13 September 2008


In standard Irish, most words are stressed on the first syllable -- capall is KA-pull, sasta is SA-sta. Easy enough to remember, since there are only a few exceptions for native Irish words
A few words (amach, tobac) are stressed on the second syllable. Any good pronouncing dictionary shows the stress on the word (and any secondary stresses that might be in place).

Dialectal differences, though, still trip me up. Munster Irish seems to drop the stress on the first syllable if the word begins with a- so the very common pronoun/preoposition combinations for at (ag) sound entirely foreign to me!

Standard, and Connacht Irish from Learning Irish, all prounounce agam and agat as U-gum and U-gat, swallowing that first a- sound (but, surprisingly, not doing the same for agus (and)). Pimsleur, being Munster-based, has ah-GUM and an-GUT, which sound abrupt and guttural to me. Stressing the 'g' like that

Important? Probably not critical - we all tend to shift the stress around words depending on the surrounding words, but this throws me off because it affects the pronunciation of that oh-so-common phrase for thank you -- go raith maith agat!

On the various tapes/cds, etc, that I have, it's pronounced variably as 'gurra-ma-UH-gut', ' 'gur-MY-ah-gut', 'gur-mah-AH-gt' and a few more. I have a tendency to mimic whatever particular version I hear (I'm a real jackdaw when it comes to pronunciation, I guess -- I have wto work very hard not to adopt a weird version of someone's accent when I talk to them.).

07 September 2008

Celtic Festival

I had the pleasure of wandering through the Longs Peak Scottish-Irish Highlands Festival today -- a lovely day watching hundreds of men in kilts wandering around, watching the uniformed Marine Corp "Party Band" perform, and listening to the massed sound of several hundred pipes.

I even had a chance to practice a wee bit of Irish -- with a Scots Gaelic speaker, of course, but we managed pretty well. The languages are similar - much like a Spanish speaker and Italian speaker can muddle through a conversation, we had enough in common at the basic level to at least say hello and exchange pleasantries.

Denver has a Scots Gaelic language group, although there aren't any specific classes offered. Looking through the Celtic Connection Classiified shows one offered Gaelic group. I have to admit I'm curious -- I actually feel more of an affinity for Scotland than Ireland, to be honest. But Irish Gaeilge is a much more accessible language - books, classes, etc exist in abundance compared to Scots Gaelic.

04 September 2008

Colloquial Irish

I had entirely forgotten that I'd ordered this book and CD combination -- I guess I pre-ordered it months ago when it showed up on my search for 'irish gaelic' on Amazon.com.

At any rate, it showed up this week and I took some time to page through things. (I love pre-order. I always forget what I have queued up and it's like getting presents every couple of weeks!)

First off, the students using Learning Irish (O'Siadhail) will be pleased: while they do make a passing nod to "standard Irish", they focus primarily on the Connacht dialect, and even more specifically the Cois Fharraige Irish when there are questions of grammar, spelling, or vocabulary. This meshes well with the workhorse textbook used by most students, and is especially nice because it provides two CDs worth of dialogs and phrases in that dialect to add to the resources of Learning Irish.

The structure of the lessons is very "Teach Yourself Irish"-like, if you're familiar with that book. A dialog is presented, which introduces new vocabulary and common phrases, and then the chapter focuses on a few grammar or usage-driven sections that are related to the dialog - greeting people, addressing a person, personal pronouns, asking questions for example. The audio files are plentiful, and keyed to the text examples on nearly every page.

Exercises follow each section - usually fill-in-the-blanks or answering questions, with many of them instructing you to write out all questions and answers fully, copying from the text where necessary, and even to copy down the dialog at the beginning of the section in order to really learn the forms. One of the things that caught me up while browsing was that the exercises seemed to use vocabulary that was not specifically called out in the dialogs or other lesson text. The end of the chapter has a vocabulary listing, but some of the words are definitely just thrown out there and never translated. Context helps, of course, but one of the things that is very important in a beginner's text (at least to me) is not to use terms or words or structures without introducing them first.

There are a number of listening exercises, too, where you are not expected to know the words but are to listen for a specific idiom or simple sentences. I haven't gone through these exercise yet, but it seems like a good idea: one of the hardest things for a home-bound learner to do is find a speaker to actually talk in real sentences or non-scripted phrases meant to be repeated ad nauseum. Many of us listen to online radio or watch Irish-language programs (even if we can't understand them entirely) just to get a feel for things.

I'm not going to go through these lessons yet, not formally, since I am trying to stay focused on using Rosetta Stone and the grammar lessons of Learning Irish. We'll see how my resolve holds up!

19 August 2008

Back on Monday

I have no idea if anyone is reading -- no comments is usually a clue that I'm talking to myself -- but we're off on vacation and I'll be back next week. I've got mp3 files and my grammar books, with the intent of spending a few days reading, lounging about in the sun, and eating good food. Hah!

16 August 2008

Analytic vs Synthetic forms

Munster Irish is well known for having 'synthetic forms' for verbs. That is, where Connacht or Ulster Irish would say, Tá mé go maith, in Munster, the "I" is absorbed into the verb itself, Táim go maith.

From some of the older texts that I come across, this formation is often called 'archaic', or 'ancient', and the modern language was supposed to completely adopt the new 'modern' analytic endings. I don't think this is quite the case, although I often see mention of Munster Irish as holding on to 'older' pronunciation and forms. I mentioned this back at the beginning of the blog.

I assume that the forms are mutually understandable - that is, using the endings as Munster would while speaking otherwise flawless Ulster dialect will be understood, but how weird would that be? Like many learners, I'm getting a mishmash of different dialects because of the variety of sources I have to listen to - and believe me, listen to an hour of Radio na Gaeltacht and you'll hear enough variation in the language that you start to think you'll never get it!).

Any native speakers who can weigh in?

Unilang has a nice complete verb table showing the Standard Form and Munster form. The rest of the google results for Munster show up as copies of the Wikipedia page. But, trust Gramadach na Gaeilge to have more linquistic info that you could ever want.

13 August 2008


The word-of-the-day is rua, red-haired (if you happen to see this today, it's the widget on the bottom of the page!).

The word for 'red', of course, is 'dearg' when you're just talking about the color, but when referring to a red-headed or red-faced person person, the proper term is rua
Tá gruaig rua air --> He has red hair
Tá sé rua --> He has red hair, or is a ruddy person
Rua seems to be associated only with describing people or in some cases animals, but not things. A chair is red - an chathaoir dhearg, a bowl is red - an babhla dearg, but a person can be bed - and duine rua, or a dog can be red - an madra rua. (hey! I got the gender right on the words. Hah!). Light-red, or sandy-haired is bánrua.

My husband is a red-head (although not Irish). A lot of people assumed that he was, when we traveled in Ireland. Nope, Scandinavian through and through.

Other colors for things in Irish are
gray --> liath
black --> dubh
white --> bán
brown --> donn
light brown --> donnfhion
reddish brown --> donndearg
yellowish brown --> donnbuí
orange --> oráiste
yellow --> buí
dark yellow --> crónbhuí
red --> dearg
pink --> bándearg
purple --> corcra
green --> glas or uaine (vivid green)
dark green --> dúghlas
blue --> gorm
dark blue --> dúghorm
Fionn - fair, or blond, by the way.

