From the Confessions of a Grammar Nazi – Admhálacha ó Shaoithín Gramadaí

I have often been called a grammar Nazi as far as the Irish language is concerned, and I am quite happy to plead guilty. In my position, you would be one, too. Here is why.

Is minic a chuirtear i mo leith gur saoithín gramadaí mise. Tá mé breá sásta a admháil, iad siúd a deir mar sin, go bhfuil an ceart acu. Dá mbeifeá i m’áit, níor thaise duitse é. Seo fios fátha agus siocair.

The whole idea of a “grammar Nazi” comes from the English-speaking world, where it makes much more sense than in the world of small, threatened languages. Much of what is traditionally considered “good grammar” in English is based on Latin, but Latin and English are different languages, even representing different branches of the Indo-European genealogical tree. So it is completely lunatic to suggest that, say, you “should not split an infinitive”. If infinitives are split in spoken language, and if they were part of the written language before Latin-influenced grammarians gained the upper hand, then it makes no sense to not split them (ha!). Instead of basing the normative grammar on Latin, it should be, as far as possible, be based on natural spoken language, as well as established literary tradition.

An coincheap sin, saoithín gramadaí nó grammar Nazi mar a deir an Béarla, tháinig sé as saol an Bhéarla, agus cé go bhfuil sé oiriúnach don Bhéarla, ní luíonn sé le réasún i gcoimhthéacs na dteangacha neamhfhorleathana atá faoi bhagairt. Tá cuid mhór dá bhfuil meas na dea-ghramadaí air sa Bhéarla bunaithe ar an Laidin, ach is dhá theanga dhifriúla iad an Laidin agus an Béarla, agus níl siad fiú ar aon chraobh le chéile i gcrann ginealais na hInd-Eorpaise. Mar sin tá sé aiféiseach ar fad a rá, mar shampla, “nach bhfuil sé ceart infinideach a scoilt” sa Bhéarla. Más gnách infinidigh a scoilt i gcaint na ndaoine, agus má bhí an t-infinideach scoilte coitianta sa teanga scríofa sula bhfuair lucht na Laidine seilbh ar an gcaighdeánú, níl sé ciallmhar an t-infinideach scoilte a sheachaint. Ba chóir caighdeán na gramadaí a bhunú ar chaint na ndaoine agus ar thraidisiún seanbhunaithe na litríochta seachas ar an Laidin.

Now we come to the interesting part. The prescribed Irish grammar and style is based on the language of the last monolingual speakers. It was not some book language regulated by village schoolmasters thinking too much of themselves. It was the language of the people. The language of such luminaries as Séamus Ó Grianna and Peig Sayers is not revered because it is some Latinizing schoolmaster’s idea of good Irish. It is revered and imitated because it is the authentic language of the Gaeltacht and the nearest thing to an established literary tradition you could find among illiterate native speakers: the language of the oral literature of the story-tellers and tradition-keepers.

Seo an chuid is mó spéis den scéal anois. Tá an leagan saintreorach den Ghaeilge bunaithe ar chleachtais na gcainteoirí deireanacha aonteangacha. Níorbh iad na mionmháistrí scoile a bhí ag síleadh an domhain díobh féin a chum ná a cheap é. Ba é caint na ndaoine é. Má thugaimid urraim do theanga Shéamuis Uí Ghrianna agus Pheig Sayers, is é is cúis leis sin nach bhfuil an teanga sin bunaithe ar thuiscint mháistir scoile na Laidine ar an rud is dea-Ghaeilge ann. Bímid ag iarraidh aithris a dhéanamh ar an teanga sin toisc gurb í fíortheanga na sean-Ghaeltachta í agus í bunaithe ar an rud is cosúla le traidisiún liteartha seanbhunaithe i gcultúr na gcainteoirí dúchais nach bhfuil léamh ná scríobh a dteanga féin acu: teanga na béal-litríochta, is é sin teanga na scéalaithe is na seanchaithe. 

Those who do not speak Irish natively, such as yours truly, are advised to learn their language from native speakers, including the tradition-keepers and storytellers whose stories are available in book form, as well as native speakers who wrote books, such as Séamus Ó Grianna, Seosamh Mac Grianna, Máirtín Ó Cadhain, and the writers of Gaeltacht autobiographies, of whom Peig is only one.

Sinne, nach bhfuil Gaeilge ó dhúchas againn, caithfidh muid Gaeilge a fhoghlaim ó chainteoirí dúchais – na scéalaithe is na seanchaithe san áireamh a bhfuil a gcuid scéalta ar fáil faoi chlúdach leabhair, chomh maith le cainteoirí dúchais ar tháinig leabhair óna bpeann, cosúil le Séamus Ó Grianna, Seosamh Mac Grianna, Máirtín Ó Cadhain, agus údair na ndírbheathaisnéisí Gaeltachta, nach bhfuil i bPeig ach bean acu.

Stupid jokes about Peig should be refrained from, because there is a strong rationale behind teaching Peig: she is one of the authentic voices of the Gaeltacht, as a native traditional storyteller, and as such, one of the authentic voices of pre-Anglicization Ireland. If there is anything wrong about Peig, it is the overreliance on Peig; instead, you should read all the native material there is, both autobiographies, folklore, and fiction.

