Living Language: Is Gaeilge dead?

Blog Profile PicBy Donal Casey

“Reports of my death”, wrote Mark Twain, “have been greatly exaggerated”. His words could also well have been spoken by Irish language in modern Ireland. Visitors to Ireland know that everyone speaks English here but what about other language? What about ‘Gaeilge’?

No sooner do you arrive in Dublin airport than you notice all official signs are in two official languages of state, Irish and English. Then when you see that ‘Baggage Reclaim and Exit’ is translated as ‘Bailiú Bagaiste agus Slí Amach’ (!) you quickly realize that Irish is indeed much more than just English spoken with a peat-scented brogue. But is language still really spoken? Have reports of death or imminent death of Irish language been greatly exaggerated? Well, yes and no. Or as we say in Irish, ‘tá agus níl’ (in so far, it must be said, as it is possible to directly translate words ‘yes’ and ‘no’. As you can see, Irish and English are extremely different languages!)

Where did this language come from and why has it declined? Irish is a Celtic language closely related to such languages as Welsh and Scottish Gaelic. It has been spoken here for at least two and half thousand years. This is always worth remembering next time you are in a ‘Gaeltacht’, one of Irish-speaking areas mainly along western seaboard – yes, there are still thousands of native speakers of language. There are few parts of world where you can eavesdrop on a conversation between two people in a language that has been continuously spoken on that same patch of land for two and a half millennia.

And why did it decline? Well, as a Dublin wit once put it when asked about Irish history, “English were here and now they’re gone.” But that’s another story, which will be one of many often controversial Irish language-related topics that this blog will be dealing with in coming months along with descriptions of real situation of Irish as a living language in today’s Ireland.

So, how do you say those crucial first words? Well, ‘Hello! How are you!’ in standard Irish is ‘Dia duit! Conas atá tú?’ (Pron: jee-ah gwitch! Ko-nas ah-taw too?- ‘gw’ in ‘gwitch’ has a lovely deep, throaty sound.) In cartoon below from book Enjoy Irish! (www.enjoyirish.ie) poor man has just been asked “conas atá tú?” and his reply, “Bhuel, níl mé go dona” (pron: well, neel may gu dunah) literally means, “well, I’m not bad”.

Donal Casey is a cartoonist, illustrator and lecturer. He has illustrated Irish-language books such as Enjoy Irish!, children’s book Dhá Chluas Capaill ar Labhraí Loingseach and, most recently, an Irish-language activities book for teachers published by Gaelchultúr (www.gaelchultur.ie). He also teaches a course called Irish Life and Cultures to semester-abroad students from US at Dublin Business School (www.dbs.ie) His website is www.donalcasey.com

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2 comments

  1. A bi -lingual society is always an interesting place to live in. For those who are really interested in more than “cúpla focail”, performances to tourists, it is interesting to remind ourselves that Ireland, despite its turbulent and tumultous history, experienced a mult -lingual past. I recommend reading Máire Mac an tSaoi’s “Scéal Gearóid Iarla”, about poet earl of Desmond. A man who mixed English, French and Gaelic and believed to be a major protagonist in introducing “Amour courteois”, as Gaeilge. English is obviously language spoken by Irish people and we have mastered it well, no need to mention names of some of our well known writers. Nonetheless, its time for less historical revindications of whatever inclination they may be and more celebration and practice of a beautiful language that is ours.

    Tá an seod ar leic an dorais agus ag cúl an tí. Nach aobheann agus is féidir leat an teanga luachmhar seo a labhairt gan ualach na staire ar do dhroim. Tá sé beo mar tá chluais le héisteacht agat.

  2. Sounds like it’ll be an interesting series of posts Donal.

    One point that I find is often overlooked in discussion of how Irish came to speak English is a very practical one. I remember reading somewhere, that in second half of 19th Century that free primary education was introduced for children in Ireland, Scotland and Wales. This signalled death knell for Gaelic languages of these countries, as English came to be seen as language of education and progress (irrespective of need for Irish people to have English if they wished to emigrate) – Irish, Scottish and Welsh simply weren’t taught as part of formal State education system.

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