Rosetta introduced red - dearg, yellow - buí, white -bán, black - dubh, and green- glas in the third unit of Level 1. Lots of pictures of green cars and yellow apples and red balls and such. I've been walking around trying to name colors of things and I must admit it's a bit frustrating to be limited to the 16-color palette at the moment, since I only have words for those. If you want to test your ability to recognize colors, try Quia

Describing People
Colors, with pronunciations

12 August 2008

Counting Down

Numbers come in a couple of different flavors. There are the cardinal, or counting numbers (1, 2, 3, 4...) and the ordinal numbers (first, second, third...) in English, and Irish ads a third form of the numbers that are used specifically for counting people (aon, beirt, tríur, etc).

Cardinal numbers are used to 'say' numbers, and to count things.

No.Cardinal Numbers

1a haon20
a fiche
2a dó
a tríocha
a trí
a ceathracha
a ceathair
a caoga/a leathchéad
a cúig
a seasca
a sé
a seachtó
a seacht
a hochtó
a hocht
a nócha
a naoi

10a deich
11a haon déag
dhá chéad
12a dó dhéag
trí chéad
13a trí déag

14a ceathair déag
15a cúig déag

16a sé déag
fiche a haon
17a seacht déag
fiche a dó
18a hocht déag

19a naoi déag
céad a haon

céad a dó

The particle 'a' in front of the numbers is usually omitted (except when actually 'spelling something out' in numbers or counting aloud). Saying serial number out loud, for example, would be 15368, "a haon, a cúig, a trí, a sé, a hocht".

Counting things does require a few changes - the words for one, two, and four change form slightly when you count things --
a haon (one), but teanga amháin (one language)
a dó (two), but dhá theanga (two languages)
a ceathair (four), but ceathre theanga (four languages)
You'll notice a couple of things about those statements though - when you count stuff, you only need to know the singular noun for it -- trí teanga (three languages), although teangacha (languages). That's pretty convenient for us beginners! I know quite a few nouns, but I don't yet know all their forms.

Also, the numbers 2-6 aspirate the following noun according to the standard rules. The numbers 7 -10 eclipse the noun.

Perhaps the biggest change for English speakers is that when you count more than ten things, the name of the thing being counted goes between the number and the tens. Instead of staying 'fifteen languages' you says something like 'five languages and ten'.
cúig phunt--> five pounds,
but cúig phunt déag --> fifteen pounds
seacht bpunt --> seven pounsd,
but seacht bpunt déag --> seventeen pounds
Over twenty, and there are two ways to express it: either as 'thirty and five pounds' or 'five and thirty pounds'. Notice the words 'is a' in the middle - in this case 'is' is an abbreviation for 'agus' (and) and the 'a' is the counting particle shown above. Then tend to disappear when you actually say the words, at least they do in my various audio files.
tríocha is a cúig phunt --> thirty-and-five, or
cúig phunt is tríocha --> five-and-thirty
Or, if you want to be a bit more archaic about it, some references still suggest counting by twenties, so thirty is actually 'twenty and ten' -- you'll see 'fichid' often in older books. For example, 33 could be 'trí teanga déag is fiche" -- literally, thirteen-and-twenty, or 60 expressed as 'trí fichid'. p. 131-2 of Learning Irish uses this method of counting, although TY Irish and Irish on your Own use the versions shown above - seasca is 60, etc. I am not honestly sure if this is a regional difference, or simply a reflection of the new standard in many of the newer class texts. From what I can tell, either form is correct - seasca or trí fichid. I have heard the non-decimal version on the radio at least once.

If I recall correctly, French has the same construct for seventy, eighty, and ninety - seventy is literally -sixty-ten, or soixante-dix. Nothing like doing an extra bit of math! Expressin a a number as seventeen and four twenties (97) seems awkward to me, but I suppose it's entirely natural if you were taught that way.

Counting people is a bit different --Irish has special words for counting people (duine amháin, beirt, tríur, ceathrar, cúigear, seisea, seachtar,ochtar, naonúr, deichniúr). I have two sons --> tá beirt mhac agam, for example. The numbers 1-10 and the number 12 exists for counting people, otherwise the regular cardinal numbers are used. Twelve is dháréag.

The rule seems to be that this form of the word is only used for people, not for counting living things, etc. I'm sure I'm completely wrong in saying that I have two dogs using 'beirt mhadra' even though I think of them as family members. I'm one of those people who refers to my dogs as he and she, not it. (And not my kids, either, I'm not quite that weird!)

More than you ever wanted ot know about numbers in Irish, from Gramadach na Gaeilge

And someone has actually put together the numbers 1-10 in over 500 languages!

11 August 2008


The rules for Irish surnames (well, traditions; 'rules' is probably a bit harsh) note that the common prefixes Ó and Mac/Mc in Irish denote 'grandson of' and 'son of' --

Seán Ó Conaill --> Séan, grandson of Conall,
Máirtin Mac Mathúna --> Martin, son of Mahon, etc.

As the Gaelic language waned in Ireland, many families dropped the Ó or Mac and 'de-irishified' their names. Many immigrants to the US dropped the uniquely Irish idenitifer and Anglicized their names as a way to avoid discrimination. But recently, the resurgance of the Gaelic language has prompted many people to resurrect the old naming conventions. A resurgence of Ó and Mac/Mc -- and Irish spellings -- have returned. Of course, today we usually keep the same family name from one generation to anoother.

This is a surprisingly recent idea for most cultures. The idea of 'surnames' being carried from generation to generation is a relatively new one in most countries. For most of history, people were known by their first name and perhaps a descriptor. If you happened to live in a large enough village, you might have John the Cooper and John the Brewman. You might have Big John and Small John, or John the Lame. As people came into contact with more people, and ventured further afield from their own towns, the place-name addition because common: John of York, John of Furthing Pike, that sort of thing.

It wasn't until the Normans started keeping track of things in the 12th century or so that real surnames showed up in western civilization: the need to track property ownership and heredity prompted people to keep track of family relationships on a bit larger scale.

Look at the Scandinavian countries: the whole -son set of family names that we have now (Johnson, Peterson -- just look in a phone book anywhere in the midwest!) are the result of generations of sons being named after their fathers. John, the son of Gunnar was called John Gunnarson; his son would be Eric Johnson, and his son Peter Ericson and so on. It wasn't until in the 19th century (and probably the result of mass emigration) that a family 'kept' the same name from one generation to another. The tradition of keeping the farm name as a family name was very common, linking the family to the land. It wasn't until the 20th century that the family name 'stuck', as it were.

English-speaking countries adopted surnames from a variety of sources. As they became more common in the 13th and 14th centuries, names were adopted from someone's occupation, a personal characteristic, a local placename or landmark, estate names, and patronymics/matronymics

And all of this rambling actually leads to a question. Eventually.

Irish tradition has different forms of a surname for men and women -- and women's "last names" change depending on their status.

Married women don't traditionally share the prefixes Ó or Mac -- instead they have Uí and Mhíc, usually linked in the form Máire bean Uí Chonaill --> wife of O'Connell or Máire Bean Mhic Conall --> wife of MacConnell. Unmarried women have Ní and Nic as the form of their surname.

So the question I have is really this -- do modern Irish married couples really have separate forms of their last name? Is Máirtin Ó Chonaill married to Máire Uí Chonaill? Or is that only used as a form of formal address and not casually?

09 August 2008

Archaic Grammar Book

I've posted another transcription of an old grammar book to my main site - A Grammar of the Irish Language, by Henry M. Mason, published in 1842. It is a "compilation" grammar; that is, he consolidates the rules from other authorities and summarizes their rules in a single volume. I haven't found the authors he is referencing yet, but I'll keep looking. Some of the rules don't jibe with any modern rules, really, but it's interesting to see the state of the language 165 years ago.