Ba chóir stad de bheith ag insint drochscéilíní magaidh faoi Pheig, nó ní chuirfí Peig os comhair na bhfoghlaimeoirí ach cúis mhaith a bheith leis: guth údarásúil de chuid na Gaeltachta í, ós scéalaí dúchasach traidisiúnta í, agus mar sin, guth údarásúil de chuid na hÉireann réamh-Ghalldachais í. Ní bhfaighinn locht ar bith ar Pheig ach an meas a bheith uirthi gurb ionann ise agus traidisiún na Gaeltachta go léir; ina ionad sin ba chóir duit gach cineál ábhar dúchasach ón nGaeltacht a léamh, na dírbheathaisnéisí, an béaloideas agus an ficsean san áireamh.


Aerfort – why do they write it like that?

Aerfort is of course the Irish word for “airport”, but it looks somewhat funny. To start with, that word aer, air, which does not seem to adhere to the “caol le caol, leathan le leathan” principle (and no, it does not – there are other similar examples). And why -fort? Should it not be -phort, because in compound words the second constituent is lenited (p becoming ph), and it is obvious the latter part of this word is “port”? Yes, it should, but for some reason the ligeadóirí agus casadóirí of the Caighdeán have decided otherwise.

One of the problems of Irish orthography is that there is no satisfactory way to write a long e sound both preceded and followed by a broad consonant. In Munster, -ao- is pronounced like this, but in most dialects, -ao- is more like a long i sound preceded and followed by a broad consonant. (A well-known exception is aon with its derivatives, which is usually pronounced with an e sound even in non-Munster dialects.) Note though that this particular long i is very unstable and has very different phonetic realizations due to the influence the broad consonants have on it: the English names Milligan and Mulligan are both based on Ó Maolagáin: in words (mostly names) borrowed from Irish into English the -ao- has very different English reflexes. (Русским изучающим ирландский язык конечно известно – или должно быть! – , что ирландское “ao” – очень похоже на русское “ы”, которое является самым лучшим русским приближением ирландского звука.  – Может быть я здесь еще буду публиковать целые статьи по русски, но я стесняюсь писать на этом языке, которым владею гораздо хуже, чем ирландским. Russian speakers have in their native language a very good approximation of Irish “ao” – the sound they write “ы”. I might yet write blog posts about Irish in Russian, but as yet I am ashamed to write Russian, my command of which is much more shaky than that of Irish.)

Long e sounds preceded and followed by broad consonants are found both in loanwords and original Irish words – of the latter, the very word Gael is an example. (Pre-Caighdeán spellings for this word include Gaedheal and Gaodhal.) Note the noun traein ‘(railway) train’. In it. the long e sound is preceded by a broad consonant but followed by a slender one, and to signalize the latter, an -i- is inserted. On the other hand, in its genitive form traenach the -n- is broad, and this is shown both by the fact that the extra -i- is dropped and that the -n- is followed by an -a-, which is unambiguously a broad vowel. Thus, although no textbook I have used makes this explicit, the “ae” of the present orthography must be treated, for all intents and purposes, as a broad vowel in its own right.

Then that -fort. Obviously, the word is a compound of aer and port, and shoult be written aerphort rather than aerfort. However, in the Caighdeán spelling compound words, the last constituent of which is basically -phort, are written like this: aerfort “airport”, longfort “military base, military stronghold, camp”, críochfort “terminal”, calafort “port, harbour” (this is a compound of caladh “port, harbour, landing” and port). This is just a convention, I am not especially fond of it – I would prefer the more regular aerphort, longphort, críochphort – although I admit that caladhphort looks kind of clumsy compared to calafort, and calaphort would feel vaguely wrong.

Note that there is also the word ceannfort, which means “commandant” (there are no majors in the Irish armed forces, there are commandants – I guess this was modelled on the French military tradition, in an attempted departure from the English one). I am not sure about the etymology of ceannfort, but I guess it was originally not a compound word but a genitive construction (ceann an phoirt?). Maybe you’ll find the explanation in Dinneen’s dictionary.





Snakes on a plane? Sure, but in Irish

The language of aviation is English, and even in languages less endangered than Irish, aviation terms commonly are relatively raw borrowings from English. However, we sure can do better. So, here are the parts of a plane.

The plane itself is eitleán, which is a masculine word (an t-eitleán, an eitleáin, na heitleáin, na n-eitleán), but typically referred to with a feminine pronoun (the same applies to boats, ships and other vehicles). In old days, most eitleáin had a lián which is a propeller, attached to a seafta liáin or a propeller shaft for the traiseoladh cumhachta or transmission of power from the engine, inneall. Small planes even today usually have an inneall comhbhuailteach or inneall frithingeach, i.e. a reciprocating engine, and such an engine has sorcóirí, cylinders, and loiní – pistons – the way the internal combustion engine or inneall dócháin inmheánaigh of a gluaisteán has. You can call a reciprocating engine a piston engine – inneall loiní – too. Loine is a feminine word: an loine, na loine, na loiní, na loiní.

