01 July 2008

Writing Irish

Irish uses the same alphabet as English, more or less. Other than a few words adopted from other languages, Irish doesn't have any native words including j, q, v, w, x, or z. You'll find gaelic-ized versions of some words beginning with these letters, but they are all imported words that are force-fit into the Irish scheme. For example, jacaí (jockey). Pronounced roughly the same, just spelled according to the rules. It's rather amusing to page through a dictionary and see just a few entries for these letters.

In some older books, you'll see forms of the letters that are quite different from normal roman letters, for example: ſ for r, or ɼ for s. This old-style lettering has been replaced by modern letters for readability. The change does explain one of the wierd quirks of Irish, that is: even though the letter 'h' shows up all over the place in written Irish, it really isn't considered a letter. (well, like the letters listed above, it does occasionally get used in loan words, but I digress). Instead, it is a sign of aspiration, a change in the way the previous letter is pronounced. In the old typeface, these changes were noted by a dot over the letter. Getting rid of the dot meant having to add an h afterwards to show the change. So, the old typeface might show which is now shown as Bh. Easy enough. [note, if you can't see these, you need the font from here]

English doesn't have acute symbols or any kind of accent marks in normal spelling. Except for some obviously foreign loan words which have managed to hold on to their native typography, we don't have dots or tails or lines floating around in written English (well, I suppose pre-teen girls tend to dot their i's with hearts, but that doesn't really count.) We tend to denote changes in pronunciation by using different letter combinations or other spelling peculiarities -- or we don't bother to differentiate at all and expect speakers to 'just know' the right pronuncation for a specific series -- is the 'ough' pronounced 'uff' (as in tough) or just 'oo' (as in though)? Not the best scheme.

Irish uses an acute symbol over vowels to show how they are to be pronounced (whether the vowel is long or short, bite vs bit, for example). So, you'll see á, é, í, ó, ú in words as well as a, e, i, o, u. Irish doesn't use any symbols over the consonants, only vowels are distinguished this way. When spelling out loud, the long accent is also 'spelled' -- á is spoken as 'a-fada', literally, 'a-long'.

Well, fabulous. How on earth do you get these letters to print out on your computer? There are two ways of doing this -- both of which are a bit complicated. The first method uses the ASCII equivalents that are typed using the ALT-key and the numeric keypad. These are as follows:

á ALT-0225
é ALT-0233
í ALT-0237
ó ALT-0243
ú ALT-0250

Á ALT-0193
É ALT-0201
Í ALT-0205
Ó ALT-0211
Ú ALT-0218

The second method involves installing a secondary keyboard mapping into your computer that lets you generate the characters more easily. Adding the English(Irish) keyboard is quite simple, and you can swap between keybaords on the fly in most versions of Windows. Once the keyboard is installed, you can type the accented letters by using the right ALT-key and the letter itself. A side effect is that some of the other keys are moved, and some change meaning, but nothing you can't get used to.
  1. In windows XP, go to start > control panel > regional and Language Options.
  2. On the languages tab, select details.
  3. Click add, and select the language you want to add the keyboard layout you want to use.
  4. The layout will be available via the language bar.
Here are instructions on adding and Irish keyboard in Windows from the language bar itself. For Macintosh, there is info here. OS 10.2 support an extended Irish keyboard.

I tend to type out all my lessons, since I spend my days in front of the computer anyways, and my handwriting has degenerated into an illegible scrawl due to typing all day.

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