Mr. Mason apparently was highly criticized for his first compilation grammar book, but has bravely shaken off the harsh words and released the second edition - the prefaces are pretty whiny, if you ask me!

07 August 2008

Spelling Rules

Everyone with familiar with the Irish spelling rule caol le caol, agus leathan le leathan - broad with broad/slender with slendet. This basically says that the vowels on either side of a consonant have to be of the same type.

It actually makes Irish spelling very regular, despite the rather bizarre combinations of letter that show up. If we remember that "h" isn't actually a letter, just a symbol for aspiration, a word like múinteoir is actually predictable, despite the vowel-groups. More so than English sometimes, I think.

Hey, in English we get tough, though, through -- tuff, tho, thru -- and absolutely no consistent rules about spelling. I'm amazed that we managed to come up with any sort of standard, considering that English didn't start to develop spelling rules until some time in the late 18th century. Noah Webster (of Webster's Dictionary) was a strong proponent of spelling reform --a although with the rather bizarre ways that English represents sounds. (look at the ways we spell the long U sound: shoe, grew, through. do, doom, flue, two, who, brute, duty! More from Ridiculous English Spelling, if you're interested, and linguistic rules from Wikipedia.)

Irish probably has at least as many vowel combinations as English does (more!) to represent the basic vowel sounds, but it does follow that simple rule - iai and eoi and oia and all those unpronounceable combinations are the result of spelling.

At the very least, we should be glad that Irish Spelling reform was successful (whether beloved or not). ríoghdhacht , for example, is now ríocht as a result of efforts that started in 1922 and were finalized with the release of the Offical Standard in 1957 -- and bitterly opposed by many Irish speakers and the Gaelic League, which was committed to the preservation of the Irish language. Mostly, spelling reform eliminated the groups of silent letters that were often left in the middle of the words because of inflexion (eclipsis and aspiration) and the changes required by conjugation and declension. bhthdh were dropped in many cases.

Reading and writing a language can be difficult - but relying on the the consistency of the spelling rule can be helpful: writing out words, you can do a quick check that you have broad (a,o,u) or slender (e,i) on both sides of the letter - might not be much, since it doesn't help decide which of the vowels goes there, but anything helps!

If you're using an older dictionary (such as Fr. Dineen's), the spelling is 'old' spelling, and you should be careful to use a modern dictionary to pick up the standard veresions.

06 August 2008


One of the primary words in the first lesson of Rosetta is ag tiomáint --driving.

I have a devil of a time actually pronouncing this -- even with the syllable-by-syllable assistance of the voice software. "tom"-"aw"-"int". Which I try and try, and get that dang raspberry every single time! Maybe I'm just not hearing it.

T is really more of a 'tdsch' sound in a lot of cases, and I must mangle it pretty badly with my flat midwestern accent. It's not quite 'ch', it's not quite 'td'. Gah!

04 August 2008

Archaic Counting

I just finished transcribing an old 'conversation book' from 1904 -- a teaching aid used in elementary school to teach Irish. (I have a fascination for book in general, and old books specifically, mock away!).

As I was typing, however, I came across two things that are rather interesting -- older Irish often counted in groups of twenty: that is, 30 is 'ten and twenty' and 59 is 'nine-and-two-twenties', which seems like a rather bizarre way to count in a base-ten system. I don't think that this is at all a common modern usage (and considering the age of the book, things have changed dramatically).

The other odd statement I found in another book (This time a compilation of 'A Grammar for the Irish Language' by Mason, and dating to 1842) is this:
"There is an idiom in very common use, which is to call 7 "great six"—ex. móir sheisíur, 7.
Huh? I can't think of any reason that this would be a "common idiom", even in 1842. What possible reason could you have for calling a seven a "big 6"? There must be some sort of anectdotal story about it somewhere, but I can't find a reference. I could justify counting in twenties, even, but this? Seven is just "big six"?

Anyone have any further info?

Fierce Pronuncation

Does anyone else think that the woman reading the vocabulary words and pronunciation examples in the first chapter of Learning Irish sounds...angry? Perhaps homicidally so?

The male voice a little bit later in the vocabulary and texts sounds much more natural, but at least one of the female readers (there may be only one I haven't gotten past more than the first few chapters before) sounds very forced and very abrupt. I think she's trying to over-enunciate and over-articulate and it sounds kind of scary!

That first jolt of her pronouncing buí takes me aback every time. Eesh, lady. Relax. We're just trying to learn the language here! I feel like I'm being yelled at most of the time.

One of the things that I did early on, though, was to transfer the CDs to my computer and then listen to them in Windows Media Player at about half speed a few times. I normally eschew the media player, but my preferred player (from Real) doesn't do the 'slow it down but keep the same pitch' thing that the windows version does. And, I discovered that my iPod won't slow down normal mp3s! It will play things 'slower' and 'faster' for audiobooks, which are mp4? raa? but for regular mp3s, you're stuck. Unless -- as geeky me may do -- you translate them into the audiobook format, or record them anew at the new slower speed.

01 August 2008

-suh vs -shuh

The differences between Munster Irish and the other dialects is whacking me on the head again. I ended up listening to the Pimsleur CD in the car yesterday (you don't realize how rare this is - I work from home and drive my car maybe 20 miles a week) and re-listened to the lesson on 'here" and "there" -- at the most basic, 'anseo' and 'ansin'

Well, pronunciation rules (and pronunciation in Connacht and Ulster) , rule that an 's' next to a slender vowel (e, i) is pronounced like English 'sh' in shop. Thus, uhn-shuh and uhn-shin. Tne 'an' part tends to get swallowed a bit, almost like n'shuh, n'shin.

The Pimsleur cds introduce the sounds as 'suh' and 'sun'. Anseo is 'un-suh' and ansin is 'un-sun'. Huh? I'm nothing near a fluent speaker (heck, I'm still struggling with the basics), but sounds wrong wrong wrong to my ear. It isn't, of course, it's just a dialectal difference, but I find myself snapping, "No! un-SHUH!" at the car speakers. The first time I heard it, I wasn't honestly sure that it was even the same word!

I haven't hit the lesson where here-and-there are introduced in Rosetta Stone, so no anseo/ansin yet, but they have introduced 'cad é seo? - what is this?' -- pronounced as I initially learned - 'shuh' or 'shaw'. I assume that they will continue with that. Rosetta is quite a bit closer to the 'standard', of course, so I guess that's expected.

Grammar: Verbs

Remember Schoolhouse Rock Verbs? (You can see the video here --) Verbs: action words. Easy, right?

Those pesky grammar terms get really muddled when you start talking about verbs. This is where the word 'pluperfect' pops up, and 'preterite' and all those other latin terms. -- and at this point we should be happy we're not studying Latin, which multiples these to the extreme!

Verbs are inflected for four different attributes - person, number, mood, and tense. Person and number are easy - how many things/people are going the action, and am I talking about myself, about you, about those people over there, etc. In English, we do have some changes here - I run and you run, but he runs. Most verbs (all?) do not change for number. Irish does have a distinction between one person and more than one person for verbs, as well as different forms of the verbs for whether I am talking about myself, about you, about her, about them.

It's the 'moods' and 'tenses' that start to freak me out. (Well, not quite yet, I only really know how to tak in the present tense - 'I am a manager', 'She is eating rice' -- but it's coming, I can feel it hanging ominous just over the horizon.). What I've discovered is that it's impossible to really understand how this all works in a foreign language if you don't really understand it in English.