However, passenger planes these days are usually jet planes, scairdeitleáin. A jet engine is called scairdinneall, and it has a compressor – comhbhrúiteoir – for air intake (aer-iontógáil). Behind the compressor there is the combustion chamber, cuasán dó (or maybe cuasán dócháin!), where the breosla or fuel is consumed, and then the stream of fuel turns the tuirbín or turbine. There are also turboprop engines – inneall turba-liáin – and turbofan engines – inneall turba-fean. That word looks like a very raw loanword indeed.

The main part of the plane is the cabhail or fuselage – it is a feminine noun, an chabhail, na cabhlach, na cabhlacha, na gcabhlach. Inside the fuselage you’ll find the cábán or cabin, with the stewards and air hostesses – in Irish, both are called óstach or aeróstach, and this is a first-declension masculine noun: an t-aeróstach, an aeróstaigh, na haeróstaigh, na n-aeróstach. For cabin stewards, the word stíobhard can be used too. It is an old and well-established loanword (and even in my country’s first language the word used is “stuertti”, so using stíobhard is just fine).

A modern aerlínéar (airliner) will fly at high altitudes – sroichfidh sí an-airde agus í ag déanamh a bealaigh, tá a fhios agat. So, it is necessary for the cabin to be pressurized or brúchóirithe. Note the similarity of aerchóiriú ‘air-conditioning’ and brúchóiriú ‘pressurization’ – the second one means, word by word, ‘pressure-conditioning’. Makes sense, doesn’t it? Both are part of the córas rialaithe timpeallachta or environmental control system.

An aircraft has also something called eitleonaic or avionics. I must say I am not particularly happy with this Irish term, which is an English-modelled abbreviation for leictreonaic eitilte (flying electronics, or aviational electronics), but I guess it’s more compact than leictreonaic eitilte after all. Eitleonaic includes such stuff as uathphíolóta (autopilot), rabhchán raidió neamhthreo (non-directional radio beacon), córas an-ardmhinicíochta uile-raoin (Very High Frequency Omnidirectional Range system, or VOR), gléasra fadtomhaiste (distance measuring equipment, or DME), trasfhreagróir (transponder), córas tuirlingthe ionstraimí (instrumental landing system or ILS), not to mention an Córas Suite Domhanda or GPS.

A plane obviously has sciatháin or wings (singular form: sciathán, a wing), with flapaí (flaps) and coscáin eitilte (air brakes) as well as ailearáin (ailerons).  The tail of the plane usually consists of a cobhsaitheoir ingearach (vertical stabilizer) with a stiúir (rudder) attached – this is a feminine noun: an stiúir, na stiúrach, na stiúracha, na stiúrach – as well as a cobhsaitheoir cothrománach or horizontal stabilizer, with a rialtán airde or elevator (the Irish word means “altitude controller”).

The eitleán is steered by the píolóta who is a professional eitleoir. He is assisted by the loingseoir eitilte (navigator). possibly even an innealtóir eitilte (flight engineer). They are sitting in cró an phíolóta (cockpit). They have a lot of ionstraimí (instruments, gauges) to attend to, but nowadays with everything computerized and electronized, so that they have just computer displays instead of those gauges, and they can choose which instruments they want those displays to show – this is called cró gloine (glass cockpit).

Planes land on an aerfort (actually aerphort would be etymologically better, as a spelling). Or maybe it is just an airstrip. aerstráice. Landing itself is tuirlingt, and landing-gear is fearas tuirlingthe. (The website gives also an alternative expression, cosa tuirlingthe, i.e. landing feet, which sounds excellent to me.) The place where the plane lands is the same place where it takes off, i.e. a runway, rúidbhealach. A taxiway is raon innealta, or bealach innealta – the participle innealta is associated with the verb innill!/inleadh “to set, to order, to array”. And of course it is important for the pilot to stay i dteagmháil raidió with the crew in the túr rialúcháin, control tower.

Another Guide to Good Irish – Treoirleabhar Eile don Dea-Ghaeilge (Alt i nGaeilge Amháin)

When Gaelscéal still existed, I wrote some articles or reviews for it, and among them was a review of Ceart nó Mícheart – Seán Ó Ruadháin’s guide to good Irish. The review is republished here in its entirety – only in Irish.

Nuair a bhí an iris Gaeilge Gaelscéal ann, bhreac mé síos cúpla alt nó léirmheas di, ina measc an léirmheas seo ar an leabhar úd Ceart nó Mícheart – treoirleabhar Sheáin Uí Ruadháin don dea-Ghaeilge. Athfhoilsítear an léirmheas sin ina iomlán anseo – i nGaeilge amháin.

