“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