And it's quite likely that you don't -- teaching grammer terms seems to have disappeared from English classes (at least, it did from mine!). In English, it's actually a tidy system.

Simple Progressive Perfect Perfect progressive
Future I will write I will be writing I will have written I will have been writing
Present I write I am writing I have written I have been writing
Past I wrote I was writing I had written I had been writing

In this case, 'pluperfect' translates to 'past perfect', since I know you were wondering.

The 'progressive' here means ongoing or continual action. 'I write' might mean 'I am sitting here with a pen in my hand, scribbling' or 'I know how to write' or even 'I write -at some other time'. Enter the 'progressive' or 'habitual' tense and you can tell that I'm doing it right now or regularly or predicibly.

The terminology changes quite a bit, dependong in what source you are looking at - sometimes the simple past is termed the imperfect, for example. 'Progressive' is often habitual or continuous. It can be confusing. Most texts I've seen for Irish use the terms 'habitual'.

Irish simplifies think a bit in terms of how words are used, though (as does english -- even though the matrix expresses twelve different concepts, the forms of the verbs are common: write, writing, written. The same occurs in Irish.

Irish distinguishes the following tenses:
  • habitual past - 'imperfect'
  • past -'simple past'
  • present
  • habitual present (same form as present, with few exceptions)
  • future
But that nice little tidy box isn't quite as simple as all that -- there is also mood to contend with. Irish has four moods - imperative, indicative, conditional, subjunctive. (eek!). Actually, these are pretty simple:
  • Imperative - giving orders. Sit! Speak! Run!
  • Indicative - the most common use of the verb, making statements, asking questions. 'He runs', 'I write', 'Do you write?'
  • Conditional - what if? sorts of constructs. 'If i write....'
  • Subjunctive - expressing wishes, or situtations that are not observably true, 'Were I eating, I would sit' - well, you're not eating now, but we understand that if you did happen to have a sandwich you would be planted over there at the table.
The cross reference between the two - mood and tense -- adds a third dimension to the little matrix. You only have imperative verbs in the present tense, for example. It's impossible to order someone to eat in the past! The subjunction has only prsent and past, conditional has present, past, and future. Of course, the indicative mode can manage all of them.

There are some other tenses that don't quite fit into the nice matrix very well - they are expressed as phrases, usuallly with the helping verb 'is' - the 'continuous tense' (I am eating), 'perfect tense' (I have eaten), or--and this is a good word --'periphrastic tenses' which express what is about to happen. TO be honest, these are gobbledegook to me, and while I'm sure I produce sentences in English that would be diagrammed with these tenses, I am unaware of it!

I'm not going to talk about verb conjugations or verb forms at this point. LIke I said, I'm pretty much in the present tense right now with a very small ability to say that I did something yesterday.

But, knowledge is power (isn't that another Schoolhouse Rock slogan?), so here are some interesting references for English grammar:
Glossary of Terms
Verb Tense tutorial
There are hundreds of others - a thriving community of ESL (English as a Second Language) learners on line have put together many resources. Or, like me, you could pick up the Oxford English Grammar book. You, know, just for light reading.

30 July 2008


Irish threw me for a loop when I first started: nowhere in English do the fronts of words change! Sure, we add prefixes to words to change meaning, but we don't start mucking about with the starting letters to denote plurals or present vs past tense and things like that! Most languages change the endings of words to indicate case/time/person (or sometimes the middles - life and live are an example of mutation in a word).

But not the Celtic languages. Nope - they, like Malay, Paiute, and a few languages in western Africa, have initial consonant mutation. What that really means is that Irish changes the beginning of words, as well as the endings of words. It can be a bit confusing, since quite often, both happen at the same time, and it accounts for the surprising number of 'h's" that show up in a language that doesn't actually have a letter H.

The two primary inflexions are lenition (séimhiú) and eclipsis (urú).

Lenition, or aspiration, affects the letters b, c, d, f, g, m, p, s, and t. I remember the rule about which consonants can be aspirated with the common HALORAN—the consonants in Haloran are never lenited. There are exceptions, of course - 'sl', 'sn', 'sr' are affected, but none of the other words starting with s, since they would be impossible to pronounce. In linguisitic terms, a becomes a fricative -- that is b, which is made by closing the lips and then allowing a puff a air through, is changed so that the sound is constant. This is most obvious with the pair of sounds b and w, but the rest are easy enough. Vowels don't lenite, they are already spoken without any sort of stop.

The sounds are easy:
b, m --> bh, mh --> pronounced as v or w
c --> ch --> as in Scottish loch
d, g--> dh, gh --> like the sound for ch, but with a gh-sort of guttural sound
p--> ph --> pronounced like f
s, t --> sh, th --> pronounced like hy- or h-
f --> fh --> silent
It's when they are used that gets a bit more complicated. I have pages of notes on when lentition occurs and in what situations it does not. Suffice it to say that whole chapters in grammar books can be devoted to lenition and the various rules (after articles, in the genetive case, in compound words, etc.) Nouns. adjectives, and some verbs can be lenited -- including names, which was a big surprise to me.

Your name is your name! The pronunciation of your name shouldn't change just becuase I am speaking directly to you (the vocative case). Máire becomes a Mháire, which is just freaky.

In any case, I don't understand all the situations where lenition occurs yet, so I'm just getting comfortable with the way it occurs so that I can correctly predict whether a letter can be aspirated and what the resulting sound is. For now, that's good enough.

The other kind of mutation is eclipsis, which replaces an initial sound with a different one. It's used in different situations from lenition, but is also effects nouns, adjectives, and verbs as well. Eclipsis affects b, c, d, n, f, p, t -- you can use MS HALORAN to remember the consontants that don't eclipse.
b-->mb, c--> gc; d --> nd, g--> ng; f --> bhf; p --> bp; and t --> dt.
all vowels are eclipsed by n-
Pronunciation is easy -- just replace the sound of the eclipsed letter with the new one. bád --> mbád --> pronounced mahd. Thess are usually pretty easy to spot, and the best hint I've read: if the combination of consontants at the beginning of a word look unpronounceable...chances are you just ignore the last one. I mean, how would you pronounce bpáirc? buh-puh-....ah, no.

So what does all this mean to a beginner, like me? Well, it makes looking up words in the dictionary pretty hard! Since I spend a fair amount of my time trying to decipher Irish in the many Yahoo! Groups and sites that I come across, knowing how to figure out what the real word is to look up is half the battle!

The very helpful folks at GaelMinn have put together a one-page guide to using the dictionary. It's helpful to learn the 'rules' when you start out, until you get a feel for the vagaries of the base words that are indexed.

28 July 2008

Synthesized Irish

Another really cool language site! Trinity College Dublin has put up abair.ie -- a spiffy page that lets you type in Irish words (sentences, even) and it generates a synthesized spoken version (among other neat language tools from the Phonetics and Speech Lab.

It's quite cool. And -- it offers a neat Firefox widget to add to the toolbar and use on any Irish page you find so you can quickly access the abair site from anywhere else. Have your browser read bits to you in Irish!

It's handy having the Firefox browser gaelspell add in, as well.

Grammar: Gender

One of the first things you'll hear/see in any course in just about any language except English is that "nouns have gender". Once again, a grammar term that we really don't have any reference for.