Súil an Ruadhánaigh ar cheart is ar mhícheart na Gaeilge

Sean-nath smolchaite é ar na saolta seo go bhfuil difríocht shuntasach idir ”Gaeilge na Gaeltachta” agus ”an Ghaeilge uafásach scoile”. Ar an drochuair is beag iarracht a rinne aon duine leis an difríocht dhiamhair seo a chur i míotar i dtéarmaí a cheadódh dúinn an chéad rud acu a roghnú thar an dara rud, agus más maith le haon duine an léim chandamach seo a chur de caithfidh sé na blianta fada a dhíomailt ag déanamh staidéir ar shaothar na scríbhneoirí Gaeltachta agus ar an mbéaloideas féin, go dtí go mbeidh sé sách teann as a chuid féin den teanga. Ní féidir linn ríocht rúndiamhair na dea-Ghaeilge a shroicheadh trí aon treoirleabhar amháin a léamh ó chlúdach go clúdach, cé go bhfuil mé féin beagnach cinnte gur féidir a leithéid a scríobh (agus ar ndóigh titfidh sé ar mo chrannsa an ceann sin a bhreacadh síos an lá is faide anonn, ná síligí a mhalairt). A fhad is nach mbeidh an treoirleabhar sin againn caithfidh muid leor a ghabháil le leabhair cosúil le An Cabhsa le Tomás de Bhial, An Béal Beo le Tomás Ó Máille, agus an leabhar a bheas faoi chaibidil agam thíos anseo, mar atá, Ceart nó Mícheart le Seán Ó Ruadháin.

Ní atheagrán é seo ar leabhar a cuireadh i gcló fadó ach díolaim nua: is é an t-ábhar atá ann ná na haltanna faoi cheart na Gaeilge a d’fhoilsigh an Ruadhánach ar Feasta, iris Chonradh na Gaeilge, thar na blianta. Ba é Liam Mac Peaircín a chuir an bailiúchán seo i dtoll le chéile – tá mé admhálach nach bhfuil a fhios agam mórán ina thaobh, ach amháin gur léigh mé alt nó dhó leis ar An Linn Bhuí, bliainiris Ghaeltacht na Rinne. Ós conspóidíocht idir an Ruadhánach agus lucht an chomhfhreagrais atá i gcuid mhór de na scríbhinní, tá cuid mhaith litreach ó na céilí diospóireachta ar fáil sa leabhar seo chomh maith, beart a mholaim go mór. Bíonn a lán le rá ag Muiris Ó Droighneáin ach go háirithe, agus an chuma ar an scéal gur bhain sé an-sult as a bheith ag spochadh as an Ruadhánach bocht ó am go ham.

Maidir le Seán Ó Ruadháin féin bhí sé ar duine den bheagán scríbhneoirí Gaeltachta a chleacht canúint Thuaisceart Mhaigh Eo ina chuid saothar. Comhréiteach iontach í an chanúint seo idir Gaeilge Dheisceart Chonnacht agus Gaeilge Thír Chonaill, agus is mór an trua nach bhfuil mórán cainteoirí dúchais fágtha á labhairt inniu. Ar ndóigh tá an chanúint curtha i míotar ag na béaloideasóirí: an té ar suim leis staidéar a dhéanamh uirthi is féidir leis dul i dtuilleamaí an dá bhailiúchán béaloidis a d’fhoilsigh Séamus Ó Catháin agus Caitlín Uí Sheighin, A Mhuintir Dhú Chaocháin Labhraígí Feasta agus Le Gradam is le Spraoi – agus ós ag trácht ar an gcanúint sin atáim is fearr gan dearmad a dhéanamh den dá leabhar beag deas scéalaíochta a breacadh síos ó chaint an tseanchaí Mícheál Mac Ruairí, Ridire an Gháire Dhuibh agus Mac Mic Iascaire Buí Luimnigh. Tá súil as Dia agam go mbeidh Cló Iar-Chonnacht sásta an dara ceann acu a athfhoilsiú lá de na laethanta seo in eagrán nach dtitfidh na leathanaigh as nuair a léifear an chéad uair é.

Is é an leabhar is tábhachtaí a scríobhadh sa chanúint seo ná an t-úrscéal úd Pádhraic Mháire Bhán, agus ar ndóigh ba ó pheann an Ruadhánaigh chéanna a tháinig sé. Úrscéal traidisiúnta Gaeltachta atá ann go bunúsach agus imeachtaí spreagúla ann a chuideos leis an bhfoghlaimeoir teanga phraiticiúil choincréiteach a thógáil is a shealbhú. Thairis sin ba eisean a d’aistrigh David Copperfield go Gaeilge – ar mhí-ámharaí an tsaoil níor tháinig eagrán nua-aimseartha den mhórshaothar sin i gcló go fóill, agus níor éirigh liom teacht ar chóip den tseaneagrán le go bhféadfainn litriú an lae inniu a chur i bhfeidhm air, mé féin. (Is cuimhin liom go bhfaca mé an leabhar i siopa leabhar Kenny’s i nGaillimh sa bhliain 1998 nó 1999, agus aiféaltas an domhain orm inniu nár cheannaigh mé í!) Ba é scéal David Copperfield an t-aon úrscéal le Charles Dickens a d’aistrigh an Ruadhánach go Gaeilge; in aimsir an tsean-Ghúim tháinig leagan Gaeilge de A Tale of Two Cities, mar atá, Scéal fá Dhá Chathair, i gcló freisin, ach ba é Seán Mac Maoláin a d’aistrigh é, agus mar sin tá blas láidir Ultach ar an aistriúchán sin.

