21 July 2008


One of the hardest things for a new student is that Irish has three distinct dialects. The three main dialects are: Ulster (spoken in the north), Connacht (spoken in the west, in Galway, Mayo), and Munster (in the south, Kerry, Cork, Waterford) A fourth, Leinster, dialect is no longer spoken. Obviously, sub-dialects exist, but until I'm a whole lot more familiar with things, these aren't really important.

The dialects are mutually understandable, of course (think Georgia vs New York English). Most of the differences between the dialects are as you would expect: pronunciation, vocabulary, and some word-form changes. The language used to be more homogenous, when there were more speakers and much more contact between the different areas. Travelling through the country, the slight changes would be gradual from one area to another, and probably barely noticeable. Now, though, small Gaeltachts (Irish-speaking areas) scattered around Ireland have tended to enhance (and perhaps artificially focus on) the differences.

I discovered the difference between the dialects in the very first exposure I had to Irish -- in the first lesson:

How are you?
Ulster: Cad é mar atá tú?
Connacht: Cén chaoi a bhfuil tú?
Munster: Conas taoi? or Conas ta tú?

Ulster (Ulaidh) -- This the main dialect spoken in the northwest of Ireland. It is quite different from other dialects, sharing more in common with Scots Gaelic than the others. This means it has a tendency to include unique words and meanings that are not used in Connacht or Munster. For example, druid (close) is in the other dialects dún.

The Ulster dialect is fairly easy to learn, but because of the odd pronuncation of some words, it might be hard to understand speakers of the other dialects. Irish on your Own is Ulster Irish. I also have a complete set of sounds recorded by a speaker from the Daltai forum hosted on my site.

Connacht (Connachta) -- by far the largest group of people speak this dialect, which is common in the western part of Ireland along Galway Bay. This is the closest to the 'standard' Irish as proposed by the government, and carries with it few archaic terms and forms. The majority of students seem to gravitate to this dialect (especially since the primary book, Learning Irish, is written in a subdialect of Connacht, Cois Fhairrge). The pronunciation is clear (although quite gutteral) and the grammar is somewhat simplified. The strongest form of this language is Connamara Irish (spoken on the Aran Islands). This is the primary dialect that I've been studying, and it was on the Aran Islands that I managed to have a few short conversations in Irish without being completely lost!

Munster (An Mhumhain) -- southern irish, and probably the most archaic form of the language. It has a number of different forms for verb conjugations and pronouns. A lot of learners really like this dialect, because it sounds "very Irish" and is linked very closely to other Celtic languages. Pimsleur Quick Irish is the Munster dialect, and the more musical pronunciation and speech patterns are very apparent on the CDs. Other materials include Irish for Beginners and Enough Irish to Get By. Also, an early version of Teach Yourself Irish (by Myles Dillon) is Munster-based. You can often find copies on eBay.

Munster has a set of 'synthetic' verb forms that are different than the other two dialects. In most cases, these take the form of personal endings to verbs, instead of a separate pronoun. Here is an example:

Munster = Connacht/Ulster
táim = tá mé
tánn tú = tá tú
tá sé, sí = tá sé, sí
táimid = tá muid
tánn sibh = tá sibh
táid = tá siad

Standard Irish -- the language was standardized in the 50s, with new spelling, and a 'generic' form of Irish was artificially created. The official standard of Irish called the "Caighdeán Oifigiúil," referred to by native speakers as "book Irish." The central dialect pronunciation, called Lárchanúint, seems to take the common pieces of all three dialects, simplifies the grammar and spelling. Learning materials for this 'dialect' include Buntus Cainte and Teach Yourself Irish.

A very interesting, if linquistically challenging explanation of the differences between the dialects can be found here on Brain Sip and here on Wiki. Another source here, as well.

You can hear the different sounds and forms here for Munster and Connacht/Ulster:

So, what does this mean? Well, not much actually, except to suggest that you pick a primary dialect to study and don't worry too much about being understand by other speakers. If you 'mix' dialects, you'll still be understood, there is no 'wrong' or 'right' dialect. (well, opinions probably differ on that, and people are quite ferocious defending their favorite!). It gets confusing only when you start mixing books and cds and end up with phrases with slightly different word order or with different endings. Until you have some familiarity with the rules, it's hard to tell if you've got it right.

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