Most languages classify nouns into groups by the rather arbitrary criteria of "gender" -- that is, masculine or feminine (and often neutral, or neuter - and sometimes others: Polish, for exanple, has a few extra - Personal masculine, animate masculine, inanimate masculine, feminine, and neuter). This classification is used not so much to identify the nouns themselves, but to identify how they are changed. That is, do endings change or articles change when the word is used? For example, in German do you use die, der, or das as the article for the word, is the Italian ending -a or -o? French le or la? Arabic endings -a or -i?

Since English doesn't have this type of classification any longer, it is a weird extra thing to remember for learners of another language. We have just a single, common gender for everything and our articles and endings do not change based on the imagined gender of the object we're talking about. You don't have a different greeting when you meet a woman vs a man, or have a different verb form to say that the rooster ran away vs the hen. It's all the same to us.

(As a side note, we haven't entirely lost the idea of gender in modern English - we just apply it rather haphazardly to things like actor/actress, bachelor/spinster, blond/blonde, and the odd association of the pronoun she to ships, for example. The only other remnants are some forms of the pronouns, but they do not change how other words are formulated. See more here. )

Not having to remember whether a chair is masculine or feminine in English makes it difficult for us to learn to track gender with our vocabulary (Actually, I bet it's harder for people with languages that DO have gender, because I doubt every language classifies each noun as the same gender!) It would be logical if the gender assignment was to things that really did have observable gender (that is, natural gender) - male and female people and animals, for example, and leave all those other things as "it". But no, inanimate objects have gender, too -- chairs and cars and lamp posts and philosophy.

Irish lies somewhere between English and, say, Czech, in complexity. Like roughly half of the major langauges currently spoken, Irish has two genders: masculine (firinscneach) and feminine (baininscneach). There is no neuter gender in Irish. Every noun in Irish is designated as one or the other, and this has an effect on how the noun is declined-- that is, how the noun changes when used.

It's critical to learn whether a vocabulary word is fem. or masc., because this will affect how it behaves after the article, and how adjectives are applied, for example. Later on, it becomes very important when trying to figure out noun declension, but that's a whole other can of worms.
fear --> man (masculine) --> an fear --> the man
bean --> woman (feminine) --> an bhean --> the woman
One of the best pieces of advice I got for learning a language was: learn the gender with the noun, don't try to apply it later. When you learn the word for man, learn "the man" so you can instantly identify which gender it is.

It still seems awkward for me, so at this point, I'm just accepting it and learning the forms. But there are some ways to predict the gender of a word. The most general rule is that most nouns that end in a broad consonant are masculine, and most ending in a slender consonant are feminine. If they don't end in a consonant, there is no real rule.

A few more suggestions:
  1. Nouns designating males are masculine (bull, ram), nouns designating females are feminine (cow, ewe). -- note the odd exception here: cailín (girl), is a masculine noun. Come to think of it, isn't madchen, girl, neuter in German?
  2. Names for people are the gender of the person in question
  3. Most country names, and language names are feminine
  4. Nouns ending in aeir, -éir, -eoir, -óir, -úir, -ín are masculine
  5. Nouns ending in -eog, -óg, -lann
There are dozens of detailed rules and the best rule is Check a dictionary!

IrishGaelicTranslators take
Compendium Gramadach Gaeilge
Gramadach na Gaeilge (a fabulous site, if a bit linguistically technical!)
Wiki Irish Noun Declension

Voila! It all makes sense now, right?

27 July 2008

Irish Phonetics - 1904

I love antiquarian books. Even though the spelling and possibly the rules are different in Modern Irish, I was quite taken by Rev. O'Flanagan's eloquent description of Irish Phonetics. The pamphlet is reproduced on my website in a slightly more readable form.

The original was published in Dublin in 1904.

Rosetta Goes Audio

I've been really enjoying the Rosetta Stone Irish program - it's a surprisingly easy and intuitive way to learn a language - very engaging, interesting, and pretty fun (well, except when I simply cannot pronounce certain words and get that sad raspberry sound -- try tionmaint, anyone? The voice recognition part refuses to accept my pronunciation. bah!).

They just recently starting offering audio-only support for their programs - a CD set for each level of the language that reinforces the speech and listening portions of each lesson so you can continue to study after you've gone through the lesson. Brilliant!

If you order it with the whole package - Levels I, II, III -- you can add on the twelve CDs for fifty bucks. It wasn't available when the Adorable Husband ordered the program for me, so I got them afterwards (for more money, of course), and they arrived yesterday. They are very closely aligned with the computer program, and really can't be used alone. But, so far, well worth the additional cost.

25 July 2008

Studying What?

I normally tell people I'm learning "Irish", which most of my friends understand to mean that non-English language some people speak in Ireland. I'll specify 'Irish Gaelic' if I need more detail.

But what is this language really called? English speakers use 'Irish', 'Irish Gaelic', or sometimes just 'Gaelic'. The latter, though, is often understood to mean Scottish Gaelic and not the Irish sort. There are a suprising number of people who think that 'gaelic' is a single language spoken by Scots and Irish and that it is "mostly dead".

They are related langauges. of course; Irish is a Celtic language, and belongs to the goidelic language branch along with Scots Gaelic (gaedhlig) and Manx (gaelg). Ethnologue also notes a fourth, extinct language: Hiberno-Gaelic.The other branch of the Celtic languages, brythonic, includes Welsh, Breton, and Cornish.

The official name of the language in Ireland is Gaeilge (pronounced variously as ge:lik or ge:l'g'ə). Before the spelling reform in the 40s, it was Gaedhilge. There are some regional spellings and pronunciations, as well: gaedhlag is Ulster, gaedhealaing, gaouluinn or gaelainn in Munster. They all refer to the same thing, but it does explain why the Munster Irish lessons (Rosetta and Pimsleur) seem to be saying 'guael-lun'. I have read that this is considered an archaic form, which is in keeping with many of the Munster Irish forms. The common form of gaeilge reflects the Connacht pronunciation. Ulster is the outlier, I guess. guael-lig or guael-lik, much more like an English speaker would attempt to say 'gaelic'.

Wikipedia notes that the archaic term erse (a word that is probably not familiar to anyone except crossword puzzle fanatics) is no longer used and may be considered derogatory.

24 July 2008

Dia Duit/Dhuit

Well, now that I mentioned it in the previous post, just a few comments on the greeting 'Dia Duit'

This is posited as a standard greeting, although at least one of my courses (Irish on Your Own) notes that it is considered formal, and most people just use 'hello', like in English. Dia Dhuit means, roughly, 'God to you'. This seems analogous to opening a conversation with "Greetings!"; it seems too formal for normal conversation. However, I have seen a number of posts by native speakers that any learner attempting to speak in one of the Gaeltachts should always start off with this. While you can launch into a conversaion with "How are you?" in its many forms, that might be a bit too abrupt.

Just to be polite and proper -- say 'Hello, pleased to meet you" vs "Hi, how are ya?" when meeting new people. You can always relax the formality a bit, but if you start off too far down that ladder, you do risk offending someone.

Duit is the prepositional pronoun that combines 'do' (to, for) with 'tú' (you) -- do + tú = duit. There are a bunch of these combination forms - I'm sure I'll have some comments on those soon enough!. Most texts show 'Dia Dhuit'; It has to do with making the combination easier to pronounce, I think, and is a dialect difference. Most texts use 'dhuit', while duit is technically proper.

The greeings in question are are:
dia duit/dhuit - God to you
dia daoibh --> God to you all
dia 's Mhuire dhuit --> God and Mary to you (response)
In any case, it's the pronunciation of this that sends people into a tizzy. It's often transcribed (badly) on websites as 'djee-a gwitch' or 'dee-ah gwit'. Sometimes it's 'dee-uh-git', or 'dee-uh-gut', or 'djee-uh-dit'.