Is é An Béal Beo an leabhar is túisce a ritheas liom a chur i gcomparáid le Ceart nó Mícheart. Ar ndóigh is leabhar é an chéad cheann acu a ceapadh mar leabhar ó thús, agus é i bhfad níos córasaí ina chur chuige: is éard atá ann ná cur síos ar ghnéithe éagsúla de shaol traidisiúnta na Gaeltachta a chuireas cora cainte na Gaeilge dúchasaí ina gcoimhthéacs ceart cultúrtha. Is é an coimhthéacsú bua mór Ceart nó Mícheart freisin, ach ansin ní bhíonn i gceist go bunúsach ach coimhthéacs na teanga: tugtar na focail is na cora cainte taobh istigh d’abairtí críochnaithe, de struchtúir chríochnaithe comhréire a chuidíos leis an léitheoir a chuid féin a dhéanamh díobh. Agus tá cuid mhaith grinn ann freisin, rud a bhíos de dhíth go mór mór ar an bhfoghlaimeoir agus é ag streachailt leis an nGaeilge.

Bíonn an Ruadhánach míshásta nó easaontach leis an gCaighdeán ó am go ham, rud is minic a spreagas a chuid léitheoirí chun pinn, go háirithe Muiris Ó Droighneáin: más é an Ruadhánach Searbhlach de Hoilm, is é an Droighneánach an tOllamh Séamas Ó Muircheartaigh. Uaireanta is léir go bhfuil an Ruadhánach róchinnte faoi rud éigin nach bhfuil d’údarás aige leis ach a chanúint nó a réamhbhreithiúnas pearsanta féin, agus ansin ní mór do Mhuiris nó do dhuine éigin eile de lucht an chomhfhreagrais a bhotún a cheartú. Sampla maith é an cogadh dearg a d’éirigh idir Seán agus Muiris faoi inscne an fhocail úd ”gorta”: ainmfhocal firinscneach é dar le ligeadóirí agus casadóirí an Chaighdeáin (an Gorta Mór, mar shampla), ach is é diantuairim an Ruadhánaigh gur focal baininscneach é. (Mé féin nuair a bhí mé ag iarraidh aithris a dhéanamh ar Ghaeilge na scríbhneoirí Ultacha is é an bharúil a bhí agamsa san am go raibh ”gorta” baininscneach acu siúd, ach ní bheinn chomh ceanndána leis an Ruadhánach agus é ag áitiú go bhfuil an fhirinscne i bhfad níos teirce sna canúintí ná an bhaininscne.)

Uaireanta téann an Ruadhánach glan oscartha thar fóir agus é ag iarraidh nós a mhuintire nó a chanúna féin a chur chun cinn mar aoncheart Gaeilge. Sampla de seo is ea an dóigh a n-áitíonn sé go bhfuil ”fear céile” mícheart, agus gur chóir ”fearchéile”, is é sin, focal comhshuite, a dhéanamh de. Mar sin, cé go bhfuil an-eolas sa leabhar seo, teilgeanacha cainte agus míniúcháin séimeantaice ach go háirithe, is gá gan a bheith ag síleadh gurbh ionann tuairimí an Ruadhánaigh agus briathar deireanach deifnideach Dé i dtaobh cheart na Gaeilge. Bhí mo dhuine chomh garbh gangaideach, chomh tintrí tarcaisneach le Séamas ”Máire” Ó Grianna féin i gcúrsaí teanga, ach ní hionann sin is a rá go raibh an ceart aige i gcónaí agus é ag cur cogaidh ar an gcuid de na léitheoirí a d’easaontaigh leis.

Maidir leis an gcóiriú a rinne Liam Mac Peaircín ar an leabhar is beag locht is féidir liom a fháil air. D’fhan sé dílis go maith d’fhéinchanúint (canúint phearsanta) an Ruadhánaigh, agus is dócha go gcuirfinn féin slat an chaighdeáin ní ba déine uirthi in áiteanna. Ach ar ndóigh is dual domsa an bhéim is troime a chur ar inúsáidteacht an leabhair ag Gaeilgeoirí an lae inniu, na foghlaimeoirí ach go háirithe. Is léir gur theastaigh ó Liam a cheart a thabhairt don teangeolaí freisin, agus tuigim a chás, nó is doiciméad tábhachtach i stair na teanga é an leabhar seo freisin, go háirithe i stair fhorbairt an Chaighdeáin, agus cuirfidh lucht na sochtheangeolaíochta suim ann dá réir. Ar ndóigh tá úsáid agus úimléid sa leabhar don ghnáthfhoghlaimeoir féin mar atá sé, agus tá súil agam go mbeidh na foghlaimeoirí ag baint leasa as go fairsing. Agus ar an dea-uair ba duine acu siúd ba túisce a chuir in iúl domsa go raibh a leithéid seo de leabhar ar fáil.

