An labhraíonn tú Gaeilge?

The Irish Gaelic language (or as I prefer to call it, Gaeilge) has been identified as ‘endangered’ several times in the past few decades. Despite its history of over 2000 years, the language has no more than around 133,000 native speakers today (according to Wikipedia). The number seems even less if we consider that 70 million people in the world – including significant populations in the USA, Canada and Australia – claim to be of Irish decent. But how is Gaeilge kept alive in Éire (Ireland) and abroad? I’ll move on to that as soon as I finish my habitual ‘brief analysis’ on this beautiful-sounding language.

Although my current abilities would disprove that I have ever encountered the language before, the reality is that I’ve already made two unsuccessful attempts at learning to read and write in Gaeilge. I genuinely believe that Irish (together with Scottish Gaelic and Albanian) is one of those few languages written in the Roman script that I will perhaps never be able to read. I know, they aren’t that hard, but for some reason I feel slightly stressful when it comes to having to apply the rules in practice and read some text in these languages. However, this time I hopefully won’t sound like an ignorant outsider thanks to Benny the Irish Polyglot, whose article will serve as my guide. So what shall I tell you about a language which has only a handful of irregular verbs, has no definite article (like Russian), indicates the vocative case (I’ve already struggled with the Greek equivalent of this), has no words for ‘yes’ or ‘no’, but finds it perfectly normal to refer to the Internet as Idirlíon or a vegetarian as a feoilséantóir.

All of the above facts sound interesting (well, at least to me), but let’s talk a bit about the last one in particular. Gaeilge forms compound words logically, for example by using affixes or the combination of basic roots. The process is similar to that of Esperanto, thus it can be seen as one of those factors that make the vocabulary easier to memorise. To show what I mean, here’s Benny’s example:

Astronomy is réalteolaíocht [réalta = star, eolas = knowledge/information, íocht = y/ity etc. suffix, or more generally the second part, eolaíocht = science, so “star science”]. And then sometimes we just separate the words in an easy way. Exit is simply bealach amach (way out).”

So this suggests that Gaeilge isn’t as hard as it first appears to be. Contrarily, if you wish to be put off the idea of learning Irish, there are quite a few notably strange areas of grammar and phonology, some of which are also described in Benny’s article. Now it’s time to move on to what the current situation is like. Recently, I heard many people talking about “reviving” the Irish language. The initiative sounds fantastic, but I doubt these respected individuals have ever visited a Gaeltacht (one of those small regions located mainly on the west coast of Ireland where it is spoken as a first language). I’d rather call it “promoting” Gaelic, just to make sure no one feels offended. Although many of you are now expecting me to go into detail about the Irish government’s decisions regarding bilingual education, the work of non-profit organisations across the country or the the pro-Gaelic movements in Northern Ireland, I will not do that. Primarily because I know absolutely nothing about such things. Instead, I recommend the video I’ve attached below to anyone who shares my specially great interest in the topic. Slán gach duine!


3 thoughts on “An labhraíonn tú Gaeilge?

  1. The definite article is alive and well in Irish Gaelic (and in Scottish Gaelic).

    There is however no *indefinite* article in the language.

    The Gaeltacht areas are collectively called An Ghaeltacht, where ‘an’ is the definite article, ‘the’.

    Best wishes for your lessons in Irish, from a sunny Dublin.

    • Thank you very much for your comment, you’re being incredibly helpful! Writing ‘definite’ instead of ‘indefinite’ must have been a typo, as I remember reading through Benny Lewis’ article, processing this piece of information in my mind, and relating it to Russian (although Russian has neither of them). I may not be right, but is the ‘h’ in An Ghaeltacht a result of an initial mutation? I know nothing about Irish Gaelic grammar and phonology, but in my opinion, the definite article triggers lenition in the noun, thus changing the /g/ of [ˈɡˠeːɫ̪ˠt̪ˠəxˠt̪ˠ] to /j/ (or /ɣ/?). Please correct me if I’m wrong. Another quick question: is the collective term An Ghaeltacht the same as the plural form Gaeltachtaí, or is the latter one used when you don’t mean them all collectively, e.g. in “three Gaeltacht areas”? Thank you for your help!

      • I’m not sure if this applies in Irish, but in Gàidhlig, the initial consonant smoothing (lenition, but I can never remember how to say that) *does* happen after the definite article, but only for some words (feminine, if memory serves – in the nominative case, I believe it’s masculine in the dative, but I could be wrong, grammar’s not my strong point in Gàidhlig). However, while Gàidhlig has two definite articles – “an” and “am” – they don’t change to indicate gender, but rather because of the consonant which the word starts with (“am” goes with b, p, f, and n).

        That all said, I’m by no means an authority on the language. It’s one of the first I was exposed to, but what I know basically amounts to baby talk and a couple of random things like “Alba gu bràth!” I recently started learning it properly…

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