And therein begins the kerfuffle. There is no such sound as 'gw' in Irish. There is simply no way to make 'dhuit' suddenly start with gw -- although I have to admit to having a hard time hearing the difference in many cases, so the online examples are not too helpful.
Travlang's Version
Transparent Language
All three dialect's versions
Of course, the pronunciation from Foclóir Scoile has duit [dit'] - roughly 'ditsch'. This is the pronunciation that I first heard from Irish on Your Own -- jee-a ditch. Pimlseur and Rosetta and TYI all have the 'gwitch'-type pronunciation - definitely a difference between Ulster and Munster/Connacht pronunciations. A discussion of regional differences cam be found here.

The sound that is transcribed in pseudo-phonetic English as 'gwitch' on all those websites is really more of a gutteral gh/dh sound, at least to my ear. Rather like I try to say 'gwitch' but don't move my lips for the w sound. It's all in the throat, and has a harsher, half-swallowed, aspirated 'ch' sound. Ghu-it, almost. Yes, I know I should try to represent this as IPA symbols, but since I can't accurately describe the sound I'm hearing, it would be a wee bit difficult! Some speakers have compared the sound to those in German (ch) or Russian (x).

The general consensus is that 'gwitch' is wrong, but there is less agreement on how duit/dhuit is actually pronounced correctly. I get a pass from Rosetta Stone and its voice recognition, but I slip so easily into the Ulster 'djee-a dit' that I'm sure I'm mangling it either way. I'll keep setting the sensitivity up and see what happens!

I take some solace, though, in the fact that in normal speech 'dia dhuit/dia 's Muire dhuit' are said so quickly and slurred together so much, that any attempt is going to be understood -- as would be any "hihowareyuh' in English. At least, that's my hope.

Forvo for Gaeilge

I stumbled upon this new-ish website today, while looking for a pronunciation guide for 'dia dhuit' (which is a pretty contentious issue, if you ask Irish speakers!) and I just love the idea: speakers pick and submit words to the website, record themselves saying the new word, and others can search and listen to what is there. Maybe not perfect, and it's all sort of self-managed right now, but I've bookmarked the site for future reference.

Dozens of languages are covered -- there are only a few Gaeilge (Irish) words so far, but what a fabulous idea!

23 July 2008

Grammar: Case

I was discussing grammar with the Adorable Husband earlier this week (why, yes, we are a bit weird, why do you ask?) and was bemoaning the fact that unless you took a second languages in school, you probably didn't really get any formal lessons in grammar -- case, tense, etc. It was just assumed that you'd learn the language and understand the constructs without necessarily knowing the details of why things are the way they are. Diagrammed any sentences lately? Probably not.

At any rate, as soon as you pick up a textbook to learn another language you are suddenly bombarded with grammatical terms for nouns and verbs and relationships and the texts assume you simply know what these are. Genetive? Pluperfect? Vocative? Huh?

Nouns have a number of attributes that determine what form they are in and how they can be used. Nouns have case, gender and number.

The case of nouns has to do with the form of the word when used in different ways in a sentence. We have it pretty easy in English - most forms are the same and we really only differentiate possessive use from all the other types . Some languages (Russian or Lithuanian, for example) have six or seven cases: nominative, accusative, genetive, dative, vocative, locative, and instrumental. Eek!

Irish is a bit more complex than English, but not too bad. Irish combines a couple of the other cases into a common case, just like English does, so there are really only three cases that we need to keep track of: the common form, genetive, and vocative. The forms of the word change depending on how it's used.

It's probably easiest to discuss the specifics first: The vocative case is used when addressing someone or something directly.
'O, Fortune!'--> Fortune is in the vocative case.
Mary, how are you? --> Mary is in the vocative case
In Irish, this is usually signaled by using the particle 'a'. A Mhaire, conas tá tú? Any time you address something directly (whether a person or a thing), it will be in the vocative. Easy.

The genetive case is the possessive, or relational case. 'Hat' in the following English sentence is in the genetive case.
The man's hat
it's not 'man's' that is technically in the genetive case, according to my notes, which was confusing to me (since I said before that the genetive case is the possessive case, but what that means is that the thing is owned/had - the possessive form in English signals the genetive form). In nearly all cases, the noun in the genetive case can be replaced by the phrase 'of the [x]'.
The man's hat --> The hat of the man.
A country's citizens must vote --> The citizens of a country must vote.
Genetive forms are used to express origin, possession, position, kind, use, value, titles, contents. Not quite so simple, but if you use the quick test of replacing the word with 'of the...' as noted above, it's easy to identify which word is affected.

Pretty much everything else is in the common case. The common form includes the nominative (subject) case, accusative (object) case, and dative case. There are some specific exceptions (mostly in Munster Irish), but they are rare in the modern form of Irish. Here are some English examples:
  • Nominative: the 'naming' case. This is the form of the word that is in the dictionary, and is used primarily as the subject of a sentence. The cat chased the dog.
  • Accusative: used when the noun is the direct object of the verb in the sentence. The dog chased the cat.
  • Dative: used when the noun is the indirect object of the verb in the sentence. The dog gave the cat a bone.
Obviously, this is hard to see in English, since the word forms don't change at all. 'The cat' looks and sounds the same in all of those sentences. I don't understand all the rules yet on how to change the words for each of these cases, but just trying to get my head around the terminology was enough for today!

A very detailed explanation of the cases in Irish can be found here. It's more complicated than a beginner needs to know, but it's a good reference.

22 July 2008

To-MAY-to, to-MAH-to

Sometimes, having a couple of different audio references really isn't a help. One of the things that many textbooks do early on is highlight the differences between the three primary dialects of Irish. Ulster, Munster, and Connacht Irish often have different pronunciations -- much like Boston, Atlanta, and California speakers pronounce words differently in English. So far, so good.

This became an issue for me because my first exposure to Irish was via Ulster Irish in Irish on your Own. The primary textbook that I am using is Learning Irish (Connacht Irish -- and even more specifically, Cois Fhairrge). And now I'm focusing primarily on Rosetta Stone (Munster Irish).

This is getting a bit confusing. No, confusing is not really the right word -- I'm not having any problems understanding what is meant by the vocabulary or word forms, but I find myself blurring the pronunciation of specific words in a way that would probably make a native speaker cringe.

For example, "maith". (good, well). This comes up constantly in all the courses --
go raibh maith agat (thank you),
oiche mhaith (good evening),
tá mé go maith (I am well).
I've heard 'maith' pronounced as moy, my, mah on the different CDs and tapes that I have. Go online to listen to native speakers, and the variations abound.

Ulster Irish (at least according to the Irish on Your Own folks), pronounces this as something close to 'myee' or 'moy'. So, go raibh maith agat --> gur moy uh-gut (pardon the rude phonetics, but that comes pretty close).

Enter Pimsler...and 'maith' is clearly 'mah'. Well, except for 'oiche mhaith', which suddenly becomes 'ee-hah WHY', and the nifty phrase 'ba mhaith liom' that I learned in Ulster Irish as 'buh why lum' is inexplicably 'buh va lum' in Munster and 'buh wah lum' in Connacht. This isn't really a problem, and all three pronunciations are valid, but I catch myself refusing to say 'ba va lum' when talking to the Pimsleur speakers because it sounds wrong to me. It isn't, I just got the pronunciation sounds in my head from my first exposure and apparently that is what I "hear" when asked to repeat things.

