who didn’t know what the **** it was all about

    Yes, that’s about it. I once googled VSO languages and found that apart from Irish the preponderence of VSO languages are found in the Pacific Islands. So, Michal, perhaps there is an eleventh point. You might title it “The Gondwana influence on Proto-Celtic languages”. I am sure that will bring more pedantic old farts babbling to te surface.

  29. Excellent post about Irish- both a speaker and as a linguist, I really enjoyed it.

  30. GRMA a chara! I loved the article.
    One thought on the numbers used for people, I think of them as being like musical ensembles – beirt = duet, triúr = trio, ceathrar = quartet, etc.

  31. Sounds like a f***ing nightmare. But here goes lol…

  32. Great, article. Very impressive! I’m Irish and am setting out to brush up on my Irish which I didn’t learn very well in school…. Thank you Michal!

  33. “Standardization and taking words directly from other languages (especially English) is destroying the language. Replacing “gluaisteán” with “carr” didn’t significantly aid learners it just replaced an older word with an English word and made Irish look stupid.” The problem with this sort of comment is lack of knowledge. Cárr is an ancient Celtic word. In any case, the key point is whatever is said in the Gaeltacht, which is the final word on all preferable word forms.

  34. Will someone block the bigot cunt DJWEBB2010?

    • You lack vocabulary in English. But worst of all, you are the bigot, displaying contempt for the people of the Gaeltacht.

  35. What I can’t wrap my mind around is DJ’s attitude. Do you even want people to speak Irish anymore because it sounds a lot like you don’t. If we can’t use Irish in its “pure, natural, Gaeltacht-approved” way, we should just let it die? That’s what I’m getting from this.

    It’s also absurd that you seem to have this idea that languages don’t evolve. If that’s the case, nobody would be driving a car today but rather a horseless carriage. We would ignore computers because there’s no pure and original word for it. Etc,etc… There comes a point when words change, new words are introduced, standards are set. It would be rather unnatural if that DIDN’T happen!

    Quit pissing all over everyone who’s actually trying to keep the language alive and pull that stick out of your arse.

    • It’s not an evolution of the language to refuse to accept native Irish as the gold standard for learners to emulate.

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