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.


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.

Some more thoughts about reading and learning

When you learn Irish, the goal is to become perfectly fluent. Not Gaeilge bhriste, but Gaeilge chliste. The very idea of reviving the Irish language is about reviving it as an authentic language. This means that you are supposed to have as good a command of it as an average Irish intellectual would have in an alternative reality where Ireland still was an Irish-speaking nation. For this, you will need to re-enact the personal linguistic development of that alternative-reality person. This might sound scary, but it is actually easier than for many threatened languages, because in Irish there is a wealth of folklore and native autobiographies available. In fact, the reading list I published here can only scratch the surface.

If you were born in an Irish-speaking Ireland, the first things you’d learn in the language would be children’s folklore. There is a lot of this stuff available in the folklore collections. Other folklore is to be recommended too.

There is another reason why I speak so much about folklore as a source of good Irish. In a community where literacy in the native language is unknown, but where there is a thriving oral culture of storytelling, the storyteller and the tradition-bearer is the best equivalent to the writer and author in a literary society. The best native writers of Irish were born to stpryteller familias. Thus, if you want to learn the kind of Irish that was appreciated by the last monolingual native speakers as the best traditional Irish, you mut learn the storytellers’ Irish. This is also why Peig used to be taught to learners. She was the daughter of a storytelling family, and a renowned storyteller and tradition-keeper herself.

Now of course somebody will start kvetching about how Peig, or Gaeltacht literature in general, has nothing in common with modern life. I beg to differ. I have translated Isaac Asimov into Irish, I have written popular science in Irish. The language I needed for writing popular science I learnt reading folklore and native writers. I did need to look up the terms in specialist dictionaries, yes. But the rest, the system of the language, came from the folklore.

That folklore is the literature of the last custodians of the traditional language, the Gaeltacht people. As a student and learner of the language, you are their servant, you are the caretaker of their heritage. Myself, I am but a servant of theirs.

Some Stupid Prejudices about Irish

“Irish speakers are racists.” It is often stated that Irish speakers are particularly racist or suffer from xenophobia. Being a foreigner with Irish myself, I must say that I have never encountered racism or xenophobia among Irish speakers. In fact there are Irish speakers with non-European looks who have been victimized by racists. To me it seems that an average Irish racist gets his ideology from Britain and speaks no Irish (in fact, Britain has been a huge influence on Finnish organized racism too). Typically, Irish speakers in Ireland are told to “go home to their own country” by ignorant racist fools who are so stupid they don’t even recognize their own ancestral language.

In my opinion racists are typically consumers of what I call default culture. Default culture is the sort of culture that is readily available to everyone, i.e. mass culture in English language. Non-default culture is for instance modern literature in Irish: most Irishmen don’t speak Irish as their native language, which means that they must take the trouble of learning Irish before they can read it.

Racists usually are culturally and socially lazy people with a very narrow comfort zone. They come up with all kinds of excuses why they shouldn’t make friends with a Muslim or learn Irish. I don’t find it particularly plausible a racist would take the trouble of learning Irish. The only racist I know of who has bothered to learn Irish is an Englishman who wants to recruit the Irish for his cause. Obviously, he is also an opponent to Irish independence – a fact that should make you think twice before you equate Irish nationalism with fascism or racism.

“Irish is a dead language.” Irish is no more a dead language than German or French. A dead language is one that has ceased to be spoken by parents to children, but although Irish is a minority language, it is certainly not a dead language by this definition. And it is the definition linguists usually use, i.e. people who do know something about languages, or about language in general.

One reason why Irish is said to be a dead language is the fact that Irish speakers mix in English words. For some reason, mixing Irish words into your English does not similarly make English a dead language. In fact, in a bilingual country widespread language mixing is a fact of life – also indicative of the fact that both languages are very much alive. 

Although I am myself a stickler for what I perceive to be good Irish (and be warned that after reading and annotating thousands of pages of Irish folklore as well as literature written by native speakers I think I have a pretty well-informed idea of what constitutes good Irish), I don’t really think vocabulary mixing and wholesale use of English words in Irish is the problem, but rather a symptom of the problem. The problem is that Irish has relatively low status in society, and that terminology in Irish is often not readily available to people. If you are never taught at school that a spiral galaxy is réaltra bíseach, and have seen popular science programs on astronomy only in English (because none are produced in Irish), you will obviously not know the Irish term and call it “spiral galaxy” even when speaking Irish. If there was enough status in speaking good Irish and learning scientific terms in Irish, of course people would learn good Irish and pick up all the terms. 

“We can’t expect that immigrants learn Irish.” Actually, many immigrants to Ireland have learnt fine Irish. Immigrants are not stupid, they are people, and people are intelligent and curious – it’s part of being human. Living in Ireland, intelligent and curious people tend to get interested in Irish. It is indeed racist to suggest that immigrants couldn’t learn Irish.

If you think of a Kurdish immigrant who has spent their adult life literally fighting for their right to native language, how dare you suggest that they would not have at least some fellow-feeling for the Irish language struggle?’

“Other languages should be preferred.” For some reason, in every bi- or multilingual country you find a certain fraction of people who suggest that learning languages spoken in your own country is unnecessary and that everybody should use the majority language. In Ireland, the language subject to this sort of cold-shouldering is Irish, of course, and preferable languages suggested include French and German because of their commercial significance. 

However, in Belgium – where there is a small but significant Germanophone minority along the eastern border – German is at least as much despised as Irish is in Ireland. Surely learning German would entail as much practical advantage for a Belgian as for an Irish person? Yes, but inside Belgium German is a minority language, and learning it would mean a concession to that minority. Similarly, there are Anglophone Canadians who resent the suggestion that they should learn French. Those who revel in their majority status prefer to lord it over the minority.

So, this bull shit about preferring other languages for commercial or practical reasons is precisely what I call it – bull shit.