Of course, Rosetta also uses Munster Irish -- well, not entirely, the native speakers are primarily Munster speakers, but there is quite a bit of variation in the spoken prompts. The catch here is that Rosetta Stone checks your pronunciation with rather sophisticated voice-recognition software, so you can't fudge it! Turn sensitivity up enough to catch the big gaffes, and it's definitely expecting 'mah'. I get a rather depressing raspberry sound when I respond 'my' brightly to the software.

Is this all really such a huge problem? No, not really. It might spark long and contentious arguments over the 'proper' pronunciation of things among advanced speakers (which just confuses those of us who are struggling with the basics), but any of the pronunciations given is probably going to be understood and you can tweak your pronunciation as you get more fluent. At least that's my opinion.

Of course, I'll probably end up speaking some strange mish-mash of different dialects. I don't see a problem with this -- all of us incorporate new words into our vocabularly, or hold on to our learned pronunciations. How do you pronounce 'aunt' -- ant? or awnt? It's a recognized variant, so no one blinks when you stick with the pronunciation you learned. The purists will not accept this, of course - there are a number of Irish speakers on various boards who insist that there is a "right way" and a "wrong way" to pronounce everything, and that anyone who does not recognize the differences is doomed to be an utter failure as a learner.

Part of learning a language is learning to mimic the pronunciation and intonation of native speakers -- it is important, and I don't mean to make light of the fact that to speak a language you do have to learn to speak it properly and understandably.

However, go online and check the variety of pronunciations offered for even this single word and it's easy to see how people get confused.
Transparant Language: go raibh maith agat, oiche mhaith, and others.
Daltai.com: tá mé go maith

Irish Times online Irish lessons:
Nóra: Tá mé go maith, agus conas tá tú féin? (TAW* may* goh MAH, AH-guhs KUN-uhs TAW* too fay*n).

Irish Lessons with Dennis Doyle:
Tá mé go maith--> tah may go mah or Táim go maith-->tah-im go mah
oíche mhaith-->ee-ha-why

Irish Lion (a restaurant, but with quite a bit of Irish culture notes)
Tá mé go maith go raibh maith agat, pronounced
taw may guh moh, gurrah mah hahgut, or taw may guh moh, guh row moy ah-gut,

Wiki Travel:
Táim go maith (TAW'm guh MAH)
Go raibh maith agat/agaibh. (GUH ROH MAH ug-ut/ug-iv)
Oíche mhaith. (EE-hah why)
And dozens of others - search irish pronuciation in Google and have fun!

Focal an Lae

If you scroll down a bit, you'll notice a brightly colored (woah!) widget from Transparent Langauge -- a "Word a Day" in Irish. It includes audio, so I thought I'd try it for a while, if I can stand the glare of it!

Travlang also offers an emailed "word of the day" delivered into your inbox every morning in a variety of languages.

21 July 2008

Yahoo Groups

Since I spend so much time at my computer, I'm always on the lookout for new online resources to help learn Irish. Years ago, I was a huge USENET fan -- it still exists, of course, but it's become a hotbed of spam and porn, and not much use for anything anymore.

However, the creation of chat groups in Yahoo has spawned a number of lists dedicated to learning Irish. Some are using a particular text, others just general reference and support. I've found the archives to be very useful, and I belong to a couple of the groups that are focused specifically on the books that I am using.

Most notably, I am a member of the coisfhairrge Irish group - going through O'Siahdail's Learning Irish lesson by lesson, with a lot of additional information from the members. I also read the Progress in Irish group via digest. Both groups have a file and download section that has many helpful documents put together by other learners. It's worthwhile browsing the file sections even if you don't receive emails for the list.

Other groups include:
The Philo-Celtic Society has a number of groups, geared to different levels of learning. The most populate starting groups are:
There are others of course - chat-type lists in Irish, discussion forum about culture, etc. Just do a seach for Irish Gaelic or Gaeilge at groups.yahoo.com.

I didn't have as much luck on Google groups, which seems to be much less organized part of the Google scheme, and full of advertising and sad groups with only 2 or three members. I didn't find any specific groups for learning Irish there at all.

Nancy Stenson's Workbook

There used to be a fabulous set of exercises and additional work based on O'Siadhail's Learning Irish, and developed by Nancy Stenson for her Irish Gaelic classes. However, people move around and the files vanished into the ether almost 10 years ago.

You can find all the lessons in the archives of the GAELIC-L listserv. The Archive is interesting on its own, but the text-only format is pretty hard to read.

However, I had all the workbook lessons and exercises copied into a local notebook (yes, I am a weird information hoarder) and I contacted Prof. Stenson and received her permission to post them on my website. The exercises are available as html files, and both the exercises and answers are available as a zipped MS Word file.

The files are available here: Nancy Stenson's Workbooks.

There may still be typos or errors in the exercises -- if you find any, please drop me a note so I can get things updated.

Triumphant Return

Ok, maybe not triumphant, given that I pretty much fell off the face of the earth two years ago with this blog. Life caught up with me, and while I still piddled around with Irish, I didn't do enough to warrant posting anything interesting at all.

However, I'm editing and reposting some of the earlier info I had here (oooh, all 15 posts) and I will definitely make an attempt to keep things more updated. I've made a renewed commitment to work through the lessons I have. It may or may not be terribly interesting or useful, but it's a good tool for me to try to articulate what I've learned, so you all get to suffer through it with me.

My adorable Husband bought me the Rosetta Stone software for Irish 1-3 for my birthday, and it has definitely renewed my enthusiasm. So! New layout, new content, and more regular posting. I promise. Things may be a bit out of order as I re-post some updated versions of earlier stuff, but we'll be moving on smoothly soon!


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.

20 July 2008

Basic Resources

As part of the new-and-improved plan for learning Irish, I’m really going back to square one and trying to add some sort of structure to what I’ve been doing. My approach has really been scattershot, using a number of different resources. While this has given me a good beginner-level understanding of things (at least so far!) it’s been unsatisfactory – I don’t feel like I’ve really got a good grasp on things – only that I’ve learned X or Y, but not necessarily how it all fits together.

I think this is pretty common learning a new language as an adult. We approach it differently, I think. More...analytical, more information…but with less control, perhaps.

There are a number of resources available to a beginner:

I had been using the audio lessons of Irish On Your Own to get a working knowledge of things. This course comes with five cassette tapes with lessons and conversations to repeat, as well as a colorful textbook that manages to insert some grammar and cultural references. But this course only touches on grammar and relies heavily on rote repetition of phrases in simple conversation. I like the course a lot, it’s very energetic and certainly gets me speaking (at least to my car!) out loud. I strongly recommend this book-and-tape set.

The primary course book for Irish – or at least the most popular one – is a densely foot-noted textbook by Michael O’Siadhail, titled Learning Irish. While this is designed as a self-taught course, it is definitely not an easy one and focuses on grammar more than conversation. I’ve had to rely on a lot of outside support to make sense of the rules. Each chapter has exercises which are mostly translation work, which is not a very successful learning method for many people. I'm currently hosting an online set of additional lessons by Nancy Stenson -- these are very useful as more ‘conversational’ level work that follows along with each lesson. There are tapes (an a newly released version with CDs) along with the book, which have some rather flat recitations of vocabulary words and short readings. (I say flat, but what I usually tell people is "scary" -- the woman who reads the pronunciations and initial chapter's vocabulary is a fierce sounding woman, indeed).