Bhí mise inbharúla riamh gurb í an stíl is fearr ná Gaeilge an chainteora dhúchais a bhfuil tuiscint an scríbhneora aige ar cheart na teanga. Duine den chineál sin é Seán Ó Ruadháin. Cé nach gcaithfidh muid ár bhfaomhadh a thabhairt do gach uile fhocal uaidh (is dócha go bhfuil mé féin sásta foighneamh le cleachtais áirithe a dtugann seisean ”dearg-Bhéarlachas” orthu toisc gurbh ó scríbhneorí dúchasacha Gaeltachta a d’fhoghlaim mé an chéad uair iad) ní mór dúinn aird mhaith a thabhairt ar a bhfuil le rá aige. Molaim Liam Mac Peaircín go mór mór as an éacht a rinne sé ag cur an tsaothair thábhachtaigh seo ar fáil dúinn.

Guides to good Irish – Treoirleabhair don dea-Ghaeilge

An Béal Beo. By Tomás Ó Máille. This one was first published in the good old days of the Free State, and when I entered the Irish-language scene in the nineties, it had the reputation of some sort of secret medicine. I acquired an old copy and started to transform it to the new spelling for my own use, but fortunately, immediately after the millennium, the book was reissued in a modernized version. It teaches traditional Gaeltacht Irish in its cultural setting – among other things it includes the description of a loom and its parts (!). You might find it rather challenging, but if you want to learn to think in Irish, to use traditional sayings and idioms and understand their meaning, you need to read this book, and make extensive notes. The language is rather Connemara-slanted, but there is linguistic material from other dialects.

Tomás Ó Máille a scriobh. Foilsíodh an chéad eagrán thiar i laethanta an tSaorstáit, agus nuair a thosaigh mise ag cur aithne ar shaol na Gaeilge is éard a fuair mé amach go rabhthas ag labhairt faoin leabhar seo mar a bheadh druagántacht na seanleigheasraí ann. Cheannaigh mé seanchóip agus chrom mé ar an litriú nua a chur i bhfeidhm uirthi le haghaidh m’úsáide féin, ach, ádhúil go leor, tháinig eagrán nua i gcló tar éis chasadh na mílaoise. Is éard a mhúineas an leabhar seo ná Gaeilge thraidisiúnta i gcomhthéacs an tseansaoil – mar shampla tá cur síos ann ar sheol an fhíodóra agus ar a pháirteanna (!). Is dócha go bhfaighidh tú an leabhar réasúnta deacair, ach más mian leat a bheith in ann smaoineamh as Gaeilge, úsáid a bhaint as na teilgeanacha dúchasacha cainte agus a mbunchiall a thuiscint, caithfidh tú an leabhar seo a léamh agus nótaí cuimsitheacha a bhreacadh síos. Tá blas Chonamara ar stíl an údair, ach san am chéanna tarraingíonn sé ar na canúintí eile freisin le haghaidh ábhair.

An Cabhsa, By Tomás de Bhial. This is a book of idiomatic expressions explained in their context, in sentences which make sense, and with practical advice. If you find the idea of reading Gaeltacht literature intimidating, you might start with this book. The writer was a teacher in the Ring of Waterford Gaeltacht, and the language used is mostly very mainstream, the kind of Munster and Connacht expressions that are widely used even by non-natives.

Tomás de Bhial a chum an ceann seo. Is éard atá sa leabhar seo ná teilgeanacha dúchasacha cainte agus iad mínithe ina gcoimhthéacs, in abairtí a bhfuil ciall cheart iontu, chomh maith le leideanna praiticiúla. Más ábhar scanraidh duit dul i ngleic le litríocht na Gaeltachta, tá súil agam go réiteoidh an leabhar seo an ród romhat beagáinín. Bhi an t-údar ina mhúinteoir i nGaeltacht na Rinne, agus an teanga a úsáidtear sa leabhar tá sí an-chóngarach do phríomhshruth na Gaeilge – teilgeanacha cainte ó Chonnachtaibh nó ón Mumhain atá ann, Gaeilge den chineál a d’fheicfeá ag scríbhneoirí neamhdhúchais chomh maith.

Dea-Chaint John Ghráinne agus a chairde. Collected by Tom Hodgins. This is a book about expressing emotions in idiomatic Irish. This is Ulster Irish pure and unadulterated, and if you want to express your emotions like Séamus Ó Grianna, you need to read this book. However, having read Ó Grianna’s available books as well as other Ulster classics, I was mostly familiar with the material in the book already. This is good news though: it means that you can learn to express emotions in good Irish if you read Gaeltacht literature; and on the other hand, that this book can make that literature more accessible for the learner.