Rosetta Stone language learning software has recently released three levels of Irish instruction. Using pictures and a variety of interactive activities, Rosetta Stone teaches language in a natural and easy-to-use method. My adorable husband purchased all three levels for me, for my birthday this year, and I am using those lessons as the basis for returning to my study of Irish. So far, it has been a very easy and low-stress way to learn. Being able to "talk back" to the computer and compare my pronunciation with theirs has been a really interesting process. I can pinpoint where the problems are and as I get better with pronunciation, the software can be set to be more and more picky about matching exactly. I feel a bit ridiculous wearing a headset and solemnly replying to my computer, but any time I speak out loud, I'm making better progress.

The venerable Teach Yourself series has a book on Irish which has recently been updated and released with CDs. While I have a copy (books! more books!) I haven’t really used this much. Quite a few people like these courses very much, and a grammar reference has been released in the last few months. There is also a quick-and-dirty Teach Yourself Irish Conversation that is primarily an audio-only course and is a quick introduction to the basics.

Progress in Irish is a teeny little book that relies almost entirely on translations exercises to introduce vocabulary and grammar concepts, so in my opinion, it can’t really be called a “course”, especially since correct answers aren’t actually provided in the book. It can be a bit hard to work with alone, but online resources do help a bit here.

Perhaps the most common first-time Irish texts that are mentioned are the Buntus Cainte series, which are entirely conversation based, no grammar rule, and split up into short, easy to repeat lessons. They introduce Irish as it would be learned as a child: short, simple sentences that build on one another and can be learned by heart and then extrapolated into more difficult sentences. This is a fairly old course, but it has recently been rerecorded with CDs. The illustrations are still cute, though.

Pimsleur also produces a short course in Irish, but other than an interesting example of the Munster dialect, it really doesn’t offer much (a grand total of 55 words). I snagged it off Audible.com, but it really hasn’t been very useful except to get me more comfortable with speaking out loud. I suppose if my goal was to chat up someone of the opposite sex while traveling, this would be good: half the course is a single conversation with someone asking if they understand you and where they're from.

Most of these books can be found at Litriocht or from Amazon.


We once counted, and there are 37 dictionaries in the Phouka house -- a dozen or so in English (from a lovely 1894 dictionary to medical speciality books to the latest Oxford English Dictionary on CD), and the remaining in other languages. Why, yes, every household does need a Latin-English dictionary, just in case. And Spanish, German, Greek, Swedish and others....you know, you might need to look up some strange reference. It happens!

I love dictionaries and have been known to just sit down and read them. So, when I embarked on learning Irish, I immmediately compiled a goodly list of Irish dictionaries, based on recommendations from a number of of the Gaelic sites. The links are to Amazon, although these books are often found on eBay, and can be ordered from Irish Books and Media or Litriocht.com

At the very least, the primary recommendation for learners is Foclóir Scoile English-Irish/Irish English Dictionary published by An Gum, which is one of the few with complete phonetic pronunciation hints for about 30,000 words. It has the basics for everything in the classes that I've looked through.

The "Master" Irish dictionary is the Foclóir Gaeilge-Béarla (Irish-English) originally compiled by Ó Dónaill (and currently edited by de Bhaldraithe). This couple-pound tome has Irish headwords only and definitions and idiom in English. This is has been updated several times and the current version (also published by An Gum) no longer has the archaic spellings or Irish fonts. I have an older version that I picked up on eBay that is the "old" typography, and while it is quite lovely, I appreciate the modern typeset version. It's still a bit difficult to use, if you're not familiar with Irish word-forms, and the Gaeltacht Minnesota folks have put together a nice document offering some help on how to look things up that I've found invaluable. A few more hints are here.

A reference dictionary of English-Irish only, edited by de Bhaldraithe is also published by An Gum. The headwords are English only, with definitions and idioms in Irish. This won't tell you what a particular Gaelic word means, but if you are stuck with trying to translate your English sentence, this is the most complete dictionary I've found. It is the companion volume to the Foclóir Gaeilge-Béarla.

There are a few little pocket dictionaries, useful to carry around a decipher newspapers and signs, but not really useful for doing classwork, in my opinion. Of course, I still have two -- The Oxford Irish Minidictionary, which is quite nice, and the Foclóir-Póca, a miniaturized version of the Foclóir-Scoile listed above, which includes pronunciation help. There is also a Collins pocket dictionary.

There are a few good online dictionaries:
For the word-philes among us, there is a great CD set of the Corpas na Gaeilge, which is a reference collection of Gaelic language from 1600-1882, listing all instances of words in historic books. I picked mine up in Ireland, on a whim, and haven't really had a chance to look at it much. It's definitely not a learner's tool -- it's more academic/historic in nature.


One of the things I did with my spare time (yes, I'm compulsive) is to transcribe a series of books called Simple Lessons in Irish by Rev. Eugene O'Growney, which were published in 1904. These pamphlets use an archaic font for the Irish, that I attempted to reproduce with modern fonts so the online versions are as similar to the books as possible.

In these older fonts, you'll often see consonants with dots over them. This is used to show pronunciation changes in the word (a change that denotes aspiration, called lenition). In modern script, this is shown by adding an H (remember the conversation about that fact that 'h' is not a letter?) after the consonant instead of the dot-notation.

While it's easy to swap over your keyboard so that you can easily produce the fada over long vowels, the "old" forms for the consonants are a bit harder, since they are not usually a part of the normal character set for a font.

However, if you want to write in an Irish script with the "fancy" S and R and use the dots over the letters, it is possible, but a bit more cpmplicated. As far as I know, there is no easy way of writing them using a standard keyboard, even if it's mapped to Irish Gaelic. You have to use the alt-key combinations that are supported in Word (and some other applications). I'm on WinXP and using MS Word, so that is what follows. I have no idea how to get this all to work on Linux or Mac, for example. (If you have any hints, drop me a note).

The alt-key combinations are a bit different for the consonants, but these work for Bunchlo Arsa, the Gaelic font I have been using:


In this case, you simply type the 4-character code, then press alt-x to print the letters. What I've done in documents is write the version with the h and then write quick macro to replace the letters one by one -- tedious, but unless someone know how to edit keyboard files to produce these 'combination" letters, that's what I'm stuck with.

Not that I suggest you write much in these old forms, mind you. It might look nice, but the majority of people will not be familiar with them, and will be looking for the standard spellings.

15 July 2008

Gaelic Interfaces

Well, I hate to suggest that Microsoft actually did something right, but they have worked hard to support "minority" languages, such as Irish Gaelic. They've provided some tools, and even updated the interface for local language use. You've always been able to change keyboards, and to type in the ASCII or Unicode codes to get non-standard letters, but being able to change the whole environment to support a foreign language has usually been limited to the "biggies".

Now, though, you can download a completely changed interface for dozens of languages. Using their Windows Language Packs.

I haven't installed any of these tools (they change the entire interface, menus, dialogs, etc, into Irish Gaelic and I'm quite certain that I don't have the vocabulary for that yet!) But, the instructions note you can turn the new interface on and off, so you should be able to go back if it's just too confusing. Maybe I'll try it on my laptop (not quite willing to trust MS messing with my interface on my primary home machine).

Pacáiste Comhéadan Gaeilge Office 2003

Windows XP in Gaeilge
Office XP Proofing tools (including spellchecker). Note that this works with Office XP only, not the latest version. I wasn't able to find anything more recent. Hm. Maybe Microsoft is letting me down.

Firefox also has a Gaeilge interface (although not for the most recent version 3).

There are also some non-MS tools out there for the aspiring Gaelic author, including a windows version of GaelSpell 3, and a Gaelic version of Google.