Tom Hodgins a bhailigh. Leabhar é seo a chuirfeas ar do chumas do chuid mothúchán a chur in iúl go nádúrtha trí mheán na Gaeilge dúchasaí. Is í Gaeilge Uladh an chanúint a úsáidtear. Mar sin, más maith leat friotal Shéamuis Uí Ghrianna a chur ar do chuid mothúchán, ní mór duit an leabhar seo a léamh. Ón taobh eile de áfach, caithfidh mé a rá nár tháinig mé ar mhórán rudaí anseo nach raibh ar eolas agam cheana féin, nó bhí mé tar éis mionstaidéar a dhéanamh ar shaothar Uí Ghrianna agus ar na clasaicigh eile ó Chúige Uladh cheana féin. Dea-scéala é sin féin áfach: ciallaíonn sé gur féidir leat friotal na mothúchán a fhoghlaim trí litríocht Gaeltachta a léamh, agus go gcuirfidh an leabhar seo le do thuiscint ar an litríocht sin, más foghlaimeoir thú.

“…mar a déarfá”, by Séan Mac Cionnaith. This is a book of Irish clichés, as the author suggests. This is basically a very good, extensive guide to idiomatic Irish, but regrettably it seems that it was rushed into print. The idiomatic expressions presented sometimes exhibit pre-Caighdeán spelling or archaic grammar (unnecessary dative forms, for instance). Basically, the problem seems to be that the author took the expressions (or at least some of them) as he found them in primary sources, without checking them in standard dictionaries. So, for an old hand such as me who knows the language well, this book is a great help, but I cannot wholeheartedly recommend it for learners. This is deplorable: with some editing this would be a superb book, now it is only a good one. However, the problem of the book is the problem of much Irish publishing in general: you don’t have access to a whole team of expert editors, you must do the work all by yourself. Noting this, the book is quite a tour de force.

Seán Mac Cionnaith a scríobh. Cnuasach cliséanna Gaeilge atá ann, mar a deir an t-údar. Go bunúsach is iontach cuimsitheach an treoirleabhar é don duine a bhfuil Gaeilge dhúchasach ag teastáil uaidh ach uaireanta feictear duit go ndeachaigh an leabhar i gcló gan an snas deireanach a fháil, Na teilgeanacha cainte sa leabhar, ó am go ham d’aithneofá litriú na ré réamh-Chaighdeánaí orthu, sin nó lorg na seanghramadaí (tuiseal tabharthach mar shampla, áit nach bhfuil gá leis an bhfoirm a thuilleadh). Is é an phríomhfhadhb dar liom ná gur phioc an t-údar na teilgeanacha cainte (cuid acu ar a laghad) leis mar a fuair sé sna bunfhoinsí iad, gan iad a sheiceáil sna foclóirí caighdeánacha. Mar sin is mór an chabhair atá sa leabhar seo dom féin, ós duine de na seanfhondúirí mé, ach ní féidir liom é a mholadh do na foghlaimeoirí gan chuntar. Is mór an trua é, nó dá ndéanfaí tuilleadh eagarthóireachta ar an leabhar, bheadh sé thar barr ar fad – níl sé ach go maith faoi láthair.  Tríd is tríd áfach is é an phríomhfhadhb atá ag an leabhar seo ná fadhb na foilsitheoireachta Gaeilge go ginearálta: níl teacht agat ar fhoireann eagarthóirí seanchleachta agus caithfidh tú iomlán na hoibre a dhéanamh ar do leontaí féin. Le taobshúil air sin, is móréacht é an leabhar seo.

Cora Cainte as Tír Chonaillby Seán Mac Maoláin. This book is another reissued one from the good old days, and the language is pure Donegal Irish, as the title suggests. It is a list of words followed by explanations or usage examples, all in Irish. The reissued version uses a standard spelling which sometimes seems less than well suitable to how the words are pronounced in Donegal. However, the book is a good guide to Ulster Irish for those who only know the Caighdeán.

Ba é Seán Mac Maoláin a chuir an leabhar seo i dtoll le chéile. Atheagrán eile é ar sheanleabhar maith, agus is í Gaeilge Thír Chonaill an chanúint sa leabhar seo, mar is léir ón teideal. Liosta focal é, agus míniúcháin nó samplai úsáide i ngach iontráil, as Gaeilge amháin. An litriú a úsáidtear san atheagrán seo tá sé chomh gar don Chaighdeán is nach bhfuil sé chomh hoiriúnach céanna d’fhuaimniú na canúna. San am chéanna is maith an treoir atá ann dóibh siúd nach bhfuil ach an Caighdeán acu agus iad ag iarraidh ciall a bhaint as canúint Uladh.

I guess you miss Ceart nó Mícheart, by Seán Ó Ruadháin, here. The next blog post is my old review of that very book. (Only in Irish, I am afraid.)

Is dócha go bhfuil sibh ag crothnú Ceart nó Mícheart le Seán Ó Ruadháin anseoSa chéad bhlagmhír eile tá mo sheanléirmheas ar an leabhar áirithe sin.

Main Difficulties

I don’t suggest it is easy to learn good Irish. Not being a native speaker of English, my idea of what is difficult in Irish is obviously different from that of most learners, but speaking of purely practical difficulties, I’d like to note the following:

  • The dialectal differences, of course. People often exaggerate them, especially those people who try to find any convenient excuse not to learn Irish. However, they are there, and they complicate the acquisition of Irish. There is a recognized linguistic, or sociolinguistic, phenomenon called schizoglossia. In a schizoglossic situation, you don’t know which kind of language you should see as exemplary and normative, and you have this feeling that whatever you say, it will be wrong according to some norm. This phenomenon especially concerns diaspora minorities, for whom the language they habitually speak will be full of borrowings from the local language, but who at the same time often find the linguistic changes in the old country vulgar and distasteful. Analogies with Irish should be obvious; in a way, the Irish-speakers are a diaspora in their own country.
  • The abundance of bad examples. Publicly displayed Irish in Ireland is often plain wrong, and when it is not grammatically incorrect, it is too obviously translated from English. For instance, the dead word rochtain is far too often used as a catch-all for all the meanings of the English word access. However, it should be limited to where a special term is called for (accessing a computer network, for instance), instead of calling every door an “access” to the building. Of course, the ultimate problem here is the stupid way how English nowadays tries to express the most everyday things with Latinate abstractions, and then people translating into Irish but without much idea of how Irish really works think that they need a special Irish word for every hard word in English, instead of translating the highfalutin’ English into plain and intelligible Irish.
  • Bad teaching materials. It is very good that people use Learning Irish, because it is vintage Gaeltacht Irish. But as my little spies have told me, it does occur that reading materials for schools often intentionally depart from acceptable Irish, using instead their own pidgin. An example of this is a (printed and officially distributed) book which consequently used past tense instead of habitual past tense. This is so wrong that it should be punishable with death. If children haven’t been taught the habitual past yet, there are grammatically legal workarounds (for example using the conditional instead – there are dialects where conditional has ousted the habitual past – as well as the expression ba ghnách le [duine] [rud] a dhéanamh: bhíodh sé ag obair ansin = ba ghnách leis a bheith ag obair ansin “he used to work there”). But learning materials should never include anything grammatically incorrect.
  • Bad cultural priorities. We are constantly told to admire “modernist” authors who are no native speakers and whose “modernist experimentation” is just a way to conceal the fact that – to put it brutally – they couldn’t write anything near Gaeltacht Irish to save their lives. At the same time, there are excellent writers of popular fiction whose novels have never been reprinted since their first publication back in the fifties or sixties. In the nineties, Cló Iar-Chonnacht rediscovered and reprinted Máire Nic Artáin, which is a linguistically superb novel about a Catholic girl falling in love with a Protestant boy in Belfast. When I read it for the first time, I was completely lost for words: how was it possible that such a book hadn’t been reprinted for almost forty years, while everybody had been kvetching about how there are no books for young people in the language? For Chrissake, if people like me read Joan Lingard’s Kevin and Sadie novels with interest in Finland when young, how is it possible that young Irish people wouldn’t read Máire Nic Artáin? And it’s not the only example. Seán Ó Mulláin’s swashbuckling historical novels about the Ryan family are still waiting to be reprinted. So is Mícheál Ó hOdhráin’s Cine Cróga.

Should you learn a particular dialect?

Should you learn a particular dialect of Irish and stick to it? Many learners make a point of doing so, but I have certain reservations about it. To start with, for some marginal dialects there is very little material available, and all there is is contaminated with unacceptable anglicisms typical of what we call terminal speakers (a terminal speaker, “cainteoir foirceanta” in Irish, is a native speaker who does not speak the language on a regular basis and isn’t sure about the correct language anymore). Thus, dialect enthusiasts run the risk of incorporating what is definitely “bad Irish”. Moreover, there is what I call petty dialect enthusiasm. Petty dialect enthusiasm means that you make a big fuss about using the words and inflectional forms of a particular dialect, while using heavily English-influenced syntax (again, for those not familiar with the slang of my trade, the term”syntax” means “how words depend on each other in a sentence”).

It is my impression that syntax is the key to the difference between “that dreadful school Irish” and that mythologically perfect Gaeltacht Irish which you can only learn sitting at the feet of some distinguished Gamaliel in a druidic-bardic hedge school. The reason why “standard Irish” is so disliked is the fact that it is all too often paired with poor syntax and heavy English influence. The reason why new terms are disliked is the fact that you only meet them in the context of poor syntax and heavy English influence. Myself, I have spoken with Gaeltacht people in an Irish that is very near to standard Irish, with a pronunciation based essentially on the standard one introduced in Focloir Poca and Focloir Scoile. They were quite happy with the kind of Irish I spoke to them, and said that it sounded like Gaeltacht Irish, but not of any particular Gaeltacht.

Thus, it is possible to use standard Irish in a way that is acceptable to the native speakers. And I am afraid it is possible to use faux-dialectal Irish in a way that is as hair-raising as the worst standard Irish. However, focusing on one dialect is not a bad idea – although not as an end in itself, but rather as a way to good Irish in a more inclusive sense. I became known as an enthusiast of Ulster Irish, but before that I studied Connemara and Blasket Irish quite extensively, and this is precisely why I got so fanatical about Ulster: it was a new kind of Irish,which really had a taste and feel of its own. By starting with one dialect and learning it thoroughly, you can develop an appreciation of all dialects, and enrich your Irish by picking up  new words and expressions as you go.